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Monday, April 19, 1999 Published at 12:46 GMT 13:46 UK


Martin Bell: Time for clarity

Martin Bell: Traded journalism for politics to become an MP in 1997

Independent MP and former BBC War Correspondent Martin Bell analyses Nato's campaign against Belgrade, and calls for a rethink.

Martin Bell: "Air power alone won't do"
There may now be as many as 800,000 homeless Albanians both inside and outside Kosovo. We are witnesses from afar of the worst war crimes in Europe for over half a century. We are continuing to bomb as if bombing alone would produce the result we wish. But it has not and it will not.

I know of no-one in the military, in Parliament or even in the street in my own Tatton constituency who believes that this matter has been handled as it should have been handled.

Kosovo: Special Report
Here then are some provisional reflections about the military enterprise so far. First we need a clearer distinction between civilian and military targets.

The bridges over the Danube are both. The oil refineries are both. The government buildings in built-up areas are both. Our shining, high-tech weapons may be smart, but not so smart they can distinguish between a soldier and a civilian. And an innocent life on either side is an innocent life too many.

Arms limitations

Next it is surely reasonable to ask for some reassurance about the quality of advice that our government is receiving. It is the first this century to have no-one in it who never wore the Queen's uniform. That is not a criticism, it is the welcome consequence of having lived at peace for half a century.

But that peace has ended with these Balkan wars. And those who are conducting these operations should know the limitations of the weapons being used. No war was ever won and no adversary was ever brought to his knees by the use of air power alone.

As I put it to the prime minister in the House of Commons last Tuesday, circumstances on the ground are only ever changed by boots on the ground. That is known to all soldiers. And it is inconceivable that these realities are not communicated to the government.

It is time for clarity about the war's objectives. The original objective of saving the Albanians of Kosovo was never met. Indeed it sacrificed many more than it saved.

'Justice, not punishment'

The new objective cannot be less than establishing the conditions - by consent if possible and by force if necessary - which will enable the survivors to return to their homes. We need clarity about the Nato leadership, that this is a collective alliance enterprise, not totally dominated by the Americans, and without the hazard of a messianic general leading it.

We need clarity about the diplomatic initiatives which are surely in the offing. All overtures from the Serbs must be carefully examined and their legitimate interests should be respected. Our aim should not be punishment but justice, including a reckoning of war crimes.

There will surely be a role here eventually for the United Nations. Indeed the marginalising of the UN has been one of the most alarming features of the whole campaign. It is not there to be used when it suits us and sidestepped when it doesn't.

We also need clarity about ground troops. If we are to signal our strategy to Milosevic as clearly as we have done there past weeks, then it must be a strategy that deters him rather than one that entices him.

By declaring repeatedly our unwillingness to commit ground troops, we have given his forces the go-ahead for a campaign of murder and destruction. That carte-blanche must be conspicuously withdrawn.

Lessons of war

The logic of events, the build-up of troops and the continuing war crimes inside Kosovo are driving us inexorably to an armed intervention, so why continue to pretend that it's not an option? It is possible that the threat alone may persuade a determined and desperate opponent. Unsupported air power won't do it.

Even in the present emergency, I have no desire to return to my former life as a war correspondent. But perhaps it is easier to take the reporter out of the war zone than the war zone out of the reporter. And there are some conclusions from my former life with which I wish to close.

The propaganda war matters, but the truth also matters. Truth must not be the first casualty of this war, at least on our side. So when mistakes have been made, mistakes must be admitted. If civilians are killed in Nato air strikes, Nato must not hide behind a smokescreen of euphemisms about collateral damage and degrading the enemy's capability. We degrade ourselves with this nonsense.

I have had some personal experience in the course of a rather odd career, in the Balkans and elsewhere, of journalism, politics and warfare. One necessary quality required for all three is steadiness under fire. I hope that we have it in this present emergency, for if we do not we shall fail. I believe that the people have it, I believe that the armed forces have it. I'm not so sure about the politicians.

Martin Bell gave his views to BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight.

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