Historic Documents of 1999


Edited by: CQ Press

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    More than a half-century after world leaders solemnly signed treaties and established institutions intended to prevent a recurrence of the horrors of World War II, a new generation of leaders was forced in 1999 to confront the fact that new evils were arising in place of the old. The NATO alliance went to war in March to halt the latest episode of “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia, only to discover that Serbian authorities in the beleaguered province of Kosovo used the NATO bombings as an excuse to accelerate their attacks on the ethnic Albanian majority there. More than a million Albanians fled from their homes and an estimated ten thousand were killed during three months of Serbian brutality. With its massive air strikes, NATO drove Serbian forces out of Kosovo and established a peacekeeping force that enabled nearly all the Albanians to return, in many cases to homes and villages that had been destroyed. But NATO, and the UN administration that sought to rebuild Kosovo's civil society, quickly found that rebuilding Kosovo would be an expensive and difficult process. It was far from clear that European nations would follow through on the promises they made during the war to provide the money and resources for postwar reconstruction. President Bill Clinton was among the Western leaders who appealed to the Kosovar Albanians to forgive the Serbs who remained, but such appeals appeared to be falling on deaf ears.

    The United Nations found it necessary to make two apologies for its failures earlier in the decade to protect civilians in war zones. In Rwanda in 1994 the UN and its member states failed to take effective action to stop an ethnic slaughter that, in less than one hundred days, led to the death of an estimated 800,000 people. Later declared to be a “genocide” as defined by the UN's 1948 Genocide Convention, it was the greatest single killing of people since more than 1 million Cambodians lost their lives during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the middle 1970s. A high-level board of inquiry reported in December that the UN Security Council and its member nations—most notably the United States—had refused to provide adequate resources to a UN peacekeeping unit in Rwanda, leaving it helpless to confront the mounting terror as the government and an extremist Hutu militia systematically slaughtered political opponents and civilians belonging to the rival Tutsi ethnic group.

    Similarly, UN secretary general Kofi Annan issued a report in November apologizing for the world body's failure in 1995 to protect Muslim civilians living in an area of Bosnia that the UN had declared a “safe haven.” During the closing months of the three-year ethnic war in Bosnia, Serbian forces attacked the town of Srebrenica, overwhelmed a small UN detachment of peacekeepers from the Netherlands, and proceeded to kill more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys. It was the worst single ethnic slaughter in Europe since World War II. In his report, Annan acknowledged that the UN did not keep its promise of safety to the Muslims.

    Even as the UN was preparing its reports on recent tragedies, another one was unfolding on the tiny Pacific island of Timor. Indonesia had occupied East Timor for a quarter century and in 1999 agreed to allow a vote on independence there. The UN-arranged referendum at the end of August went smoothly, and more than three-quarters of East Timorese voters opted for independence. In response, anti-independence militias that had been armed and trained by the Indonesian military went on a rampage and killed thousands of civilians before world leaders intervened and forced the military to with draw. An Australian-led peacekeeping force moved in, and East Timor became a UN protectorate. Once again, there was criticism that the United Nations failed to protect innocent civilians who had assumed that its presence meant they were safe.

    All four cases—Kosovo, Rwanda, Bosnia, and East Timor—led to a reconsideration by world leaders of such long-treasured concepts as national sovereignty and the neutrality of the UN. NATO intervened in Kosovo without any authorization from the UN and despite the fact that Kosovo was an undisputed province of Serbia. Serbia's allies in Russia objected, and China raised concerns, but there was remarkably little debate around the world about NATO's unprecedented intervention in the internal affairs of a UN member state. Reflecting on the tragedies, Annan said the UN had for too long hidden behind its neutrality when confronted with massive human rights violations. In his report on Srebrenica he declared that deliberate attacks on an entire people, wherever they occurred, “must be met decisively with all necessary means, and with the political will to carry the policy through to its logical conclusion.”

    Despite such expressions of determination, world leaders had limited success in halting the biggest conflict under way anywhere in 1999: a regional war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) that involved a half-dozen nations. In many ways that war was a direct outgrowth of the conflicts earlier in the decade in Rwanda and its neighbor, Burundi, that had sent more than 1 million refugees into Zaire. The UN and African leaders helped negotiate a peace agreement in Congo, but the fighting continued. At year's end Annan was attempting to arrange a UN peacekeeping mission that would avoid the failure of previous missions that were sent into conflict zones before peace was truly established.

