How Britons helped Milosevic

We once supported the man now on trial for war crimes as a peacebroker

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Funny, isn't it, to reflect that Slobodan Milosevic is, at last, being taken at his word? When the former president of Serbia and Yugoslavia appeared in the dock at The Hague, he refused, quite naturally, to accept the legality of the court. Yet back in 1995, when he signed up for the Dayton peace accords, which concluded the war in Bosnia, one of the provisos was that the signatories should co-operate with the workings of the new international war crimes tribunal. It wasn't, I fancy, quite what he had in mind at the time.

What is wrong with the indictment against Milosevic is not that it's a show trial, nor that Milosevic is being tried in The Hague rather than in Belgrade - the Serbs were willing to try their former president for electoral malpractice and misappropriation of finances, but not for crimes against humanity. The difficulty with the indictment is its starting point - it will deal with events after January 1999 - which means that the crimes against humanity in question begin and end in Kosovo. Yet the sins of Milosevic are greater with respect to the war in Bosnia.

The first, obvious reason why Milosevic is being brought to book for events in Kosovo, in which around three-quarters of a million people were driven from their homes, is that he was responsible for the conduct of the armed forces of Yugoslavia during that campaign. Bosnia, a sovereign state, was violently dismembered from the spring of 1992, and 70 per cent of its territory was ethnically cleansed of non-Serbs, courtesy of those same forces. The fiction in this case was that the Bosnian Serb army was independent of Belgrade; in fact, it was ultimately controlled and funded by Serbia. Of which, more later.

Our attention is also focused on Kosovo rather than Bosnia because the collective attitudes of western governments underwent a dramatic change between the end of the war in Bosnia and the start of the conflict in Kosovo. The reason why we can contemplate this war crimes trial, why we saw the ethnic cleansing of the Kosovars for the crime against humanity that it was, why we treated Milosevic during the Bosnian war as a man who could deliver peace and, in Kosovo, as a Saddam with whom we could deal, once he surrendered, was quite simple: during one war, John Major and Douglas Hurd were in charge; during the other, it was Tony Blair.

Milosevic has, apparently, promised to take with him to the tribunal all those statesmen who had dealings with him as a peacebroker. Which presumably accounts for David Owen's current anxiety to emphasise that we should, at all times during any conflict, be prepared to deal with heads of state, no matter how distasteful their conduct, in order to get peace. The same goes for Hurd's hurry to stress that his business dealings with Milosevic happened after the war - as chairman of NatWest, Hurd was involved, on behalf of NatWest Markets, in assisting the privatisation of the Serbian telecoms industry. Actually, some Serbian news-papers are speculating that, if it weren't for the millions of pounds that this generated for Serbia's equivalent of Britain's Treasury, it would have been impossible for Milosevic to have waged his war in Kosovo.

Major's government accepted Milosevic's basic premise in the Bosnian war: that borders could be changed by force; that populations could be forcibly exchanged; that facts could be created on the ground, viz, through ethnic cleansing; that sovereign states such as Bosnia could be partitioned by the use of force. Tony Blair, in Kosovo, did not take that view. Yet John Major did, under the direction of Douglas Hurd.

As it happens, the responsibility of Milosevic for the actions of the Bosnian Serb forces is not particularly difficult to establish. In 1992, Milosevic announced that the Yugoslav army - at least, its Serbian and Montenegrin members - would withdraw from Bosnia after it declared independence. In fact, only 14,000 of them left; 80,000 remained.

It was they who made possible the ethnic cleansing that followed. The Serbian paramilitaries in Bosnia were not acting independently of the Belgrade government, but with its connivance; the Bosnian Serb army was funded from Serbia and its actions were circumscribed by Belgrade. There is one person who could spell out, in embarrassing detail, just how close was the connection. He is Radovan Karadzic, at present sitting tight in the French sector of the Bosnian Serb Republic. And until he is delivered to The Hague, no full trial of Milosevic is possible.

In the Bosnian war, Britain supported Milosevic. It dealt with him as a peace broker - from the start, it had set its face against the idea that the Bosnian government should be supported in fighting to prevent the dismemberment of its territory. And by maintaining the arms embargo, Britain consolidated the weakness of the Bosnian army vis-a-vis the Serbs. Indeed, as a forthcoming book by the Cambridge academic Brendan Simms makes clear, Britain was decidedly lukewarm about the establishment of the international war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia, lest it make Milosevic that bit less likely to strike a deal.

That is why it would be useful, as well as necessary, for the indictment of Milosevic to be expanded to include the war in Bosnia. It would make his real culpability apparent. And ours.

This article appears in the 09 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Just you wait until I grow up