Leading Article: The key decision on Bosnia

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The Independent Online
THE Bosnian ambassador to the United Nations, Muhamed Sacirbey, had a point when he described the Security Council's two resolutions on Bosnia as 'public relations'. The first resolution calls for 'all necessary measures' to be taken to ensure delivery of humanitarian aid to Sarajevo and other parts of Bosnia. The second demands unimpeded access for the Red Cross to detention camps in Bosnia and other former Yugoslav republics, and warns that those violating human rights would be held responsible for their actions. Neither carries in its text any indication that the West knows how it wants to use its greater freedom of action.

The initial reactions yesterday typified the continuing divisions: France offered to send 1,100 troops to Bosnia to protect relief convoys; Britain's own Baroness Chalker said any such deployment was a long way off. All the signs are that the political and intellectual paralysis that has prevented the emergence of a coherent policy will continue. The West will go on lagging one or more moves behind the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, when it should be one jump ahead. As the London conference at the end of the month looms, all decisions will be left to be decided at that unpromising forum.

It becomes daily clearer that no coherent policy can be evolved until a basic question is answered. Is Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose independence was recognised by the EC and the US on 7 April, still a viable entity that can be saved as a multi-ethnic state within its established borders? If the answer is yes, the West's policy will be very different from that required by the opposite conclusion.

In the former case, it would be logical to decide that territorial aggression must not be seen to pay - not least to prevent it spreading south to Kosovo and Macedonia - and must therefore be reversed. Diplomacy would have no chance of persuading either Serbs or Croats to surrender much of their gains. So the West would have two choices: to provide some form of military support for the dispossessed Muslims, who formed 40 per cent of the population; or to lift the UN arms embargo and give the Muslims the means to regain their old homes. A combination of the two would be possible. Such an approach would be, in moral terms, eminently defensible. The Muslims have, after all, suffered far the worst from the brutal policy of ethnic 'cleansing', practised most ruthlessly by the Serbs. For the West to have unequivocally taken their side might have been effective if acted on months ago. But it is probably now too late. Military support would be impossibly costly in terms of likely Western military casualties. A selective lifting of the UN's arms embargo has already been dismissed by the Security Council.

The alternative is for the West to admit that there is no hope of putting the old Bosnia back together, and that the best hope for a lasting ceasefire and political settlement is a form of cantonisation. A decision along those lines would be deeply distasteful. Even if territorial concessions could be wrung from both Serbs and Croats to the benefit of the Muslims, it would suggest that might is right. The barbarities of ethnic 'cleansing' and the appalling detention camps would seem to be legitimised. Minorities across Europe would fear that they might suffer similar treatment - unless the UN could devise some form of sanctions that would demonstrate unambiguously that such crimes do not pay.

Measured by the central question of Bosnia's viability, the Security Council's resolutions look peripheral as well as belated. The Serbian terror campaign continues, but the territorial gains have reached a point where the Serbs have no interest in attacking relief convoys. The Muslims are as reluctant as anyone to end the fighting, since they want either Western help or arms to regain some lost ground. Their best hope was always that the Croats would join them in defending the Bosnian state against the Serb militias. But though nominally the Muslims' allies, the Croats had their own territorial agenda. All three sides have taken hostages. The UN can only help relief agencies to ease the privations of innocent civilians caught up in the fighting and discourage any further displacement of populations.

For the past year Western policy has been hopelessly indecisive and reactive. Its leaders must now face up to the central question of Bosnia's political future, and plan how best to save Kosovo and Macedonia from a Serbian onslaught. To foster the illusion that Bosnia's multi-ethnic towns and villages can somehow be re-created is not only cruel but also hopelessly short-sighted.