Fulsome prison blues

When he was director of RTS, Dragoljub Milanović used the inside information to which he had access to save himself and his high-ranking staff from the bombing of the RTS headquarters (which was indeed, since you asked, an illegal attack -- see Arts. 48-51 -- against a civilian target), while sacrificing the lives of sixteen of his lower-ranking employees. Now the families of those sixteen victims are complaining that while serving his sentence for his responsibility in their deaths, Mr Milanović has access to some extraordinary privileges, including weekends off and vacation time. They blame justice minister Zoran Stojković. Perhaps Mr Stojković has forgotten who is no longer in power. Or maybe it only seems that way.


Anonymous said...

which was indeed, since you asked, an illegal attack -- see Arts. 48-51 -- against a civilian target

Tch. Eric, you know it's not that simple.

NATO claimed that the RTS tower was being used to transmit military information. It was, they said, "an integral part of the FRY's communication network". When nudged by the ICTY, NATO eventually made a formal statement to that effect.

The Serbian response consisted, in its entirety, of "was not".

Even granting the difficulty of proving a negative, I think there's room for legitimate skepticism about the purely civilian nature of RTS. I note in passing that the Yugoslav military tradition, shaped by the country's WWII partisan experience, had a very marked tendency to blur the line between civilian and military installations. TV and radio transmitters were regularly used for military purposes in the Bosnia conflict.

I'd be a bit surprised to find that, in the middle of a war, one of the most powerful transmitters in the country, sitting on top of the second tallest building in the capital, was being used purely for civilian purposes. I won't say it's impossible, but I wouldn't have bet money on it.

NATO had a backup argument, which is IMO much weaker from a legal point of view... but not completely ludicrous. This is that RTS, _in its role as a TV station_, was part of the Serbian war effort and so a military target. This is an notion that most of us in the West find ridiculous if not repellent. But in a Yugoslav context... well, I don't agree with it. But I don't find it completely ridiculous either.

A recent article by Richard Byrne spells out the argument:

[T]hose who have analyzed [Yugoslavia's] bloody dissolution highlight the media's role in disseminating and exacerbating ethnic tensions to the point of sheer hysteria. In particular, analysts such as Mark Thompson (author of the pioneering study Forging War: The Media in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina) and Kemal Kurspahic (former editor of the Sarajevo newspaper Oslobodjenje during the Bosnian Serb siege of that city) point to the Belgrade-based media under the control of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic as particularly effective and brutal in fomenting wars within the former Yugoslavia.

In Forging War, Thompson notes that Milosevic's regime treated RTS "as a party-state resource like the police and army." What the state television pumped out before and during the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia was truly amazing in its virulent racism and untruth -- and truly powerful in its omnipresence on the media scene. As Belgrade journalist Milos Vasic famously put it... "You must imagine a United States with every little TV station everywhere taking exactly the same editorial line -- a line dictated by David Duke. You too would have war in five years."

For instance, a study of RTS broadcasts on the Bosnian war cited by Thompson observed that the mainly Muslim Bosniak forces defending themselves against Bosnian Serb attacks and widespread ethnic cleansing in 1992 and 1993 were referred to as "evildoers," "cutthroats," "mujahideen," "jihad warriors," "commando terrorist groups," and "Muslim extremists." Thompson also noted that -- in the universe of RTS during the Bosnian wars -- "the Serbian side never attacks; it responds to enemy provocations, assaults, crimes and genocide. At the beginning, Serb forces were often `unarmed defenders of centuries-old hearths'; this was shortened to `defenders' and often `liberators' of towns and territory."

Thompson cites literally thousands of such examples from Serbian media outlets -- and his updated 1999 version of Forging War was published before it could include the propaganda put out by Serbian media that year as Milosevic attempted ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and triggered the NATO air campaign. Kurspahic puts it even more simply, writing in Prime Time Crime: Balkan Media in War and Peace (United States Institute of Peace, 2003) that the "ideological line" of Serbian nationalism that was "developed fully by Serbia's intellectuals . . . embraced and enforced by the ruthless new regime [of Milosevic] in 1987, aggressively and systematically promoted by media with an audience of 90 percent of the Serbian public -- laid the ground for the mayhem of the 1990s."

