Ritual humiliation at the UN

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The Independent Online
MANY commentators lament the discredit into which the United Nations has fallen over its handling of Bosnia. But falling into discredit from time to time is an important part of the UN's repertoire. One of the things the major powers value it for is its scapegoat role. If leading players - in the present instance, Britain, France and the United States - want to do as little as possible, while sounding as if determined to do a great deal, then it is handy that the ensuing mess should be seen as a failure of the United Nations.

This is far from new. Britain and France made use of the League of Nations in this way during the Abyssinian crisis of 1935. Eisenhower made similar use of the United Nations in the Hungarian crisis of 1956.

The circumstances of those two cases are, however, widely different. Abyssinia was a case in which limited intervention - the closing of the Suez Canal to Italian shipping - could have frustrated the aggressor, and deterred Hitler from remilitarising the Rhineland. The only power which could have done that was Britain, and the British government of the day did not want to do it. Sanctions were voted, the canal remained open, Mussolini annexed Abyssinia, and the failure of the League of Nations was deplored.

The circumstances in the case of Hungary in 1956 were radically different. Intervention over Abyssinia in 1935 could probably have averted the Second World War. Intervention over Hungary in 1956 might well have precipitated the Third. So if Eisenhower used the UN to save his face, while reneging on his own record, humanity has reason to be glad that the UN was there to carry the discredit assigned to it.

The circumstances of Bosnia are widely different from those of Abyssinia in 1935. Here there is no limited form of intervention available that could resolve the crisis, nor is the present crisis anything like so clear-cut as that of 1935. Bosnia 1992 is like Hungary 1956, not in terms of what is at stake, but because in both cases the theatre of the UN is being used for rituals designed for the avoidance of a disastrous military involvement. If a scapegoat role for the UN can help to avoid such an involvement, then indeed that is a useful item in the UN's repertoire.

Yet there is a dangerous difference between the two cases. Eisenhower in 1956 knew what he was about. He had written off Hungary and he used the UN to terminate that transaction, while limiting the damage to his own reputation. The political leaders who have been handling the Bosnian crisis have nothing equivalent to that ruthless clarity of purpose, and their improvisations have been correspondingly lacking in conviction. They want to keep out, but the formulae they devise for that purpose have a tendency to suck them in.

Take the case of the current formula, 'Muslim safe areas', invented last month, and already pathetically incongruous. 'Muslim safe areas' was thought up as a kind of placebo to divert President Clinton from his dreams of air strikes and arming the Muslims - especially the latter. The message was: 'We don't have to arm the Muslims. The UN will protect them.'

But the UN, given its present effectiveness, can't protect them. So the pressure mounts for more UN troops to be sent in. A formula for staying out increases the pressure for going in.

Fortunately (from a non-interventionist point of view) Mr Clinton seems more interested in the problem of litter in Washington DC than in the 'Muslim safe areas'. I have the impression that that most volatile of congregations, the American television audience, is losing interest in Bosnia. Among this week's news events were murders of 'the good guys', the Bosnian Muslims. The white hats and black hats blur into one grey. Time to turn off, for viewers, so the President also does. It is a disquieting instance of the fluctuating power of television over the conduct of international affairs.

Europeans, however, should not indulge sentiments of superiority over the Americans. The Americans have a point when they say that the fate of former Yugoslavia is more a European affair than an American one. And the European handling of all this has been abysmal, especially at the beginning of the crisis.

It is all very well for the UN to take much of the blame, but a far more serious responsibility rests on the European Community and, in particular, on its leading members: Britain, France and Germany.

Germany took the lead, and the others went along, on what they knew to be an imprudent course. As Misha Glenny writes, in a recent article in the New York Review of Books (27 May): 'When the German government announced on December 15, 1991, that it would recognise Croatia unconditionally a month later, it effectively signed the death warrant for Bosnia-Herzegovina.'

The warrant was executed when the independence of Bosnia-Herzegovina itself was recognised, soon after that of Croatia. Because Croats and Muslims together outnumber Serbs in the Bosnian republic, there was a nominal majority in favour of Bosnian independence. Anyone with any sense could see that Bosnian independence would consist of civil war.

But those were the days of democratic triumphalism, after the Wall came down. Democracy was about to triumph everywhere, including Bosnia. So Bosnia became an independent sovereign state deemed to have been invaded by another. The civil war in former Yugoslavia was internationalised by the EC and thereby rendered even more destructive than it need have been.

The civil war is burning itself out, grimly and slowly. But it could have burnt itself out long ago, with fewer horrors, had it not been stimulated by the more or less well-intentioned intrusions of outsiders, especially the portentous and unrealisable Vance-Owen plan, still nominally upheld by the EC.

The UN comes better out of this than the EC. The EC made the civil war worse, but the UN, by accepting temporary and serviceable portions of discredit, has helped to avert what would be worse even than civil war: international military involvement in that civil war.

(Photograph omitted)