The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1995Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Commons Statement on Bosnia – 31 May 1995

Below is Mr Major’s statement on the situation in Bosnia, made on 31st May 1995.


The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): In the three weeks since the House last debated Bosnia, the position has qualitatively changed. Conflict has grown. The shelling of Sarajevo has intensified. UN soldiers have been deliberately targeted and killed by both sides. UN personnel, including officers and men of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, have been taken captive by Bosnian Serbs.

The Government have decided to reinforce our contingent in Bosnia, and the diplomatic pace has quickened. For all those reasons, I thought it right to seek the recall of Parliament to set out the Government’s response to this tense and dangerous situation. Let me recall for the House the evolution of this crisis. The dispute in Bosnia began to crystallise in the spring of 1992, when Bosnia declared its independence. War broke out, and the country split into three parts. I believe that it would have been wrong for us to stand and watch Bosnia burn, and we did not.

In August 1992, I convened the London conference which brought the parties together in search of a political settlement. We set up the Sarajevo airlift, and we were instrumental in establishing the United Nations protection force’s Bosnia command. The first British troops arrived in Bosnia in November 1992. Let me remind the House why we sent them. First is the humanitarian case. I believe that we have a duty–a moral responsibility if one likes–to play our part in the relief of suffering. Soldiers were being killed, but we also saw civilian suffering in Bosnia on a massive scale. There was ethnic cleansing–cold-blooded and racial-based murders. There was widespread rape and brutality. As winter approached, there was the clear prospect of widespread starvation.

There had been nothing like it in Europe since the second world war. The aid agencies were doing their best, but they needed protection if the convoys bearing food and medicines were to get through. So we decided to play our part in providing that protection.

Bosnia is close to the borders of the European Union. Even so, precisely the same case for help was seen by countries as far away as Canada, Malaysia and New Zealand, all of which have joined us in the task. Service men and women of 19 nations have stood with our relief agencies and our troops to help alleviate suffering. Many who would have died are alive today because of that effort. We should understand that many alive today would die if that effort were to end.

Secondly, we sent our soldiers there for strategic reasons. The Balkans have often enough been a tinderbox in history, and war memorials throughout the United Kingdom testify to the price paid in British blood for past Balkan turbulence. The Bosnian war by itself might not directly affect our interests, but a wider conflagration across the Balkans–leading to a wider Balkan war–most certainly would affect our strategic interests.

If unchecked, the fighting in Bosnia could have ignited not only a Serb- Croat war in Croatia, but unrest in Kosovo and Macedonia. That could easily have dragged Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey into confrontation with one another. The Bosnian dispute has always contained within it the seeds of the nightmare of a wider Balkan war.

The consequences of a wider Balkan conflict would be disastrous for Europe as a whole. In my judgment, it is unquestionably in our national interest to prevent that if we are able to do so. The United Nations protection force and British forces may not have extinguished the fighting in Bosnia, but they have contained it and they have prevented it from spreading. That is a remarkable tribute to their efforts. Had they not been there, the circumstances we face today might have been incomparably more serious than those that we are debating this afternoon.

If it is in our national interest to avert a greater calamity in Bosnia and the Balkans, so it is for other members of NATO and the European Union. The strategic case and the humanitarian case were the twin reasons why I thought it right to commit British troops in 1992. Both those cases apply in equal measure today–which is why I expressly do not wish to see the United Nations protection force withdraw until or unless the risks become wholly unacceptable. I will describe in more detail the developments of the last three weeks. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary warned the House on 9 May that there was a real risk of a relapse into substantial war, in place of the ragged and uncertain peace of previous months. Since then, my right hon. Friend’s words, sadly, have been borne out. There has been a chain reaction of attack and counter-attack by Bosnian Government and Bosnian Serb forces. Both parties have violated the Sarajevo exclusion zone by firing heavy weapons on to the confrontation lines and into the city itself.

On 24 May, the UN Secretary-General’s special representative and the protection force commander made a further attempt to stop the escalating bombardment. They issued an ultimatum that certain heavy weapons should be returned to the collection points and other heavy weapons be removed from the exclusion zone. When the Bosnian Serb army ignored that ultimatum, NATO carried out a successful air strike against an ammunition store near Pale. It did so at the United Nations’ request.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Were the Russians consulted about the ultimatum? Were they consulted about the strike against the ammunition dumps? If not, would it not have been wise to do so?

The Prime Minister: That was, as it was intended to be, a decision on the ground. No individual national Government were directly consulted. There is a proper procedure for determining how such strikes are approved, and that procedure was followed. The troops are there as United Nations troops, with a United Nations commander who happens to be a British general, and they proceeded at the request of the United Nations. I believe that they proceeded correctly.

