bosnia report
New Series No: 47-48 September - November 2005
Uncivil War
by Branka Magaš

This article, maintaining that if Labour was serious about defending democracy, it should to get off the fence and argue for lifting the UN arms embargo on Bosnia, was written in June 1995, when the Labour Party was still in opposition and before the Srebrenica massacre, the Bosnian and Croatian offensives in western Bosnia, or NATO’s air strikes on Ratko Mladić’s forces. It is reprinted here following the untimely death of Robin Cook, at the time Labour’s shadow foreign minister, to whom it was addressed.



Addressing the New Statesman & Society ‘New Labour, new world’ conference earlier this month, shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook made a statement rarely heard from leading politicians these days: ‘The principles informing a country's domestic policy must also infuse its policy abroad.’

It has been the glaring disparity between commitment to democracy at home and toleration of fascistic and racialist projects in Bosnia that has inspired much of the criticism of British government policy towards Bosnia. Critics have argued that an approach reduced to bare expediency was bound to fail. If Labour is - for the first time - to come up with an alternative, Cook's message provides an excellent starting point.

Labour's responsibility in Bosnia is enhanced by the disproportionate influence the UK (with France) has exerted on the UN Security Council's handling of the crisis in former Yugoslavia. In May, in the Commons debate on the war in former Yugoslavia, Cook was emphatic: ‘The first priority must be to restore the authority of the UN, because Britain has a profound strategic interest in the future authority of the UN. We are, after all, a permanent member of the Security Council. We cannot claim continuing membership of the Security Council unless we recognise the authority of the UN as one of our strategic interests.’

UN responsibility

Yet the main responsibility for the collapse of UN authority in Bosnia must be laid at the door of the Security Council. By preventing the Bosnian state from defending its territory and population, and by lending its support to the Contact Group plan - which aims to partition the country along ethnic lines created by genocidal action - the Security Council has been actively conniving at the dismantling of a UN member state. I t is difficult to see how the UN will survive such an assault upon its very foundations.

Of the many resolutions concerning Bosnia passed by the Security Council, only Resolution 713 imposing the arms embargo has been defended and enforced, at Britain's insistence, with diligence and alacrity. Self-defence to protect territorial integrity and political independence, however, is the most basic right of any sovereign state, and is codified accordingly in the UN Charter. By maintaining the arms embargo against Bosnia while refusing itself to ensure its protection, the Security Council has not only exceeded its authority but has brought the UN into disrepute. If UN authority is to be restored, the Security Council must stop violating the Charter at its most sensitive point: the right of self-defence

Labour support for the arms embargo challenges most directly the principled approach to politics at home and abroad of which Cook spoke. How can Labour square its commitment to the defence of Britain with the denial of similar rights to another country at the time of its greatest peril? Defence of the arms embargo springs, it seems, from a particular interpretation of Britain's national interest, in which the survival of Bosnia is considered to be of secondary importance.


It is this perception of the unimportance of Bosnia that, in 1992, led John Major to decide that Serbian president Slobodan Milošević should be allowed to seize as much of it as he could hold. Once this decision was taken, it became of the greatest importance to deny that Bosnia was being attacked by Serbia, with the aim of extinguishing it as a state and society. The more territory Bosnia lost to Serbia's proxy army, the more necessary it became to insist on the civil and ethnic nature of a war in which it would, therefore, be wrong to take sides.

The UN failure in Bosnia stems directly from this policy of surrender to, or complicity with, aggression. It is evidently not simply a result of the insufficiently ‘robust’ nature of the mandate under which Unprofor has been operating in Bosnia: the Security Council resolutions that this force was sent to implement were drawn up under the chapter of the UN Charter that explicitly provides for the use of force. The failure came rather from a conscious decision not to implement any of those resolutions (unlike the one relating to the arms embargo, passed before Bosnia's acquisition of independence). Implementation of the Security Council resolutions implied the use of force; force, however, could not be used because this would involve ‘taking sides in a civil war’.

Refusal to ‘take sides’

The policy of not taking sides has been stubbornly maintained, despite the fact that - by recognising the Bosnian state, and the government in Sarajevo as the country's only legitimate representative, Britain has taken sides. But by treating the Bosnian government as a ‘warring faction’ on an equal footing with the rebels in Pale, the British government has watered down the act of recognition and substantially de-legitimised the Bosnian state.

What the policy of not taking sides really means is that Britain's recognition of Bosnia is only temporary: it leaves the door open to its de-recognition. The policy of equivalence between the defenders and the destroyers of Bosnian statehood is thus not just a reflection of the British government’s inconsistency and duplicity: it works directly to the advantage of Bosnia’s enemies. If one looks at how the arms embargo and the policy of equivalence combine on the ground in Bosnia, it becomes evident that the UN failure there did not just happen, but was intended from the start.

Ratko Mladić - promoted to the tank of general by Belgrade in 1992 as a reward for shelling defenceless Croatian cities, and still on Belgrade’s payroll - has been pursuing in Bosnia a military plan code-named Frame, drawn up in early 1991 by men such as Veljko Kadijević, Yugoslavia’s last minister of defence. As Kadijević publicly boasts today, the purpose of the plan was to delineate the borders of a racially pure Greater Serbia. The plan involved breaking up Bosnian territory into isolated enclaves, and using mass terror against the surrounded population: the aim was to force the surrender of the Bosnian government, as a prelude to the annexation of Bosnia.

Although the plan has failed in its main intention, it has succeeded over large tracts of Bosnian territory in exterminating or deporting most non-Serbs who lived there; in isolating and laying siege to other areas, notably cities; and in subjecting their population to severe deprivation.

