For a long time, I’ve been trying to get an answer with from former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik about Norway’s reasons for going to war against Yugoslavia. He was responsible for starting Norway’s first war without authorization from the UN since Norway-Denmark went to war against Sweden in the Theater War in 1788. After he finished his term as a politician, Bondevik is now leading the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights.
Today, Norway’s biggest newspaper Verdens Gang has written an article about this. Read more in the article Bondevik nekter å frigi bombe-papirer. You can also give your comments below the article. Click here for an automated Google translation of the article, и овде за аутоматски српски превод.
Since the summer of 2011, I have been trying to get an interview with Bondevik, but he refused until February 23, 2012 after Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Espen Barth Eide convinced him to give an interview.
However, the interview did not go so well for Bondevik. One should think that a professional peacemaker would be able to give good reflections after starting a war, but he still maintains that war was the only possible option. After my interview with Bondevik, he still maintains that there were ethnic cleansing before we went to war, but he was not willing or able to give me the references for this.
Therefore I have requested access to government archives from 1998 to 2003 to see what considerations the Norwegian government did before going to war. Bondevik’s own party , the Christian Democratic Party recommends that I should have access, but Bondevik refuses me access to any of the documents. Unfortunately, a former Norwegian prime has too much power to protect the documents of a former government, but the appeal to get access to this is still in process, and I have posted a good legal challenge to get access.
One could wonder why Bondevik refuses me access. Maybe he did not have good enough reasons for going to war against Yugoslavia? Read the entire interview with Bondevik, my English translation:
Interview with Kjell Magne Bondevik, 23 February, 2012
Kjell Magne Bondevik, what do you remember best from those months, the time before we went to war against Yugoslavia?
What I remember most is of course the dilemma that always exists considering military action. We were patient. Foreign Minister Knut Vollebæk, who was the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, was very patient and tried to find a negotiated solution to avoid a military conflict. He was with Milošević over again and came back just in despair every time. Milošević would not stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians. It went on and we could no longer see that so many lives were lost and we were sitting powerless. So that’s why we finally within the OSCE and NATO concluded that one had to go to military action against Milošević and his regime.
You say that the ethnic cleansing going on. What information do you have to support this claim?
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had a lot of information that we received from the cooperating countries through the OSCE, NATO and the UN, and therefore there is no doubt that ethnic cleansing was taking place. The foreign minister brought a lot of evidence to the government, and it was this that was a terrible ethical dilemma for us: we’ll just sit quietly and watch what happens? We were not quiet. The foreign minister traveled repeatedly to Belgrade and tried to persuade Milošević and his regime to stop this, and he was equally upset every time he came back and it did not succeed.
But I do not want to completely let go of this ethnic cleansing like that. We see for example that Espen Barth Eide wrote extensively about the fall of 1998, there was an illegitimate campaign against the UCK, but there was no operation to change the population pattern. Do you have any specific sources that there was ethnic cleansing?
Yes, it was the systematic murder of Kosovo Albanians. It cannot be denied.
Thus, before the collapse of the Rambouillet negotiations 18 March, 1999?
Yes, it was taking place to a great extent before, and it went on afterwards. This meant that we had more than enough good evidence, and therefore we had to do something. We had tried and tried and tried through persuasion, tried and tested through these negotiations, and they were tried resumed as known, but this there was a breakdown. Then, unfortunately, one comes to a point when some cases the use of military force is necessary. It should be, from my Christian perspective, a very, very last resort after all other peaceful ways have been tried. It was, for example, the reason I said no to war in Iraq in 2003, but in Kosovo, we believed that no longer had any more peaceful means.
It sounds like very good political rhetoric, but what is the reality of this? Did you have other options?
This is not a matter of great political rhetoric, this is a matter of serious question that a politician must decide, and there are none of us take such decisions lightly. It has nothing to do with fine rhetoric. These were deeply serious, ethical and political matters, and we had exhausted the peaceful means.
So if we look at the Rambouillet agreement. Do you think it was reasonable terms that Yugoslavia should accept?
After what Yugoslavia had been guilty of for a long time, I think it was reasonable, and there was certainly no reason for them to continue to kill Kosovo Albanians.
But Eldbjørg Løwer had been defense minister for a week. Why did we have a new defense minister a week before Norway went to war?
