New Statesman & Society leader, 22 April 1994

The west’s response to the Serb assault on the supposedly UN-guaranteed “safe area” of Gorazde has been pusillanimous even by the execrable standards of the past two years. Instead of treating the Serbs’ actions as a declaration of war on the international community, which is what they are, the western “powers” have merely wrung their hands.

Nothing epitomises this better than the miserable excuses for failing to act offered by the British Defence Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, in the House of Commons on Monday. He had little option but to speak on Bosnia before the House: British servicemen had been killed, and it would have been very bad form indeed if some sort of statement offering condolences to their grieving relatives had not been read out. Not that a full debate was justified, of course – that would have meant Rifkind doing more than repeating the same old smug, dishonest answers to questions fired at him by opponents.

And were his answers smug and dishonest! Rifkind spewed out the whole gamut of distortions that have legitimised western appeasement of Serbian aggression for two years. He described the war there as a “civil war”, the combatants as “warring factions”. “Each of the factions is seeking to grab as much territory as possible,” he droned.

To critics calling for UN or Nato intervention to stop the Serb aggression, Rifkind asserted bluntly that such intervention would require a massive and permanent deployment of ground forces. “There are about 200,000 heavily armed Serbs, Croats and Muslims who are fighting each other,” he explained. As for lifting the UN arms embargo on Bosnia, well, that “would require the repeal of the Security Council resolution” banning the supply of arms to all sides, which is impossible because the Russians don’t want it. It should not at this stage be necessary to demonstrate that this is a farrago of evasions, the government line in the media and across the political spectrum that even now it is essential to spell out precisely where it is wrong.

To begin: the war in Bosnia is not essentially a civil war, but a war of aggression by Serbia and its Bosnian Serb surrogates against the multi-ethnic, democratic, internationally recognised state of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Croatia joined in the war too, supporting its own Bosnian Croat clients, but gave up the fight after suffering military defeats at the hands of the Bosnian government and being put under pressure by the United States.

What this means is that today there are not “three sides” fighting one another, but two: on one hand, the Serb aggressors, and, on the other, and the once-again-allied Bosnian government and Bosnian Croat forces. Moreover, far from being “even-handed” in condemning “all sides”, western policy, and that of the UN, should be strongly partisan in defence of the legitimate government – even if it means ending the humanitarian relief operation in the “safe areas”, the sole effect of which at present seems to be to fatten Bosnians for the Serbian slaughter.

Then there is the canard that the Serb forces are so well armed and so numerous that only a giant and permanent deployment of ground forces by outside powers could impose a settlement. In fact, most of the Serbs fighting in Bosnia today are raw conscripts, and they are armed almost entirely with rifles, mines, ancient tanks and artillery. They have no air cover and their lines of communication are stretched. It would not take much for properly armed Bosnian government forces, aided if the Bosnians request it from outside, to inflict a decisive military defeat that would roll back the Serb armies and force them to sue for peace.

Of course, the Russians don’t want such an outcome for domestic political reasons – but there are plenty of carrots that the west could dangle before Moscow to persuade it to change its mind on intervention and on the arms embargo. How can misty-eyed pan-Slavism compete with the prospect of substantial aid and trade for the crisis-ridden Russian economy? The real problem, as ever, is not an insurmountable Russian veto, but the lack of political will on the part of the west to stop the Serbs.

There were a few MPs making such points against Rifkind on Monday – but they did not include anyone from the Labour front bench, which has sold the pass on Serbian aggression against Bosnia as effectively as Labour in the 1930s backed the appeasement of Hitler by the Chamberlain government. Its two most senior figures with responsibility for speaking on Bosnia, defence spokesperson David Clark and shadow foreign secretary Jack Cunningham, have played a consistently craven role throughout the Bosnian war, par-rotting the government’s rhetoric of “civil war” and “warring factions”. Clark’s intervention in the Commons on Monday was utterly spineless and unprincipled.

What makes all this particularly galling is that the do-nothing consensus among senior politicians – notable not just in Britain but everywhere else in western Europe – is so out of step with public opinion, which is disgusted by the Serbs’ murderous expansionism and by the west’s failure to stand up to it. But this disjunction between the public and the politicians is also an opportunity. If popular anger at the plight of Bosnia can be mobilised, and mobilised fast, it is just possible that the politicians can be shocked out of their complacency. What is needed is a movement in defence of Bosnia on the scale, and with the international coordination, of the movement against nuclear weapons in Europe in the early 1980s. That, as anyone who has been active on Bosnia in the past two years knows, is a tall order. But the forthcoming European election provides a unique opportunity to start a continent-wide campaign to press the politicians to change their minds.

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