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Issue 1 October 1993
Betrayal at the UN
By Ian Williams

For two years Germany has been campaigning to have the United Nations Development Programme moved from New York to Bonn. It would be far more fitting for the country to offer Munich as the site for the Security Council, so that Britain and France could do their Neville Chamberlain imitation over Bosnia in an historically fitting venue.

Over recent weeks in New York, the players mounted a successful, if cynical, double bill at the Security Council. First, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali officially nominated a candidate for prosecutor at the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal to the Security Council. The British, French and Russians indicated that they would veto his suggestion, Professor Cherif Bassiouni of Chicago's De Paul University. The Americans nominally supported him, but with the same outstanding lack of fervour shown by President Bill Clinton for the resolution to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia.

Officially, the opposition to Professor Bassiouni was based on his lack of experience as a prosecutor. In fact, diplomats candidly admit that his real problem is an excess of efficiency. He is a year ahead of any other potential candidate in assembling war crimes evidence -- and among the chief suspects are the "leaders" to whom David Owen and the West are urging the Bosnians to surrender most of their country. Explaining his interest, Bassiouni told me: "It's hard to look in the eyes of a 15-year-old who has been raped for six months, or someone who has been imprisoned and tortured, and just walk away."

Of course, he was speaking in a personal capacity. The evidence indicates that many European statesmen have no such difficulty. Presumably, however, it would embarrass even the shameless Douglas Hurd to roll out the red carpet for men who are on the UN's wanted list for genocide and war crimes. After all, the unruly press might mention the fact. But Hurd moves in mysterious ways, since it was John Major's government that inadvertently financed Bassiouni's research. As chief rapporteur to the UN Commission Investigating War Crimes, Bassiouni overcame UN bureaucracy and inertia by geting funding from George Soros, the billionaire who made a killing of selling sterling short last year.

The Security Council had set up the Commision because press reports of events in the Balkans made it plain that crimes were being committed, and so something had to be seen to be done to allay public opinion. But the Commission was not given the wherewithal to investigate, one assumes for the same reasons that make Bassiouni an unsuitable candidate.

Having vetoed him, the Security Council is now considering a compromise candidate. Currently, the favourite is someone from Brazil -- an inauspicious choice in view of the country's dubious record in not prosecuting ecocide and genocide.

The message is clear -- we don't care -- and it was repeated, with especial cruelty, to Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic when he went to the Security Council on 7 September. His demands were the most modest conceivable. Asking the Council to implement its own resolutions, he sought the use of force against those who impede humanitarian convoys; the threat of air-strikes to enforce an end to military activity; and action to make the laughably termed "safe" areas safe. All these points are enshrined in the 50 or so Security Council resolutions for which Britain and France voted.

Finally, while reluctantly admitting that Bosnia would be partitioned, he asked the Security Council to consider that the present "peace" proposals implied that 50 per cent of the population would be forced to live on an unviable 29 per cent of the territory. Even then, however, he promised that whatever size it was, in the future Bosnian republic, "no one will be persecuted because of their religion, ethnicity, or political beliefs".

There was not a hint of dampness in the eyes of the European diplomats who filed out afterwards without having said a word. French ambassador Jean Bernard Merimee dismissively referred to the president as sounding like a beggar, which came badly from someone who had played such a large part in reducing Bosnia to penury. United States ambassador Madeline Albright, the only diplomat to speak after Izetbegovic, ran after Sir David Hannay of the UK, declaring herself to be "stunned, stunned. Why didn't you say anything?" In fact, Sir David had already requested a meeting with the Bosnian President -- and had suggested earnestly that he return to the peace talks.

Next, Izetbegovic flew to Washington, to get the cold shoulder from Clinton, who has decided that Bosnia is not a poll-boosting decision. Indeed, Clinton informed the Bosnian President that John Major had informed him that, if the arms embargo were lifted, the Conservative government would fall. Bosnia, a small country, far away, is to be left to its own devices so that the small grey men around Major can maintain the dubious perks of office in the face of disdain at home and abroad.

A slightly different version of this piece first appeared in the New Statesman and Society, 17-23 September 1993.

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