Bosnia's 'Safe areas': Chequered pedigree of a compromise

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The Independent Online
A EUROPEAN diplomat said last week: 'We've insisted on calling them 'safe areas', rather than 'safe havens'. Maybe we should also drop the 'safe' and just call them areas.'

The 'safe areas' concept was hit upon as a compromise in which the US wanted the Vance-Owen plan killed off because it did not want to send troops to implement it, and the Europeans wanted the US to drop its insistence on arming Bosnian Muslims. But the idea goes back further than that; it has a chequered pedigree.

It originated in the 'safe havens' of northern Iraq - the somewhat less inglorious allied performance to protect the Kurds after the 1991 Gulf war. Then - on an initiative by John Major - a geographical area was staked out, troops sent in, air cover provided, and Saddam Hussein's army was told to stay away or face attack.

The French sought to revive this concept with respect first to Croatia and then, in October last year, to Bosnia. This was in the days of the now- fallen Socialist government which contained such activists as Bernard Kouchner, the then humanitarian affairs minister. But at the time, says a British diplomat, there were two obstacles: 'First, nobody else among the allies was then prepared to establish safe havens as a defended geographical area - and they're still not. Second, the combatants on the ground were not prepared to allow it.'

In addition, Lord Owen, the EC mediator, complained that the concept had too much of a detention camp undertone. 'Everybody, including the French, agreed to shelve the concept for the time being and keep it up their sleeve,' said one diplomat. After which the Vance-Owen plan was pilloried by the Americans and repeatedly rejected by the Bosnian Serbs; while Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, toured the allies and failed to win support for Washington's proposal to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia's Muslims.

The concept was pulled out of the sleeve in April, with the escalation of fighting in Srebrenica. As Canadian peace-keekers prepared to go in, Barbara McDougall, the Canadian Foreign Minister, telephoned London to ask if British troops would provide back-up - implicitly in the form of air cover. Britain agreed. The first de facto 'safe area' was born.

The idea expanded when fighting erupted in Zepa, and then grew to cover all six areas, including Bihac. The movement towards a UN resolution encountered fairly general co-operation, with the French in the driving seat. By the time the Washington meeting was called finally to forge a joint allied policy, Alain Juppe, the French Foreign Minister, had a text ready to propose to Mr Christopher as the basis for an agreement. Lord Owen was not invited. 'Safe areas' became the one concept to which all could agree.

There have been wildly differing interpretations, however. The non- aligned nations favoured a scenario of UN troops fighting their way in; the French, too, wanted a 'northern Iraq- type commitment' but were reined in by the British, who argued that such a pledge would lead to the peace-keepers being sucked in. The difference to Iraq, said one British official, was 'that in Iraq, there was a centralised oppressor to defend against - and that is not the case in Bosnia'.

Moreover, it may be perfectly feasible for the French to defend 'their' safe area - Bihac - because they have a large, self-sufficient presence there and it is close enough to the Croatian border to provide easy access. Other areas, by contrast, consist of small pockets, or can only be reached via Serbian air space. The troops, the British argued, should therefore be limited to a symbolic presence to 'deter attacks'.