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Are Nations Liable During NATO Missions?

A Kosovo man whose son was killed by a NATO cluster bomb took France to Europe's top human rights court Wednesday over the boy's death. The case may have consequences for future NATO troop deployments in Europe.

Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that "everyone's right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law."

The clause is now at the heart of a hearing at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on a case brought by a Kosovo Albanian against France pertaining to an incident that occurred during the NATO bombardment of what was then Yugoslavia in early 1999.

Agim Behrami's 12-year old son Gafar was playing with several unexploded cluster bombs in the hills near the town of Mitrovica in March 2000 when one of them exploded, killing him and severely wounding his younger brother Bekir, 10.

The bombs were left over from the previous year's strikes on the southern Serbian province by NATO forces aiming to end a brutal crackdown by Serbia on Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority.

NATO responsibility

Behrami insists that French NATO troops were responsible for the death of his son since they had not defused the bombs or marked their presence. He charges that this failure violated the "right to life" decreed in the European Convention on Human Rights.

"The tragedy could have been avoided by securing the area where French troops knew that unexploded devices remained," Behrami's lawyer Keir Stramer told the European Court of Human Rights.

Among the questions the court must answer are whether individual nations should be liable for these events, and should countries be made accountable for violations of the Convention by troops in countries that are not actually signatories to it?

"Complying with human rights should be at the heart of any peacekeeping mission," the family's lawyer told the court.

Wider implications

France denies responsibility on the grounds that its forces were under UN authority and France was not in sovereign control of Kosovo, said Edwige Belliard, the lawyer representing France.

She added that the country then in control of Kosovo, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia -- now Serbia -- had not ratified the European Convention on Human Rights by the time of the death.

Wednesday's hearing was held for the court to consider whether the case was admissible. It was due to give a decision at an unknown later date.

"The question of accountability is key not only for the situation in Kosovo, but also other military operations such as those in Iraq," lawyers said.

NATO: Court Considers National Accountability in Foreign Missions