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WRI Statement on the February Ultimatum on Bosnia

When NATO announced its ultimatum threatening air strikes if Bosnian-Serb heavy weaponry was not removed from the hills around Sarajevo by February 21, WRI published an international statement urging peace groups to refuse the narrow choice between bombing or not bombing and to campaign instead for a change in attitude from their governments, for a different kind of commitment in the long term. The deadline has now passed, but the points made in the WRI's statement remain valid.


War Resisters' International, the international pacifist organisation, will NOT be calling for demonstrations against the threat to bomb the hills around Sarajevo. In the choice between an international commitment to Bosnia-Hercegovina and disengagement, WRI favours international commitment. For us, however, the main goal of an international commitment should be to restore social life in the region: a long-term commitment not just to end the war but to build a peace. This is very different from the posturing of NATO: we fear the escalation of violence that will bring, and we distrust the motives of those in NATO now favouring air strikes and similar offensive military operations.

Neither the ultimatum nor the negotiations in Geneva have offered anyone any incentive to make peace or guaranteed any continuing commitment to the reconstruction of social life in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Instead, the only basis for a deal has been exhaustion on the one side, satiation and political calculation on the other. Pledges of investment in future economic development could play a vital role in breaking through the impasse.

Over the months — and now years — of this war we have seen governments repeatedly ignore the many small steps they could take to improve the situation. The US government looks for the big gesture; the Europeans tend to want to do just enough to contain the situation.

The governments of NATO by their treatment of the refugees from the region have made plain their disregard for the people of the region. Even now, when the governments of both Yugoslavia and Croatia are illegally drafting refugees, most NATO governments persist in calling Serbia and Croatia "safe areas" where Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croatians can be dumped.

The NATO strategy-makers are less motivated by a desire for peace in the region, than by developing a rationale and role for NATO after the Cold War. This cynicism is shown by a course of military action which sees nothing beyond Sarajevo, which while it is a richly symbolic city is nothing like the whole of the situation. NATO is engaged not in an action for Bosnia, but an action targeted at the mass media to secure its own future. Having undermined the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which tried to put security questions in the wider context of economic and political relations and human rights guarantees, NATO seeks to reduce security to its military dimensions.

The commitment we call for would involve mounting programmes of support for the forces for peace. This support would go to those people still in the region and those forced to leave. Throughout former-Yugoslavia there are a host of non-governmental initiatives, working with displaced people, with the violated and the traumatised. These range from anti-war groups to independent radio stations and other media, from human rights monitors to telephone counselling lines and programmes for children.

While gangsterism thrives — not only in Bosnia and Hercegovina, but in Serbia and Croatia — demagogy stands in place of democracy and human rights are systematically violated. Yet even in these conditions, work for reconciliation is under way, for the peaceful resettlement of those displaced, and for the nonviolent resolution of low-level conflicts. Realpolitik always sees such efforts as marginal — and we know they don't offer any immediate solution to genocidal shelling — but they are essential to any peace-building process.

Among refugees, many who have refused to fight have a deep desire to contribute to the peaceful reconstruction of the region. These people should be seen not as a burden but as a resource for peace in the region. They should be welcomed and offered every support: from counselling for their own traumas to facilities for publishing and broadcasting to professional training opportunities. Instead of being rendered passive victims, they should be asked to play an active role in shaping the future of the region.

As it is, refugees are not granted asylum nor helped to prepare for the conflicts and tensions which will follow on their return. And we can be sure that the moment there is any kind of lasting ceasefire, at the very first moment that it seems half-decent to send anyone back to Bosnia-Hercegovina, governments will be rushing to deport people back to who knows what scenes of destruction and post-war score settling.

By now every informed person knows there is no instant solution to war in the Balkans. However, the choice for peace groups is not between turning our backs on Bosnia and bombing, but to work for a change of attitude from our governments, to have them make the kind of commitments which have so far been missing: to support the anti-war groups and the free and independent media; to encourage people to exercise their right to refuse to fight; to offer sanctuary to refugees and support them in finding a future role for themselves. Above all, to breathe hope into the situation by making an international commitment for the reconstruction of social life.