The ‘safe areas’ - Žepa, Goražde and Srebrenica in the Bosnian east, Tuzla in the northeast, Bihać in the northwest, and Sarajevo itself - have not been taken by Mladić, yet are of the greatest strategic importance. This is why the ‘safe areas’ are also the most dangerous areas in Bosnia today. Unimpeded relief and protection of the besieged areas would weaken Mladić’s war effort; and anything that weakens Mladić’s war effort strengthens the Bosnian government.

Taking Mladić’s side

Implementation of UN resolutions, therefore, in practice means taking sides; the same is true for non-implementation. Britain’s chosen policy of ‘not taking sides’ and not using force amounts, in practice, to taking Mladić’s side. On the ground in Bosnia, London’s professed commitment to UN authority, vested in the Security Council resolutions, collides directly and unambiguously with its own stand on ‘not taking sides’. A way out has been found in emasculation of the Unprofor mandate. Under the pretext of their own soldiers’ safety, Britain and France have redefined it as one of ‘peace-keeping’. Keeping peace when there was none, of course, has been mission impossible.

The UN failure in Bosnia is thus inescapably linked to the British policy-makers’ insistence on the civil nature of the war. When challenged, however, by reference to the abundant evidence of it in fact being a war of aggression from outside - ranging from the electronic integration of Mladić’s air-defence system into the Serbian army’s computers and radar to Radovan Karadžić’s stated war aims - the answer comes back that it is all quite irrelevant.

Thus Malcolm Rifkind, winding up for the government in the Commons debate in May, and Cook speaking at the NSS conference, both declared that how you define the nature of the war in Bosnia is unimportant. For both, what matters is ending it by means of a negotiated settlement between the ‘warring factions’. Just how this is to be achieved, when the war aim one side is to destroy the Bosnian state, while that of the other side is to prevent this from happening, is a mystery indeed. The Conservative government is unlikely to admit that it has pursued the wrong policy over the past four years, at horrific cost to the Bosnian population; it is difficult to understand, however, why Labour should remain committed to this failed enterprise. All the more so since neither Tony Blair nor Robin Cook shares the convenient view that the war was caused by centuries of ethnic hatred.

In the Commons in May, Cook demonstrated a real insight into what could become a positive alternative when he said: ‘The history of the past years is studded with various maps of Bosnia - the Vance-Owen plan, the Owen-Stoltenberg plan and the Contact Group plan. They all have in common the feature of approaching diplomacy by drawing lines on a map. There are dangers with that approach. One danger is that one can legitimize gains made by military conquest. One may even provide an incentive to military aggression. The worst problem is that it accepts that the basic difficulty in Bosnia and in former Yugoslavia is a deep ethnic hostility which can be separated only by a demarcation line... I ask those who argue that the only realistic settlement is to separate the ethnic communities whether they have really taken on board how unrealistic it would be to achieve that in practice.’

The Bosnian test

The answer, of course, is that it can be achieved - but only through genocidal violence, and with Security Council connivance. The question is whether Labour can harmonise its commitment to a democratic and multicultural Britain with a policy that condones the destruction of a pluralist and tolerant Bosnia. Cook spoke passionately in parliament of how Bosnia tests ‘the relationship of Europe to the world of Islam’. Yet ‘the world of Islam’ is also in Europe: about 12 million of its members have become Europeans, and their number could treble within a generation. British Muslims are aware of the implications of Britain’s Bosnia policy. If there is a cross-party consensus that one should not take the side of those who in Bosnia are dying every day resisting the proponents of forced ethnic separation, what value can be placed on those same parties’ commitments to democracy and tolerance at home?

The Contact Group plan, which the Labour Party supports, rewards people responsible for genocide. The plan contains only one fixed provision: ethnic partition of Bosnia, with 49 per cent awarded nominally to the ‘ethnic cleansers’ in Pale, but in reality to Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia.

To be sure, both main British parties pay lip service to Bosnia’s territorial integrity. But that did not stop Douglas Hurd affirming the British government’s preference for a ‘loose union of the Muslim-Croat federation and the Serb regions’ when he spoke in the Commons in May. Quite apart from the fact that these ‘Serb regions’ were before the war not just Serb but also Croat and Muslim, the ‘loose union’ formula spells the end of Bosnia as an integral and independent state. The ‘loose union’ approach involves carving out a new Serbian state from the territory of the existing state of Bosnia. The creation of such a Serbian state contravenes not only international law, but also numerous statements by the European Union, the United States, the UN General Assembly and UN Security Council, insisting on respect for the integrity of Bosnia’s borders.

Is Labour prepared to follow a bankrupt Tory government along this perilous path? The time has come for Labour to admit honestly and openly that an approach based on neutrality between the state and society of Bosnia and its enemies was bound to fail, and deserves to fail. As Britain and other countries contemplate the withdrawal of UN troops from Bosnia, now is the opportune moment to demand that the UN mandate, which foreign soldiers have proved unable or unwilling to implement, should be transferred to those who have a real interest in seeing it put into practice: the government and army of Bosnia.

Let the Bosnia government, internationally recognised as the sole source of legal and political authority in the country, take the responsibility for distributing humanitarian aid to its citizens and for protecting their homes. If the Bosnian government is given the task of restoring UN authority in the area where it is most at stake, then the illegal and morally indefensible arms embargo against Bosnia must be lifted forthwith.

This article was originally published in the New Statesman, 30 June 1995






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