The Bosnian crisis prompts threats from NATO

June 12 1995


The Bosnian crisis prompts threats from NATO

June 12 1995



The Bosnian crisis prompts threats from NATO

They buried their dead before dawn in Tuzla last week. In the central Bosnian “safe area,” where 71 Muslim civilians had been slaughtered by Bosnian Serb artillery fire a few days earlier, funerals took place before the sun came up as a precaution against more shelling from the gunners surrounding them. The threat may have been real, but the fate of the Bosnian Muslims was almost an afterthought for the international community. Instead, Canada and its allies focused on the embarrassing incarceration of 377 United Nations peacekeepers, taken hostage by the Bosnian Serbs in retaliation for NATO air strikes on their positions. And amid the diplomatic parlays and emergency debates, political leaders struggled to do something— anything—to halt the Balkans’ slide into further chaos.

Chaos it was. Bosnian Serbs detained and freed peacekeepers at will and declared all previous agreements with the United Nations null and void. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic threatened to turn Bosnia

into “a butcher shop” if any attempt was made to free the hostages by force. What is more, the Bosnian Serbs courted a direct confrontation with the United States by shooting down a patrolling U.S. F-16 fighter plane, touching off a massive air and sea search operation for the missing pilot. That increased the prospects of greater U.S. involvement to assist the beleaguered UN effort, although it appeared unlikely Washington would commit ground troops.

The allies’ most pressing task was to secure the release of all the hostages. By the weekend, Bosnian Serbs had delivered 120 of the captive peacekeepers, including 42 of the 55 detained Canadians, out of the battle zone, to the Serbian capital of Belgrade. Late Saturday they flew to Zagreb, Croatia, the UN operation’s headquarters. But many of the remaining 257 were still scattered in small groups across Bosnia, and UN commanders did not even know the exact whereabouts of many of them. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic promised French President Jacques Chirac in a telephone call that the others would be


released “very quickly.” Bosnian Serb officials, however, were saying they wanted to see a goodwill gesture from the West before letting them go.

Complicating matters, the Bosnian Serbs stole six white-painted UN tanks and 37 of the peacekeepers’ armored vehicles, making it easier for them to manoeuvre with impunity. They also sent a death threat by fax to Alexander Ivanko, a Russian spokesman for the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), who had accused the Bosnian Serbs of behaving like “terrorists.”

The Bosnian Serbs’ willingness to take UN soldiers hostage—and to detain them in ammunition dumps and other potential military targets—effectively took air strikes out of the West’s arsenal. U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher bravely insisted that air power “remained an option.” But no one else had the stomach to see what the Bosnian Serbs would do next if the bombers flew again. “Every time there are any air strikes, there is retaliation,” said Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet, who adopted a policy of speaking softly and carrying a small stick at a NATO meeting in Noordwijk, Netherlands, last week.

Furious British and French governments used the occasion to bolster their peacekeeping forces by sending more soldiers to the region—accompanied by tanks, artillery pieces and helicopters. On the weekend, 15 NATO and European defence ministers meeting in Paris agreed to establish a “rapid reaction force” of 9,000 to 10,000 troops, primarily British and French, to go to the aid of embattled UN peacekeepers in Bosnia. As for potential U.S. involvement beyond its current provision of aircraft for NATO bombing raids, Defence Secretary William Perry ruled out the use of American troops in Bosnia, except as a last resort to aid any retreat of UN peacekeepers. That was in line with comments from President Bill Clinton, who talked early in the week of possible U.S. troop involvement, but by week’s end was . taking a more cautious approach.

For Canada’s part, Ouellet said he was putting his faith in negotiation. “We are hoping that those detained will be released,” he said. “We ask the Serbs to release them.” Ouellet stressed that Ottawa would not send reinforcements to the region—nor was it planning to participate in any dramatic rescue attempt. “We don’t want to escalate a process that could lead to a loss of life,” he said.

The Canadian hostage dilemma began on May 26 when, in retaliation for NATO air strikes, Serbs captured and chained 32-year-old Capt. Patrick Rechner to a post at an ammunition dump near Pale, headquarters of the Bosnian Serb army, to act as a human shield. Capt. Ryan LaPalm, 41, of Trenton, Ont., was also confined to his quarters by Serbian forces on the outskirts of Sarajevo. By June 2, another 41 Canadians were being held in a school gymnasium in the town of Hijas, 15 km northwest of Sarajevo, while 12 peacekeepers were being allowed to continue their duties—but under Bosnian Serb military police guard—at three observation posts and a checkpoint on the Serbian-held side of the Bosna River, northwest of Sarajevo.

Both Chief of Defence Staff John de Chastelain and Defence Minister David Collenette stressed last week that defence department officials had been in contact with the Canadian hostages, and that they seemed to be in no immediate danger. Still, the crisis reopened a heated debate about Canada’s role in the former Yugoslavia. Ten Canadian

peacekeepers have been killed and more than 50 others seriously injured since the civil war began in 1991. And during an emergency House of Commons debate last week. Reform party Leader Preston Manning called for an immediate pullout from Bosnia. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien countered that his government remained firmly committed to the mission, while favoring tougher UN rules of engagement that would discourage acts of aggression against peacekeepers. “Millions of people living in that region are very grateful that Canadian people are there when they are needed to save lives,” the Prime Minister said.

