Leading Article: Entering a zone of political reality

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'WE HAVE reached the limits of shame . . . the moral foundations of the United Nations are at stake,' said Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan on BBC Radio 4 yesterday, calling for stronger international action in Bosnia. The former UN High Commissioner for Refugees is right on every level except that of political reality. Future historians will rub their eyes in disbelief when they come to examine how civilised Europe could allow such atrocities to be perpetrated for so long on its doorstep.

This, remember, was to have been the new era in which the Soviet veto would no longer hobble international action, in which pan-European institutions would come into their own, expanding their civilising influence eastward to teach less-fortunate areas how to shed the outdated concepts of nationalism.

Instead, the international community has wrung its hands while tens of thousands of Bosnians have been tortured, slaughtered, raped, starved and driven from their homes in full view of television cameras and within easy range of the vastly superior military forces of the Western alliance. There can seldom have been a worse betrayal of everything the West claims to stand for.

Against that background the enforcement of the no-fly zone that started yesterday is a minor step, but such is the inadequacy of what has been done so far that hope attaches to even the smallest advance. The new measures have symbolic value in that they formally involve Nato in the conflict. Whether they will significantly influence the course of the war remains to be seen. If Nato aircraft can stop helicopters supplying Serb enclaves in Bosnia, the Serbian effort will be weakened. Fast fighters are ill suited to the task, but can probably manage it if given permission. If they fail, the case for much tighter economic sanctions or other measures against Serbia will have been reinforced.

But that is where political reality comes in. Outside governments are divided against each other and within themselves. The Clinton administration is in deep confusion as it tries to balance the moral imperative to intervene against the reluctance of the Pentagon, the fear of making life even more difficult for President Yeltsin and the priorities of its domestic agenda. The Germans can do no more after going through political convulsions just to keep their crews on surveillance aircraft. The British and French could not intervene alone, even if they wanted to. Some Turks would love to fight for fellow Muslims, but they are held back because they might unleash a wider Balkan war. Even tighter economic sanctions find no consensus, largely because of the Yeltsin factor, but also because of the pain that would be felt by Hungary, Romania and others in the region.

The no-fly zone also has its down side. Humanitarian convoys are being suspended, to keep them out of danger. This emphasises the need for speed. If the no-fly zone does not produce quick results it must be replaced by more effective measures without delay, or dropped in favour of resuming aid. Food must not be allowed to join all the other victims of political reality.