Search for the peace principle: On the eve of vital talks in London, Douglas Hurd tells Steve Crawshaw that force will not prevail in Bosnia

AUGUST used to be the silly season, for politicians as much as for anybody else. Newspapers were filled only with trivia - the 'cucumber season', as the Eastern Europeans like to call it.

When parliaments went into recess, politicians in Moscow, London, Paris and Washington could confidently go on their holidays.

But the past few years have put paid to that. Now, August is the month of cancelled vacations. In August 1989, an outfit called Solidarity got rid of the Communists who had ruled Poland for 40 years, and took over the government themselves - even as the East German regime began to collapse because of an exodus of refugees. In August 1990, Saddam Hussein helped himself to Kuwait. And in August 1991 a few vodka-loving Communists tried to put history into reverse in Moscow - at the same time that Belgrade launched fierce assaults against Croatia, as punishment for its attempt to break away from Yugoslavia. In August 1992, it is again the turn of Baghdad and Belgrade to be in the spotlight. In a word, the tranquillity of August has vanished, along with the ozone layer.

DOUGLAS HURD, the Foreign Secretary and a victim of the abolition of the cucumber season, insisted that he did not mind breaking his holiday in Tuscany for last week's emergency cabinet meeting on Iraq and Bosnia. Sitting in his imposing office-cum- reception room, he said that it made little difference in any case: 'The faxes never stop coming, wherever you are.'

Before departing for a weekend in the West Country (originally, he was due to take a full week away) he talked to the Independent on Sunday of his hopes and fears for the peace process in what was once Yugoslavia, which will be more in the spotlight this week than ever before.

On Wednesday, the largest conference so far on the former Yugoslavia opens at the Queen Elizabeth II centre in Westminster. The leaders of all six of the former Yugoslav republics, and the President and Prime Minister of the rump Federal Republic of Yugoslavia - which now comprises only Serbia and Montenegro - will be there, as will a host of foreign ministers from countries far and near.

The conference, in Mr Hurd's words, is a 'novelty - there's no precedent'. The nearest equivalent, he suggests, was the conference on Cambodia that drew up a UN-supervised peace settlement for the country.

Undoubtedly the conference will be Very Big, but will it achieve anything? 'We won't steer it in two days to the solution of all the problems, but we're trying to show how to get on with it,' Mr Hurd said. 'To set up principles and pressures.' He said the overall aim of the conference would be 'peace, but peace with justice - not the peace that settles on a battlefield'.

Increasingly in recent weeks there has been a tendency in Western capitals to imply that the new division of Bosnia must be regarded as a fait accompli. But Mr Hurd is at pains to insist that such an idea should not take root. On the contrary, he suggested that there would be a further ratcheting up of pressure if Serbia refuses to back down. 'We need to make it clear that we don't accept the partition of Bosnia by force . . . The idea that simply because you or your friends have occupied swathes of territory, the world simply packs up and accepts that, will be shown to be wrong.' He argued that present pressures were not sufficient and said: 'The next few weeks will show.'

This week's conference was dreamed up partly as a response to the perception that the EC- sponsored negotiations, chaired by Lord Carrington, had run into the sand. It is sponsored jointly by the UN and the EC, though Britain is keen to get the credit for being its chief creator.

It is difficult - impossible, some might argue - to come up with a blueprint that would promise a lasting peace in the former Yugoslavia. Every version creates as many lethal problems as it might solve. The overlapping layers of guilt and revenge - historical resentments, overlaid by the more recent atrocities of the past year - mean that one side or the other is certain to feel grievously abused.

It is easier, however, to identify the Western mistakes of the recent past - which are important in that they may yet be repeated.

From spring 1991 onwards, it was clear that a hideous war was looming. This was, in the words of a headline in the Independent in April 1991, a country 'at boiling point'. But Western leaders refused to address the problem. Mr Hurd and others, most notably his US counterpart, James Baker, talked irritably of Slovenia's and Croatia's desire for independence and insisted that Yugoslavia must stay together.

As Serbia's war with Croatia increased in ferocity through the autumn of 1991, international attention gradually focused on the possibility of a UN peace-keeping operation there. Bosnia repeatedly asked to be included in the peace-keeping operation. But Mr Hurd and others showed little interest in the possibility that the war might engulf Bosnia.

Finally, in March and April of this year the smouldering violence exploded in Bosnia. By then, of course, it was too late.

Did Mr Hurd regret this failure to anticipate each stage of the Yugoslav conflict? 'If it had been possible to establish a Yugoslavia by consent, that would have been the best answer,' he said. 'A very heavy responsibility lies on all those who prevented that.'

For the moment there are enough current problems for Britain to worry about in Yugoslavia, never mind the errors of the past. Last week Britain announced that it would make available 1,800 troops, if required by the UN, in order to back up the UN resolution authorising the use of force to ensure aid convoys get through to Sarajevo. Previously Britain was strongly opposed to allowing its troops to become involved, so last week's decision was an important symbolic turnaround. But what happens if British soldiers are wounded or killed? Will there be a re-think? Mr Hurd is unwilling to be pinned down. 'I think we will just have to judge any such episode,' he said.

On one point, he is clear: 'It's not possible to imagine a solution to these malignant problems which could be imposed by force.' That, in itself, seems clear-cut. But so, too, did his statement a few minutes earlier that the Serbian takeover of large swathes of Bosnian territory was 'unacceptable'. Which raises the question: what further punishment might there be for unacceptable behaviour? It is unclear if Britain might yet find itself being sucked into tougher military action, if all else fails.

Meanwhile, what is Mr Hurd's vision of where all this might eventually lead? 'I don't think there will be a confederation,' he said. 'That's part of saying goodbye to Yugoslavia. Once people begin to think again about the economy, about their standard of living, then the pressures are not driving them apart but driving them together, but how long all that will take I don't know . . . What I can't do is prophesy how long it will take to produce a settlement - which can't just be the guns stopping. You have to have justice built into it. You cannot just ratify what has happened, valley by valley, village by village, in the past few weeks.'

The Serbs, who still see themselves as Yugoslavia's underdogs, hope that the conference will allow them to consolidate their territorial gains. The Bosnian government hopes the world will give its backing to the 'melting- pot' Bosnia, instead of the divided Bosnia the Serbs and Croats are angling for. And the Croats want guarantees that Serb-occupied parts of Croatia, now administered by the UN, will be fully returned to Croatia. If the conference produces any compromises at all, it will be judged a partial success. But there will, by definition, be winners and losers. The losers will be embittered, perhaps violently so. The cycle of violence is far from over.

(Photograph omitted)

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