Yes, it had nothing to do with this case. This was connected with other changes in the government that also triggered a shift of the minister of defense. In addition, of course, as a member of the in another department, she previously participated regularly in discussions on the Kosovo question.
In October 1998, Wesley Clark among other things said the following: “If necessary, NATO airpower will systematically take apart Milosevic’s air defense structure and expose his military and police machinery of repression in Kosovo to destruction.” Was this something you believed in before we started bombing?
I cannot take a position on that quote now. We did not make decisions based on simple statements; we made our decisions based on a factual, political and military image. If we had been sitting quietly, letting it be with words only, we would have incurred a great responsibility for the loss of many lives, and that was the dilemma. Going to war is always a grave act, and therefore, we tried to avoid war as long as possible. But it is also a serious responsibility not to do something, and it was that responsibility we felt that we had to take the consequences of.
I am not first of all thinking about these general matters but how the war progressed, for example, with Jamie Shea and General Wesley Clark, who repeats the mantra that they were trying to stop Milošević machine for ethnic cleansing, but could it be true that our bombing made the ethnic cleansing worse?
There are always many difficult questions to ask in retrospect, but one cannot change a decision that has been made based on what happened before. The decision was made on the information we had, we thought it was right, and I still believe it was right. So there is much to say about what happened afterwards, and things that could have been done differently, but we were in the middle of an ethical dilemma, and we thought we would save more lives by going to this action than if we had not done so. It was not a question of choosing between two ideal options: it was a question of choosing between two bad options.
I suppose Espen Barth Eide was an important premise for your decisions at this time, and when he, for example, writes that in “1998 in Kosovo, it was a matter of a brutal and illegitimate strategic campaign against the UCK, rather than the implementation of a plan for a permanent change of the population in Kosovo.” Did Barth Eide’s opinions matter when the government made its decisions?
Yes, we registered all eligible entries in the debate that was taking place, also Barth Eide who at the time was connected to the Norwegian Institute of International affairs, NUPI, but we had our own information that we obtained through embassies, the UN, NATO and the OSCE, where we had the foremanship and therefore we had access to first-hand knowledge. It was of course the total amount of available knowledge that formed the basis for our decisions, not individual statements, whether it was from Barth Eide or Wesley Clark.
The fact you had detailed information is interesting. What kind of intelligence capabilities did Norway have in place in Kosovo?
We will of course never disclose information about our intelligence. This goes without saying. The intelligence is basically a secret service, but we had good enough access to intelligence from our own sources and we always cooperate with about intelligence information, to make the decision we made.
But Carl Bildt, I presume you had some contact with him at the time, and he writes, “if Milošević did not choose to give up immediately, one had to assume that close to half a million refugees would flow out of Kosovo shortly after that the attacks started.” How did you assess this information that you could actually make the situation worse in Kosovo?
We considered it not so that we could make the situation worse. It was bad anyway, and it was said that the choice between two bad options. We chose what we thought was the least bad option. Of course, acts of war will lead to refugee flows, but not to intervene would have led both to refugee flows and the loss of life because those losses took place. We cannot consider this choice based on two ideal options: they were not. But as I say, it is not individual statements, neither form Barth Eide, Carl Bildt, nor Wesley Clark, with respect to all those, who may determine such serious issues. It is our overall assessment of the situation, and we built not least on the information from our excellent minister of foreign affairs was gathering, both by personal visits to the area and through the organization he led, the OSCE.
But back to Jamie Shea and Wesley Clark who during the first phase of the bombing said that “We are degrading his capacity to conduct ethnic cleansing day by day.” Was this something you believed in, or had a feeling that the war did not go according to the plan?
As mentioned, we built our decisions not only on individual statements, but we built on the total lap of information. Therefore I see no point in driving to determine the individual’s statements. We had a good total factual basis, and this was crucial to our decision.
Yes, I hear you say it, but did the war proceed as you wanted in the first half?
It is a hopeless problem to consider. You never have a desired development of a war other than that we have a purpose with it; our purpose was to stop the ethnic cleansing, and it stopped, after a while.
Yes, when we were finished with the bombing and the 1244 came, but did we not help to pave the way for an ethnic cleansing of Albanians?
