Tribune leader, 23 April 1993
Labour’s official response to the past week’s public outcry over Bosnia has not been enough. Belatedly realising that the public mood has changed, the party has thrown the smallest of scraps to those coiling for military intervention to protect the beleaguered Balkan republic from Serbian (and, increasingly, Croat) aggression.
Jack Cunningham, the shadow Foreign Secretary, told the House of Commons on Monday that the United Nations Security Council should issue an ultimatum to the Serbs, who should guarantee safe passage to refugees, agree to a permanent ceasefire and sign the Cyrus Vance-David Owen plan for the cantonisation of Bosnia. If they do not, in Mr Cunningham’s words, “the Security Council should consider authorising a punitive air strike against the Serbs’ supply lines in Bosnia”.
That was the scrap. But, in the same speech, Mr Cunningham also explicitly ruled out Labour support for lifting the embargo on supplying arms to Bosnia and said that he could not see “any sensible or legitimate argument” for intervention by ground forces. As Mr Cunningham should know, this is a cop-out.
On one hand, the Vance-Owen plan, far from being a means of ending the war in Bosnia, is actually encouraging the Serbs and Croats to grab what land they can: it should be abandoned at once.
On the other, it is clear that, alone, air strikes on Serbian supply lines will do little to halt the relentless advance on Bosnia, let alone reverse it. The lifting of the arms embargo and military intervention by ground forces in defence of Bosnia are both essential if the country is to survive.
Of course, there are risks in both courses of action but these have been deliberately exaggerated by their opponents. Those who talk of the danger that arming Bosnia will simply give Russia the excuse to step up its support for the Serbs conveniently forget that the west has plenty of ways to stop Russia from doing any such thing, not least the cessation of aid.
Similarly, the argument that intervention by ground forces would need too many troops is a weak one. The number of ground troops that ‘most military experts agree would be required for the effective defence of Bosnia is 50,000 or so. That sounds a vast number until one remembers that the United States alone contributed 400,000 fighting troops to the international coalition assembled in 1990-91 to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.
In other words, the problems that the west has with sending in ground troops and lifting the arms embargo are not essentially logistical but political: western governments, led by the British and French, simply do not have the will to defend Bosnia, a sovereign state recognised by the United Nations.
By accepting nine-tenths of the arguments used to excuse hand-wringing inaction, Mr Cunningham has let down his party as well as the people of Bosnia.