Annual Survey of International & Comparative Law


In 1998 and 1999, Yugoslavia was engaged in an "ethnic cleansing," involving the systematic murder of its ethnic minorities, especially within its state of Kosovo. Although the United Nations issued Resolutions condemning Yugoslavia's actions, the U.N. stopped short of ordering any enforcement action. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization ("NATO") members agreed that action must be taken to stop the slaughter. After attempts to negotiate peace in the region proved unsuccessful, NATO determined that an aggressive response was the only altemative. On March 24, 1999, NATO-sponsored forces commenced bombing Kosovo. The bombing ended on June 10, 1999, having achieved its aim. The subject of this paper is whether NATO's actions were legal under international law. Some scholars have maintained that the bombing was illegal in the sense that its scope was too broad; e.g. that the types of weapons (such as cluster bombs) were too indiscriminate; or that the targets were illegal (some claim that the bombing targeted civilians and in some cases killed the very refugees whom NATO was seeking to protect). These arguments are beyond the scope of this paper, which will address only whether the decision to commence bombing was itself lawful under international law.