May 1999                                  

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War in Yugoslavia:
Non-aligned countries watch warily as NATO sidelines UN

As the war in Yugoslavia slowly began to turn towards some sort of endgame, Europeans tried to grapple with thenato.jpg (17735 bytes) lessons of the awful events. During the NATO air strikes, many imagined hearing rumbling sounds of the earth moving under the international stage. The rumbles were probably more audible in the quieter atmosphere of small neutral or non-aligned countries than in the thunder of conflicting arguments in bigger countries directly involved in the conflict.

In Finland and Ireland -- countries with a long psychological affinity with the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe -- there was a growing fear that after the NATO air strikes, nothing will be the same again in world politics. The instruments which these countries have been relying on to make the world a safer place seemed to be replaced with a military machine under the overwhelming influence of the United States, a country which often favours military solutions.

This realisation has divided opinion in Finland and Ireland. Some people feel more drawn towards NATO in order to have a say in the world of the alliance's making. Others are hoping that it is still possible to return to an international order where the UN has a central role.

Gallup polls in Finland and Sweden showed that as NATO air strikes against Serbia continued, people were becoming more negative towards the military alliance. To many Finns, the destruction caused in Belgrade and elsewhere was shocking. Nothing like this had been expected to happen in Europe. The idea that Finland as a possible future member of NATO might have to take part, even if indirectly, in something similar was probably unpalatable for many people.

The Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen is in a difficult position. By taking over the EU Presidency for six months in July, Finland will become directly involved in the Balkans conflict. Lipponen will have to go along with the majority of the EU countries which favour the NATO position. The Finnish government will be taking part in these deliberations aware that many citizens are worried about Finland's role in the new and dangerous Europe. Even if the country's big neighbour, Russia, has for the time being been marginalised in world affairs, many Finns worry about the possibility of a new Cold War.

The Irish government has found itself in a difficult position as well. For the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, the air strikes in Serbia coincided with a furious debate about Ireland's looming membership in the NATO-sponsored Partnership for Peace. Ahern's reversal of his previous negative attitude to the membership triggered angry reactions from commentators who feared that Irish neutrality was being undermined. The Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole complained that the "grand national debate had been conducted in the absence of the nation".

O'Toole touched on a matter close to many people's hearts in both Ireland and Finland, namely the long tradition of peacekeeping under the auspices of the UN. He objected to the idea of Irish peacekeepers being trained by "an organisation dominated by the world’s leading arms exporters". (Irish Times, 5 February 1999)

Other Irish commentators heard death tolls ringing for neutrality. They quoted NATO's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe who has referred to the "neutrals" in the PfP as "former neutrals". These comments overlook the fact that the Finnish government no longer refers to the country as neutral. The preferred word is 'non-aligned'.

The question of the UN vs. NATO appeared again when the leader of the opposition Fine Gael party, John Bruton, asked "why the Rambouillet draft peace agreement provided for the deployment of NATO, and not of UN, troops in Kosovo to supervise implementation". Bruton continued: "It was this troop deployment section of the agreement that was rejected by Serbia, which has accepted the political plan for Kosovan autonomy." (Irish Times, 12 April 1999).

Illustration by Peter Till

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