PARIS. — Paris -- Humanitarian intervention in Bosnia is futile if nothing is done to prevent the atrocities. Serbian policy is to conquer and effectively annex a large part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and purge the conquered areas of their non-Serb population. It is a policy inseparable from atrocities against the civilian population.
Thus while the United Nations forces at Sarajevo airport supply food and medicines to the people of that city, and have even taken relief supplies into besieged Muslim districts in Sarajevo's suburbs, they act under Serbian guns and thanks to brief truces their commanders negotiate with the combatants.
The campaign of Serb irregulars to take the city goes on, backed by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic and the army it controls. The U.N. troops have no mandate to interfere with that.
Other centers are under fire. The Muslim town of Gorazde, south of Sarajevo, is under bombardment, as is the capital of Herzegovina, Mostar. The U.N.'s forces are attempting to feed civilians and evacuate children, but the lives they save are targets of the next attack.
Outside forces cannot settle this war, however, even if they had the international community's mandate to try. Widely published British estimates of the scale of the force needed for effective intervention almost certainly exaggerate the Serbs' military capabilities, confronted with a serious modern army and air force rather than the improvised resistance they face now. The record of guerrilla campaigning in Yugoslavia in World War II, however, permits no complacency.
The fundamental argument against an intervention is political. No outside force is going to end a struggle whose roots are so deep and primitive. This war has been going on with interruptions for eight centuries, as a Croatian official noted with some satisfaction when fighting resumed last year.
Should the international community -- the democratic community, at least -- then be content merely to deplore this affair, imposing sanctions on Serbia while offering what slight help it can to civilian victims?
There are two reasons for taking sides. The first is that Bosnia-Herzegovina was until now an ethnically and religiously mixed society, its people living in tolerance of one another. There are 80,000 Serbs today in Sarajevo itself. Many are fighting for Bosnia against aggression.
The deputy commander of the army of Bosnia-Herzegovina is a Serb and a career officer, formerly commander of the Serb-dominated national army's contingent in Sarajevo. He has said of his decision to fight against his former comrades, ''I am a man who came to a certain point in his life when he had to look his conscience square in the face. And here I am.''
Bosnia-Herzegovina's vote for independence was a vote for intercommunal cooperation and democratic government. The new government has declared for ''a multinational and multireligious community'' based on parliamentary democracy and respect for human rights. It is the victim of an aggression not only territorial in aim but motivated by religion and ethnic hatred and a refusal to permit the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina to live as they wish to live.
That different communities live in peace and cooperation is what Western Europe's postwar unification, as well as the forging of the larger democratic community, have been about. The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina voted to join our world. Friends deserve to be helped.
The second reason to support Bosnia-Herzegovina is to maintain the principle that territorial aggression and policies of ethnic ''cleansing'' are radically unacceptable in today's Europe. It is vital to defend this principle to discourage ethnic war elsewhere in the Balkans and in the former Soviet Union.
This Serbian government is not the sole villain in Yugoslavia. Croatia contributed to the initial outbreak of ethnic intolerance. Several days ago, radical Bosnian Croats declared their independent state, a subterfuge for annexation by Croatia of a huge portion of Bosnia.
Croatia's leaders have since backed away from this, but there seems little doubt that if Bosnia's resistance to Serbia collapses, Croatia will help itself to the territories with Croatian populations.
The democratic community cannot afford to ignore the significance of this war. Sanctions against Serbia must be maintained, and the same sanctions imposed on Croatia if the Croats do attempt aggression against Bosnia-Herzegovina.
If the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina are prepared to fight for their country, they deserve to be armed by the West. If they ask for it, they should be given air support to neutralize the advantage enjoyed by the heavily equipped Serb forces.
The purpose of this would not be to pacify Yugoslavia but to permit Bosnia-Herzegovina to defend itself on reasonable military terms.
It would defend a community which wishes to join the modern world of the democracies. Such is quite the opposite of what the Kuwaiti ruling family wanted in 1991; yet we helped it.
Washington says no American interests are at stake in Yugoslavia. What was at stake in Kuwait? Not oil; that was a purportedly tough-minded alibi for an intervention with other motives (OPEC has demonstrated that oil flows to the marketplace).
Bosnia's is a lot better cause than Kuwait's: the defense of a community under attack because it has chosen our values.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.