The West dithers while Bosnian Serbs tighten their grip
CALL TO CONSCIENCE
The West dithers while Bosnian Serbs tighten their grip
In more than 25 years representing the northern reaches of Wisconsin in the U.S. Congress, Democrat David Obey has earned bipartisan respect as a stubborn advocate of human rights. A power on the House appropriations committee, he has voted to fund humanitarian programs and to cut off aid to repressive regimes. Two days after Serbian forces in Bosnia overran the UN “safe haven” of Srebrenica on July 11, committing what Obey termed “in essence war crimes” against Bosnian Muslims, he politely interrupted House business for a brief statement “required by conscience.” He then directed a decidedly impolite “four-part message” to Gen. Ratko Mladic and his associates in the Serbian leadership: “You are sick pigs. You are sick pigs. You are an embarrassment to the human race. If the world has any conscience, you will one day be where you belong—in prison—rather than disgracing the military uniform that you wear.”
That, an Obey aide said last week, was all that the congressman had to say publicly for now about Bosnia. It BY CARL MOT TINS was sufficient at the time to summarize
far-reaching fury over the Serbs’ renewed “ethnic cleansing” campaign against Bosnian Muslim citizens and the harassment of UN peacekeeping troops, Canadians among them. But its call to conscience seemed a lament for a lost cause as heedless Western governments dithered while Serbian fighters just as heedlessly advanced.
Death and danger marched through the five UN safe havens of eastern and central Bosnia and enveloped its northwest corner during the hesitations last week in Washington and London. Politicians in lesser capitals, including Ottawa, waited passively for leadership as thousands of Bosnian Muslims fled to temporary safety with nowfamiliar tales of Serbian brutality—summary executions, rapes and the abduction of men and boys to unknown fates.
Beyond Bosnia, much else is endangered and already damaged. The honor of the democracies, for one. America’s world leadership, for another—along with its crusade for human rights in other countries. (Undeterred by its timing’s irony, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution last week calling for pressure on China to reform its rights’ record.) The European Community is divided over Bosnia, as is NATO, with its mandate to police the continent’s security. Above all, the stain of impotence soiled the United Nations in its 50th anniversary year. In one of its earliest acts, the United Nations committed itself in 1948 to both prevent and punish genocide. The world organization has fallen into deep disrepute following its failures to halt internecine warfare in Somalia and genocidal slaughter in Rwanda, and now Bosnia.
Margaret Thatcher was one among many commentators to decry the world’s inaction. As Britain’s Churchillian former prime minister observed recently in the House of Lords: “There are many potential aggressors looking at and learning from what is happening in
Bosnia, waiting to see whether they would get away with it.”
By late last week, at strategy talks in London, the North Atlantic democracies faced a challenge from France for action in Bosnia under commitments to construct a more humane world order. Three years of half measures, and recent days of transatlantic dickering, preceded the meeting of defence and foreign affairs ministers from countries with UN peacekeeping forces either in Bosnia or otherwise
involved. Prior promises by the United States, Britain and France to protect Muslim civilians and UN soldiers—both from present danger and in any future retreat—propelled the major NATO powers towards a military response.
But the U.S. and British leaders rejected the French proposal to send in an Anglo-French ground force— aboard American transport helicopters and supported by U.S. helicopter gunships—to stop and even roll back the Serbian assault on the UN havens. The American line was that Jacques Chirac, president of France for barely two months, was grandstanding—assuming the moral high ground in the knowledge that President Bill Clinton would not budge from his refusal to endanger U.S. ground troops, including helicopter support crews. Clinton and Prime Minister John Major—similarly wary of reinforcing British soldiers under UN command—opted for heavier NATO air force action to deter the Serbs. The planners also raised the idea of using European force to ensure a supply route to the beleaguered Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, a UN-designated Muslim haven.
