Previous SectionIndexHome Page

11.42 am

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): I had not intended to speak in the debate, but it is important to follow the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) and emphasise that the current situation in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia is fraught with great danger.

One of the problems of the past six or seven years has been that international media coverage, with the exception of the BBC's, has been dominated by soundbite politics. Soundbites have influenced public opinion by demanding instant solutions to complex problems. We have seen that in Africa and other parts of the world. When CNN cameras are not covering what is happening, many atrocities and human rights abuses are not reported.

The hon. Member for Tatton mentioned a possible choice between peace and justice. That is often the choice in international conflicts. We cannot always get everything we want and the world's problems today are more difficult and complex than they were three or four years ago, let alone 10 or 20 years ago. Solutions that some of us might have put forward four or five years ago are no longer applicable today. Similarly, it is sterile to argue about whether certain actions were right in 1992, 1995 or 1996. However, I share the criticisms of the premature recognition of Croatia, which was of seminal psychological importance in its effect on the Serbs and their feelings about what they perceived as the re-establishment of an Ustashe state and the consequent memories of 1941-44.

Anyone who has talked, as I have, to the Serbian community in this country, including those who fled in 1948, who were mostly monarchists, will know that they feel a deep resentment about the demonisation of their community, religion and culture by the actions undertaken by people with whom they do not agree politically. The Serbian community in this country feels emotionally attached to the Serbian church and its culture, and they feel labelled and blamed, unjustly, for what has been done

18 Jun 1997 : Column 262

by others in their former homeland. Many of the Serbs in this country came from Krajina. They feel a double injustice because they think that the international community has been less firm in dealing with the Croatian Government and what they did to the Serbian population of Krajina than it has been in addressing other aspects of the problem.

In the past few months, as a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the previous Parliament, I had discussions with all the main players when they visited London, including the three Opposition leaders from Serbia, who are now unfortunately squabbling among themselves. I have had discussions with people from Republika Srpska and the joint presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina and with leading Croat politicians. If one speaks to them all individually, one would believe that a reasonable solution were possible. However, we know from what has happened in former Yugoslavia that the hatreds and historical animosities run very deep. Every conversation has a different historical starting point. The date that people regard as important in their history is what determines their attitudes to today's conflict.

The problem that the international community faces--not only in Bosnia but in Cyprus and other countries with intractable problems--is that the American, CNN-driven, quick-fix solution of sending for the cavalry, going in, sorting it out, pulling out and leaving them to get on with it does not work for complex historic problems. I do not wish to attack Mr. Holbrooke for all his effort and the hours he put in, because he clearly played an important role, but his Dayton fix has not achieved a long-term solution. That will require the work that Karl Bildt has been calling for and the long-term commitment of military forces, internationally trained police forces and civilian reconstruction of the infrastructure.

I strongly criticised events of three or four years ago and said so in the House on several occasions. I thought that we were in danger of approaching the problem from only one side and of being bounced into simple solutions. Nevertheless, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill)--I am grateful for the opportunity to make the point today--that premature withdrawal of the international commitment would be absurd and dangerous. We must send that message loud and clear to the United States. If a country makes a commitment to assist in an international conflict or civil war, the commitment must be long term. It cannot be committed one year and pull out the next. What happens if a country pulls out? Weaponry and complicated equipment are left behind, which, in certain hands, can be major force multipliers in a conflict.

We know that, for the best of motives, the American Administration have tried to create a balance of military forces in Bosnia. There were two ways of accomplishing that. The first was to reduce the forces of all sides, and the second--the method chosen--was to pile in more equipment for one side of the conflict. The net consequence has been the introduction of more armaments into a potential battlefield.

There is a further complication. The international community should be much more vigilant about the efforts of some countries--particularly Iran--to play power politics in the region. It is understandable that Bosnia's Muslims feel that international support is necessary, but it would be extremely dangerous if the

18 Jun 1997 : Column 263

international community were to turn a blind eye to the developments that have occurred over the past two to three years.

We must move cautiously if we are to keep our commitment to the stabilisation force and commit ourselves to long-term support for Bosnia, which may be necessary for as long 10 or 15 years. We have not resolved the situation in Cyprus, which has had a green line for many years. If we do not watch out and act cautiously, all sides in the Bosnian conflict may continue to rearm for a future conflict, in the expectation that international withdrawal will allow them--theoretically, because they will fail--to settle matters one way or the other.

