Leading Article: A small step, but a precedent

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The Independent Online
THE HELPLESS grief and rage that ordinary people feel as they watch the BosniEan tragedy unfold have taken painfully long to be translated into cautiously negotiated policies. At this late stage in the confTHER write errorlict nothing that the United Nations can do will constitute a remotely adequate response to the daily evidence of barbarity, frontier violations and other breaches of international law in Bosnia. The atrocities alone remain a standing reproach to the inadequacies of international law enforcement.

Measured against what would be needed to bring the conflict to an end, or what might have been done earlier, Wednesday's decision by the Security Council to enforce the no-fly zone agreed last October is a small step taken late in the day. Measured against what is politically, diplomatically and military feasible now that the fighting has been allowed to develop, and when so many national interests are involved, it is an achievement that deserves welcome.

The resolution takes the United Nations across a crucial threshold, in that it is the first to mention the possibility of using force in Bosnia. It also marks the first time that Nato, under the control of the United Nations, has engaged itself militarily outside the area it is committed to defend. It gains further significance from the support of the Russians and the compromises that were made to gain this.

The main purpose of the decision is political. It is intended to put pressure on the Bosnian Serbs, and indirectly on the Serbian leadership in Belgrade, to sign and observe the Vance-Owen plan. It will have little direct military impact because there has been only one 'combat violation' of the ban since October. It may, however, affect the military situation because most of the other 499 violations were by helicopters and fixed- wing aircraft involved in maintaining links between Serbia and areas under Serbian control in Bosnia.

These areas have been economically devastated. If their links with Serbia can be weakened, Serbian positions will become more vulnerable, thereby hastening the day when the Serbs will see that they can only lose by further delaying their signature on the plan. Or so it is hoped. But spring will open up the roads and thereby reduce the importance of air links.

If the flight ban does not have the desired effect, the next stage will be to strengthen sanctions against Serbia itself, which is already close to economic collapse. Without active cross-border support from Serbia the Bosnian Serbs would be unable to continue the war at anything like its present level.

That there are serious risks involved is obvious. The Serbs may try to shoot down a Nato aircraft or arrange for a load of their own refugees to be shot down. With or without orders from above, they could retaliate against Western forces. Or the Serbs could start bargaining for supposedly humanitarian flights by holding Muslim refugees hostage. The possible complications are endless. And will the ban be enforced against the Croats, too? If the peace plan is eventually signed, the dangers could increase because the Western powers will be committed to enforcing it.

Thus the risks only increase from now on. But there can be no going back. The only way the conflict can be shortened is by persuading the Serbs that they will lose from further fighting. The more determined and forceful the West can be, the faster that lesson will be learnt.