Left in doubt was how well such measures would deter Ratko Mladic’s force in its current campaign near Bosnia’s border with Yugoslavia, the largely Serbian rump of the Yugoslav federation that splintered in 1991—and which continues to sustain Mladic’s army. Also in question was whether the combatants—both Mladic’s Serbs and lately also the mainly Muslim Bosnian government army—would desist from harassing, disarming and taking hostage bluehelmeted soldiers of the multinational UN force.
On the answers rest the reputations of the outside pow| ers and their leaders. Their honor is already tainted. Shift§ ing and bickering, unable or unwilling to articulate a I greater global purpose in combating inhumanity in Bosnia, 9 the governments involved have seemed cowed by cont; ceras that exposing their soldiers to danger in a distant u cause might damage their political fortunes at home. Domestic politics figured prominently in Clinton’s latest Bosnia policy line. Having already committed U.S. soldiers to help British and French troops protect the possible withdrawal of UN forces and their equipment, Clinton further displayed his determination to keep American infantry out of harm’s way by fighting off demands in Congress to get the United Nations out promptly. Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, Clinton’s potential Republican rival for the presidency in 1996, finally agreed to postpone until this week a vote on his plan to couple a UN retreat with the supply of arms to the largely Muslim
Bosnian government army—in defiance of a UN boycott. Dole’s plan is a particular political embarrassment to Clinton because it is essentially the same policy that the Democrat president espoused during his 1992 election campaign.
The Republican majority in Congress, supported by a contingent of Democrats, is not alone in contending that the UN soldiers are both ineffectual and—when used by the Serbs as hostages to deter NATO air strikes—a hindrance. The Bosnian government is also demanding the United Nations’ withdrawal from the battlefield.
Even the military acronym of the UN Protection Force, UNPROFOR, bespeaks its unworkable mandate. The UN troops are not to be pro one side nor for the other—even in order to prevent the violation of agreed truces, arms boycotts and safe havens. That emasculates the usual UN peacekeeper’s role as carried out on such earlier operations, as in Cyprus and other battlefields of civil strife. Without the orders, numbers or weapons to enforce ceasefires and care for victims in the cross fire— even to save themselves from capture—the soldiers in UN blue helmets in Bosnia are exposed to humiliation or worse.
The Bosnian government delivered the ultimate insult last week in expressions of contempt for an organization that accepted it as a member in its national infancy three years ago. The government army, mimicking its Serbian enemies, humiliated UN protectors by seizing their weapons and threatening in one case to use the captives as shields against Serbian aggression. Almost simultaneously at a Washington news conference, Bosnian Foreign Minister Muhamed Sacirbey declared that “the UN mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina is at an end,” effectively, if not officially. As “a clumsy reminder of the United Nations’ failure,” he added, the peace force of some 25,000 soldiers should get out by November at the latest.
In the twisting international debate on just what to do in Bosnia, there is no lack of advice from politicians. Much of it eclipses the cruel and dehumanizing realities in Bosnia by a pitch to the parochial electorate.
Newt Gingrich, for one, espouses the notion that U.S. air supremacy should settle the situation by scare power. First, says the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Washington tells its allies to get out. Then, the U.S. President orders the Serbs to cease fire or “we’re going to break you and we’re going to do it in three days.” Meanwhile, Americans arm and train Bosnian Muslims in a nearby country. If they still cannot win, the U.S. pulls out because “we can’t make a state in the Balkans.”
On the other side of the argument, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev questions whether the West is willing to “really fight a war, and not just play on high moral ground and public opinion.”
Serbian commander Ratko Mladic thinks not. “Based on their experience in the wars from Vietnam to today,” he said in a recent interview in Bosnia, “the Western countries have learned they cannot recruit their own children to realize goals outside their homelands.”
But in fact, since Vietnam, the United States has despatched its “children” in pursuit of goals to Lebanon and Grenada, Panama, Somalia and Haiti. Thatcher, in 1982, sent young Britons to fight in the Falkland Islands. In 1990 and 1991, U.S. forces were joined by the youth of the countries now engaged in Bosnia, and many others, to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. But oil was a goal in that crusade. Principle and human rights seem to rank below commercial interests when it comes to rescuing a people from its agony. □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.