Former head of Unprofor predicts that 'thousands more will die'

Robert Fisk at the Curragh hears a damning analysis of how and where the West went wrong
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The Independent Online
In the days when he was Unprofor's Chief of Mission, Cedric Thornberry was a prickly character, little loved by the press - for whom he bore equally small admiration - and much used by UN bureaucrats to draw the teeth of critics who would suggest that international involvement in the former Yugoslavia was little more than a disaster. So when the newly retired assistant secretary-general stood up to speak at the Irish army's UN Training School at the Curragh this weekend, there was a certain in-drawing of breath as Mr Thornberry moved into prediction mode.

"I have the impression that pretty soon the Croatian Croats may feel quite strong enough to overcome the Serbian Croats by force of arms," he said. "There is no question in my mind that thousands more will die."

Only weeks after President Franjo Tudjman's army retook the Serb Slavonian region of Croatia, it did not seem a ludicrous idea. The Croats have been steadily tightening their stranglehold on Serb-held Krajina, their troops now shelling 12 miles from the Serb ''capital'' at Knin. But it was a harsh prediction, none the less, as the Anglo-French rapid reaction force settles into the Bosnian swamp along with all the other monuments to international folly which litter the land between Mostar and Bosanska Gradiska.

The UN protection force had at least, Mr Thornberry insisted, achieved three things: it had prevented the conflict from spreading, ensured humanitarian aid to those who needed it and provided "good offices" for warring parties who desired to resolve "underlying political issues" (UN-speak for who gets how much land).

But it was not difficult to discover what the UN had done wrong. Not the least of its errors, Mr Thornberry, told his audience of army officers, one of them from the British Ministry of Defence, was the Security Council's habit of consulting only one faction before constructing peace-keeping mandates. All too often, he said, he had been flown to tell one party to the Balkan conflict that the UN had agreed with another to a change in the mandate only to be told that this could mean war. "They would say to me, 'Thank you, Mr Thornberry, we do not agree to this. We were not consulted ... Your helicopter is waiting. Dobrodan [Goodbye].' "

Decisions could not be taken with the consent of only one party, he said. "The Security Council must understand that both parties must consent to a mandate and any change in it." As one who has said as much a thousand times since his appointment as Unprofor director of civil affairs in 1992, it was only natural that Mr Thornberry would object to the notion that the UN's mission in ex-Yugoslavia was a catastrophe. "Maybe history will say the operation was successful but that unfortunately the patient died," he said. "In Somalia, Unisom was a calamity wrapped up in a disaster, wrapped up in a catastrophe." Perhaps the world should have supported the Muslims or the Croats. "But the international community has not decided to do so." It was unfair to accuse the UN of not fulfilling a mandate it had never been given.

The recognition of Croatia and then Bosnia in 1992, he said, was "a cardinal error on a European scale", referring to "the madness of recognising Bosnia when one-third of the population - who just happened to have most of the weapons - had made it perfectly clear they did not want a unified state and would forcibly resist it".

Dr Patrick Keating, Professor of European Integration at Trinity College, Dublin, and an expert on international peace-keeping, was one of the few lecturers to ask how nations contributing to peace-keeping forces could best accustom their populations to the possibility of casualties. "Maybe governments will have to spend more time and take more care in preparing their publics for more difficult and more costly operations," he said. Since 1957, Ireland has contributed 42,000 tours of duty by its 13,000- strong army to UN missions. In Lebanon alone, 37 Irish soldiers have been killed.