Shortly afterwards–in deliberate escalation–the Bosnian Serbs launched artillery attacks against the populations of Srebrenica, Gorazde and Tuzla. In the bombardment of Tuzla, 70 people were killed and 130 were injured. They were, I understand, for the most part innocent civilians in a marketplace–men, women and children going about their daily business. They were not armed combatants in the conflict.

Following a second NATO air strike against the ammunition storage complex on 26 May, the Bosnian Serb army began to take United Nations military observers and members of the protection force as hostages. Hon. Members will have seen, in the press and on television, that some of these hostages, in an outrageous breach of international law and of their status as United Nations peacekeepers, were chained to potential targets as so- called “human shields”.

On 27 May, the Bosnian Serb army attacked and captured a French observation post at Sarajevo. The post was subsequently retaken, but one French soldier was killed, 11 were wounded and 10 were taken captive. On Sunday 28 May, United Kingdom and Ukrainian soldiers were taken captive at Gorazde. Some of the Ukrainians were taken by Bosnian Government forces.

I have set out in this brief summary only the bare facts of the situation confronting the United Nations and NATO commanders on the ground, but there is no doubt in my mind that these events mark a qualitative change in the conflict, and one to which we and our partners have no choice but to respond very firmly.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): The House is listening intently, obviously, because of the British soldiers who are being held, but can the Prime Minister tell the House how he reconciles humanitarian aid given by British solders in blue berets with bombing attacks by American pilots in blue berets? Is it possible to combine humanitarian aid with a combative role? Is that not the question to which he should address himself?

The Prime Minister: I think that the right hon. Gentleman knows precisely what has happened when the NATO attacks–not necessarily American: they are NATO planes–in these circumstances have been used, and they have been used as a deterrent to persuade the Bosnians that that sort of activity is not acceptable to the international community in any way whatever.

It is not very long ago–as the right hon. Gentleman will recall, for he will have hated this as much as anyone else did–that the nature of atrocities that we saw at the beginning of this war spread a darkening stain right the way across the conscience of the whole of Europe and the whole of the world as well. I believe, in these circumstances, that we have not only a right but an obligation to take the action that has been taken, to try to bring this conflict to an end and to end the suffering that so many people have faced in Bosnia.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Does the Prime Minister agree with the French Prime Minister that the preparation of those air strikes was not good, and that it led to putting the peacekeepers at risk in a thoughtless way?

The Prime Minister: I said just a moment ago that I thought that it was right for the commanders on the ground to proceed as they did, and I have to say that I do not believe that I am prepared to second-guess the decisions of the commanders on the ground to whom those decisions were delegated, and I do not wish to do so. Let me now turn to the response that I believe we should make, and first to the matter that I believe is most upon the minds of the House this afternoon: the British and the other United Nations troops who have been taken captive and held hostage.

The situation is that more than 350 United Nations personnel–who, I remind the House, have been serving in an impartial humanitarian and peacekeeping role in Bosnia–are now being illegally held by the Bosnian Serb army. Of these, one is a Royal Air Force officer serving as a United Nations military observer, and 33 are officers and men of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who were taken captive last Sunday from observation points around the town of Gorazde, where 336 British solders are based.

Six–not five as previously reported–of the soldiers have apparently been injured in a road accident and are in hospital, although none of them, we believe, is in a serious condition. The fusiliers are thought to be in Visegrad and in both good heart and good health. The taking of United Nations peacekeepers as hostages is a despicable act, which has rightly been condemned around the world. It is without a shred of justification. It will win the Bosnian Serbs no favours and gain them no friends. It will guarantee unremitting hostility to them, and the certainty of pariah status and international isolation.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mon): The Prime Minister will be aware that the whole House and those outside it–particularly in Wales–will be very concerned about the safety and welfare of the 33 young soldiers who have been taken hostage by the Serb aggressors. Will he tell the House today that whatever action he proposes to take will in no way endanger the safety of those young men, and that he will ensure that that action will be taken to secure their early release?

The Prime Minister: I will have something to say in a few moments about what we propose to do. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand why it would be neither wise nor prudent for me to say too much about the matter at this time.

Within hours of the capture of the British troops, we took steps to make it clear, directly and unequivocally, to the Bosnian Serb leadership that the safety of our troops in Bosnia is of vital British interest. We have told Mr. Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, that we shall hold him and General Mladic personally responsible for the well-being and the safe return of our troops. These words are not lightly spoken, and, as I shall explain, we are reinforcing our protection force contingent.

No one should doubt our resolve to secure the safe return of our soldiers. Yet, as we embark on the moves towards such a result, I hope that the House will understand if I do not go into detail about the courses that may be available to us.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East): Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister: In a moment. With the lives of British soldiers at stake, there will be a need for patience, a time for restraint, perhaps at times a need for silence. But if the silences are long, and if the requirement for restraint and patience becomes frustrating, no one in the House should imagine that those soldiers will be forgotten. The work to secure their release will be unremitting.

