bosnia report
No. 9 February - March 1995
In Lieu of an Editorial
by Mark Almond, Adrian Hastings, Branka Magas, Noel Malcolm, Norman Stone

To lift or not to lift the arms embargo is the central decisive question facing Western policymakers on Bosnia. The American decision to stop enforcing the embargo, and the Serbian advance on Bihac which depended on a massive superiority in heavy weaponry, have brought it back into the headlines. But in reality this issue has been decisive all along. The arms embargo has underpinned the entire structure of Western policies that have so significantly failed to halt the war: the hamstrung United Nations operation, the fiction of "safe areas", the so-called peace process - a process for offering the Serbian aggressors more and more of what they demand.

Defenders of the arms embargo, such as Britain's defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind, like to say that the difference between British and American policy arises because the British, having troops on the ground in Bosnia, have a better knowledge of the facts. The truth is that those divergent attitudes to the embargo are based not so much on differences in knowledge as on different preferences about the future of Bosnia itself. Those who defend the embargo wish Bosnia to be divided; those who call for the lifting of the embargo wish Bosnia to survive within its historical and internationally recognized borders as a viable, sovereign state.

Why have the British and the French governments pushed so hard for a policy that will guarantee the destruction and permanent division of Bosnia? Underlying this policy have been three things. The first was their belief that one large state in the area was better than a number of small states. Once it was clear that Yugoslavia could not be preserved, their support switched to the establishment of a Greater Serbia. The second was a traditional sympathy for Serbia as an ally from one world war and for "Yugoslavia" as an ally from the other. British diplomacy reacted positively to Serbia and Belgrade, with which they were well acquainted, and negatively to Croatia, smeared as somehow a continuation of the fascist Ustasha state. Bosnia, meanwhile, remained unknown. The third was the notion, already being disseminated in June 1992, that the Serbian forces had successfully seized so much of Bosnia in the first weeks of the war that a fait accompli had been created which the international community would never be able to reverse. The only way to achieve peace, therefore, was to accept the substance of the Serbian demands.

The fatal mistake here was to underestimate the tenacity and determination of Bosnians to support their legitimate government and defend the pluralist unity of their country. That refusal to accept defeat has, from an early stage in the war, been the real obstacle to the fulfilment of the British-French policy in Bosnia. And while Lord Owen, Douglas Hurd and Alain Jupp‚ have exerted more and more diplomatic pressure on the Bosnian government to acceptÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ̼ "realities on the ground", it has become more and more important for them to maintain the embargo, which keeps those realities artificially fixed where they are. Maintaining this policy has required a great effort on the part of the British and French governments. They have had to work hard to oppose all the legal, moral and practical arguments which cry out in favour of lifting the embargo.

The legal argument is clear. This embargo was not imposed on Bosnia; it was applied in September 1991 to the whole of Yugoslavia, which still functioned theoretically as a single state. In April 1992, Bosnia was recognised as an independent country, and in May it was admitted to the United Nations as a new member state, distinct and separate from Yugoslavia. The only basis for continuing to apply the embargo as if old Yugoslavia still existed was a report submitted to the Security Council by the UN Secretary General on 4 January 1992, which said that in the opinion of Cyrus Vance this would be the best thing to do. Such a flimsy legal basis can hardly prevail against the fundamental right of self-defence of a sovereign state - a right which the UN embargo clearly violates. That right is set out in Article 51 of the UN Charter, but it is quite false to suppose that it is a privilege handed out to member states by the United Nations, which it therefore can withdraw when it so wishes. Self-defence is a fundamental right in international law, predating the United Nations.

The moral argument is based on the view that the Bosnian state embodies values - of democracy, pluralism and legitimacy - which are worth defending. Since Western governments will not use their own troops to preserve the Bosnian state, they must allow the Bosnian army to act unhindered in defence of that state and the values it stands for. This war is not a clash between two mirror images of ethnic hostility. It is a conflict between two different versions of society: one based on the continuation of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious life through democratic institutions, and the other based on racial-religious purity, established by mass murder, mass expulsions and the destruction of religious and cultural monuments.

Spokesmen for the British-French policy always fail to mention that the government of Bosnia has retained Croat and Serb members throughout the war. It is quite false to talk about Radovan Karadzic (who, in any case, is not Serb by nationality) as if he represented "the Serbs" en bloc. Of the 1,300,000 Serbs who lived in Bosnia before the war, only 600,000 now live in the territory which Karadzic controls - even though his forces took over not only the Serb-majority areas, but many other areas besides. Roughly 200,000 Serbs still live in the territory controlled by the Bosnian government. In Tuzla, Serbs have even formed a special brigade of Serbs within the Bosnian army. And of the hundreds and thousands of Serbs who have sought refuge abroad, a significant proportion are appalled by what has been done in their name.

