Letter: Time is running out for hundreds of thousands of Bosnian Muslims

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The Independent Online
Sir: The war in Bosnia is not about that small country alone. Its outcome will influence the whole of Europe, and determine whether our continent is once again to be disfigured by territorial aggression, 'ethnic cleansing' and the brutal warfare of the past. The alternative is to make a determined stand to defend those democratic and humanitarian principles upon which we have based the last half century of peace.

Since the outbreak of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina eight months ago, the EC and the wider international community have failed to formulate a decisive and united policy. The steps taken were often half measures. As such, they consistently failed to act as a deterrent to Serbian nationalist forces in Bosnia and their sponsors in Belgrade.

The embargo on Serbia was put in place without proper provision or serious attempt to enforce it, and has been systematically broken by a number of countries. The oil flows daily to Serbia, whence it is sent to the front lines in Bosnia. While the embargo was a justified and valid attempt to halt the war, it has clearly failed in its aim. The war rages on, threatening to spill into as yet untouched parts of former Yugoslavia and beyond. The time has surely come to face the facts, however unpleasant, and to resort to more forceful measures, under UN auspices, to end the terror and suffering inflicted on civilians, and to prevent an all-out conflict in south-eastern Europe.

We must enforce the no-fly zone imposed by the UN on all unauthorised military flights over Bosnian territory. Hitherto, it has been violated with impunity. As a result, arms and troops have been ferried by Belgrade to Bosnian Serbs whenever the Bosnian government forces have managed to exert pressure on their front lines, thus ensuring the continuation of the Serbian offensive.

Some claim that any such enforcement would endanger troops on the ground. This, while a tangible risk, can be minimised - first, by stern warnings to all combatants about any attacks against the UN peace-keeping forces; and second, by swift punitive measures should such attacks take place.

But in the face of the imminent catastrophe this winter, when between 100,000 and 400,000 civilians are expected to die of exposure alone, the most important and urgent need is to ensure that military protection is given to these innocent victims of the war. The safe haven policy, so often enunciated by Western governments as a desirable goal, must now be enforced.

A protective line should be drawn around the two million people trapped in the conflict, exhausted and nearing starvation. It must be made clear to all sides that any attack upon civilians across that line will be regarded as an attack upon the UN itself, and responded to accordingly.

The establishment of safe havens is neither an ideal nor a long- term solution to the present tragedy. But it can afford immediate relief to the populations under attack and provide a breathing space in which the Geneva negotiations can be resumed with a greater sense of purpose. In the longer term, consideration could be given to providing the Bosnian defence forces with their own means of self-defence. The arms embargo has so far only managed to accelerate the Serbian offensive in Bosnia, by giving Serbs a disproportionate military advantage.

Western governments have tried to end this conflict through negotiation. That they have failed is not entirely their fault. But if we halt now, while having other and more effective means at our disposal, we will be most certainly at fault, and future generations will write of us as we write of the appeasers of the Thirties. We must act while it is still not too late.

Yours faithfully,

CALUM MacDONALD, CHRIS MULLIN, JOHN HOME ROBERTSON, MAX MADDEN, MALCOLM WICKS, MIKE O'BRIEN, NORMAN GODMAN (Labour MPs); PATRICK CORMACK, WINSTON CHURCHILL, IVAN LAWRENCE, TIM RATHBONE (Conservative MPs); MENZIES CAMPBELL (Lib Dem MP); DAVID TRIMBLE (Ulster Unionist MP)

House of Commons

London, SW1

16 December

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