Leading Article: Foreign Office ethics fly out the window

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The Independent Culture
RARELY CAN the law have been more of an ass. Kosovo burns, and as a harsh Balkan winter approaches, hundreds of thousands of Albanian refugees are uprooted by the security forces of Slobodan Milosevic. There is mounting evidence of Serbian war crimes, on top of the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe. Yet the legal experts of the Foreign Office now conclude that the European Union ban on flights by the Yugoslav airline, JAT - mooted in June, and formally agreed last week - is not justified under international law.

Doubtless, having combed through the precedents, they are technically correct. But small wonder an exasperated Brussels Commission, contemplating this debacle of common EU foreign policy-making, is considering whether to take Britain to court for non-compliance. The situation would be absurd were it not tragic. Europe's disarray only plays into the hands of President Milosevic, as he cynically picks his moment to settle his Kosovan problem. Washington is already semi-paralysed by the Monica Lewinsky affair. Now, after the solemn warnings to Belgrade from countless foreign ministers meetings and June's EU summit in Cardiff - all chaired by Britain - that same Britain is preventing Europe from sending a small signal of disapproval of what is happening in its south eastern corner.

What price Europe as a force in the world? And what, incidentally, of our own celebrated "ethical" foreign policy ?

Almost unbelievably, Bosnia is repeating itself. "Never again," our leaders thundered. But ethnic cleansing is again under way, and Bob Dole, the former Republican Presidential candidate who has just visited the region, warns that crimes against humanity similar to those witnessed in Bosnia are already occurring. Once again, as in Bosnia, victims are being asked to negotiate with their persecutors. And all the while, we prevaricate.

It was first said that the ban on JAT could not be enforced since 12 months' notice were required before suspension of the existing air service agreement between London and Belgrade. But, if that is the case, why didn't Robin Cook say so at the time, instead of giving the public and Parliament the impression that Britain was leading the way to action. Now, Cook, having accepted for too long that he could do nohting, is belatedly ordering a "review of policy."

Too tentative and too late. JAT's flights should be halted forthwith, whatever the lawyers may say.