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Dustbin for a world of dirty politics: The UN has been led to disaster in Bosnia by the two-faced attitudes of Western governments, argues Jonathan Eyal

BOSNIA continues to live up to its reputation as a graveyard of Western politicians' careers: the latest controversy about the role of Yasushi Akashi, the UN Secretary- General's special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, mirrors the diplomatic scandals that accompanied both his military and civilian predecessors.

When Lewis MacKenzie left his post in the summer of 1992 as commander of the United Nations Protection Force, for instance, the Canadian general was accused by the Bosnian government of siding with the Serbs, and by ordinary Muslims of taking an active part in the rape of local women. His successors may have fared better, but all ultimately came to grief in one way or another for one simple reason: the mission they were seeking to complete was and remains utterly unachievable.

The UN presence in Bosnia is now a political disaster: harassed by a US administration eager to do something, attacked by Western media which report events highly selectively, and expected to show sympathy for the Muslims without taking sides in the war.

President Bush concluded in 1991 tbat the Yugoslav war was an exclusively European problem. Bill Clinton shares this view, with one difference: while Bush accepted that those who are not prepared to bite should not bark, America's current President continues to do a great deal of barking, with false teeth.

With its strident calls for air- strikes, the US administration asserts that it wants to reinforce the UN's credibility. Far from it: Washington's policy is to use the UN as a justification for policies already decided by the President and his bumbling entourage. The recent plan to lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian government without consulting the Security Council is the clearest indication of this attitude. The Americans were right to object to Mr Akashi's open criticism of their policies last week. Mr Akashi should have saved his breath: most American commentators are now saying publicly what some notable US ambassadors privately admit: that Clinton's policy in Yugoslavia is idiotic.

The frustration of UN personnel is compounded by the selective media coverage of events. The Bosnian government is fully aware that only public pressure can draw the West even further into the war, and only Western military intervention can recreate its old republic. The Bosnian ambassador to the UN has everything that US television networks want: a handsome face, a good suit complete with floral tie, perfect one-liners delivered in fluent English and a determination to appear on every television programme in defence of his beloved 'Baasnia'.

Media influence is the only effective instrument the Bosnians have and, as the chief victims in the current warfare, their efforts in this direction are understandable. But as every UN envoy in Yugoslavia knows, the Bosnian Muslims are not entirely the blameless characters the Western media make them out to be.

UN personnel in Yugoslavia know that the famous attack on the bread queue in Sarajevo in May 1992, as well as the bombardment of a cemetery in that town, conveniently at the moment when Western journalists arrived on the scene, were probably not committed by the Serbs. More recently, the tragedy of Gorazde rightly aroused international indignation.

But how many media networks reported the fact that the Bosnian authorities maintained a weapons manufacturing facility there, in contravention of the very idea of a safe haven? How many in the West know that the figures for the casualties in Gorazde were deliberately exaggerated by radio ham transmissions purporting to come from within the town, but actually being operated from outside? It is the Muslim government, not the rebel Serbs, which now refuses to sign a general ceasefire in Bosnia. The Muslims are currently amassing forces in northern Bosnia for a new offensive.

Bereft of allies, the Bosnians cannot be expected to do other than resort to the traditional subterfuges of war. But that does not mean that Western governments - which are fully aware of these subterfuges - should act as though they are not taking place. Such complicity both restricts and distorts the UN operations on the ground.

For example, last month Britain sent an RAF aircraft to evacuate many wounded from Gorazde. The UN on the ground could not find enough victims to fill the plane. A dignified silence was maintained over the episode: it would have been a brave Western leader who would have suggested that the Bosnians had exaggerated the extent of the tragedy. Yet the discrepancies between the reality and its portrayal on Western television screens are now among the main frustrations for anyone dealing with Yugoslavia.

It is, however, the duplicitous policies being pursued by all Western governments that have the most demoralising effect on the UN's ground troops. No Western politician believes that the old Bosnia can be recreated, but America, in particular, refuses to say so publicly. The hope is that the Bosnian government itself will accept the carving up of the republic, thereby relieving the West of a moral dilemma. Not surprisingly, the authorities in Sarajevo refuse to do anything of the kind. The UN is therefore left in a position of trying to douse the flames of warfare convincingly enough to calm public opinion in the West, but not so energetically as to lead the Muslims to believe that the West will come to their aid.

The UN has reverted to its traditional role as the dustbin for all the world's inherently insoluble problems. It is not the reputations of Mr Akashi or of General Rose that should be questioned but rather the conduct of all Western leaders, and America's President in particular.

The author is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, London.