Balkans war strains faith in nationhood, pushing principle of human rights to fore

February 07, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- As the United States and Europe edge toward deeper involvement in the Balkans, the possibility grows that this could become the stage for a military collision between two ideas in history, two historical rights, both of which gained legitimacy in the 20th century.

They are the right to national self-determination and human rights.

National self-determination was the driving force behind the establishment of many of the states that came into being after World War II.

This force is still at work in various regions, especially in the territory of the old Soviet Union. And it is at the center of the Balkans conflict, animating not only the Serbs, but also the Bosnians, Croats, Macedonians and Albanians living in Serbian territory.

To Michael Clarke, the director of the Center for Defense Studies at King's College, London, this principle, which was made "a totem" of the 20th century, is "likely to become a curse of the 21st."

The United Nations, which since the end of the Cold War has become the place where the international community's opinions and desires are articulated, "has hovered uneasily between an acceptance of the legitimacy of the self-determined state and a desire to pronounce on the way it treats its people."

The balance, he says, has moved steadily in the direction of concern for human rights, the principle that emerged and was recognized more or less at the same time as that of national self-determination.

But only in more recent years has it won not only worldwide acceptance but the capacity to move great numbers of people and affect the affairs of states.

No country has yet gone to war over human rights. That's not to say it hasn't inspired military action.

"Iraq is a good example of this," says Dr. Clarke. "The [Persian] Gulf war was fought to defend the old principle of nonaggression, on behalf of Kuwait. But now we have planes in Turkey, ready to bomb Iraq to prevent a regime from mistreating its people.

"If we go to war in Bosnia, it will be quite different. We will be setting human rights above the right of national self-determination."

Though there is little immediate prospect of that, Dr. Clarke was responding to questions about a French proposal to the United States that would have France, Britain and the United States join in an operation to lift the siege of Sarajevo by driving the Serbs from the mountains surrounding that city.

The Clinton administration is currently reviewing its policy toward the Balkans crisis. It could decide on a more active role there, even as the British counsel caution and the European Community and U.N. envoys, Lord Owen and Cyrus R. Vance, press for acceptance of their peace plan to divide up Bosnia. This calls for a sharing of power equally among Serbs, Muslims and Croats; it would essentially reinvent the Yugoslav federation within the borders of what was once only a part of Yugoslavia.

When did the concern for human rights coalesce as a principle? When did their protection become an accepted international imperative?

Several people involved in such work in London -- such as Peter Benenson, founder of Amnesty International, and Lesley Roberts, who heads the Anti-Slavery Society, the first international human rights organization -- agree that World War II was the catalyst. It, and the atrocities of the Nazis against the Jews, crystallized the concept of genocide, which produced a protective humanitarian response.

"It had happened before," said Miss Roberts, in Armenia, in black Africa with slavery. "But this was the first time it happened to people like this, refined Europeans."

In response, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was accepted at the 1945 conference establishing the United Nations. Today it remains the document from which almost all human rights organizations (of which there are 80 in London alone) derive their legitimacy.

The idea for the declaration was advanced by the United States, Britain and France and embraced by those countries and peoples who suffered most at the hands of the Nazis, such as the Russians -- who went on to become an egregious offender against it -- and the Jews.

"But the moving spirit at the conference," said Mr. Benenson, was a French Jewish jurist, Rene Cassin. For Cassin, the Declaration of Human Rights was a protest against Hitler's counter-revolution against the principles of freedom and equality established by the French Revolution.

So why now? Why the former Yugoslavia or Serbia? Surely there have been other atrocities, massacres perpetrated upon entire peoples by governments?

In the past, the sacrosanct nature of state sovereignty discouraged intervention, this and the prohibitions written into the U.N. charter against interfering with the prerogatives of governments within their borders.

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