    An even more insidious killer was on the loose in Africa: AIDS. Two-thirds of the 33 million people infected with HIV, the virus that causes the incurable disease, lived in sub-Saharan Africa. In some African countries as much as one-fourth of the population was infected with the AIDS virus; in addition to destroying families and communities, the disease was expected to slow economic growth significantly. Nor was Africa the only continent affected. International health officials worried that Asia could soon be enveloped in an equally devastating epidemic of AIDS, one that could have even greater repercussions for the world economy.

    Yet another conflict raging at the end of the year put Western leaders in a difficult position, morally and politically. Russia in September launched an attack on Islamic separatists in the republic of Chechnya, in effect repeating a 1994–1996 invasion that led to a humiliating defeat of the Russian army. President Clinton and his counterparts in other Western capitals gradually escalated their criticism of the army's reportedly indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas in the Chechen capital, Grozny. But the West hesitated to push Moscow too hard on the matter, fearing that outside pressure might destabilize Russia's still-developing democracy.

    As the war in Chechnya raged, Russian president Boris Yeltsin, a man of many surprises, had one last shock for his nation and the world. On December 31 he suddenly announced that he was resigning—six months before the end of his five-year term—and handing the presidency to his designated successor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Yeltsin's resignation helped make Putin, who was riding on a wave of popularity from his management of the war in Chechnya, the favored candidate in the next presidential elections. The fact that Russia was about to have its third contested presidential election was undoubtedly Yeltsin's greatest accomplishment during his nine years in office. Yeltsin appeared on the world stage just in time to help push the crumbling Soviet Union out of existence, and he had the vision to plan a future for Russia as a democracy. Despite his many failings—most important his inability to manage the difficult transition from communism to capitalism—he stuck with that vision and gave Russia a democracy. Messy and turbulent it might be, but it was the only true freedom Russia had ever known.

    One element of the Russian democracy was the parliament's power to try to impeach the president, and Yeltsin's opponents used that impeachment power to try to force Yeltsin from office because of the failed 1994–1996 war in Chechnya. Yeltsin easily beat back that impeachment move in May, becoming the second major world figure during the year to survive an impeachment grounded largely in partisanship.

    The first was Clinton, who was acquitted by the Senate in February on two charges stemming from his sexual relationship with a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. The Republican-led House of Representatives in December 1998 had voted, mostly along party lines, to impeach Clinton, a Democrat, on charges that he had lied to a grand jury about his relationship with Lewinsky and had used his official powers to block an investigation of his wrongdoing. There was never much chance that the Senate would muster the needed two-thirds vote to convict the president and force him from office, but the Senate gathered all its dignity, minimized its partisan squabbling, and conducted a trial in January and February. A clear majority of fifty-five senators rejected the charge that Clinton had lied under oath, and the Senate split fifty-fifty on the obstruction of justice count. A humbled Clinton apologized for the trauma he had caused the nation.

    The impeachment, coupled with the fact that Clinton was entering the end of his two terms in office, weakened the president's political standing and muted the power of his moral authority. But Clinton was still able to best his Republican opponents in Congress on some issues of substance, including the one that was most important to the functioning of the government: the budget. For the fifth year in a row, Clinton used his veto power and superior negotiating skills to win most of his battles with Congress on spending priorities. For the second year in a row, those spending battles were fought in the context of a budget surplus. The government had showed its first overall budget surplus in the fiscal year ending in 1998, and the fiscal 1999 budget (counting all items, including Social Security) was $123 billion in the black. Clinton and Congress hotly disputed what to do with the surplus, and the president appeared to have won broad public support for his priority of setting money aside to ensure the future of Social Security and Medicare and to begin paying off the enormous national debt. Republicans had put their emphasis on a multiyear tax cut, a proposal that appealed to the party's well-to-do core constituency, but that failed to generate much broad-based enthusiasm.

