The threat the West must make: John Thomson outlines a plan to salvage global security from the wreckage of the Balkans

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The Independent Online
THE TERRIBLE and pathetic history of Bosnia-Herzegovina since the Serb-Croat war broke out in the former Yugoslavia in April 1991 has called into question the effectiveness of the United Nations, the Council for Security and Co-operation in Europe and Nato. The latter's failure is especially grievous, for this organisation brings the two North American powers together with all of western Europe, and if this core cannot co-operate effectively, there must be doubt about the West's cohesion.

All these institutions have been weakened by the success with which the Serbs and Croats have called their bluff. As a result, the assumption that there is some form of collective global security has been undermined, making international chaos a real possibility.

The message from former Yugoslavia is that you can continue infringing territories and rights so long as you do not directly threaten the economic interests of the great powers and are prepared to retreat prudently, but temporarily, when they huff and puff.

The nub of the problem is that Western governments have been unwilling to pay a political or military price to maintain stability and moral standards. They justify their position by pointing to opinion polls, but they have not told the public of the risks involved. Humanitarianism and foreign policy have been muddled and so made the latter hostage to the former. Unfortunately, even the humanitarianism has not been effective, as events in Mostar over the weekend have shown.

One option to remedy the situation would be the use of overwhelming force. The West has the troops, military hardware and resources. However, it lacks the political will. Moreover, it would mock those who died and suffered for so long to send soldiers to Bosnia to enforce a settlement that could have been better achieved a year ago with much less aggression. If we are not to use massive force in Bosnia, the best alternative would be something on the following lines.

The Western powers should consult together and, in the interests of the great institutions on which their security depends - especially Nato and the UN - they should agree on a policy that maximises the effectiveness of these bodies. It should be a policy that exploits Serb and Croat weaknesses.

Nato should withdraw from the area of conflagration all the troops of its members (mainly British and French), irrespective of the effect this could have on humanitarian assistance. Then it should offer to consider invitations from any of the countries bordering Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia to station Nato troops on their territory.

Invitations would be likely from Slovenia and Albania and, possibly, Macedonia. They should be accepted. Invitations might also be forthcoming from Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, but these should probably be refused, at least initially. The size of the forces stationed in Slovenia, Albania and possibly Macedonia should be measured in the thousands rather than in the tens of thousands, but should be enough to constitute a potential fighting force against any border incursions.

These troops would hold a ring around the conflagration rather than actively taking part. However, the Western powers would let the authorities in Belgrade know that unless Allied demands were met, Albanian guerrillas operating in Kosovo would be supplied from Albania and any Serbian attack on Albania would be the signal for a Nato retaliatory attack on Serbia. Kosovo is for historical reasons the totem of emotional Serbian nationalism, but Serbs account for only 10 per cent of its population, the rest being Albanian. A hint of trouble in Kosovo would be felt by the Serbs.

The Macedonian government should be reassured that Nato forces in Macedonia would not encourage Albanian irredentism there and would, on the contrary, attempt to prevent gun-running to Macedonia as well as protecting Macedonia against any Serbian threat.

In taking this action, Nato would seek the blessing of the Security Council. If that was accorded, as seems likely, Nato would operate as a European regional organisation as foreseen in the UN Charter.

Simultaneously, the Security Council would tell the Serb and Croat governments that, since both had infringed the agreement which led to the stationing of the UN Protection Force (Unprofor) in the four areas of Croatia occupied by the Serbs, the force was being withdrawn.

The Allied condition for Nato not supporting an insurgency in Kosovo and for continuing its support for Unprofor in its existing positions should be a fair settlement in Bosnia. The settlement should be along the lines of the Vance-Owen proposal already accepted at one time or another by Serbs, Croats and Muslims, or some variant of the proposals being discussed in Geneva. But, whatever the plan, it would crucially provide a narrow corridor across northern Bosnia, linking Serbia with the Serbs living in Croatia. There would be a time limit for the acceptance of these conditions. Otherwise the actions outlined above would take place. In the latter case the West would have to deliver on its undertakings.

If the Serbs were to accept the proposal there would still need to be a great deal of international activity, but the UN would be in the driving seat, always able to activate the threat that had caused the Serbs to accept the proposals.

If the Serbs rejected the proposals, the likely consequences would be: first, a bloody and bitter ethnic conflict in Kosovo between Serbs and Albanians with the latter supported from the outside in a manner similar to Afghanistan in the Eighties; second, a renewed Serb-Croat war, which is in any case likely; third, a great strain on Serbia politically, economically and militarily as a result of having to fight simultaneously at either end of Serb-held territory; and fourth, a possible need for Nato retaliation against Serb attacks on Albania - although one or two strikes should suffice.

Whether or not the Serbs accepted the proposal, the West would have a policy on which it could unite, Nato a crucial role that involved little risk of fighting, and the authority of the UN would be increased.

Is this a policy that could be applied more generally in the future? The answer is uncertain. No other part of the world has such an effective organisation as Europe has in Nato. Yet success in relation to the Bosnian conflict would enhance all regional organisations and go a long way to forestalling the outbreak of other national or ethnic conflicts in the Balkans.

This policy would revive international institutions. The authority of the Security Council would be upheld and probably enhanced. Nato would have proved its value in the post-Cold War world. The CSCE would be given breathing space in which to grow. The cohesion of the West would be re-established. These achievements will discourage future ethnic conflict and deter those prepared to flout such poor standards of international morality as we have.

Determined action to settle the Bosnian conflict with some respect for the opinions of mankind should be seen not merely as an isolated venture but a major gain worldwide, and especially in the Balkans, for preventive diplomacy.

The writer was British Permanent Representative at the United Nations and ambassador to the Security Council, 1982-87.

(Photograph omitted)