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Brendan Simms: Road to Libya runs through Srebrenica

Conservative 'realist' policy decisions handed the Bosnian Serbs an advantage that led to the Sebrenica massacre

Sunday 29 May 2011 00:00 BST

The arrest last week of the former Bosnian Serb supreme commander Ratko Mladic, and his likely extradition to face trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague, is cause for grim satisfaction throughout the western Balkans. It is also an uncomfortable reminder of a particularly terrible moment in British foreign policy. We should never forget that the killings at Srebrenica were the culmination of a three-year campaign of ethnic cleansing, which began in the spring of 1992.

During that period, the Conservative administration of John Major played a pivotal role in persuading the international community not to intervene and in preventing the US from coming to the aid of the legitimate government of Bosnia Herzegovina. The foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd refused to lift the international arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia, arguing in a notorious phrase that this would simply create a "level killing field".

This policy – fully supported by the defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind – disadvantaged lightly-armed Bosnians against the already well-equipped Serbs, and ensured that the victims would have no chance to defend themselves. It was driven not by personal callousness or Islamophobia, but by a "realist" belief that the prevention of ethnic cleansing was not in Britain's national interest.

One way or the other, the policy led directly to the events at Srebrenica in July 1995, when Bosnian Serb tanks overran militias armed largely with shotguns and massacred some 7,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys.

Compounding the offence was the manifest sympathy with which many members of the British forces deployed in Bosnia as peacekeepers regarded the Serb forces generally, and their commander in particular. One senior British commander wrote in his diary shortly after the Srebrenica massacre that Mladic was "an imposing, indeed dominating, figure both physically and in terms of his personality; it was easy to see why his own men adore him and his enemies fear him". The general, he continued, "was charm itself ... We adjourned for some Serb hospitality: a magnificent lunch of barbecued lamb, with the inevitable deluge of plum brandy. I left with a signed photograph of the general."

Another striking picture, this time of the commander of UN Protection Force, General Sir Michael Rose, beaming into the camera with Mladic, adorns the jacket cover of my book Unfinest Hour. Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia. Rose's director of information, Michael Williams, remembers that while meetings with the Bosnian government were short and crisp – reflecting mutual disdain – the "body language" of the British military immediately shifted when they went to see the Bosnian Serbs. He recalls that there was clearly "some sort of general-to-general relationship between Rose and Mladic".

As if all this was not bad enough, Britain spent much of the war trying to sabotage the establishment of the International Criminal Court before which Mladic will be arraigned. This was because London believed that the threat of prosecution might be an impediment to a negotiated peace.

"If the responsibility for these crimes goes as high as I expect," Douglas Hogg, the foreign office minister, told parliament, "we must ask ourselves what is the priority: is it to bring people to trial or is it to make peace?" Likewise, thenumber two at the British mission in New York recalls that underlying London's attitude on war crimes was "a general feeling that at some stage we were going to have to talk to the Serbs. It wasn't going to help very much if all of them were going to be in fear of arrest at the Hague."

The tribunal was eventually set up at US insistence, but only after much British foot-dragging. As Frits Kalshoven, the Dutch head of the Geneva Commission on War Crimes, later remarked "Britain hasn't done anything for us – nothing at all."

In the end, of course, Ratko Mladic and the Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic were both indicted for war crimes by the court, the US pushed through a Nato intervention and the ethnic cleansing eventually came to an end. The whole episode had been a disastrous advertisement for Conservative management of foreign policy, and for the narrow doctrine of "realism" in particular.

To their credit, however, theTories grappled with the legacy of Bosnia in the wilderness years after Tony Blair came to power, and especially after their second and third election defeat in 2001 and 2005. The new generation of Conservative MPs, such as Michael Gove, were outspoken critics of the "amoral equivalency" of their predecessors on Bosnia. There was a palpable shift from the old "realist" focus on the narrow national interest towards a much broader understanding that British security depended on the defence of British values abroad, especially democracy and the prevention of gross human rights abuses.

The concept of "humanitarian intervention" gained considerable traction among the Conservative class of 2005 and 2010. Perhaps most importantly of all, it is known that David Cameron, as his former speechwriter Ian Birrell put it, sees Britain's failure to intervene amid the bloodstained break-up of the former Yugoslavia' as "Conservative foreign policy disaster" rivalling those of Munich and Suez, which showed "that doing nothing can be a fateful choice".

All this led to the decisive initiative of the Prime Minister in March 2010, when he was the first world leader to call for the establishment of a no-fly zone to prevent the Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi from using his aircraft to carry out a threatened massacre of his opponents in Benghazi. Even more remarkably, Sir Malcoln Rifkind, was the most forceful voice arguing not merely for a no-fly zone, but attacks on the heavy weapons being used to bombard civilians in areas held by those resisting the re-imposition of dictatorial rule.

It was not least thanks to these interventions that a coalition of western powers launched an air campaign two months ago, which – for all its imperfections – ensured that the slaughter of Bosnia was not repeated. A lesson has clearly been learned. In that sense, the road to Tripoli runs through Srebrenica.

Professor Brendan Simms is director of the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge, and author of 'Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia'

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