Johann Hari: Milosevic's death must not let us escape Britain's responsibility for aiding his crimes

Thanks to British policy, the Serbs could pound away at the Bosnian Muslims and they couldn't fight back
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The Independent Online

It's hard to squeeze out even the most crocodile of tears for Slobodan Milosevic as he completes the tired character arc of tyrants throughout the ages - from zero to hero to Nero to a reviled grave. He died well-fed and well-clothed in his sleep, a luxury denied to more than 125,000 European men, women and children who died in the wars he stoked, poked and pioneered.

But the doors of justice for the crimes committed in the Balkans in the 1990s should not slam shut with Milosevic's coffin, nor with the handover of those indicted Serb butchers Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. Today, there are men who helped and facilitated Milosevic's crimes at the heart of the British establishment. Indeed, these men are universally lauded as liberals and all-round Good Chaps. They have still not answered for their actions.

In the swell of patriotic self-congratulation following the death of Milosevic - we helped to oust him, didn't we? - many people will want us to forget the role played by the last Conservative government in the Balkan wars. They would like us to forget that at the height of the shelling of Sarajevo - a democratic city three hours from Heathrow - the Tories were so complicit in the killing that the bleeding Bosnian government seriously considered taking the British government to the International Court of Justice for aiding and abetting genocide.

To understand how this forgotten history came to unfold, you have to return to the early 1990s. Looking out on the fighting that broke out in the Balkans from the dusty offices of Whitehall, the ruling Conservative Party were - in John Major's words - "bewildered". They saw a bunch of foreigners with unpronounceable names killing each other for reasons that seemed to stretch back to 1389, and rather than enter into the tricky business of sifting the victims from the aggressors and supporting them, they fell back on their core prejudices. One was a belief that, as Malcolm Rifkind, soon-to-be Foreign Secretary, argued, "The furtherance of British interests ought to be the sole object of British foreign policy." Human rights? What human rights? Show us gas pipelines and corporate interests and then we're talking.

The other belief was a borderline-racist view that the Balkan people were maniacal savages who relished slaughter. Sir Peter Hall, ambassador to Belgrade, told John Major: "Prime Minister, the first thing you have to know about these people is that they like cutting each other's heads off." No point helping them - they're all mad.

In light of these principles, the Tories conveniently concluded that what was happening was a Balkan civil war where - the blue sing-song of the times - "all sides were equally to blame". Since there were no British interests at stake and nothing much could be done to stop naturally violent people from hacking away at each other, it was best to stay out, or even to hope for a strong Serbia to "discipline" the region and damp down the turmoil. Oh, and Britain should stop anybody else from foolishly intervening, of course.

This argument had a certain superficial (if repellent) logic, but it was based on a glaring error. This was not a three-way civil war between Serbs, Muslims and Croats with all sides committing crimes equally. It was a racist war waged by Slobodan Milosevic to establish from the ruins of the former Yugoslavia an ethnically pure Greater Serbia under his control, one that had been "cleansed" of its Muslim population.

There were real villains and real victims, not the incomprehensible tribal hodge-podge presented by the Tories. As Kofi Annan explained in his post-mortem into the war, the Serbs' "central war aim [was always] to create a geographically contiguous and ethnically pure territory". Yes, when the Bosnian Muslims and Croat separatists responded to this fascistic Serbian agenda they did not always do so scrupulously, to say the least - but it is appalling to say this puts them on a par with the original and major criminals.

Confronted with this racist agenda at the heart of Europe - designed to crush the democratic, multi-ethnic republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina - it would have been terrible enough to stand by and do nothing. But the Tories, led in foreign affairs by Douglas Hurd, did something worse. They insisted on an arms embargo on the entire region to prevent weapons being sold to any side. In practice, this guaranteed that the Serbs' massive military superiority at the start of the war was maintained, and - in Annan's words again - it "effectively prevented the Republic of Bosnia and Herzgovina of its right under the Charter of the United Nations to self-defence".

Milosevic said at his trial that Hurd was in effect giving him "a green light" for the killing, and in a way he was right. Thanks to British policy, the Serbs could pound away at the Bosnian Muslims - killing thousands - and the Muslims could not fight back. Some British government spokesmen even started suggesting that the Bosnian Muslims were shelling themselves to get sympathy.

Whenever the governments of France, Germany and the USmooted an armed intervention - in line with the pleading of humanitarian agencies such as Oxfam - the Conservative government used its veto. People across the political spectrum - from the Republican senator Bob Dole to the Europhile Jacques Delors - identified Britain as the main obstacle to intervention. But we, the British people, should not be tarred with this appeasing brush: while Hurd obstructed international help for the besieged Bosnians, 67 per cent of the British people wanted British troops sent in to stop the slaughter.

The result of Hurd and Major's refusal to listen was mass death on our doorstep, a programme of killing so huge that even now - more than a decade later - more than 7,000 Muslim boys and men are missing, according to the Red Cross. When eventually British objections were overridden and Nato air-power was used in Bosnia in 1995, the killing ended, just as the bombing of Kosovo helped to precipitate the final fall of Milosevic in 1999. It could have happened years before, and saved tens of thousands.

And the stench gets worse. Almost as soon as Hurd had fallen from office, he jumped on a flight to visit Milosevic to try to persuade him to flog off Serbia's utilities to a British company paying Hurd a fat fee. Money motivated Hurd, it seems, where blood could not. Today, he and Malcolm Rifkind and John Major are thought of as kindly old liberal Tories without a trace of Balkan blood on their hands, and the acts of racist murder they facilitated are consigned to the memory-hole.

Yes, be angry that Milosevic dodged justice. But there are people far closer to home who bear responsibility for his killing-spree too - and there is still time to extract justice from them, if only we had the will.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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