bosnia report
No. 4 February - March 1994
The Arms Embargo is Immoral
by By Professor Adrian Hastings

It is striking how people attempting to defend the maintenance of the arms embargo, from Dr Owen down, now almost always do so in terms of its ineffectiveness: Why remove the embargo when Bosnia is anyway not short of weapons? The facts are quite otherwise and we need to be quite clear about the facts before we appraise the policy in moral terms.

The embargo was placed by the United Nations Security Council on Former Yugoslavia on 25 September 1991 (Resolution 713) before Bosnia existed as an independent state recognised by the UN. It has never been renewed specifically for Bosnia and it is very doubtful whether, legally, it applies to the Bosnian government at all. In theory it applies to all parties fighting inside the borders of Bosnia as well as to Serbia and Croatia. In practical terms, however, it applies to the government of Bosnia alone.

No one suggests that Serbia or Croatia is short of arms. Neither country has any difficulty in obtaining what it needs. Moreover, Serbia has almost the entire equipment of the former Yugoslav army, a very large and well-equipped army indeed. From the start the arms embargo was quite obviously a device to help ensure that Serbia would win any war it fought within the old territory of Yugoslavia. However, Croatia has bought arms from abroad on a large scale and no one is even pretending to control what it does.

Both Croatia and Serbia are regularly, as the UN admits, passing heavy military equipment across to their proteges within Bosnia, the so-called "Republika Srpska" and "Herceg-Bosna". Thus the two illegal revolutionary bodies within Bosnia both obtain tanks, heavy artillery and helicopters without difficulty, despite the embargo, while the International Community insists upon denying the country's sole legitimate government any such things.

It is quite certainly the arms embargo which is destroying Bosnia. Observers imagined in the summer of 1992, shortly after the beginning of the Serb attack that, without a regular aÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ̼rmy or military equipment, Bosnian resistance would quickly collapse. In fact it has continued for almost two years by the sheer will to survive of its people. They have manufactured small arms, their soldiers far outnumber those of their attackers and they are fighting for their homes, their lives, the survival of their society.

In these circumstances it is inconceivable that, if they were armed in away comparable to the aggressors, they would not be able to drive the Serbs back and force both Serb and Croat to agree to a settlement which ensured the survival of Bosnia in its historic form. On the other hand, while the arms embargo continues, the Serbs have no reason to call a halt. Their aim has all along been to turn as much as possible of Bosnia into a Serbian province, including both Sarajevo and Tuzla. In the end Milosevic and Karadzic remain convinced that their shells and tanks must prove invincible.

The straight case against the arms embargo is, then, first that it grossly favoured the aggressors against the defenders, and illegitimate and violent movements against a legitimate government; second, that without it the aggressors would have been beaten back sufficiently to have realised that they could not achieve their goal of dismembering Bosnia. Without it the war would have ended long ago and countless lives would have been spared. The embargo is directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians.

That is already a moral evaluation as well as a political one, but in moral terms the embargo is also in principle essentially wrong. Every individual and every society has an absolute moral right to self-defence, enshrined in Article 51 of the UN Charter. If a person or community or state is subjected to terrorism, and still more to the threat of genocide, there are and always have been two alternative approaches to their defence, each of which can in some circumstances be justified in moral terms. One or other must be justified.

The first approach, the more "primitive", is for the people who are attacked to arm themselves and strike back. The basic human right to life includes a right to self-defence and all the means necessary to make that effective. However, in the second approach, people give up that right on condition that a higher authority undertakes to protect them and can do so effectively.

Hence the only moral grounds for refusing to allow a community weapons to defend itself is if a higher authority is doing it for them. It is inherently immoral for the UN to enforce an embargo while refusing itself to undertake their defence. To enforce an arms embargo upon a people threatened with genocide and a country threatened with total destruction while not intervening to defend them is not just inherently wicked, it is actually to participate in the crime in question. This is what the government of Ireland and, still more, the government of Great Britain have done and are still doing. Finally any citizen of either country who supports such a policy is also sharing in the sin, the greatest crime against humanity to be committed in Europe since the Holocaust.

Adrian Hastings, a Catholic priest, is Professor of Theology at the University of Leeds. He is one of Britain's most distinguished theologians.


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