Mr. Hughes: Does the Prime Minister appreciate that eight members of the Royal Welch Fusiliers are at present unaccounted for? Does he appreciate that there is considerable concern among their relatives back home about their safety?

The Prime Minister: I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the observation post near Gorazde. I understand entirely the points that he has to make. Let me turn to the reason why our forces are in Bosnia–and to what they are not there to do. Our troops have not gone to Bosnia to wage war, but even on humanitarian duties we have seen that they need protection. If they are attacked, they must be able to defend themselves robustly.

The protection force commander in Bosnia, General Smith, knows that he has our complete support. The protection force must be able to take whatever action is necessary in justifiable self-defence. When it does so, it will have the unqualified backing of the British Government–and, I believe, of the British nation. To improve the protection force’s capacity to defend itself, the Government on Sunday night decided to enhance the equipment and manpower available to the force.

At present, we have some 3,400 troops in Bosnia, protecting convoys and monitoring local ceasefires. A further 3,000 men and women from the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy are engaged in the airlift from Italy to Sarajevo; in NATO operations to police the air exclusion zone; in the joint enforcement by NATO and the Western European Union of the arms embargo and trade sanctions; and as contingency reinforcements on a carrier task group.

Anyone who has had the privilege of visiting any of those units, as I have, knows that they have carried out their peacekeeping tasks with scrupulous fairness and with a cool resolve–often in the face of provocation. I believe that we can be truly proud of them. But despite their military professionalism, the troops on the ground in Bosnia now need more protection, and the safety of those troops is, as I said, of vital national interest.

So we have decided to dispatch two artillery batteries and an armoured engineer squadron to Bosnia, totalling around 1,000 personnel. The first detachment, from 19 Field Regiment, left for Bosnia yesterday. Those units will increase our contingent’s armoured capability. Crucially, they will provide artillery. They will be equipped with 12 105 mm light guns. That will provide the protection forces, for the first time, with the artillery that is now necessary as a deterrent and response to bombardment.

That does not mean that we are taking sides in the conflict. The protection force remains neutral, and it remains impartial. But, to defend itself, it now needs a capability to fill the gap between machine guns and air strikes.

The Government have also announced that 24 Air Mobile Brigade has been placed under orders to prepare to deploy to Bosnia. The order to move will be given unless there is a clear and rapid improvement in the situation. We have proposed to the United Nations that the brigade, as United Nations troops, should come under the command of General Rupert Smith in Sarajevo. We are now discussing the details of the deployment with the United Nations.

Let me say a little more about 24 Air Mobile Brigade. It is a flexible, self-contained force of over 5,000 personnel. It is, as its title suggests, able to deploy very rapidly within theatre. Its equipment includes Army and Royal Air Force helicopters, Milan anti-tank weapons, artillery batteries, an air defence battery and engineer and medical support. We have constantly said that the safety of British troops is crucial; our readiness to deploy the Air Mobile Brigade is ample testimony to that.

Let me emphasise one point that I know is of concern to the House, which should not be misunderstood in the House or beyond it. The protection force is in Bosnia as an humanitarian and peacekeeping force. It is not there to impose peace, and it is not equipped or configured to fight a war. Those points are fundamental, and we do not intend that they should be changed.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey): Does the Prime Minister accept that there will be widespread support, both in the House and outside, for the concept that not just serving the British flag but serving the United Nations is among the most honourable of tasks for our armed forces?

Although some may react by saying that, as soon as there is particular danger, the troops should be withdrawn, it is also true–given that these are among the best armed forces in the world, equipped to deal with particular danger–that many in those forces will regard the job they have started as a job that they would rather continue, if that is possible. Not necessarily success, but the attempt to bring about peace on behalf of the international community, is the reason why the forces are there, and the reason why the Government are right to support them in the way that the Prime Minister has announced.

The Prime Minister: I have indicated that I wish our forces to stay there, and I wish the United Nations protection force as a whole to stay there to carry out the job for which it was sent. That job is not yet concluded; I hope that it will be possible for it to remain. We see a strong case for reducing the vulnerability of United Nations personnel– particularly the United Nations military observers, who have been in the most exposed positions. Some may need to be withdrawn, others concentrated and others given stronger protection. The commanders on the ground are best placed to determine precisely how that should be done, in consultation with the Secretary-General and, through him, with the Security Council. I understand that the Secretary-General will shortly be making his recommendations to the Security Council on the future role of the protection forces.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West): Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister: May I make a little progress? Our decisions have been warmly welcomed by the protection force and by other Governments. The contact group agreed on Monday that the protection force should have a rapid reaction capability. France, which at present has the largest contingent in Bosnia, has sent reinforcements to the Adriatic. Some other troop contributors are also thinking of strengthening their contingents.

