Refugee Showdown

Refugee Showdown

Refugee Showdown

What the foreign papers are saying.
April 9 1999 3:30 AM

Refugee Showdown

The European press engaged in name-calling Wednesday over the handling of the Kosovar refugee crisis. In an exclusive interview with La Stampa of Turin, Italy, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said that after much debate European countries had agreed that 120,000 refugees should be airlifted to Western Europe. But the Guardian of London reported on its front page that the countries of the European Union are "at loggerheads" on the issue and insist that they can absorb no more than a 10th of the one million Albanian Kosovars ousted by Serbia. The countries are heading for a showdown over which of them will accept refugees, how many, at what cost, and on what terms, the paper said.

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On the Guardian's op-ed page, columnist Polly Toynbee attacked British government policy, saying "it's not body bags the Government fears at the moment, it's live Kosovan bodies swamping our shores." In another British liberal paper, the Independent, France was condemned for its initial refusal, subsequently reversed, to accept any refugees, with reference to the "similar attitude struck during the Bosnian war," and Germany was attacked for "drastically reducing the numbers it had been expected to take."

France's leading newspaper, Le Monde, said in an editorial Wednesday that the French government has "good and solid reasons" for not wanting to accept the Kosovars--that to do so would be to condone "ethnic cleansing" and to play Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's game. But it added that Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's position would be clearer and less subject to the suspicion that he was only worried about reopening the country's immigration debate, if he carried his argument to its logical conclusion. This being that the refugees can only be returned to Kosovo if there is some kind of intervention on the ground. "The defence of the right of the refugees to return home is a slogan empty of meaning if one continues to exclude categorically the committal of ground troops," the editorial concluded.

Like Solana in his interview with La Stampa,Western European newspapers stand united behind NATO's outright rejection of Milosevic's cease-fire offer, and the idea of sending in ground troops seems to be gathering ever stronger support. But Secretary-General Solana stressed the limitations of the NATO offensive. "One can't do miracles with countries with pilots who belong to countries that have parliaments," he said. "One has to go forward step by step. General [Wesley] Clark, furthermore, has two constrictions: to safeguard the lives of the pilots and to guarantee that there is no collateral damage. So this is not a war in the classic sense but a military campaign." The conservative Daily Telegraph of London said in an editorial that Milosevic's promised respite from "hounding, killing and raping Kosovars does not begin to meet alliance requirements." The alliance should keep in mind the "infamy of what is happening and hold true to the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law which its founding treaty proclaims."

The Israeli papers continued to wrestle Tuesday (they were not published Wednesday) with the analogies between the Kosovo crisis and the Holocaust and with Israel's wartime debt to the Serbs. "As a Jew, I am sure it is my obligation to come to the aid of Milosevic's victims in Kosovo," Elie Wiesel, author, Holocaust survivor, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, wrote on the front page of Yediot Aharanot. "Some say that when we, the Jews in Europe, needed the world's intervention, no one came to our help. But does that mean we must be indifferent today? On the contrary. What the world did not do then, it is doing now." Yet he dismissed comparisons between Milosevic and Adolf Hitler: "What is happening in Kosovo is not a Holocaust. A Holocaust is a genocidal plan. Milosevic is committing grave crimes, but the comparison of other disasters to the Holocaust has led to the diminution of its significance. Every disaster has become a Holocaust and every criminal a Hitler."

While the Russian papers Wednesday gave top billing to domestic stories, especially the arrest warrant for President Boris Yeltsin's tycoon friend Boris Berezovsky on charges of money laundering, they covered the Kosovar refugee crisis in a manner often strongly critical of the Western alliance. Izvestia said the West was losing its image as a "wise, democratic, and civilized collective force ... Rather, as represented by NATO, the West is doing insane things, contrary to the fundamental principles of democracy." "Allegedly for the sake of their own salvation, the Kosovar Albanians are being crushed from the air along with Serbs and Montenegrans. Trying to prevent the Kosovars' mass exodus to Europe, NATO did nothing but provoke it by its air strikes. The West's civilizing role seems to involve the destruction, for the first time since Hitler, of Europe's most beautiful cities. ... A game with no rules has started in the world, and one beyond the limits of law, too. There is only one step from this to the apocalypse," it said.

Finally, an apology: In a column last week, I mistakenly referred to an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail attacking the NATO air strikes as an editorial, when it was in fact a signed piece by Marcus Gee.

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