Selected Longer Reviews

With No Peace to Keep: UN peacekeeping and the war in the former Yugoslavia

By Stamkoski, George and Ben Cohen (ed.)

Media East West, London, 1996, 184 pages,
Price: 10.00 Pound Sterling
Shelf mark: 355.09'497

This book provides first-class analysis of the United Nations’ four-year attempt at "peacekeeping" - a misnomer from the start but, unfortunately, a deliberate one. Its editors have got together an exceptionally well-informed team, mostly historians and journalists, including Rosemary Righter of The Times, Ed Vulliamy of the Guardian, Paul Williams, formerly an attorney-adviser in the US State Department, Roy Gutman, the American journalist winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his work on ethnic cleansing, and the British historians Noel Malcolm and Mark Almond, among others.

This analysis is multi-faceted, focusing in one section of the book on the different parts of ex-Yugoslavia, in another on different aspects of the "humanitarian mission", in a third on the foreign countries principally involved - Britain, France, Russia and the United States. I found John Laughland’s account of French policy particularly enlightening, but it would be impossible to single out every chapter in a book appropriately launched in the House of Commons.

There are gaps which should be noted and may be regretted. Despite the fact that UN activity provides the bond which holds the book together, there is no analysis offered of the attitude throughout the war of Boutros-Ghali, nor of his principal representatives, neither civilians like Akashi nor generals from Mackenzie to Smith, though they do, of course, come into the discussion in many places. There is also no section devoted to the parallel UN-sponsored activity, the negotiations in Geneva, largely controlled by David Owen. These are serious omissions. More understandably, the book does not attempt to describe the war itself, its causes, methods, course or leaders. It is an account, not of the war, but of external response to the war, and not a comprehensive analysis even of that. It does, nevertheless, provide an invaluable - and hitherto unrivalled - collection of building blocks towards a comprehensive analysis.

What it offers is indeed damning. It confirms that from early 1992 to late 1995 UN policy in Bosnia was determined almost entirely by Britain and France; moreover, it shows how Britain , France and Russia were in almost total agreement in their desire to ensure that Serbian ambitions were satisfied. The problem for the great powers was how to cling on to that policy in face of the scale of Serbian atrocities. The so-called "humanitarian" mission was dreamed up to ensure that international clamour for something to be done was met, while ensuring that no effective political or military help would reach the Bosnian government. All three major powers wanted a strong and enlarged Serbia. None of them cared much about concentration camps, mass graves or blatant aggression, but public horror at these things required a publicized response. The dispatch of a considerable number of British and French troops to Bosnia could be used time and again to demonstrated that the powers were doing their best, while at the same time ensuring that nothing would be done - "our boys" must not be endangered. It was a clever policy and, for a long time, it worked.

It did, however, require complementary explanation as to what was really happening and why a "humanitarian" response alone was possible. This interpretation took the form of continual playing on the themes of civil war, ancient ethnic hatreds and a sharing of guilt by all sides. Any mention of genocide was strictly taboo. This was the line that Belgrade had always pushed to persuade the West not to intervene; it was almost avidly taken over by Western politicians.

It is easy now to see the long disastrous history of international involvement from 1992 to 1995 in terms of just another UN failure, followed finally by a NATO success; and in consequence to draw conclusions about the nature of the UN. NATO has, after all, done what the UN always refused to do - bomb Serb military targets effectively and impose a peace agreement (unfortunately an unnecessarily bad one). But the fair contrast is not between UN and NATO. Both are controlled by the same Western powers.

Earlier Security Council resolutions were, in fact, adequate for the protection of the Safe Areas and, in the end, no new resolution was added to make possible the NATO bombing campaign. The reason for UN failure was its consistent interpretation of its mandate in a minimalist way as "peacekeeping" instead of "peace-enforcement"; but in reality that interpretation was imposed on it by the same Western powers which had passed the resolutions in the Security Council. What actually changed in the summer of 1995 was the attitude of the American government. Where there had hitherto been no political will to bring Serb attacks to a halt, the will was now there. Anglo-French policy was replaced by American policy (assisted by Chirac’s replacement of Mitterrand). US intervention has now brought peace, but it has not brought justice, and whether the one will last without the other must be questionable.

This book does not include the Dayton Agreement or anything since. History is moving on fast and what will come next remains unsure. But if the contribution of the West to Bosnia’s future is to be an improvement on the past, then Bosnia must first be understood. Anyone who wants to understand what the UN did and did not do, why it failed so wretchedly, and why Western politicians so seldom told even half the truth in regard to Bosnia, would be well advised to study this book carefully.

Adrian Hastings

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