All we have been given is a messy and possibly unworkable compromise, but we will have to live with it. Although it may take many years, we will have to try to change attitudes, rebuild institutions and create trust and dialogue. It is much easier to destroy such things than it is to build them. We must send that message to the United States and elsewhere. Today, I hope that all hon. Members will unite in doing so.

11.51 am

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Tony Lloyd): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) for proposing today's debate and to all hon. Members who have spoken for the very sober tone in which it has been conducted. We are dealing with an issue which runs to the very heart of the Government's commitment on how to conduct our own foreign policy. The issue runs to the heart also of the United Kingdom's moral responsibility in places such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and in the wider world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham has given us a timely opportunity to discuss an issue which, over the past six years, has weighed heavily on the foreign policy agendas of Europe, the United States of America and the wider world. Today, voices have been raised in the House questioning whether those agendas have always had it right. Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) said, although an analysis of the past is important, we must think primarily of the future.

Today--18 months after the signing in Paris of the peace agreement negotiated in Dayton, Ohio--Bosnia-Herzegovina stands at a turning point. We must not delude ourselves about what has been achieved. The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) made the point that an absence of war does not mean that peace has been established. The progress of the past 18 months is important, but we must realise that it is not yet irreversible. On the contrary, the opportunity provided by the international presence in Bosnia is drifting past without progress in some of the most crucial spheres of peace implementation.

We must not underestimate the scale of the transformation in Bosnia. Four years of war caused untold human misery and left a wasteland of death and destruction. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) was absolutely right to say that searching for and designating one ethnic group or another as "the victim", and increasing support for that group, is a tragic mistake. The truth is that there were victims on every side of the conflict and it was a tragedy for every side.

18 Jun 1997 : Column 264

Thanks to the peace agreement, the fighting has stopped and the rival armies have been separated and demobilised. Moreover--although perhaps not quickly enough--the mine fields are being cleared. The elections that have been held, although not perfect, are a crucial first step in the democratic process. Common institutions have been established, and reconstruction is under way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham mentioned the refugee problem. A quarter of a million refugees and displaced persons have returned to their homes. In comparison with the rate of repair after the second world war, for example, the transformation in Bosnia has been dramatic and rapid. My hon. Friend was right, however, to say that by no stretch of the imagination do we yet have the solution right.

The Dayton agreement recognises that Bosnia has essentially split in half, with the Serbs on one side of the confrontation line and the Bosnians and Croats on the other. We should emphasise, however, that the agreement envisages a process of gradual reintegration. The goal is a single Bosnian state, power sharing between the ethnic groups, freedom of movement, reversal of ethnic cleansing and a state in which the return of peace and prosperity will eventually eclipse the divisions of the war years.

The vision of a united and multi-ethnic Bosnia is one to which the Government are and must be firmly attached. We are attached to it not only because it would be morally wrong to reward the abominable ethnic cleansing conducted during the war but because--as my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax said--there is no place in today's Europe for the narrow-minded nationalism that would take Bosnia down the road to ethnic partition.

After 18 months, the divisions left by the war are still very much with us and can be illustrated by a few examples. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham mentioned the issue of refugees returning. The peace agreement established the right of every refugee to return to his or her home, but that is quite simply not happening. The international community is rebuilding houses for returning refugees, but, before the homes can be occupied, they are burnt down by local thugs and gangsters while the local authorities and police stand idly by.

Every Bosnian citizen should have the right to travel freely around Bosnia, but police checkpoints are being used deliberately to obstruct and harass people exercising that right. It is still not possible to make direct telephone calls from Sarajevo in the Federation to Pale in the Republika Srpska, although they are only a few miles apart. The problem is not technical or caused by a lack of resources--the international community has offered any necessary help--but a political blockage within the Bosnian leadership.

Political control of the media in all areas of Bosnia is at a level that we once associated with the communist regimes of eastern Europe, and it has no place in modern Europe. I could give other examples, but the underlying message is already clear: the cause of peace and the interests of the Bosnian people are being sacrificed at the altar of a divisive political theology.

Next Section

IndexHome Page