NATO alleged that Yugoslav forces were making massive attacks against ethnic Albanian civilians in Kosovo in pursuit of a programme of racial persecution known as ‘ethnic cleansing’. This claim lay at the very heart of the NATO case for war and of the indictment of Milošević and the other Yugoslav leaders. ‘It is no exaggeration,’ wrote the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, ‘to say what is happening in Kosovo is racial genocide. Milošević is determined to wipe a people from the face of his country.’ Blair went into overdrive: ‘Children seeing their fathers dragged away to be shot. Thousands executed. Tens of thousands beaten. 100,000 men missing. 1.5 million people driven from their homes.’
The world’s media joined in the frenzy. Lurid atrocity ‘reporting’ spread like a collective madness. Saturation coverage was provided of weeping Albanian refugees and the wildest stories about mass killings abounded. At one point, for instance, it was claimed that the Serbs, like the Nazis at Auschwitz, were burning the bodies of 1,500 murdered Albanians in the incinerators at the Trepča Mining Complex. Some of those who set themselves up as leading authorities on the Balkans fell for this blatant piece of war propaganda, even though it turned out to be completely false.
These stories were driven by the war propaganda emanating from the governments of the most powerful Western countries, primarily the United States. The US State Department produced a report in May 1999, during the bombing, entitled ‘Erasing History’, which alleged that ‘The regime of Slobodan Milošević is conducting a campaign of forced migration on a scale not seen in Europe since the Second World War.’ The report contained numerous falsehoods, from the overall allegation of genocide (which was so unsustainable that it was never included in the Kosovo indictment, not even when this was revised in June 2001, two years after the end of hostilities), to specific claims such as one that the Kosovar capital, Priština, had become ‘a ghost town’ when in fact, there were still hundreds of thousands of people living there.
Leading statesman fed the media with huge casualty figures, secure in the knowledge that their claims would be reported as fact before anything could be checked. In April, the US Ambassador for War Crimes, David Scheffer, said he thought 100,000 Albanians had been killed, a figure repeated by US Defense Secretary William Cohen the following month. Cohen’s claims were widely reported the following day as fact. The British government was a little more circumspect, preferring the figure of ‘10,000 killed’, a figure it initially mooted in June 1999 but which it stuck to until well into the following year.
These claims of genocide had a general and a particular function. Their general function was to work as war propaganda. Their particular function was a legal one. Genocide is a specific crime in international humanitarian law, coming under ‘universal jurisdiction’, and the existing treaties on it require all states to prosecute those accused of it. NATO leaders pretended that this meant there exists a right of ‘humanitarian intervention’ where genocide is occurring, while in fact there does not.
The centrepiece of NATO’s claim in this regard was ‘Operation Horseshoe’. This was allegedly a Serbian plan to drive out the Albanian population from Kosovo in order to establish ethnic Serb hegemony in that province. The NATO spokesman, Jamie Shea, referred frequently to Operation Horseshoe in his press conferences while the bombing was in progress, and the media reported it as fact. Eventually, it turned out to be an invention of the secret services of Western states. The game was given away when the document allegedly outlining it had ‘horseshoe’ written in the Croatian not Serbian form of the word (potkova instead of potkovica).