Sending a message to the Serbs

The UN must stand firm against the hostage-takers in Bosnia, says Robin Cook
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The immediate concern of British policy towards the crisis in Bosnia must be to secure freedom for our troops and for those from other United Nations forces held hostage. If we are to achieve that urgent task, and if we are to do so without submitting to the blackmail of the Bosnian Serbs, the international community must demonstrate three qualities which so far have been conspicuously absent from the conduct of our strategy in former Yugoslavia.

The first of these is resolve. The harsh truth is that the Bosnian Serbs seized hostages because similar tactics have worked for them before. This is the first time they have chained their victims and filmed their humiliation, but throughout last year they became increasingly bold in their practice of "guess-tage" - blockading UN units and releasing them in return for concessions.

Serbian outrage that General Rupert Smith carried out his threat to use air power reflects their past experience that such threats were only bluff. The problem for the UN forces on the ground is that every time their bluff was called they lost more of their authority. It will now take resolute effort by the international community to persuade the Bosnian Serbs that the blackmail which has worked for them in the past will not get them what they want this time.

What they want is for Unprofor to go home. That is why talk of withdrawal while our troops are held hostage is so irresponsible. It only serves to convince the Bosnian Serbs that they were right to take hostages in the first place, and that their next step should be not to release their hostages, but to seize some more.

Any advocate of withdrawal must also be prepared to accept the human consequences. These would be grim for the very reason that the Bosnian Serbs want Unprofor to leave, namely that they could resume full-blooded war against the Muslim population. The UN intervened in Bosnia because the domestic populations of its member states could not accept the contradiction of the medieval tactics of starvation by siege brought by modern television technology into their living-rooms. When those pictures return to our screens, the withdrawal school must be willing to explain why they believed we had no business in stopping such barbarity within Europe.

However, withdrawal would also have consequences far beyond Bosnia. It would send a clear signal to any other area of conflict that we will pull out in response to hostage-taking.The effect would be to make it impossible for the UN ever again to deploy lightly armed troops in a peace- keeping role. Far from securing the safety of our troops, withdrawal at present would be a positive incitement to hostage-taking in the future by any army that resented a British or UN presence in any other part of the globe.

The second quality the international community must demonstrate is unity. In military terms, each UN detachment depends on those of the other countries, but that partnership on the ground must be matched by similar co-operation between the diplomats of their nations. There must be no prospect open to the Bosnian Serbs that any part of the international community will recognise their pretensions to an independent statelet, and no promises to Serbia that sanctions will be lifted until they have convinced their Bosnian allies that they must respect the UN mandate.

There is one issue on which the international community must make common cause. As the Red Cross has reminded us, the use of prisoners as human shields is a specific breach of the Geneva Convention. General Ratko Mladic and President Radovan Karadzic must be held personally responsible for the safety of the hostages and warned that, in the event of injury to any hostage, no country will offer them sanctuary from the International War Crimes Tribunal. Terrorism and barbarity will continue in Bosnia as long as the war leaders believe they personally enjoy immunity from any jurisdiction.

The third quality is one which the international community shows little sign yet of acquiring: clarity of purpose. If we have sent mixed messages to the Bosnian Serbs about our resolve, it is in part because we ourselves have been confused as to our purpose in Bosnia.

Unprofor first went in to Bosnia with the limited objective of escorting humanitarian relief columns. That remains their most valuable contribution to the civilian population, more than2 million of whom have depended on the UN for food and fuel in the past two winters. Yet on top of that limited mission, the Security Council at each new crisis has piled fresh mandates, first to keep the peace in parts of Bosnia and then, when there was no peace to keep, to enforce it by threats of reprisals.

At no stage along the extension of Unprofor's mandate has there been an expansion of its strength. When the Security Council declared the six Safe Areas, it voted a mere 60 extra observers. Unprofor is now overstretched and under-resourced. The reinforcements from Britain may be a valuable contribution to filling some of the gaps in Unprofor's capacity, but the government statements so far have suffered from an absence of clarity. It is not clear whether the new forces will be under sole British command or under the joint UN command, nor is it clear whether they are being sent to strengthen our presence or to prepare for its withdrawal.

The worst military outcomes are often the product of muddle. In fairness to our forces on the ground, we must be clear what we want them to do. The UN must not expect them to carry out mandates for which member states are not willing to equip them.

The immediate requirement for a military response to armed blackmail must not obscure the long-term need for a political solution in former Yugoslavia. All the troops we have to spare will not be enough to keep apart the warring parties in Bosnia, so long as they are bent on ethnic confrontation. Stable peace in Bosnia will only come from a settlement which enables its different communities to live in mutual tolerance within a secular, pluralist state.

Confronting the military force of the Bosnian Serbs is to address only the symptoms of ethnic hatred. The missing element in the UN strategy has been a mass propaganda effort, although the high popularity of TV and radio throughout former Yugoslavia could provide a direct means of communication with individual families. If we really want to create the conditions in which UN troops could withdraw with honour, rather than in defeat, then we must first combat the twisted nationalism from which the local warlords draw their power.

The author is Labour's foreign affairs spokesman.