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The UN’s Failure: An Interview with Tadeusz Mazowiecki

Bernard Osser and Patrick de Saint-Exupery, translated from the French by Marc Romano

In 1989 Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a founding member of Solidarity, was elected the first non-Communist premier of Poland. In August 1992, two years after resigning his premiership, he accepted an appointment as special representative of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in the Yugoslavian conflict. For nearly three years he investigated in the field, eventually publishing eighteen reports. He was the sponsor of many UN initiatives in the war, notably the creation of “safe areas” around Muslim enclaves in Bosnia-Herzegovina. His letter of resignation from this post, dated July 27, 1995, has yet to be released by the United Nations General Secretariat in New York. The following interview was conducted in August for Le Figaro.

When you resigned on July 27, you said that you wanted to teach a “lesson.” What lesson is that?

Tadeusz Mazowiecki: I want to make the leaders of the United Nations think. We have reached a critical point in the former Yugoslavia. In Bosnia, all the rules of international order are being mocked.

The safe areas are the most eloquent example. The UN resolutions that created them are merely scraps of paper. NATO, a much more powerful organization, hasn’t been able to defend them effectively. How can men like Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, take on the whole world with complete impunity? We are facing a serious setback to the principle of international order.

You don’t believe in the international order anymore?

I have doubts about a great many things today. What is the point of passing seventy-eight resolutions on the former Yugoslavia if not one of them is respected? Can the international community remain silent in the face of an act of aggression? No. Then why do we accept one so easily in the case of Bosnia?

Another question: Can I, in Poland, feel secure in the wake of these events? The towns of Srebrenica and Zepa have been abandoned. Who says Poland won’t also be abandoned one day?

From the very beginning of your human rights mission in the former Yugoslavia you knew that your assignment was risky. Nevertheless, you remained there as the UN’s representative for three years. Why did you finally resign?

At first I didn’t know. It took time. The international community’s acceptance of the fait accompli took place by stages, and I often declared my opposition to it. Don’t forget that the creation of the safe areas was one of my suggestions. As soon as they started being attacked I very clearly stated that not enough was being done to defend them.

But at the time we were in the midst of international chaos. The situation was very serious: at the London conference [on July 21], no one was in agreement. The result: We drew a “red line” around Gorazde and Sarajevo, but we didn’t say a word about Srebrenica and we started mourning for Zepa in advance. And yet Zepa was still resisting—it took a whole week after the London conference was over for the town to fall.

How can you explain the acceptance of this fait accompli?

There is a complete refusal to act, almost an aversion to it. No one wants to get involved. The man in the street, in Bosnia or elsewhere, has a right to ask: Why was there an immediate reaction in Kuwait but not in Bosnia? The question is entirely justified.

Indeed, I believe that this conflict is seen as something exotic and limited to the Balkans. There is a refusal to even look at its consequences though they are obvious. This supposedly local conflict is in the process of destroying every last principle of international order.

In one of your reports you accused the Serbian forces of “crimes against humanity.” Do you mean genocide?

I didn’t use the word “genocide.” I was very careful. From the very beginning of my mission in the former Yugoslavia I noticed that everybody was trying to use it, and I didn’t want to further poison the situation. Which didn’t keep me from talking about all the crimes that did take place.

You don’t feel that you were being used by the UN as an alibi [for their neglect of human rights]?

In truth, I was afraid of that. But I always kept in mind the fact that I wasn’t there to lighten the conscience of the international community. Quite the contrary, I always tried to keep [the situation] in the public eye. In a certain sense, that was my strength.

But you ended up resigning anyway. Because you were frustrated?

Yes, I felt that I was gradually becoming a sort of documentarist of crimes and human rights violations. In resigning I’m looking not to wash my own hands, but to point out that we can’t go on like this.

By “going on like this” you mean cowardice, hypocrisy, cynicism, and irresponsibility?

Certainly there’s hypocrisy and a lack of long-term vision. Certainly—but all that results from a lack of political will.

In your letter of resignation you alluded to Gdansk. What comparison were you drawing?

The French president, Jacques Chirac, mentioned Munich outright. As for myself, I wondered if the train I was on was that of the United Nations or of the League of Nations. In 1939, as you know, Western Europe was saying that it didn’t want to “die for Danzig.” Today we have to ask the same question about Sarajevo.

I was a premier—I know what it means to be responsible for a state, and I find it hard to point a finger. One day, however, I was asked whether as a political leader I would agree to sending Polish soldiers to Sarajevo. I couldn’t come up with an answer. But we must ask ourselves this question; we must dare to confront it. The Pope himself has spoken of a “just” war. The international order is being threatened, the elemental bases of civilization are being destroyed, so we have to ask that question. It cannot be avoided: the question of dying for Sarajevo is before us.

Isn’t it too late?

No, but I think we have to be determined. I am very close to the French position. Forces must be sent in to intervene, but with a broader mandate. These forces must not defend only the blue helmets but the safe areas, too.

