Letter: Prepared to yap but not to bite on Yugoslavia

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Sir: If I were a member of the Provisional IRA, I would be greatly cheered by the elaborate case which Conor Cruise O'Brien makes against a war crimes tribunal in the context of Yugoslavia. The minimalist response of the European democratic community (governments and trans-national bodies) towards those primarily waging war against defenceless civilians threatens to corrode standards of behaviour and legitimise gangster politics far beyond Belgrade.

In December, the war party in Serbia manufactured an electoral majority through its control of the electoral register, most of the media, and jobs in the state sector. I have no doubt that this lesson has not been lost on Sinn Feiners who, in the event of a vacuum induced by a sudden British withdrawal from Ulster, might reasonably expect to win an overall majority in an all-Ireland ballot conducted under similar arrangements.

In the past, the Foreign Secretary has raised the spectre of Northern Ireland to dissuade his EC colleagues from allowing their humanitarian concerns over Bosnia to extend to the deployment of troops. By almost acknowledging the military presence in Northern Ireland to have been mistaken, a clear signal has been sent to the IRA about whose resolve will be greatest in the costly but low-level warfare currently taking place there.

Dr O'Brien has long criticised American senators who brand the Northern Ireland conflict as a 'civil war', thus placing the civilian victims of incidents such as the 1987 Enniskillen massacre on much the same footing as the IRA. By insisting that what is happening in Bosnia is a 'civil war', and by dismissing the idea that those who are well-known to be responsible for the worst human rights violations seen in Europe since 1945 should be brought to account, Dr O'Brien attempts to dull our sense of horror and shame at the savagery that is taking place in Bosnia.

Alas, he is far from alone, and if moral indifference or resignation towards a war largely against blameless civilians becomes the norm, then nobody should be surprised when the poison starts to seep into our own backyard.

Yours faithfully,


Department of Peace Studies

University of Bradford


26 February