In this context, it is particularly wrongheaded to argue that establishing Bosnia as an independent state was wrong because the state was bound to be "seen as artificial by so many of its inhabitants"1. How many is so many? The majority of Bosnians voted for independence in the referendum, and the reason why many Serb-majority areas did not vote was that Karadzic's henchmen had stopped the ballot boxes from entering those areas. Fewer than 100,000 men, mainly soldiers under orders, took part in the military operation, directed by a neighbouring state, which carved out the bulk of Karadzic's territory in April and May 1992. Many of them were Serbs from outside Bosnia.

The practical arguments for lifting the embargo are also serious and compelling. Even Lord Owen has begun recently to recognize that no "peace plan" will be accepted by the Serbian side until at least a balance of power has been created on tÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ̼he ground. If the Serbian attack on Croatia in 1991 ended after six or seven months, it was largely because a balance of power was developing (thanks to improved supplies of weaponry to the Croatians) in which further aggression had become too costly. Karadzic still has no such incentive to come to the negotiating table.

Defenders of the embargo usually make two claims: first, that lifting it would lead to a terrible escalation of the fighting, and second, that the Bosnian army has plenty of weapons already. The second claim, which blatantly contradicts the first, has become the favourite line taken by British government briefings.

It is strange to hear an embargo defended above all on the grounds that it does not work. But the truth is that it does work, in the absolutely crucial area of heavy weaponry. As the Bosnian army breakout round Bihac and its subsequent collapse have shown, the Serbian forces may be vulnerable to infantry warfare on a wide front, and they may nowadays need more time to move their heavy weaponry around; but once they have concentrated it in any particular counterattack, their massive superiority in firepower virtually ensures success.

As for the argument that lifting the arms embargo would create a bloodbath and "only prolong the fighting", this is radically misconceived. The Bosnian government is not a mirror image of Karadzic's regime: the mass murder of civilians is not one of its military objectives. Serb villages in reconquered areas of Herzegovina live peacefully now under the protection of the Bosnian state. It is true that, if the embargo were lifted, the level of fighting between the two armies would increase in the short term. But the result, after some significant defeats of the Serbian forces, would be to bring long-term peace much sooner to all the people of Bosnia.

When the Bosnian government asked last October for a delay in implementing any decision to lift the embargo, it was not repudiating the policy itself. It was merely recognizing that, as a direct result of the policy pursued by Western governments so far, huge practical difficulties had been created which would necessitate a period of preparation.

The worst problem is that of the so-called safe areas, enclaves in which tens of thousands of civilians are kept in effect as hostages by Karadzic's forces. In some cases (Zepa and Srebrenica), the local Bosnian government forces have had their weapons confiscated by the United Nations. This presents a remarkable contrast with the "UN Protected Areas" in Croatia, where large armed forces were actively built up by the Serbian military authorities, under the noses of the United Nations, before being unleashed in the attack on the Bihac enclave.

The West has helped to create these "safe areas" and, having helped to prevent the Bosnian army from defending them, it has publicly accepted responsibility for their protection. Security Council Resolution 836 authorized the UN Protection Force to use force "in reply to bombardments against the safe areas by any of the parties or armed incursions into them or in the event of any deliberate obstruction in or around these areas to the freedom of movement" of the UN force "or of protected humanitarian convoys". On each of these counts, the UN Protection Force has failed consistently to carry out its mandate.

When the embargo is finally lifted, it will become more necessary, not less, for the United Nations to ensure that this mandate is enforced. NATO should be enabled to give full and effective protection to those areas from the air. It is both essential and entirely right that any policy of "lift" should include a policy of "strike", as President Clinton previously proposed.

The British-French strategy, which has dominated Western policy for two and a half years, has been both unethical and completely unsuccessful. Only through an enormous exercise in deceit has it lasted as long as it has. IÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ̼t is time that the US government ceased to allow either its own policy or that of the United Nations to be hijacked by London and Paris, and made to serve a strategy wholly inconsistent with the ideals of democracy and pluralism on which the United States itself was built.

Mark Almond is tutor in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford, and author of Europe's Backyard War.
Adrian Hastings was until recently professor of theology at Leeds University.
Branka Magas is author of The Destruction of Yugoslavia.
Noel Malcolm is author of Bosnia: A Short History.
Norman Stone is professor of modern history at Oxford University.

This article was published in the International Herald Tribune on 29 November 1994, in response to:
1Prevent a Return to All-Out War in ex-Yugoslavia, by Adam Roberts, John Chipman, Philip H. Gordon and Mats Berdal, International Herald Tribune, 16 November 1994.


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