So we must commit ourselves to take part?

We must abide by the decisions of the Security Council.

Yes, but to defend the safe areas means to engage in combat. Does that mean declaring who is the aggressor and who the defender?

You can put it any way you like. What matters is that the Security Council made a commitment when it declared the safe areas.

So there’s been a breach of promise?

I recall very clearly the moment during my first visit to Sarajevo, in 1992, when President Izebetgovic showed me the hills around the city and told me that the artillery up there had to be either put under control or bombed. And he was right.

Remember also the first international conference in London in 1992; reread all the documents that are signed with the names of Karadzic, Milosevic, and so on. You’ll find that they condemn “ethnic cleansing,” you’ll find promises that it won’t happen again. And yet, two or three months later, ethnic cleansing was resumed on a huge scale by the Serbian forces in the Banja Luka area, and no one reacted to it. On the contrary, the presentation of plan after plan thereafter endorsed it. Until we reached the situation we see today.

Were you moved by the Pope’s words about the principle of a “just” war in the former Yugoslavia?

The Pope spoke about a “justified defense.” He referred to the threats against the very principles of civilization that exist today. I believe that political action is necessary, but I don’t think it can be effective without the use of force. We have to show that there are limits, that not everything is possible. Force must be used to preserve justice.

You are Polish and Christian. Is it strange to hear yourself defending Bosnians, many of whom are Muslims?

The war in the former Yugoslavia is not religious in nature. The Bosnian Islam is not the Islam of the fundamentalists. In fact, by abandoning the Bosnians Europe is pushing them into the embrace of the fundamentalists. It bodes ill for us if, at the end of the twentieth century, Europe is incapable of coexistence with a Muslim community.

In a certain sense, aren’t the Orthodox Serbs more fundamentalist than the Bosnian Muslim community?

There are fundamentalists within the Bosnian Muslim community, but they are individual cases. As far as Serbian Orthodoxy goes, it has unfortunately assumed a very truculent and very nationalistic stance.

In saying this I am not forgetting the suffering of the Serbian non-combatants. These people are paying for the policy of war established by Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic. And I am deeply concerned about the fate of the Serbs who are fleeing Krajina today. That exodus could have profound consequences. Thousands of new refugees will move into Bosnia, and there will inevitably be retaliations against the Croats and the Muslims.

Indeed, the whole matter of Krajina is an example of what hasn’t happened. The first Vance–Owen plan provided that the Croats could return to their territory. They weren’t able to.

So you understand the reaction in Zagreb?

Yes—because no return was possible, the situation was predetermined.

Hasn’t this Serbian exodus put Bosnia in jeopardy? Isn’t it the first step toward a partition of Bosnia between Serbs and Croats?

I don’t know if there’s an agreement between Serbs and Croats. If one did exist, it would be very dangerous. It would mean the liquidation of the Muslims, and Bosnia would be threatened directly. And I think that that state must be saved. Whatever the price.

Whatever the price?

Put yourself in the Bosnians’ position.

Is it true that the refugees from Srebrenica spat on you when you were presented to them as the UN representative for human rights in the former Yugoslavia?

No, that’s not true. In the first tent I entered, some old women explained to me that they simply didn’t believe in anyone, had no confidence in anyone, and didn’t want to talk to anyone anymore. After that I was able to speak with people.

Why does the international community refuse to see what’s going on?

For various reasons. First, because it’s easier to explain everything through the prism of history. Balkan history, complex as it is, lends itself well to this exercise. But above all, the key point is that there is a complete absence of the political will to act. And thus the need to find excuses to justify inaction.

Might the problem lie in the fact that Europe doesn’t really exist anymore?

One could put it that way. One could also say that after the collapse of the Yalta agreements, after the collapse of communism, we have lost our way. There is no leadership today. There are no leaders to assume responsibility.

What, according to you, was the essential error while the Yugoslavian crisis was just beginning?

The recognition of Bosnia and its acceptance into the United Nations without understanding what those actions meant. Little by little we’re forgetting that Bosnia was a member of the UN.

Yet if the conflict seems to display the characteristics of a civil war, there is nevertheless an aggressor and a defender. In our search for alibis we have obscured who is responsible. And we have begun treating all the parties on the same basis: as being all to blame.

Still, a country recognized by the international community has been attacked. We’re talking about a war of aggression, not a religious or historical conflict. The best proof of this is the participation of the Yugoslavian army.

Do you think that the world today is prepared to give Bosnia up for dead?

I am afraid that has already happened. I refuse to believe it, but I must admit that the danger exists.

For how long have you had this fear?

From the start. I’ve always had doubts and apprehensions. Yes, there is suffering on all sides. Yes, everyone has committed crimes. But I can’t forget that the whole ideology of a “Greater Serbia” and of ethnic cleansing was born in the minds of the Serbian leadership alone.

Translated from the French by Marc Romano

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