May 21, 1999

Physicians for Human Rights

Letter to President Clinton



Hon. William J. Clinton

President of the United States

White House. Washington, DC 20500


Dear President Clinton:

I write on behalf of Physicians for Human Rights to express my grave concern over impact on civilians of the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia.

Physicians for Human Rights has conducted continuous research on President Milosevic's crimes in Kosovo for the past year and has recently completed 1,100 interviews with refugees in an effort to obtain a comprehensive picture of killings, disappearances, and other crimes against the Kosovar Albanian community.

Our data clearly indicates that almost all families who fled experienced gross abuses of human rights.

Our organization was sufficiently alarmed at the killings and expulsions of civilians that we publicly called nearly a year ago for the introduction of an international peace-making force into Kosovo for the exclusive purpose of protecting Kosovar civilians from attacks by Serb police, military, and paramilitary forces.

We reiterated that appeal in a letter to you in January, 1999.

The air campaign that NATO commenced in March as a response to Serb abuses in Kosovo has not been an appropriate substitute for such a ground force. As near as we can determine, the bombing has not protected Kosovar civilians from expulsion, death, rape, and torture; has not prevented Serb forces from destroying hundreds of villages, mosques, medical clinics, and other Albanian facilities; has not prevented Serb forces from laying antipersonnel landmines; and has not contributed to the return to Kosovo of its displaced population.

Physicians for Human Rights is particularly troubled by the fact that in addition to failing to deter Serb abuses or protect Milosevic's victims, NATO's aerial bombardment has itself caused the destruction of civilian facilities, including hospitals, and the death of both Serbian and Kosovar civilians.

The rules of engagement which require NATO aircraft to fly above 15,000 feet have enhanced the possibility of collateral damage and deaths of civilians, because such heights make it more difficult for pilots to distinguish civilian from military targets.

You publicly acknowledged this fact in your recent statement following the inadvertent bombing of a column of displaced Kosovar Albanians, when you stated that such deaths were inevitable given the speed and altitude at which NATO pilots were flying when conducting bombing sorties.

Physicians for Human Rights is well aware that NATO is not deliberately targeting concentrations of civilians. That fact, however, does not justify military operations that are implicitly designed to minimize harm to NATO soldiers at the expense of civilians. Indeed, such rules of engagement, under which NATO appears to be operating, are clearly prohibited under international humanitarian law.

If NATO pilots operating under such rules proceed to bomb without being able to distinguish civilians from soldiers, they are violating international law. Under circumstances where soldiers cannot ascertain whether their target is military or civilian, there exists an affirmative obligation to avoid such a target.

Finally, the Serb military's placing of civilians near military targets to serve as "human shields" does not permit NATO bombers to attack those targets without reserve. The Geneva Conventions prohibit attacks on such targets if civilian losses are disproportionate to the military objective secured.

In closing, Physicians for Human Rights also wishes to express concern about the costs to civilians of bombing of facilities that are essential to the maintenance of civilian life and health, such as the electrical system.

We are aware that some of these targets have a dual military-civilian use. Nonetheless, we respectfully urge that the Alliance end its attacks upon targets whose destruction causes suffering and hardship among the civilian population.

Physicians for Human Rights continues to insist that the international community intervene in an effective manner to stop Milosevic's depredations against the civilian population remaining in Kosovo and to permit the safe return of refugees, and to do so in ways that are consistent with international humanitarian law.

Sincerely, Leonard S. Rubenstein

Barbara Ayotte, Physicians for Human Rights

100 Boylston Street, Suite 702, Boston, MA 02116

Tel. (617) 695-0041 - Fax. (617) 695-0307

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