We can, at least, save civilian lives

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, explains why negotiation is still a better option for Bosnia than escalation of the war, or a withdrawal by the West
Click to follow
The Independent Online
We recognised in 1992 that the terrible war in Bosnia was not going to end in total victory for any of the armies. Nor would it burn itself out. Left to itself, it would lead to fearful suffering and might well spread beyond the borders of former Yugoslavia. It started as a civil war, with the Bosnian Serbs egged on and supported by Belgrade. Now that support has been withdrawn. The war continues in some parts of Bosnia. In other parts normal life is resuming.

In theory the international community could have decided to send in a massive ground force to impose and sustain a peace. Neither we, nor any of our allies, were prepared to undertake this imperial role. It would certainly have cost hundreds, if not thousands, of our soldiers' lives. The legions might have had to stay for years.

Or we could have decided to intervene by sending material support, including arms, to one side to help it to win. This was a popular option. But it would have intensified the war, and made it more likely to spread into a wider Balkan conflict, with the United States and Russia on opposite sides. The one certainty of this policy is more bloodshed.

Or we could have done nothing. But in Britain as elsewhere, indifference in the face of such a tragedy seemed inhuman and impossible.

We made a fourth choice. We decided to save civilian lives by supporting the humanitarian aid effort. At the same time we mobilised ideas and pressures for a negotiated settlement. The UN Protection Force (Unprofor) was dispatched; the London Conference set out the basis for a political settlement.

This fourth choice is overwhelmingly supported in Parliament, by our European partners, by the UN Security Council and now by the Clinton administration. We have saved lives, and contained the war. A political settlement still eludes us. But we cannot force the parties to stop fighting.

Our soldiers, as part of the UN force, have done a magnificent job, going beyond the purely humanitarian. Without their work in central Bosnia, the agreement between Bosnian Croats and Muslims would probably have foundered. Our civilian aid workers have been highly effective and brave, bringing food and medicine, restoring gas, water and electricity, saving civilian lives.

Where do we go from here? We have two aims, which we press at the UN, at Nato, in the EU, and in the Contact Group of Britain, France, Germany, the US and Russia.

First, we need to stabilise the situation on the ground. Lt-Gen Sir Michael Rose's efforts have brought striking improvements during the year, especially in Sarajevo and central Bosnia. But in November, the offensive by the Bosnian government cut off theBihac safe area and led to a brutal counter-offensive by the Serbs. Once again the combatants sought military victory. The result was more killing, more ruined towns and villages, but no decisive outcome.

As a result, the position of Unprofor is more fragile. If the risk to our troops becomes unacceptable, or they are unable to do their job, it would be irresponsible for the UN to keep them there. We are not planning to withdraw unilaterally. But it is only sensible that plans for Unprofor to pull out should be kept fully up to date, ready to use if needed.

Our second aim is to move forward to a political settlement. The various diplomatic efforts have been unified. Europe, Russia and the United States now support the same peace plan. That was barely conceivable a year ago.

Our plan would respect the integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which would be made up of two political entities: the Bosnian Federation of Muslims and Croats would have 51per cent of the territory and the Bosnian Serbs 49 per cent, compared with the 72 per cent they now occupy. These principles have gained widespread acceptance.

Both parties want changes to the map we have proposed. We have said that's fine, if they can agree what these should be. Both parties want links with neighbouring countries. We have said that's fine, as long as they are equitable and balanced. The final constitution of Bosnia will obviously have to be agreed by both sides.

It is possible that President Milosevic of Serbia holds the key in making peace, just as he held the key in starting the war three years ago. He is genuinely trying to bring the Bosnian Serbs round. He has seen that only a negotiated settlement will get sanctions lifted and bring the Serbs back into modern Europe.

After the deceits and disappointments of these three years, no one can be optimistic. But there is a sequence of events that could bring peace. First, a ceasefire, initially in Bihac and then throughout Bosnia. This must include freedom of movement for Unprofor and for aid convoys. Second, resumption of negotiations on the basis of the Contact Group plan so that agreement can be reached on territory and the constitution. Third, withdrawal by the Bosnian Serbs to the new agreed lines.

No country present at the last Contact Group meeting called for the arms embargo to be lifted. No country called for strategic bombing. These options still have their supporters. But either would end Unprofor's mission and the peace process, plunging theBalkans into full-scale war. An arms embargo certainly limits the capacity for self-defence. But when it came to the point in September, the Bosnian government did not want the immediate lifting of the arms embargo if that meant the withdrawal of Unprofor - as it certainly would. We could not hold the ring between the two parties while arming one side.

Anger and frustration lead people to argue for simple solutions. This is understandable. Surgical air strikes or the supply of arms sound simple. It is only afterwards that the corpses would be counted.

Those who work for a negotiated settlement and reject solutions that would increase the killing and involve Britain in war are accused of appeasement. Peacemakers are usually criticised unless and until they succeed. We just have to bear this. But "something must be done" is not a policy. I do not meet many people who want the British Army to go to war in the Balkans. There is no just outcome that we can be sure of achieving. But it is right to go on working for the policy we believe has the best chance of bringing a durable peace to Bosnia and bringing this tragedy to an acceptable end.