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Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House: "The Challenge for Humanitarian Intervention in Kosovo" by Dennis McNamara, UNHCR Special Envoy to the former Yugoslavia/UN Deputy Representative of the Secretary-General in Kosovo (London)

Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House: "The Challenge for Humanitarian Intervention in Kosovo" by Dennis McNamara, UNHCR Special Envoy to the former Yugoslavia/UN Deputy Representative of the Secretary-General in Kosovo (London)

10 November 1999

The international response to Kosovo - in all its many dimensions - will doubtless spawn a host of lessons-learned and post mortems by many of the actors involved. Some of these have already begun, including within UNHCR. In the humanitarian area, there is no doubt that the Kosovo crisis has raised fundamental questions relating to the nature and scope of humanitarian action and intervention; its proper parameters; duration; and relationship with the military and other civilian actors, both during and after conflict.

The various aspects of humanitarian intervention in Kosovo also relate to different phases of the crisis: the lower-level internal conflict up to 1998; the intensification of this during peace efforts from late 1998 until February 1999; the mass exodus during the bombing campaign from 24 March to 9 June 1999; followed by the mass return of refugees over the summer after NATO' s entry into Kosovo; and finally the post-return, pre-winter period which we now face.


The Kosovo refugee scenario was one of the most complex and intensely political emergencies in UNHCR's history. Despite subsequent claims to the contrary, noone predicted or was prepared for the magnitude and speed of the exodus: only days before key governments were banking on peace and urging preparation for the early implementation of the Rambouillet accords. The exodus when it began was controlled and organised, a well planned mass deportation including by train, often accompanied by the intentional destruction of identity documents. The objective of NATO's first war in Europe quickly became the return of these refugees.

Managing a crisis of this size in such a highly politicised context was a major challenge which initially overwhelmed the response capacity of the host governments and of UNHCR and its humanitarian partners. There were serious problems in providing adequate assistance and equally serious problems of protection. Among these were the political problems of securing admission into Macedonia; the practical problems of setting up enough camps rapidly in Albania and Macedonia; and security problems in Montenegro, where the Yugoslav security forces posed a real threat.

When the NATO air campaign began on 24 March, over 260,000 Albanians had been already driven out of their homes within Kosovo and another 200,000 were refugees abroad. Within four weeks, well over half a million more people were forced to flee, or, in scenes hauntingly reminiscent of the Second World War, were deported by train, to neighbouring countries. By June that figure had rise to some 900,000.

A week after this massive population movement began, and with 300,000 new refugees in Albania and Macedonia, UNHCR requested NATO's help with logistics and camp construction. One of the main reasons for doing so was to provide an urgent alternative for 65,000 people stranded on the Kosovo - Macedonia border. Immediate camp construction and the subsequent humanitarian evacuation programme was the "package" needed to ensure admission of these refugees to Macedonia.

The engagement of NATO in establishing refugee camps raised an unusual precedent. UNHCR has been criticised by some for allowing NATO to take this lead, claiming that the involvement of the military - and especially a principal party to the conflict - challenged the neutrality of humanitarian action. But at the time there was little alternative: as in northern-Iraq and Bosnia, there were extraordinary circumstances in which military logistical support (in addition to security support) was immediately available and necessary. The challenge was to agree proper limits for this support and to ensure complementarity, without compromising the humanitarian role.

There have been public criticisms of the speed and adequacy of the humanitarian response during the start of this exodus. There is no doubt that it could have been better - both by governments and by agencies, including UNHCR. (It needs to be noted, however, that all essential life-saving services were provided and there were no tragic consequences as a result of this response). In addition to improvements within agencies, there are three broader areas which I believe need also to be addressed in this context:

1) Better intelligence: Like almost all Western governments, UNHCR did not predict the mass expulsion of the majority of the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo, or its speed. NATO governments were unable, despite our requests, to provide useful information on population movements, either before or during the campaign. The unpredictability of the exodus made advance planning extremely difficult.

2) Contingency support: As early as February 1999, UNHCR was being invited to high-level meetings with the European Commission and governments where it was urged to prepare for the return of the refugees and internally displaced, and the reconstruction of Kosovo. This pressure increased with the Rambouillet process. Rapid reactions to mass population flows require significant resources, which have been planned in advance. Had UNHCR requested contingency funding for a potential outflow of nearly a million people, it is most unlikely that this would have been forthcoming in view of this political climate. No governments suggested such a course.