No, in my opinion we were not. We wanted to stop ethnic cleansing, and we did not want to facilitate it. That there also had been abuses against Serbs, there cannot be any doubt about, of course, and those who have conducted these abuses must be held liable for this. But we must consider what happened against the alternative, and that was that Milošević would have been allowed to continue.
I understand what you are saying, but there were different phases of the war. We were first to attack military targets in Kosovo, and we should attack the border police, but did this work out as planned?
As far as we were informed, the operation functioned largely as intended. That there may have been individual parts that did not work, it is very well possible. But when one has started a campaign, one must complete the campaign until the goal has been reached, unless something decisive happens, for example, that Milošević offered to stop all ethnic cleansing, but any such offer never came. Therefore, the action was carried out, and we believe that the main purpose was achieved.
Before we went to war, how carefully did read the Rambouillet agreement?
The foreign minister oriented government on what we needed to know before we took such a serious decision. No one will believe that I, as the prime minister, Vollebæk as the foreign minister and others took such a decision lightly. The decision weighed heavily on us, and we took the whole situation very seriously. It was an ethical dilemma. I know a lot about because I have been up in similar situations also later on. So this was not an easy decision.
But according to the Rambouillet agreement, Yugoslavia had to accept NATO’s free use of airports, roads, harbors no criminal liability or compensation. Do you know any independent country that under similar circumstances would accept such conditions?
Macedonia had just accepted an equivalent agreement, and in the situation existed then, this was necessary for the operation to succeed. It was not an unreasonable requirement to impose these terms on Serbia when we know how they behaved.
But Macedonia was probably not a threat of bombing hanging over them, so isn’t it a bit difference between the two situations? Is it reasonable to expect that a sovereign country gives up control without any criminal liability or compensation?
It was not unreasonable to make such demands against Serbia when we knew what crimes they had committed in the recent past. To put an end to them, it was a necessity to carry out the action.
In 1998, most observers said that the UCK was a terrorist organization, but as Barth Eide writes, “the progress of the war urged a situational cooperation between UCK and NATO that grew increasingly close.” How comfortable were you with the UCK as an ally?
I cannot relate to such particularities now. We carried out an action that we thought was necessary, was part of it. Details can be discussed in retrospect, but we must see everything in light of the main question: should we allow the ethnic cleansing to continue? Our answer to that was no. When we failed to stop this through voluntary means and an agreement and through numerous attempts, someone had to intervene.
You present this as if it is a fact that ethnic cleansing took place before the collapse of the Rambouillet negotiations. You repeat and repeat this, but what kind of documentation do you have on this? Can you find any sources that confirm that there was ethnic cleansing in Kosovo before the collapse of the Rambouillet negotiations?
It is more than enough evidence. I do not sit on it now, and I do not have the opportunity to dig down in the archives, but we relied on the information we received from various international and national sources. This was something the international community was pretty unanimous about, and there was no special Norwegian assessment. This was the broad consensus. Therefore, I see no reason to put the blame on us. We take responsibility for the decision we took, we had a good foundation for it.
On an independent basis?
Of course [we made our decision] on an independent basis. When you are involved in an act of war then you have to take an independent decision, but we took the same stance as most others in the international community and our allies.
Let’s talk about the transition from the first to the second stage, when we first attacked military targets in Kosovo. I wonder if the total number of tanks that were destroyed were 13 Serb tanks. You say this war functioned as intended, but how aware were you of the information you got from the NATO Council when you shifted your focus to bomb infrastructure in Serbia?
The foreign minister and the defense minister were very aware of the various phases of the war, and informed the government sufficiently that we could take the position we did.
But William Walker, it is perhaps too much detail, so ….
As I have said before, details and a statement read by individuals is not what I can comment on. I can comment on the totality of the picture and the responsibility for the decision we took. Statements from individuals were not crucial for us, it was the total picture.
After 12 June 1999, we have a slightly different situation with regard to the UN Security Council Resolution 1244, where we took responsibility for Kosovo’s security, in accordance with the Military Technical Agreement. How satisfied are you with how the OSCE, UNMIK, KFOR and the international community solve their tasks in Kosovo?
In essence, I think they solved the problems well, but there may be some parts of it that was not done well enough. So one must always learn and do better if one comes in similar situations.