That Canada did not share the more bellicose sentiment of its allies was just one minor difference in a clouded, confused, discordant international response to the crisis. Canada, whose soldiers first opened the humanitarian lifeline to Sarajevo in 1992, is no longer a major player in the Balkans mess, and Canadian officials say that suits Prime Minister Jean Chrétien just fine. Foreign affairs department polling has shown a steady drop in popular support for the Bosnian mission, and Chrétien appears determined to avoid any domestic clamor for a unilateral withdrawal before he hosts the G-7 summit this month in Halifax. “Our instructions are to be good corporate citizens, and not to play the maverick,” said one Canadian official in Europe. ‘We are back to a world of big power politics, and that is not kind to nations like Canada. We are just another troop contributor now, and no one is asking our opinion.” The Chrétien government’s determination to keep a low profile was apparent during the two-day Noordwijk NATO gathering. In fact, before meeting Canadian reporters on the second day of the session, Ouellet sent word through his staff that he did not even want to answer questions on Bosnia. The minister later relented, but his tone remained conciliatory towards those who held Canadian troops prisoner. Only three months ago, Ottawa branded Spanish fishing crews who dared take too many turbot as “environmental criminals” and “pirates,” and authorized patrol boats to fire shots across their bow. But when asked if he would characterize the Bosnian Serbs as “the bad guys” for using peacekeepers as human shields, Ouellet dispassionately reaffirmed Ottawa’s refusal to take sides in the Bosnian war. “No,” he said. “It is not enhancing any cause to say these are the good guys and these are the bad guys.”

Others were less reticent. The Contact Group (consisting of representatives of the United States, Germany, France, Britain and Russia), which is responsible for finding a diplomatic solution to the war, met in emergency session in The Hague and warned that Bosnian Serb leaders would be held “personally accountable” for the hostages’ safety. And after weeks of speculation that French troops might pull out of Bosnia entirely, recently elected President Jacques Chirac sent a naval task force to the Adriatic Sea, and floated the idea of using force to punch through the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo.

Western leaders took pains to insist that sending a more robust force to Bosnia was not simply a smoke screen to get enough firepower into place to cover a UN pullout. They also rejected a 40-page report issued last week by UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali that argued for scaling down UNPROFOR’s size and mandate. If countries like Britain and France want to take a tougher line, said Boutros-Ghali, they should do it on their own. But UN influence over events in Bosnia is declining, and UNPROFOR is now little more than a fig leaf for the big powers. Bosnia has clearly become a stomping ground for their clashing interests: American sustenance for the beleaguered Bosnian government, Russian support for their Serbian brethren, and German backing for their traditional Croatian allies. History is not an academic exercise in the Balkans—and the combatants, especially the Serbs, cunningly exploit those differences.

There was irony in the fact that NATO and Russian foreign ministers took their big-power politics to a Dutch town last week. It was a 17thcentury Dutch jurist, Hugo Grotius, the father of modem international law, who outlined the differences between “just” and “unjust” conflicts,

and proposed punishment for those who waged “immoral” wars.

The parties who assembled along a Dutch beachfront to debate the Bosnian bonfire were the same ones who invoked the spirit of Grotius to turn back Iraq’s illegal occupation of Kuwait in 1991.

Since that one brief moment, however, the Machiavellian instinct has returned to international politics with a vengeance, underscoring the fact that competing national interests leave little room for concerns about morality.

In that respct, the Bosnian dilemma represents a crossroads.

It asks whether the international community will continue trying to extend the rule of law, or whether the world will regress into medieval barbarity in which marauding warlords call the shots.

“There are some sophisticates in the British Foreign Office who believe that the next casualty of this conflict will be international law itself,” says John Keegan, widely regarded as Britain’s leading military historian.

Just across town from the site of the Contact Group’s meeting in The Hague is the United Nations’ best hope for upholding the rule of law in Bosnia. It is the headquarters of the United Nations’ war crimes tribunal, which is investigating claims that Serbian, Muslim and Croatian soldiers broke international conventions during the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia. The tribunal has already filed charges against 22 Serbs, none of them high-ranking officers. But Graham Blewitt, the tribunal’s Australian deputy prosecutor, acknowledges that the court’s credibility depends on it being able to bring charges against all leaders who ordered or failed to stop the commission of war crimes.

In fact, Blewitt says charges will be laid within months against Karadzic and his senior military official, Gen. Radko Mladic, which would effectively make the two Bosnian Serb leaders prisoners of

their self-declared rump state— they would be subject to arrest if they left Bosnia. The prospect of such indictments enrages the Bosnian Serbs. “The Bosnian Serbs regard themselves as modem people, as intelligent, educated Europeans who are getting a raw deal,” says Keegan. “Like the Irish, they are a people who believe that history has dealt them a dirty deal, and they violently object to their leaders being treated as war criminals.”

Some observers say that the war crimes indictments have already hardened Bosnian Serb attitudes, and contributed to a recent increase in shelling. Certainly, the tribunal’s hunt for war criminals is making the Contact Group’s diplomatic task harder. Their strategy is aimed at splitting Serbia’s Milosevic from the Bosnian Serbs by offering to lift economic sanctions against Serbia, imposed when war broke out in the Bosnia in 1992, in return for the president recognizing the borders of his Croatian and Bosnian neighbors. But Milosevic, too, risks being charged as a war criminal. It was his welldocumented plan for a Greater Serbia, after all, which sparked the latest Balkan war.

Whether ending Milosevic’s pariah status will reduce the fighting in Bosnia is an uncertain scenario, at best. Unwilling to muster the kind of international consensus for action that rolled back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the international community has settled for muddling through in Bosnia, for making threats without a corresponding willingness to use force, for compromising on principle in a desperate attempt to cut a deal with a possible war criminal. In that regard, even with the exceptional hostage-taking and apocalyptic threats from all sides, last week was much like any other in the lengthening history of this dirty war. □