Twenty years on, the world has still not learnt the lessons of Sarajevo.

April 11, 2012 12:24 pm

As a Kofi Annan-sponsored ceasefire between the government and rebels in Syria teeters on the brink of collapse, it is as poignant as it is heart-rending to note the parallels between this tortured conflict and the violence in the Balkans twenty years ago.
The United Nations, a bloated, out-of-touch political playground, remains as depressingly ineffective as it was in 1992. In Sarajevo, a siege which regularly claimed five hundred deaths a month went on for over three years as UN peacekeepers on the ground in the city looked on helplessly. They possessed neither the practical mandate nor the political will to stop the limbs of innocent citizens, who had been caught in the crossfire of madmen, from leaving their bloody stains across the streets.
Although the two conflicts may have had very different motives – one was about ethnic cleansing, the other is, at the risk of sounding naïve, about democracy – the situation experienced by ordinary people has been much the same. In a desensitised world – where we enjoy television suppers whilst watching reports about sub-Saharan famine – the daily reports of death and destruction in Bosnia were increasingly ignored, just as the year-long uprising against the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad has been increasingly wearily reported. It is a vicious circle as the Syrian rebels – desperate to draw international attention to their plight – are forced at worst to sensationalise, and at best relentlessly publicise, their suffering. An apathetic and sceptical world looks on.
Srebrenica in 1993 and Rwanda in 1994 are both often used as justification for the doctrine of liberal interventionism. The idea shouldn’t be, and yet frustratingly remains, a controversial one. There are those who insist that a country’s sovereignty is non-negotiable. But now that we have the resources – if not the universal political will – to help out, we should always adopt a utilitarian approach to intervening. The West will always be an easy target for those who snipe about selective intervention and self-interest, but they should not be so cynical or heartless. Anyone who has read the harrowing story of what happened at Srebrenica – truly the most saddening story this author has ever heard – should be in no doubt about the positive influence which intervention can bring.
It’s human nature that we like to analyse failure more than praise success. For an ignorant majority, Tony Blair will forever be associated with the ‘failures’ of Britain’s part in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars of 2001 and 2003 respectively. Few will know the part which Blair personally played in solving the problems of Iraq (Operation Desert Fox) in 1998, or Kosovo in 1999, or Sierra Leone in 2000. It is worth noting that these three successful interventions all happened when President Clinton was in office: for all Blair’s misguidedness at the hands of a savagely incompetent Bush White House, he at least saw the ludicrousness of standing idly by on the sidelines as the darker forces of humanity hacked themselves to pieces.
As the UN continued to be paralysed by vetoes, it was NATO who eventually seized the initiative in the Balkans twenty years ago. On 30 August 1995, NATO warplanes devastated Bosnian Serb positions and the end to a devastating conflict was in sight. Filing a dispatch from the scene, BBC Ben Brown noted how “in just a few hours, NATO has put aside years of hesitation and humiliation – they’ve stopped squabbling and have at last decided to do something about Bosnian Serb aggression”.
Amid Chinese and Russian vetoes on UN Syrian resolutions, and in light of NATO’s courageous intervention in Libya last year, there is some indication that the West has got its appetite for liberal intervention back again. If the ceasefire plan fails in Syria, the world should look at itself and see how nothing has really changed in twenty years.

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