I remember how I came to Kosovo in January 2000. I felt like a liberator. Here we should come and liberate the Albanians. Were we conscious enough that we should protect Serbs and non-Albanians?
One was certainly not conscious enough about this. Everything must be examined according to the situation one then stood in. The Kosovo Albanians were subjected to horrific abuses, and the international community intervened to stop them. In the atmosphere that occurred afterwards, that is a liberation setting, then it may well be that one did not take well enough consideration to all. There are things one should learn from.
How can we make this better next time?
By learning from what happened there, and by remembering that there are innocent civilians on all sides of a conflict, and they should be protected anyway.
250,000 Serbs and non-Albanians were forced to leave their homes in 1999 and 2000 while we were in charge on the ground. Do you feel a moral responsibility that we allowed this ethnic cleansing to happen?
Well, it was an ethnic movement and not ethnic cleansing in that case. Everyone who were there should feel responsible for that, and one was certainly not conscious enough with respect to innocent civilians on all sides of a conflict. The same was true there, and there are things one should learn from. This does not change that one had to do something to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians. History’s judgment had been would not be kind towards us if we had been sitting quietly.
It is precisely this with the ethnic cleansing you repeat again and again, but you have suggestions ….
I thought you were going to interview me and to use polemics against me. Then you have to do it and have some objectivity as a writer.
Of course, but I’m only looking for the sources you have for this. It is not worse than that.
I’ve said now several times.
Yes, you have many sources, but where can I look for the sources?
Yes, you can go and ask in the ministries of foreign affairs and defense. I have brought with me all the documentation here over ten years afterwards, but we had, as I have said before, extensive documentation that our responsible ministers had access to that we built on.
Now I’ve gone to the top of the defense ministry and asked about this. Espen Barth Eide, the country’s defense minister today said that it was going ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1998. Where should I go to find the information?
I cannot advise you more than what I have said, and I take no position on individuals’ statements, whether Barth Eide and others. We built on the information we had, and it was solid. On that basis, we made our decisions, and it is clear that the collapse of the negotiations was crucial when the war came. Everyone knows this, but the negotiations had not come unless there had been atrocities. Why should there be negotiations trying to find a voluntary solution unless there were atrocities?
Yes, we can take the Russian proposal, which the Serbs had accepted before the first agreement came in 1998, but the impression that was left was that it was NATO pressure that made this agreement.
I cannot go back to those statements now, but I am here for an interview, not an argument. Now I have answered the questions, and then those answers should be recorded.
Thank you for that. But in Serbia, I meet people who are constantly worried by the sound of airplanes. I meet more people who suffer from post traumatic stress. Do you feel any responsibility for this?
Anyone who has been a part of decisions about military action must of course feel responsible for all its consequences. But I have also met with Kosovo Albanians who have trauma because family members were killed and all the suffering they experienced at close range. So here was no question of having a peaceful situation versus a difficult situation where people will get traumas. It was a question of choosing between two evils, and when we chose the least. One cannot forget Kosovo Albanians’ fate in all this, and how would the verdict of history be if the atrocities had continued? That is the question one has to ask. That the Serbs have suffered, and suffer from it also today, there is no doubt about that. The question is what had been the situation if we had not done this.
We hear a lot about the Serbs, Croats and Albanians all the others should reconcile and ask each other for forgiveness, but you’re a Christian and a priest, what about ourselves? Do you need to ask forgiveness for anything in connection with that we started the war in 1999?
I think this awkward way to ask your question. As a politician, but of course with my Christian ethical standpoint as ballast, I took a position on this. I think the decision was correct, and I have no need to apologize for it. The fact that things happen in the aftermath of a war, and a war that is highly regrettable and for many traumatic, there is no doubt. But first and foremost I have to ask whether in relation to my own conscience, whether the decision was correct. I’ve been thinking a lot about this because I’ve been involved in war and peace issues later. I think the decision was correct in relation to Kosovo at the time, just as I thought it was right to say no to war in Iraq in 2003 because it not all peaceful means was tested. When it comes to Kosovo, all peaceful means were tested.
Thank you. Is there something you want to add that we have not covered?
No, I think this is what I can say. But I’d like to see what I am quoted on.
If you understand Norwegian, you can also listen to my interview with Bondevik.