Not convinced? Well, go back and take a look at the Geneva Conventions. Article 52.2 defines a military target as "those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action". Vasic, Kurspahic and Thompson are pretty clearly agreeing that RTS did just that.

So, two lines of argument here: one, that the RTS tower was being used by the military, and two, that it was a "party-state resource like the police and army" and so a legitimate target.

Neither of these arguments are as strong as one would like. The first lacks evidence other than plausibility and NATO's testimony, while the second, while hardly lacking for evidence, does not fit well with traditional definitions of "civilian".

On the other hand, neither are these both so absurd that they can be simply dismissed.

Of course, that doesn't end the analysis. Even if RTS was a military target under article 52.2, the question then becomes whether, under 51.5(b), the attack was one "which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated." That's a second hurdle to overcome, and it may be tougher than the first.

Still, the point remains: it's not that simple.

Doug M.

Eric Gordy said...

Hi Doug -- before I respond, welcome back! Haven't seen you here for a while.

About the legality business: the use of transmitters for "command and control" is a stronger argument than the use of television of propaganda. Propaganda would have to be defined as a military activity, which only works in rhetoric -- in practice, it could open up a potentially infinite number of targets (which seems to have been NATO's argument). In any case, the transmitter could have been targeted without targeting the building.

At the same time, the reason Milanovic is in prison is that he had advance warning of the attack and did not evacuate the victims (but did evacuate his higher-ranking colleagues). The responsibility of NATO and the Serbian authorities fed into one another.

There is a fairly detailed legal analysis by Lyombe Eko on this from 2002, unfortunately only the abstract seems to be generally available:


But if you can get access to an InfoTrac database, it will be there. Citation info:

Bombs and bombast in the NATO/Yugoslav War of 1999: the attack on Radio Television Serbia and the laws of war.
Communications and the Law, September, 2002 by Lyombe Eko

András said...

I'm not a lawyer and have yet to read the Lyombe Eko article. However it seems to me that a key consideration is Article 51.5(b), the question of whether the attack was one "which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated."

As we had reason to suspect even at the time and now know for a fact (as a result of Dragoljub Milanovic's conviction), the attack on the RTS building was preceded by a warning. It was evidently specific and timely enough to allow for the evacuation of civilians from the building before the missiles hit -- that is how Milanovic and other senior managers avoided the fate of their 16 lower-ranking co-workers, who were forced to come in and stay inside the building after hours on the night of the attack (on pain of losing their jobs), as sacrificial victims. Primary responsibility for their deaths rests squarely with those who knew the building would likely be targeted and deliberately placed them in harm's way. The evident aim was to make sure there would be victims to display to the world media following the airstrike.

That may not entirely get NATO off the hook, legally, but if the RTS building had been properly evacuated - as was evidently feasible - the worst result of the NATO strike would have been the material damage. There was no reason why anyone should've been inside when it was hit and no reason why anyone would've been killed if the warning had been heeded.

Of course, even in that case one could argue that the attack involved the destruction of a civilian object -- but keep in mind that not all civilian objects (not even houses, hospitals, museums or churches) are always off limits under the laws of war. The military objective that necessitates such an attack has to be weighed against the danger it poses to civilian lives and property. If there were no lives lost and no irreplaceable property destroyed (no one argues that the RTS building was a world heritage site), then proportionality kicks in and I suspect under those circumstances the military necessity to be demonstrated might not have to be quite as dire.

As Doug pointed out, the top of the RTS building had a forest of relays and transmitters - are you sure those could've been rendered permanently inoperable without harming the rest of the building? And the facilities atop the RTS building were just one link in the larger Serbian military-civilian communications network. Another was the huge transmission tower on Mt. Avala, which was also hit and toppled (an act that some also insist on calling a war crime, though I wouldn't).

I think Doug makes a useful point about the legacy of dual-use communications facilities from Tito's Yugoslavia. The Partisan ethos, exalted in schools, film and civil defense classes in SFRY - does have this drawback of blurring the lines between what is military and what is civilian.

Eric Gordy said...

On the topic of blurring the lines between what is military and what is civilian, it is absolutely clear that a part of VJ's strategy was to protect military resources by concentrating them in civilian sites. One of these sites was the parking garage underneath our apartment building in Belgrade.