Leading Article: The folly of betraying Bosnia

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The Independent Online
WESTERN leaders have begun to talk of endgame in Bosnia. All that remains, they say, is for the Bosnian government, besieged in Sarajevo, to concede defeat for the sake of its own people. There is nothing else to be done. And if the Bosnian government should decline this offer - of a fragment of territory on which would languish all those Bosnians who resist the idea of an ethnically partitioned homeland - then it has only itself to blame for the consequences.

No matter that such a fragment is unviable. No matter that the Bosnians might reason, from experience, that if, in six months' time, the Serbs decide that even this fragment is too generous a gift, its existence too painful an affront to their supremacy, the very people who now urge surrender on the Bosnians would again stand by while this last pretence at security was eliminated. It is, say those sage powers, too late to think of that. Let us get it over with. Let us reach this dismal terminus of a line of broken promises. Let us, above all, accept reality.

If the past two years of bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia have demonstrated anything, it is that appeasement has brought no end to this bloodshed. Even if the blunted Western conscience could tolerate the final abandonment of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the state that the West recognised only to leave to its fate, the folly of such a course must be written in tomorrow's account of bloodshed in Kosovo and of the inexorable widening of a war that nobody bothered to stop until it was unstoppable. At stake in Sarajevo today is not just the life and health of its population, as though that were not enough; nor is it merely the brief life of an idea of tolerance and multi-ethnicity that we have saluted in our drawing rooms but whose cries of pain we have ignored. At stake in Sarajevo, if we seek self-interested reasons to act, is the credibility of those flawed institutions that we have erected to fend off chaos.

If the Western powers do not save Sarajevo, they are saying by their inaction that they no longer respect the Charter of the United Nations, the 1990 Paris Charter of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Geneva convention, the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1950 European Human Rights Convention or the 1966 UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. At stake is the ability of comfortable Western Europe to defend itself against disorder by defending its ideals. If we pretend that endgame in Sarajevo is really the end of the story, then we have truly lost our way.

The plight of Sarajevo, and the other so-called safe areas, is desperate. A tide of disease threatens as water and power supplies fail. Food supplies fall woefully short of the need. The Western powers, after months of empty words, are failing even in their most nugatory humanitarian promise - to defend an area in which the physical survival of the population loyal to the Bosnian government can be guaranteed.

There is no need to allow this suffering to continue. On this page we describe how, at the very least, the safe areas can be made safe and supply routes secured. That it can be done is beyond doubt. The question is, why do it? Why bother to save Sarajevo?

But what happens if nothing is done? What happens if the Bosnians, abandoned by those who might have helped them, concede defeat? There are a number of possibilities in the short term: Bosnia is partitioned between Serbia and Croatia and Sarajevo ceases to exist either as a community or even a name on the map, let alone an idea. The Muslim population of former Bosnia, plus those non- Muslims who do not fit into the new ethnic order either through mixed parentage or mixed marriage or, conceivably, old-fashioned repugnance must become refugees or accommodate themselves as best they can to 'reality'. Will they adjust and forget their past, their homes, their dreams of statehood? Or will they, or their children, radicalised by betrayal, act out an unresolved tragedy, rife with even worse developments? What looks to myopic Western leaders like a terminus is really a junction that leads to further bloodshed.

Meanwhile, territorial ambitions satisfied in Bosnia, Greater Serbia sets about its other task - the cleansing of Kosovo. The consequences of that - the involvement of Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey in a greater Balkan war - have been predicted with wearisome regularity. The familiarity of the argument does not blunt the horror. It has been central to the public posture of Western leaders that nothing can be done. The truth is that doing nothing resolves nothing. Something must be done and it starts with saving Sarajevo.

It starts with saving Sarajevo not simply on humanitarian grounds. There is no point in feeding a population, in giving them clean drinking water, in staving off disease, in fattening them up, in short, if they have no future. There is no point in keeping them alive if, in three months' time, they are to be eliminated by further unchecked aggression. But without Sarajevo there is no chance of saving anything of the idea that was Sarajevo or the reality that was, briefly, the Bosnian state. Without Sarajevo, there is no Bosnia. With Sarajevo, and with the declaration of intent that the saving of Sarajevo represents, there is still a place on which to make a stand and from which to negotiate.

What, then, would have been demonstrated and what should be negotiated? The high ambition would be the re-creation of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a unitary state, but things have gone too far for that. It has been part of the Serbian strategy - in which the Croats have opportunistically complied - that the siege of Sarajevo has permitted ethnic cleansing to continue elsewhere in Bosnia. To reconstitute an idea that has drowned in blood in the past months is by now inconceivable. The practicability of any proposal is a critical factor in deciding its ethical worth.

But it is equally inconceivable that the Bosnian population remaining loyal to its government should be erased. An intervention in Sarajevo must comprehend a next step that would win for that population a territory that was truly viable and that the West would pledge to defend.

No doubt it will be smaller than Bosnia-Herzegovina. But it must be larger than the miserable, besieged enclaves of today and it must be both militarily and economically viable. It would require a withdrawal of Serbian and Croatian forces from much of their conquered territory. And it would, at last, be an assertion by the West that it saw and understood that the fate of Sarajevo touches us all. If we fail to act, there is no curtain of indifference so thick that it will protect us from the consequences.