Twenty years ago the aerial bombing of Kosovo took place
On March 24th 1999 NATO launched a bombing campaign on what was Yugoslavia. It lasted until June of that same year and was the first time NATO had bombed a sovereign nation and it did so without UN Security approval. The UK Government at the time was Labour and led by Prime Minister Tony Blair.
There was no vote in the House of Commons prior to the military action but a debate did take place which gave retrospective approval. The aerial bombing which took place over Kosovo killed over 500 lives. Thousands of Albanians were killed by the Serbian ground forces and in the aftermath of the bombing period it is estimated nearly a quarter of a million Serbs and other minorities from Kosovo were killed.
The day before the bombing took place Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons:
“We must act: to save thousands of innocent men, women and children from humanitarian catastrophe, from death, barbarism and ethnic cleansing by a brutal dictatorship; to save the stability of the Balkan region, where we know chaos can engulf all of Europe. We have no alternative but to act and act we will, unless Milosevic even now chooses the path of peace.”
Alistair Campbell was Tony Blair’s Downing Street Press Secretary at the time.
Despite it being a Labour Government there was opposition from Labour MPs and those of other parties at the time. Public opinion was undecided although protests had been held in the UK. Amongst the Labour rebels were Tony Benn and Tam Dalyell. Leader of the SNP at the time Alex Salmond described the aerial bombing as “an act of dubious legality” and “unpardonable folly”.
There were protests in the UK including a march in London where it is estimated 6000 attended. The playwright Harold Pinter told the crowd:
“I am sure those people here today who voted the Labour party into power share the same feeling a deep sense of shame, the shame of being British.
“Little did we think two years ago that we had elected a government which would take a leading role in what is essentially a criminal act, showing total contempt for the United Nations and international law.”
ON 20th of March 2003, with Tony Blair still the Prime Minister of the UK and the President of the USA now George Bush jnr, the military invasion of Iraq took place.
The US led Coalition forces launched a ‘shock and awe’ bombing campaign. There were massive protests not just in the UK but across the world. It is estimated that 2 million took part in the London protest.
Charles Kennedy MP , Leader of the Liberal Democrats
A sexed up dossier compiled for Tony Blair’s Government by Alistair Campbell made what are now known to be false claims on weapons of mass destruction and their capabilities.
Intense scrutiny led to the death of Dr David Kelly only months later on 17th of July 2003. Dr David Kelly was a top scientist in the hunt for WMDs. Dr Kelly did not write the dossier but he had been named in the media. He was unhappy with some of the claims in the draft, particularly a claim originating from August 2002 that Iraq was capable of firing battlefield biological and chemical weapons within 45 minutes of an order to use them. There is still doubt over his death being suicide despite a public inquiry (Hutton) into the affair set up by Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Alistair Campbell resigned in August 2013 during the inquiry into Dr David Kelly’s death.
Robin Cook, Labour MP for Livingston who had been Tony Blair’s Foreign Secretary during the bombing of Kosovo but (having been replaced by Jack Straw) was now Leader of the House resigned from the Labour Cabinet on 17th of March 2003 stating:
“I can’t accept collective responsibility for the decision to commit Britain now to military action in Iraq without international agreement or domestic support.”
His resignation speech over the Iraq war is said to be the first one to gain a standing ovation in the House of Commons.
He died of a heart attack on 6th of August 2005 on a hillside in Scotland. Robin Cook’s headstone in the Grange Cemetery, Edinburgh reads:
“I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of Parliament to decide on war.”
The UK Parliament had approved the invasion of Iraq on 18th of March 2003 by 412 to 149 votes. Those voting against included Labour, Tory, all the Liberal Democrats and SNP MPS.
Where are they now?
Alistair Campbell is a writer and editor of The New European, adviser to the People’s Vote Campaign
Tony Blair runs the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” George Bernard Shaw
Reporter: Fiona Grahame