UN Security Council Approves Arms Embargo on Yugoslavia

March 1998

By Wade Boese

Responding to a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanians in the Kosovo province, the UN Security Council voted 14-0 (with China abstaining) on March 31 to impose an arms embargo on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The embargo prohibits the sale or supply of weapons and related materials, such as ammunition, military vehicles and spare parts, to Yugoslavia. Countries are to abide by the embargo regardless of whether a contract or permit was signed prior to the Security Council action.

Hostilities broke out in Kosovo, a formerly autonomous province, in early March as Serbian special police and paramilitary forces retaliated against towns suspected of supporting the Kosovo Liberation Army, an organization of ethnic Albanians seeking independence for Kosovo. An estimated 80 civilians, including women and children, were killed in the attacks. Ethnic Albanians represent 90 percent of Kosovo's total population of 2 million and have sought greater autonomy, which Belgrade has refused to grant.

As violence escalated, the Contact Group (Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the United States), which monitors events in the Balkans, agreed on March 9 to pursue an arms embargo through the UN Security Council and to forbid immediately the supply of equipment that could be used for internal repression. With the exception of Russia, the Contact Group also decided to deny visas for senior representatives of Yugoslavia responsible for the repressive action and to halt government export credits for trade and investment in Serbia.

Bolstering the Contact Group's action, the European Union agreed on March 19 to adopt an arms embargo and identical sanctions to compel Belgrade to begin talks with the Kosovo Albanians.

Convening again on March 25, the Contact Group chose to maintain the sanctions because of Belgrade's failure to meet demands to cooperate with the Group, withdraw the special police forces (reportedly as many as 45,000) and allow humanitarian and international organizations access to Kosovo. Moreover, the Group criticized Slobodan Milosevic, president of Yugoslavia, for failing to publicly commit himself to a dialogue with the Kosovo Albanians and pledged anew to adopt a UN arms embargo by March 31.

While the Security Council discussed an embargo, reports surfaced—subsequently confirmed by State Department spokesman James P. Rubin on March 26—that Russia and Yugoslavia had concluded a military-technical cooperation agreement in December 1997. Details of the agreement, which was pending before the Serbian Parliament at the end of March, have yet to be made public.

Aside from concerns that new arms would fuel the conflict in Kosovo, Yugoslavia currently has no room under the June 1996 Agreement on Sub-Regional Arms Control force limits to acquire new equipment without first making corresponding force reductions. Equipment assigned to internal security forces, such as those engaged in Kosovo, are exempted from the agreement's limits, except for a limit of 152 armored infantry fighting vehicles.

The Security Council eventually won Russian acquiescence for the embargo by ropping language that the conflict in Kosovo threatened international peace and security and by reassuring Russia that the embargo would apply to all parties in Kosovo. Russia did indicate that it would seek a time-frame to limit the embargo.

China chose to abstain from the vote stating that it did not want to create a bad precedent by intervening in a state's internal matters. Belgrade's UN representative, as well as its Foreign Ministry, called the embargo unacceptable and insisted that Kosovo remained an internal issue.

The Security Council stressed the importance of maintaining the Agreement on Sub-Regional Arms Control, condemned the use of violence by all sides and urged the parties to begin a dialogue without preconditions. To monitor the embargo, the council established a committee comprising all council members and also requested that the UN secretary-general make recommendations within 30 days for the establishment of a comprehensive regime to do the same.