Newsnotes 025 – September 1991

Notes on the News

by Madawc Williams

Serbs and Croats

One of the problems with the United Nations is that its name is a lie. It is not a union of nations but a union of sovereign states. Some of these states barely qualify as nations, some contain several nations, or represent a nation that is also partially in another state. And some of them include minority nations that may or may not have a valid right to secede.

If international law were a serious matter, then there would be some weighty international tribunal where such issues could be impartially investigated and definitely settled, with the world community enforcing and guaranteeing whatever solution had been arrived at. Actually there is such a body, the World Court, except that no one bothers very much about what it decides. The United States underlined the total powerlessness of this court when it simply ignored an unfavourable judgment made against it concerning its covert actions against Nicaragua.

Yugoslavia is breaking up, but it is not a state that can break up tidily. Slovenia is no great problem – it includes few minorities, and these seem confident enough of their future in the new state. Croatia is another matter. Their right to secede has been conceded, but it is hard to see why Serbian areas within Croatia are obliged to go with them. Neither side has actually behaved very well. Croats made no effort to calm Serbian fears, and Croat nationalists identified them with pro-Fascist Croats who had slaughtered huge numbers of Serbs during World War Two. But the Serbs are now using their superior power to grab as much as they think they can hold, as well as denying self-determination to the Albanians of Kosovo.

[Pro-Fascist Croats also killed Jews and Gypsies.  Their modern leader, Franjo Tudjman, was listed as a ‘Denialist’ by Deborah Lipstadt, who famously won a libel suit against David Irving.  But our ‘free’ media managed to hush this up and identify the historically anti-Nazi Serbs with Nazism.]

Sadly, the role of the European Community has not been a creditable one. The community intervened to impose a solution, without having any clear notion of what solution it should be trying to impose. The Croats were encouraged to think that they would be protected against superior Serbian power, but in the event have not been protected.

There is an urgent need to establish some forum where judgments according to international law could actually be made, without the flim-flam and indecision that has always inhibited the United Nations. But any such move would be opposed by the United States, which prefers ‘international law’ to be a glove-puppet that moves when the US so wishes, and at other times is limp and ineffective.

[I had previously criticised Serb Nationalism.  But when the Croats began behaving worse, I reported the new situation.

[Enormous avoidable suffering happened because there was partisan support for Croat claims, rather than an attempt to impose a fair solution.]



Since the Bank of England has been criticised both for being too quick to close down BCCI, and not quick enough, it might seem that they had achieved a reasonable balance. Actually, both sets of charges are justified.

BCCI had been known for years to be a crooked bank, a very bad place for ordinary investors to be encouraged to put their money. There would have been especially good grounds for closing it down during the second half of 1990, when some massive scandals had come to light. But that was the time of the build-up to the Gulf war, and such a blow to Muslim and especially Gulf interests would not have been expedient.

On the other hand, BCCI was finally closed just a few days before the date set for a substantial restructuring. Having let it run so long, this was a very odd point to kill off the bank, just when it seemed possible that things would be put right. The Sheikh of Abu Dhabi vigorously protested against this action, and seemed to have a reasonable case, but we are now in a new world order in which the Gulf states are dependent on western protection. They dare not risk a serious quarrel while Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath are still in charge of Iraq. Which makes one wonder just how sincerely George Bush really does want to get rid of that regime.

Given the new balance of world power, the Bank of England may well have seen a good chance to smash a third-world upstart, and punish those investors who had dared to step outside of the regular banking system. If so, they have probably not acted very cleverly in the long run. If a bank as shady as BCCI can be tolerated for years, and then be suddenly and unexpectedly destroyed, who can feel that any of their money is safe anywhere?



Is it just a coincidence that a series of damaging leaks about Inkatha came out shortly after their rivals in the ANC took a large step towards repudiating their old allies in the South African Communist Party? It had been alleged for years that the South African government was backing Inkatha, but for a mass of solid proof to suddenly emerge suggests that a high-level decision had been made.

In my view, de Klerk is playing a very clever and complex game. He can only be further helped by the fighting between his far-right enemies and the police. He may have connived it, it may have just happened, the important point is that no police force reacts kindly to being attacked, and they are now more likely to support de Klerk against his rivals.

Mr de Klerk is hardly an admirable character, but he does seem to offer the best chance of changing South Africa without a civil war. Given also that the post-Stalin Communist movement has made a total mess of almost every single situation that it has been involved in, I think that Mandela did the right thing.

[A race war was widely expected at the time.  When it did not happen, Mandela was correctly credited for this.  But I think the training he got from the Communists before they became incoherent played a role.

[Inkatha found a role as a sectarian Zulu party.[A]  It was even part of a Unite Coalition till 2004.  Since then it has deservedly dwindled to less than 5%.  Most Zulus – nearly 25% of the population – reject sectarian politics.]


