Tribune, 21 May 1993

Labour’s aid and development spokesman talks to Paul Anderson about Bosnia and the role of intervention

“Thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians to be murdered and mutilated and tortured,” says Michael Meacher. “Can the European Community really do nothing to stop aggression against a European country whose independence and sovereignty it recognised?” Needless to say, Meacher is talking about the war in Bosnia, a subject on which, despite being a member of the Shadow Cabinet, he has often come close to contradicting the cautious official Labour line expressed by Jack Cunningham, the Shadow Foreign Secretary.

Meacher, the MP for Oldham and Labour’s spokesman on aid and development, does not hold with the view that what is happening in Bosnia is simply a three-sided civil war in which no single side should be seen as the worst offender. Although “well aware that the Serbs have a case” and that “atrocities have occurred on all sides”, he clearly identifies the Serbs as the aggressors in the war.

Disgusted by the fact that United Nations humanitarian relief convoys have had to ask the Serbs’ permission in order to reach the besieged Muslims, he asks: “Can we allow UN authority to be made dependent on the will of the aggressor? If we live in a civilised world, we cannot allow these things to go on.” In line with this, he is much more hawkish than most of his Shadow Cabinet colleagues about military intervention. Rather than simply backing air strikes on the Bosnian Serbs’ supply lines if they continue to reject the Vance-Owen plan for cantonising Bosnia, Meacher wants deployment of ground troops to defend the Muslims against attack.

“It is hopeless to deliver humanitarian aid if we abandon people to be wiped out,” he says. “Safe havens must be implemented. That means giving real protection for the besieged Muslim enclaves and a new mandate for the UN troops there. There has to be UN defensive military protection. There is a difference between this and an offensive war, pushing the Serbs back from their ill-gotten gains.

No one is asking for that.” Meacher does not believe that intervention on the lines he suggests would take a massive army.

“A well-trained professional force, with modern technology, command of the air, helicopter gunships and armour could have a really big impact quickly.” While Cunningham has consistently portrayed the Vance-Owen plan as a viable basis for peace in Bosnia, Meacher describes it as “deeply flawed”. “It rewards aggression and ethnic cleansing. It depends on the creation of enclaves, undermines the unitary state and completely ignores the question of the refugees,” he says. “There are 2,500,000 refugees, most of them in the former Yugoslavia but some 500,000-750,000 outside. Are they to become the Palestinians of Europe? If so, even if we get a ceasefire, we won’t get peace but a running sore of violence in central Europe for decades to come.

“The only merit of Vance-Owen is that, if the Serbs sign up to it, it just might get a ceasefire. It is not remotely tenable as a long-term political solution: the difficulty is the map, which none of the three sides will accept, except perhaps the Croats.” The real issue, he goes on, is finding an alternative to Vance-Owen that could form the basis for a long-term political settlement. “I would still like to believe that there is a possibility of retaining a unitary state with a high degree of local autonomy,” he says. “The only other option is partition. We can’t rule that out if that’s the only way of keeping the peace. It’s certainly better than a whole series of wars.”


Bosnia is not the only place where Meacher would like to see outside intervention in what traditionalists consider to be the “internal affairs” of a sovereign state.

Indeed, he considers that, with the tensions of the cold war at an end and hot wars raging in many parts of the world, the time has come for the international community to limit countries’ rights to carry on as they like within their own borders.

“There are certain extreme cases in which an individual country’s sovereignty should be over-ridden,” he says. “The first is genocide. The second is total breakdown of law and order and all government institutions, as we saw in Somalia. The third is when free and fair elections are held and deliberately over-ridden — Angola, Burma, Haiti, for example.”

Military intervention, he says, should always be the last resort: there is a whole series of other pressures, from withdrawing diplomatic relations, through withholding aid, to full-blown sanctions, that should be applied and found to fail before military action is considered. Equally importantly, all these pressures should be applied by the UN rather than by a single member-state or group of memberstates.

“This is nothing to do with neo-colonialism,” Meacher emphasises. “We’re talking about protecting innocent people from violence.” This notion of redefining the role of the international community in countries’ internal affairs is just one part of a “completely different foreign affairs and development agenda” that he would like to see adopted. With the cold war over, he argues, the great divide in world politics is between the rich developed North and the poor, underdeveloped, indebted South.

“I was staggered when I came to this job to find that current indebtedness of the Southern world is £850,000 million. The effect is utterly crippling. We are driving countries into impoverishment for decades to come.” Debt repayments by the poor countries to the rich ones are now almost double the total of aid from rich to poor countries.

“Debt relief is not only necessary but also in our own self-interest. It could create demand for our goods and services that we are not going to get from anywhere else. We must be crazy not to seize the opportunity to help ourselves and those in the South.” He suggests that 60 per cent of Third World debt be written off and easier terms agreed for the rest.

Meanwhile, he goes on, the rich countries must “reject the temptations of protectionism and remove barriers to the import of processed goods from the South”, in order ‘toles:Ince the Iatter’s reliance on primary products, prices of which have slumped in recent years. Structural adjustment programmes, the privatisation-and-deregulation packages forced on developing countries by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, “have repeatedly failed and should be denounced”, says Meacher. “We’ve got to come up with an alternative.”

On aid, he makes familiar Labour points about the Tory government’s halving of its commitment since 1979, arguing that the position has been made even worse by the diversion of large parts of the aid budget from the poor South to the countries of the former Soviet bloc. He also insists that “part of an aid and development policy must be protection of fundamental human rights”, with aid channeled only through non-governmental organisations in countries that are not up to scratch. Finally, he says that aid and development cannot be dissociated from the requirements of law and order.

“In Mogadishu last year I was shown a warehouse piled to the ceiling with sacks of maize. A couple of miles away, according to Save the Children, a couple of thousand people, mainly children, were dying each day. But the food could not be distributed because of the fighting.”


Meacher’s enthusiasm is such that it is difficult to credit that he was given the post of aid and development spokesman last year as a way of shunting him to one side. Nevertheless, he clearly believes that his brief is not given enough priority by the contemporary Labour Party.

“Labour is not engaging with the electorate as effectively as it could be in evoking a crusade, a vision, a sense of purpose, in enthusing people,” he says. “There are people out there who need to be convinced that the Labour Party has got stuck in on the fundamentals. This issue could play a big part in it. The sufferings and viciousness of the civil wars across the world so totally over-ride the arcane mysteries of Maastricht that it is astonishing that the Foreign Office can be so wound up in something that is so navel-oriented.”

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