Comment: Sarajevo, what can the UN do

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The Independent Online
THE MASSACRE in Sarajevo on Saturday differs only in degree from atrocities that have become commonplace in that city and throughout Bosnia over the past two years. But it must not fall on blunted sensibilities or be shrugged off with weary appeals to 'realism'. It was an outrage: not an act of war

but cold-blooded savagery against civilians going about their normal business.

It was also a breach of international law perpetrated under the eyes of United Nations forces in a city they are supposed to protect. If the presumptive guardian of international order can tolerate such flagrant defiance of its mandate, its soldiers, international law, human rights, world opinion and common humanity, it might almost as well disband. Those of its members who still care must now refocus the wandering attention of the world on what is happening in Bosnia.

Yes, say the weary realists, but what can be done that will not make the situation worse? Bombing the Serbian guns around Sarajevo will stir up a hornets' nest, they say. The Serbs will place their guns among civilians and kindergartens, mount frontal attacks on aid convoys, blow up roads and kill more civilians. The UN will then be faced with a choice between committing hundreds of thousands of troops to a war against Serbia, which no Western government will approve, or pulling out. Neither option would be an improvement on the present situation. As Douglas Hurd said yesterday, air strikes should not be undertaken without careful thought being given to what would follow them.

There are other difficulties, too. The UN has authorised air strikes only for the protection of UN forces, not Bosnian civilians. The Russian government, under growing pressure from nationalists, would veto a wider mandate and strongly oppose any attacks on Serbs. Moreover, looking to the broader picture, much of the harassment of aid convoys is occurring in central and southern Bosnia, where the fighting is between Muslims and Croats.

These objections are valid but too easily deployed as excuses for inaction. There are things that can be done without further instructions from the Security Council. Last May, for instance, the Russians supported a UN decision to protect six safe areas: Sarajevo, Bihac, Tuzla, Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde. Members then refused to commit sufficient forces to implement the decision. They should do so now. The United States should also commit ground troops if it wants to be taken seriously, but it is unlikely to do so.

Defending these areas would cost lives but would start to restore credibility to the UN, enabling it to exert more influence on the course of the war and push all parties towards a settlement. The Muslims would doubtless try to use the safe areas as sanctuaries from which to fight for more territory but this problem could be managed if their aims were limited. In any case helping them to secure a viable state is a legitimate policy for the West, albeit a poor substitute for rescuing the whole of Bosnia. With the arms embargo no longer preventing them acquiring weapons, no other obstacles should be put in their way. In addition, sanctions should be extended to Croatia, which is pouring troops into Bosnia no less illegally than Serbia is.

No options for the West are without risks and costs. At this late stage, after so many betrayals, broken promises and unfulfilled resolutions, the options have become fewer and more costly. This is the price of disunity, cowardice and lack of vision. It is nearly too late to save anything of the UN's authority and to prevent Bosnia descending to a still deeper circle of hell. If almost the last chance is not to be missed, the UN must now summon up the resolution to make its resolutions stick.