Ten years on, no-one has been held to account for the NATO attack on the Serbian state radio and television building that left 16 civilians dead. Sixteen civilians were also injured during the air attack on 23 April 1999 on the headquarters and studios of Radio Televizija Srbije (RTS) in central Belgrade.
Those killed included a make-up artist, a cameraman, an editor, a programme director, three security guards and other media support staff. An estimated 200 staff are thought to have been working in the building at the time.
“The bombing of the headquarters of Serbian state radio and television was a deliberate attack on a civilian object and as such constitutes a war crime,” Sian Jones, Amnesty International’s Balkans expert said.
NATO officials confirmed to Amnesty International in early 2000 that they targeted RTS because of its propaganda function, in order to undermine the morale of the population and the armed forces.
“Justifying an attack on the grounds of combating propaganda stretches the meaning of ‘effective contribution to military action’ and ‘definite military advantage’. These are essential requirements of the legal definition of a military objective – beyond acceptable bounds of interpretation.
“Even if NATO genuinely believed RTS was a legitimate target, the attack was disproportionate and hence a war crime,” Sian Jones said.
NATO officials also confirmed that no specific warning of this particular attack was given, even though they knew many civilians would be in the RTS building.
The raid was part of NATO’s “Operation Allied Force” against the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia between March and June 1999. Approximately 500 civilians were killed and 900 injured during the course of the conflict.
Many of these casualties were caused by indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks and a failure to take necessary precautions to protect civilians.
In several attacks, including the Grdelica railroad bridge on 12 April 1999, the road bridge in Lužane on 1 May 1999 and Varvarin bridge on 30 May 1999, NATO forces failed to suspend their attack after it was evident that they had struck civilians. In other cases, including the attacks on displaced civilians in Djakovica on 14 April 1999 and Koriša on 13 May 1999, NATO failed to take necessary precautions to minimize civilian casualties.
“Civilian deaths could have been significantly reduced during the conflict if NATO forces had fully adhered to the laws of war,” said Sian Jones. “Ten years on, no public investigation has ever been conducted by NATO or its member states into these incidents.”
Amnesty International recommended as early as 2000 that the victims of violations committed by NATO receive redress. Yet the victims of the RTS bombing and their relatives have never received any redress or reparations, including compensation, despite proceedings in domestic courts in Serbia and further applications to the European Court of Human Rights (Banković and others v Belgium and others and Markovic v Italy), which ruled the cases inadmissible.
Many of the problems that undermined compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law in “Operation Allied Force” – such as lack of clarity in the command structure and decision-making processes on target selection, divergent understanding among national contingents of applicable international law – persist in the alliance’s operations in Afghanistan.
“It now appears that NATO has failed to learn from the mistakes of Operation Allied Force. If anything, NATO appears to have taken a step backward in transparency, releasing less information about attacks it carries out in Afghanistan than it did during Operation Allied Force,” said Sian Jones.
“The most powerful military alliance in the world cannot afford but to set the highest standards of protection of civilians according to international humanitarian law. It must be held accountable for any violations of that law.”