3) Humanitarian standby capacity: In order to respond effectively and quickly to a humanitarian crisis of such magnitude, particularly with experienced staff in adequate numbers with full logistical and communications support, there would need to be a permanent humanitarian rapid reaction capacity standing by at all times. This would require a major policy decision - and investment - by governments.


The return of refugees was seen as the main signal of success after the withdrawal of Yugoslav military forces. Once it had established a presence in Kosovo on 13 June, the NATO-led Kosovo Force, KFOR, announced the start of this repatriation from 1 July. [Some of the military contingents could not even wait for this date - on 15 June, some two days after the entry of KFOR, and prior to the withdrawal of all VJ forces, we saw convoys of returnees being led back into Prizren by United Arab Emirates soldiers, with refugees in military trucks waving UAE flags !].

Led by UNHCR, the humanitarian agencies re-entered Kosovo on the second day of NATO's entry into the province, to help prepare the ground for return and to assist those who had remained behind. The first convoy of aid was delivered immediately to concentrated displaced villagers in Glogovac, west of Pristina. The humanitarian agencies were the only actors, apart from KFOR and the first UNMIK staff, to enter Kosovo in any numbers in the first days and weeks. The urgent need for other civilian actors (from technicians to lawyers to administrators) remains acute to this day.

Kosovo was (and still is) not only post-conflict, but post-government; in a state of complete administrative collapse - without a police force, a civil administration structure, or any legal or judicial system. Setting up a humanitarian operation in such an environment posed enormous challenges. At the most basic level, all of our previous offices had been ransacked and looted, and were unusable. The employees of our main implementing partner to help with local distribution of aid, the Mother Teresa Society, were still mostly displaced, and the organisation was no longer functional. Mines and unexploded ordnance littered the countryside, and most crucially, there was a complete vacuum in law and order.

Within three days of the arrival of KFOR, the first 2,000 refugees came back from Macedonia. This triggered a mass return, almost as fast as the exodus, which was unstoppable. UNHCR and KFOR both called - unsuccessfully - for the refugees to be patient and to join a more orderly process, with proper support. But the rapid withdrawal of the Yugoslav military, NATO's presence and easy logistics proved overwhelming. Within three weeks, half a million people had flooded back across the border.

The immediate priority was to scramble to set up field offices and establish humanitarian supply lines, as well as mine and UXO clearance systems. Within two weeks we had begun the first buslines to help those without the means to return to come back - prior even to the KFOR proposed date for return of 1 July. The speed of the process also put added strains on the ordering and procurement of shelter materials before winter, and before the full extent of the damage to housing was known. (Surveys carried out at a village level in July confirmed that this damage was far greater than had been expected).

Post return challenges:

Some four months later, with more than 800,000 Kosovars having returned, the humanitarian network is well set up and functioning, and relief supplies have been flooding in throughout the province in large quantities for some time. The main challenges now are the race against winter, and the protection of minorities.

The humanitarian priority today is to help nearly a million people who have returned to destroyed or damaged homes to get through the winter. Some 50,000 homes are completely destroyed, with another 50,000 damaged. Expectations among the local population (and the media) are often unrealistically high about the speed of the reconstruction process, and the capacity of the international agencies to respond. The reality is that time and resources will not permit a major house rebuilding programme before winter. The solidarity of host families in taking in relatives, friends and neighbours will once again play a crucial role this winter in Kosovo, with collective accommodation being a last resort option.

Through a variety of measures, including house and roof repair, prefabricated units, winterised tents, community centres and host family support, all Kosovars who have returned can be accommodated. But it will undoubtedly be a difficult and very uncomfortable winter for many families. The supply of basic utilities, especially electricity and water, will also be severely tested in the coming months.

Despite the best efforts of UNMIK and KFOR, intimidation and attacks against the remaining Serb, Roma, and other minority populations continue on a daily basis around Kosovo. The fury of returning refugees, understandable at a personal level - (between one and three alleged mass grave sites were reportedly being found every day in Kosovo in June and July) - has tragically created a new Balkan refugee exodus. This is a major concern and preoccupation for the UN and for all humanitarian agencies in Kosovo.

The number of Serbs and Roma now remaining in Kosovo is less than half the original population. Many live in constant fear, some physically protected by KFOR on a 24-hour basis, in groups around the province. In mid-July, there were up to six killings every day. Some three months later, there has been a substantial reduction in these rates, but the violence and attacks continue. Houses of minorities continue to be forcibly occupied or burned, even as we push to bring in temporary shelter and house-building materials to these same areas. Until this violence is contained, efforts to promote reconciliation or the large-scale return of Serbs and other minorities to Kosovo remain premature.

