Wednesday, March 24, 1999 Published at 20:01 GMT
How the West justifies action
An Italian Tornado aircraft refuels in mid-air
By Diplomatic Correspondent Barnaby Mason
Western powers have justified military action over Kosovo by citing the need to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.
During the abortive peace talks in Paris, President Milosevic was warned that if he did not accept the international plan signed by the Kosovo Albanians, air strikes against Serb targets would follow.
But now western officials say the primary purpose of air strikes is not to compel him to sign.
There is some support for this in past UN Security Council resolutions.
No direct backing for strikes
The most explicit (SCR 1199 of 23 September 1998) emphasises the need to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo.
The security council resolutions were passed under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which provides for possible action to enforce them.
But they do not authorise Nato or anyone else to take military action.
European members of Nato do point to the indirect backing for action in Kosovo which they deduce from security council resolutions.
The United States, on the other hand, argues that no such justification is needed. It says Nato itself has the right and authority to act to prevent a humanitarian disaster and a threat to stability throughout the Balkans.
Nato's role expands
Nato was set up to defend the territory of its members from attack. But in recent years it has been extending the scope of its influence and action more widely.
Russia is jealous of what it sees as Nato's aggrandisement, and together with China, insists on preserving the unique prerogative of the Security Council to authorise the use of force.
That means that in practice no authorisation will be given.
The legal authority for air strikes is not clear-cut. It is a grey area of international law which if anything is getting greyer.
But the argument of western politicians is moral and political. They rely on the overriding obligation to stop the suffering of innocent civilians and prevent a de-stabilising conflict spreading to other countries in south-east Europe.
There is also another feeling which carries weight - that for the sake of its own credibility, Nato cannot afford not to carry out its own threats.