BASIC humanitarian rules must apply even during the fiercest civil wars. That insistent message from the world community is slowly making gains in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Relief efforts there, long criticized as too little, too late, and too tentative, will never be cited as a model. Yet a series of recent decisions made in Washington and here at the United Nations reflects growing world determination to get aid through to civilians in need even amid intense fighting and to ensure that atrocities committed in the name of war do not go unpunished.
These decisions include:
* President Clinton's plan, disclosed this week, to airdrop supplies to needy civilians in isolated parts of Bosnia. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali endorsed the initiative and said after discussions with Mr. Clinton at the White House Tuesday that the action would be coordinated with UN relief efforts and would operate under UN authority.
Numerous concerns have been raised about the risks of airdrop flights. But Gen. Ratko Mladic, commander of the Serb forces in Bosnia, warmed somewhat to the plan yesterday, saying he would not mind the airdrop as long as it fed both sides. UN peacekeeping officials in Sarajevo have suggested that observers from all three sides could be aboard the relief planes.
* The UN Security Council's plan, unanimously approved Monday, to establish a global tribunal to prosecute war crimes committed in former Yugoslavia. A panel of experts set up by the Council in October has been gathering evidence. Mr. Boutros-Ghali has 60 days to make recommendations to the Council for the tribunal's shape and powers.
"This is a warning to those who perpetuate these horrendous crimes that they will be held accountable for all they do or plan to do," says Ahmed Snoussi, Morocco's ambassador to the UN and the current president of the Security Council. Yet Bosnia's ambassador to the UN, Muhamed Sacirbey, says: "We should not kid ourselves that war criminals are going to be deterred by ... establishment of a tribunal."
* Mr. Boutros-Ghali's firm reversal late last week of an earlier UN decision made to suspent most aid to Bosnia. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata, who made the earlier decision, had argued that all sides in the conflict were exploiting the aid for their own political ends and that the risks of delivery had become too great. Aid convoys have been repeatedly blocked, delayed, and harassed.
"There are no ideal situations and ideal solutions in Yugoslavia," says Hans van den Broek, commissioner for external relations with the European Community, which supports the new US air relief plan. "You have to choose whether you continue to say to these people [cut off from food by their enemies]: `We can do nothing for you,' or `We'll make the utmost effort even though it entails certain risks.' "
Cyrus Vance and Lord David Owen, mediators of the peace talks on the former Yugoslavia, insist that the best and most effective way to help Bosnians is by reaching an overall peace agreement.
Yet the five-month-old Bosnian peace talks appear to have lost considerable momentum in recent days. Negotiations shifted from Geneva to New York Feb. 1 in the expectation that the Security Council would endorse the plan on the table and nudge the talks to a finish. But the Clinton administration viewed the Vance-Owen plan, which would divide the country into 10 multi-ethnic provinces, as unfair to Bosnian Muslims.
United States officials said no plan should be imposed that is not acceptable to all sides. Mr. Vance says he hopes the talks, which have been in recess for almost two weeks while US and Russian special envoys have been brought aboard, will resume later this week. "We've been set back in getting to an agreement ... and we've got to put the process back on track," Lord Owen says.
Some progress has been made in parallel negotiations on Croatia. Vance told the Security Council this week that Croats and local Serb leaders concur on large parts of a cease-fire agreement. Talks on remaining details, including who should police certain areas from which Croat forces are to pull back, continued this week in Geneva.
In the Bosnian talks, just getting the parties to the table has been a major chore. Bosnia's Muslim-led government refused to talk directly with the other two warring parties here earlier this month and set numerous conditions for dispatching any delegation to New York this week.
Bosnian Serbs, led by Radovan Karadzic, want the talks moved to Geneva. Mr. Karadzic, a steady target of demonstrators while in New York earlier this month, says he will send a delegation to New York but will not lead it.
The chief sticking point in the Bosnian talks is still the Vance-Owen plan and its map of new provinces, accepted so far only by Bosnian Croats. Though Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo were considered close to agreement a few weeks back, they now are far apart, says Vance-Owen spokesman Fred Eckhard. "Both delegations are going to have to be encouraged rather forcefully to take the final step to an agreed package," he says.
Yet the line between acceptance and imposition may have to be drawn very carefully.
"You have to recognize that people are fighting because they want to achieve something," notes Innis Claude, professor emeritus of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. "In this situation it appears that neither side really wants to stop the fighting until it has achieved as much as it thinks it can ... [or decides] that continuing is a hopeless cause."
David Little, a scholar with the Washington-based US Institute of Peace, agrees that the warring parties in Bosnia have to become convinced that continued fighting will only make the situation worse and that the plan on the table is the best they can get, he says. It is no longer possible in the current world climate to dismiss the war in Bosnia as a centuries-old squabble that the parties should be left to fight out, Dr. Little suggests.
Yet the risks of any intervention are "extremely worrisome," he says. "We're caught between a rock and a hard place."