The climate of fear and intimidation is also reaching into the Albanian community, with Albanian moderates being subject to threats and intimidation. The independent publisher, Veton Surroi, who has publicly urged restraint and tolerance towards minorities, was recently the target of virulent attacks in the local media. The statements were interpreted by the UN as death threats, but despite strong international pressure, this drew only a muted reaction from local leaders.

The present cycle of violence and revenge has to be stemmed, if the longer-term rebuilding and reconstruction process in Kosovo is to be effective. Apart from the paramilitaries, some Serbs and Roma who have subsequently left Kosovo undoubtedly took part in the atrocities, for which they should be held accountable. But the rest - even those who were silent witnesses - should not become the new refugees of the Balkans on the basis of perceived collective responsibility. Concerted international action is part of the necessary response to this problem - both through UNMIK and KFOR. But local leaders must also be persuaded that the suffering of the Albanian people is no justification for renewed ethnic purging, that the key to a stable society is tolerance and non-discrimination; and that failure to speak out and to act can only damage the popular Kosovar cause and lessen future international sympathy and support.

Another major humanitarian priority is demining. To date, over one million square metres of land have been demined or cleared of unexploded ordnance (including 600 schools and 1200 homes), but it is estimated that it will take more than two years to clear Kosovo of mines. So far, there have been over 300 casualties, including 50 fatalities since June. The Mine Action Programme, led by UNMIK and supported by some 17 agencies is focused on clearing as many mines as possible, before winter begins. KFOR has agreed to assist in marking cluster bomb sites (which are a serious concern) but does not engage in humanitarian demining directly.


One of the first lessons of the Kosovo crisis has been the realisation that lessons from previous similar crises have not necessarily been learned. A number of themes have emerged from Kosovo in the humanitarian area which I believe need to be addressed:

1. The Kosovo experience argues strongly (if idealistically) for a future stand-by international humanitarian capacity - a humanitarian rapid reaction force - of key actors, materials and support structures. Without this, it is likely that unfair comparisons with the massive military capacity in such situations will continue to be made, and the preference for bilateral responses will continue.

2. Basic "rules of the road" for collaboration between humanitarian and military actors need to be reviewed, including the fine line between essential military support for humanitarian action and direct involvement in it. This is likely to remain, in different ways, a major challenge for the UN - and particularly its humanitarian agencies - in the future.

3. The willingness of the international community to invest in a multilateral response capacity has a direct impact on the success of multilateral efforts. The international response to the crisis in Kosovo has been one of the most "bi-lateralised" we have seen in recent times. This has raised fundamental issues regarding the effectiveness of multilateral coordination and the impartiality and independence of the international humanitarian response.

4. Equally important is to define the limits of "humanitarian action" itself: what does it properly include and exclude? In Kosovo, it covers the protection of minorities and at least the partial rebuilding of damaged houses. This invokes important human rights considerations as well as an obvious link to future developmental activities. Despite pleas from humanitarian agencies for international support for early planning for the reconstruction/development phase, as in many other situations, the humanitarian sector is still leading a broadly defined "rehabilitation" effort, with little being done on reconstruction (other than efforts to stimulate the local economy). If humanitarian action is not to be unduly prolonged in Kosovo, as it has been in Bosnia and elsewhere, active reconstruction and development efforts must replace this role at an early phase.

5. The humanitarian agencies were the only ones to enter Kosovo with the military in any numbers during the first days and weeks. While understandable, Kosovo has again shown that the relief frontline needs to include other civilian actors - national and international - from the outset, if key systems such as law and order, are to be quickly re-established.


Humanitarian intervention - and action - have assumed new dimensions as a result of the Kosovo crisis. The most fundamental of these - a declared "humanitarian war", goes to the heart of the very concept itself. Clearly defining the lines, and limits, between valid humanitarian objectives - the ending of gross human rights abuses and the safe return of refugees - and the necessary political and military measures to achieve those objectives, requires further analysis and attention.

So too does the need for humanitarian action to be properly complemented and supported. Intervention in this area needs political and security backing, if it is to be successful, as well as a clear complementarity from efforts to rebuild key elements of civil society and longer-term development activities. Kosovo is an important precedent in establishing the right to international humanitarian intervention to prevent continuation of gross human rights abuses. The principle is a fundamental one: but to be effective and supportable in post-war scenarios such as Kosovo, such intervention has to be seen only as a first step in a much wider process.