The Grenada 14

America’s traditional pattern of armed intervention to impose its will on its neighbours was ended by the Vietnam War and restarted in Grenada. And it was helped to restart by the brutal and unbelievably stupid actions of Bernard Coard and his followers. Coard and 13 of his associates were until recently under sentence of death, and have now had their sentences commuted at the eleventh hour. If they had been executed, I would have shed no tears for them.

The popular left-wing regime of Maurice Bishop had been under threat from the United States for several years, with a propaganda campaign that presented a perfectly ordinary and justified new airport as a threat to US security. And yet nothing might have happened, had it been left to Maurice Bishop. But in October 1983, Coard and his followers staged a coup and overthrew him. When a mass popular uprising then freed Bishop, Coard’s people fired on the crowd, killing Bishop and seven others.

By this action they wholly lost popular support, and also alienated the Cubans, though Moscow seems to have been pro-Coard. Their actions had so far split and weakened the Grenadan left that Reagan was able to get the support of some other Caribbean leaders and launch a massive invasion of the tiny island. The Cubans, contrary to what was suggested by the media at the time, were under orders only to fight defensively. Had the Americans left them alone they would have gone home quietly. In the event they were attacked as part of the general propaganda exercise, resulting in some wholly pointless bloodshed and the appearance of a grand American victory. One of those sharing in the victory was Norman Schwarzkopf.

Grenada re-established the right of the United States to intervene as and when it saw fit. Wherever possible, some pretext or structure of international law will be invoked, but this is an optional extra. President Bush committed himself to intervention over Kuwait on a unilateral basis, which was only later endorsed as international law by the United Nations. The US is currently in breach of Article 17 of the Geneva Convention, by refusing to say anything about how many Iraqis they killed or where they were buried (The Independent, August 5, 1991). But the New World order is one in which International Law has no force at all unless the US chooses to give it force. And that pattern began with Grenada.

What was Coard thinking of, and why did Moscow support him? The simple truth is that Leninism has always seen rival forms of socialism as hostile and a prime target for suppression. The main difference between Stalin and his successors was that Stalin greatly strengthened the Soviet Union, while socialists in the rest of the world were favoured as the moderate and mild alternative to his methods. Stalin’s successors have weakened and finally wrecked his legacy, doing great damage to other forms of socialism in the process.

It may be that Coard et al. are not guilty under the strict letter of the law, but these were not people who chose to live under the rule of law. They acted ruthlessly and illegally for what they may have seen as good ends, and in the event they got it appallingly wrong. Let them suffer the consequences.

[Coard stayed in jail to 2009.  “Upon release he said he did not want to be involved in politics again.[B]


Watchers of the skies

“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
“When a new planet swims into his ken”.

Thus did a young medical student called John Keats commemorate Herschel’s discovery of the planet Uranus a few years previously. Sad to say, critics of poetry all come from the ‘arts’ side of our educational system. The subsequent lines about stout Cortez first seeing the Pacific ocean from a peak in Darien has become a piece of standard cultural knowledge, and you often get learned notes attached, saying that the first European to see the Pacific was in fact Balboa. But the analogous discovery of a new planet is outside the range of what they think proper for poetry, and is always passed over in silence. Equally, people on the science side seem to see poetry as ‘swum out of their ken’ – no one seems to have made the connection when another new planet was discovered back in July.

Almost all astronomers believe that Earth-like planets are very common in the galaxy, but they still await final proof that this is so. Some claims for planets round other stars have turned out to be errors: some ‘planets’ seem in fact to be Brown Dwarves, objects intermediate between large planets and small stars. Clouds of dust of the sort that ought to form planets have been found round some young stars. And now we have the latest discovery, of something rather Earth-like, revolving round a peculiar sort of star called a pulsar.

No one has yet found an Earth-like planet going round ordinary stars – even the most modern telescopes are not quite up to it. Yet it is ever more likely that they do in fact exist. Some at least of these should have evolved intelligence, and we should be able to detect by their radio broadcasts, if they were anything like us. Since no such broadcasts have so far been discovered, it is reasonable to conclude that the pattern of our 20th century global society is not a stable one. Either it evolves into something that would not wantonly exploit or disturb more primitive societies. Or else it self-destructs.

[This was pulsar PSR B1829−10, which turned out to be an error.  But in 1992, a genuine pulsar planet was found around pulsar PSR B1257+12.  And exoplanets around normal stars were found from 1995, beginning with the ‘Hot Jupiter’ found orbiting the star 51 Pegasi.

[It also looks like solar systems similar to our own are quite rate – perhaps very rare, though planets very close to their star are easier to detect.

[There has been much speculation about alien intelligences.  But the notion that a society that ‘evolves into something that would not wantonly exploit or disturb more primitive societies’ is very unpopular.  The nasty sentiments widespread from the 1980s seem to have a grip on most minds.]


This article appeared in September 1991, in Issue 25 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at