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'A year of peace in Bosnia' - what peace?

by Noel Malcolm

'The operation was a success, but the patient died' is an old tag, frequently heard in medical circles. Less often, however, does one hear the following: 'While the patient was dying from lack of oxygen on the operating table, the surgeons held a conference to celebrate the success of the operation so far.'

But that is what happened at the Inter-Governmental Conference on Bosnia held in London on 4/5 December 1996 to mark the Dayton Agreement's first anniversary. The opening speeches, by British, American and other politicians, oozed mutual congratulation, as they boasted about the one year of peace which Dayton had brought to Bosnia. Rather less was said about the many years of instability, suffering and violence which lie ahead, thanks to these governments' failure to implement large areas of Dayton.

Only one part of that package of measures has been properly carried out: that which involves dividing Bosnia into two 'entities' (the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb Republic), and putting a 'Zone of Separation' between their armies. Division, it seems, is what comes easily. The rest of Dayton consists of measures to promote Bosnia's reintegration: these have been at best only partly fulfilled, and at worst deferred, fudged or ignored.

The basis of any just and viable settlement in Bosnia must be the right of refugees to return to their homes - a right affirmed at Dayton. More than two million were driven out, many thousands are still living in camps, sleeping in tents or on the floors of school buildings. The return of these people to their homes is both a moral issue and a practical one.

So far, the number of refugees who have returned across the 'Inter-Entity Boundary Line' has been tiny. Small groups of Muslim villagers trying to go back have been met by rent-a-mob crowds or by armed police: the Nato-led Implementation Force (Ifor) has a mandate to protect them, but has failed to do so. Instead, its spokesmen describe each attempt to return home as a 'provocation', and complain that the villagers have not followed UN procedures.

And how exactly do those procedures work? One group of 97 Muslim families from the Serb- controlled Prijedor region found out. They gave the international officials a list of their homes: the officials then gave the list to the Serb police in Prijedor; and within 48 hours, every one of those houses had been mysteriously destroyed.

It may not be a coincidence that no fewer than four indicted war criminals still hold prominent positions in the Prijedor police force. The Ifor commanders know who they are, and where they work. But no attempt has been made to arrest them, just as the most prominent war criminals of all, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, are still allowed to travel through the Serb Republic unhindered. Worse than that: having said that they would arrest them only if they bumped into them, the Ifor commanders now take elaborate measures to avoid crossing their paths.

Arresting war criminals is necessary not only to serve the elementary demands of justice, but also for psychological reasons. Collective hostility is fuelled by the idea of collective guilt (blaming 'the Serbs' instead of their criminal leaders); and the only way to cancel the idea of collective guilt is to prove, and punish, individual responsibility. That would be a step towards the reintegration of Bosnia. But is reintegration what western governments want? In private, some of their officials say that partition is the best solution for Bosnia, and that it is what the Bosnians desire anyway. Both claims are questionable. Radical Serbs and radical Croats do want partition, and have committed gross crimes in order to achieve it. But the largest component of the Bosnian population, the Muslims, has favoured the preservation of a multi-national Bosnian state; so have most of the Serbs, and some Croats, living on Federation territory.

As for the idea that partition would bring peace and stability to the area, this is the most dubious assumption of all. Many thousands of Muslims, driven out of their homes in eastern Bosnia in 1992, would be willing to go to war again to stop any such permanent division of their country. A partition of Bosnia along its present dividing line would also put intolerable pressures on the Muslim-Croat Federation, with hardline Croats pushing for an anschluss with Croatia: a second war would probably develop there. And with Serbia and Croatia competing to absorb their respective halves of Bosnia, new kinds of regional instability would be created too. Each of those states would try hard to stir up trouble in the other's part of Bosnia, and Croatia would view with intense alarm the creation of a new Serbian military bastion just below the underbelly of the Croatian state itself.

The policy pursued by the West for the past 12 months will create an almost endless catalogue of greater problems to come. Can anything be done now to prevent them? Talk about giving Ifor a new mandate, or about setting up new bodies with new powers, misses the point. The mandate and the powers exist. All that is needed is to use them.

It is as if those surgeons with the oxygen-starved patient, at their celebratory conference, were to pass a resolution saying that they needed a new kind of oxygen. They already have the means to save this patient's life. What they lack is the political will to do so - and, it seems, the political understanding to see why it should matter.

This article is slightly adapted from one that appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 4 December 1996.