Madam Speaker, those decisions are intended to help carry UNPROFOR through a dangerous phase. We hope that they will make it more secure, will help it to fulfil its tasks, and will deter further escalation. If we can damp down the level of violence and make progress towards a lasting cessation, at that point the protection force would no longer need the enhanced protection.

However, success for the protection force rests ultimately with the warring parties. I believe that, at this moment, Bosnia is at a turning point. It must be made clear to the parties that, if they turned to all-out war, the protection force would not be equipped to remain. It would be unable to carry out its tasks, and the risks to the troops of all nationalities would be unacceptable.

Withdrawal is not our objective; but our ability to handle withdrawal, if it is forced upon us, would undoubtedly be helped by the further deployment that I have announced to the House today.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay): Before we commit more troops to that theatre who may suffer the same fate as the troops who are already there, will my right hon. Friend comment on the report that the Serbs have said that, if we agree to cease bombing, they will release the hostages? Is that report accurate? If it is, what are we doing to make NATO give us that assurance?

The Prime Minister: I yield to no one in my wish to have those troops returned safely to their units, but I am not entering into that sort of blackmailing deal.

Madam Speaker, in taking those decisions, we have unequivocally signalled our serious intent. We wish to see the protection force remain in Bosnia and continue its work. We wish to restore equilibrium to a situation that has become dangerously unstable. We continue to believe that only a political settlement will end the conflict. There can be no satisfactory and lasting military solution.

The way ahead may yet be rocky and painful. I know that many people, for good and understandable reasons, may advocate withdrawing the forces and, as I have said to the House, circumstances could arise in which that would become inevitable. But withdrawal is not a policy. No one should believe that leaving Bosnia would end the United Kingdom’s interest in the conflict.

Mr. Morgan: I wish to put a question to the Prime Minister on behalf of the families of the 30 Welsh soldiers who are being held in Bosnia. Was it primarily the responsibility of the British Government or of the United Nations to have secured in advance some means of escape for those soldiers who were being held in the very difficult pockets of the further extensions of Bosnia in case things got extremely difficult–as they have done–and there was hostage taking? Whose responsibility was that?

The Prime Minister: I think that we have a joint interest in securing their release. Of course, their deployment is a matter that must be determined on the ground, as the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) and the soldiers themselves would well know. Let me turn to the possible consequences of withdrawing the protection force. If the United Nations left, what would be the likely outcome?

The first likely outcome is that the Muslim areas, including the eastern enclaves, would be likely to come under immediate threat. The bloodshed and loss of life could be massive. Before we sent troops three years ago, Bosnia was on the brink of genocide–of atrocities far worse than we have yet seen. If we depart, I remind the House that those dangers return. Could the west stand idly by and let such actions take place in south-eastern Europe? I doubt it; I truly doubt it. Would we ignore the threat of an all- out Balkan war? Again, I do not believe that we would or should ignore such a threat. Leaving Bosnia–if the protection force is forced to do so–is neither an easy nor a pain-free option. The threats would return if the United Nations protection force withdrew, and we and our allies would have to find other ways of responding to them–ways which could conceivably impose a greater financial and military burden on us than we are now carrying. Those who contemplate withdrawal must think very carefully about the humanitarian consequences and the strategic implications for European security.

At present, UNPROFOR is holding the ring. It must try to continue to do so, while we seek a political solution. Despite every effort by Governments and individuals–notably Lord Owen and Mr. Stoltenberg–the search for a negotiated settlement has been extremely frustrating. For months, progress has been blocked by the intransigence of the Bosnian Serbs.

Over the past week, we have been in close touch with our partners to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts and maximise the pressure on Pale. I have spoken to the Presidents of Russia, the United States and France, the German Chancellor and the Canadian Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has attended meetings of the contact group, NATO and the European Union, and this morning had further discussions with the Russian Foreign Minister.

As a result of those meetings, there is a renewed unity of purpose among contact group Governments. The Russian Government condemned the behaviour of the Bosnian Serbs in the strongest possible language. We wish to see an equally clear stance from President Milosevic. The contact group’s emissary is in Belgrade today. If the contact group can secure the recognition of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the former republic of Yugoslavia, fears or ambitions of a greater Serbia should be laid to rest, and the message to the Bosnian Serbs would be absolutely unmistakable.

I have tried to set out the situation as I see it. It is stark and it is serious, but we cannot avoid it. So I hope the word will go out this afternoon from all parts of the House that British peacekeepers, United Nations peacekeepers, must be released unharmed and unconditionally.

Let us show our forces, whether they are on land, at sea or in the air in the former Yugoslavia and the Adriatic, that they have the total support of the House. They have saved many lives. They have brought peace and hope and a semblance of normality to central Bosnia. They have prevented the spread of war. They are defending British interests and international security. Their courage and professionalism have earned the widest admiration. They deserve our wholehearted backing, and I commend it to the House.