    Clinton's fading but still evident political magic failed him in at least one major battle during the year on Capitol Hill. The president had set as his chief foreign policy priority Senate approval of an international treaty banning all nuclear weapons tests. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, first proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, had been completed in 1966 and had been on the Senate's agenda since 1997. Clinton failed to lay the political groundwork for the treaty, however, and when treaty supporters began pushing for Senate action on it during the late summer they discovered that Republican opponents had quietly lined up enough votes to kill the treaty. Clinton found himself pleading with the Republican leaders to delay the vote he had long requested, but they refused. The Senate rejected the treaty on a 48–51 vote; among the no voters were several moderate Republican leaders who normally backed such measures. The defeat was one of the most important foreign policy setbacks Clinton had ever suffered, and it alarmed many world leaders who saw rejection of the treaty as evidence of resurgent isolationism in the United States.

    Violence also dominated headlines at home. In April two teenage boys, armed with guns and homemade bombs, rampaged through Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killing twelve students and a teacher before turning the weapons on themselves. Self-styled outcasts filled with hatred of Jews, blacks, and their more popular classmates, the two left behind tapes and diaries indicating that they had hoped to kill as many as five hundred students. They also left behind a grief-stricken community and a nation wondering how to stop school violence. The shootings helped gun control forces win passage in the Senate of legislation regulating some sales of guns, but the House blocked similar legislation. Clinton convened a White House conference on the issue of school violence but was criticized for not taking a stronger stand for gun control and against violence in the media, which many Americans believed fomented violence among teenagers and young adults.

    Despite the focus on the Columbine shootings, crime rates, including homicides and crimes in which guns were used, continued to decline in 1999. Use of illegal drugs among teenagers also dropped, although it remained fairly stable in the population overall. In two major reports by the surgeon general, substance abuse was found to be a significant contributor to mental illness and the incidence of suicide. According to the “nation's doctor,” David Satcher, one of five Americans was afflicted with mental disorders during any given year, but two-thirds of those never received treatment, largely for fear of being stigmatized by society. Stressing that mental illness was not a moral failing but rather a physical illness that could be treated, Satcher urged anyone with a mental health problem or symptoms of mental disorder, such as depression or anxiety, to seek help. The surgeon general said he hoped the report would be even more influential than the first surgeon general's report in 1964, which warned the public about the dangers of smoking.

    Another report, this one by a prestigious body of doctors and scientists, found that as many as 98,000 Americans died every year from medical mistakes, half of which were preventable. The report laid out several recommendations to “design” safety into the nation's health care system; Congress and Clinton took these recommendations under immediate consideration. The White House and Congress were unable to agree, however, on legislation protecting patients' rights, including giving patients the right to sue their managed care health plans for malpractice. On this issue, as well as on gun control and several other perennial controversies, Democrats and Republicans alike were calculating their legislative votes with an eye to the 2000 presidential elections.

    Experts noted that 1999 technically was just the next-to-last year of the twentieth century and of the second millennium. Officially, they said, the year 2000 had the honor of ending both historic periods, and 2001 would mark the beginning of a new era. But popular perception ran a year ahead of the experts, and so the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999, was widely celebrated as the end of the twentieth century and 2000 as the opening of a new millennium. For years there had been worries that computer systems, designed in the days when only two digits were used to record the year, would fail once 1999 gave way to 2000. The government and private businesses in the United States spent more than $300 billion updating their computer systems, and many Western countries followed suit. Despite the worries—and possibly because of all that work—the dawning of the new year saw remarkably few computer failures.

    The millions of people who worried about their computers might have saved a considerable amount of money had they instead paid just 5 cents, the standard fee for reassuring advice from Lucy, one of the regular characters in the enormously popular comic strip, “Peanuts.” Charles Schulz, who created Lucy, Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, and the other characters who represented the wisdom and foibles of the human race, announced his retirement on December 14. It was clear that “good ol' Charlie Brown” and the rest of Schulz's lovable characters would live on, through the magic of reruns and the memories of millions of fans.

    These are only some of the topics of national and international interest chosen by the editors for Historic Documents of 1999. This edition marks the twenty-eight volume of a Congressional Quarterly project that began with Historic Documents of 1972. The purpose of the series is to give students, librarians, journalists, scholars, and other convenient access to documents on a wide range of topics that set forth some of the most important issues of the year. In our judgment, the official statements, news conferences, speeches, special studies, and court decisions presented here will be of lasting interest.

    Each document is preceded by an introduction that provides context and background material and, when relevant, an account of continuing developments during the year. We believe these introductions will become increasingly useful as memories of current events fade.

    JohnFelton and MarthaGottron

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