- Balkan Odyssey
Lord David Owen’s Balkan Odyssey is a journey along the arduous and complex road of a peace negotiator in the former Yugoslavia from September 1992 to June 1995. The book highlights the difficulties of peacemaking when there is little international consensus, let alone will among the warring parties, for a fair settlement. According to Lord Owen, the “balance to be struck in international diplomacy between waiting for the ideal and settling for the achievable is never an easy one to find.” Of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia that Lord Owen worked to resolve, it was the Bosnian conflict that made him well-known and controversial and which dominates most of the book.
After war in Bosnia exploded out of European Community (EC) control in April 1992, the 12 member states forged an International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia (ICFY) with the United Nations in order to reach a political solution to the fighting. Lord Owen, the EC negotiator, and his UN counterparts, Cyrus Vance and Thorvald Stoltenberg, had the impossible task of designing a political solution that would reverse the effects of “ethnic cleansing” and ensure that Bosnia remain a single state without the threat of force. The negotiators were armed only with their moral authority, since the international community failed to back up countless Security Council resolutions with the right amount of force and troops. Instead, a humanitarian intervention was initiated while a war was raging in Bosnia.
The only plan proposed by the ICFY was the Vance-Owen Peace Plan (VOPP) of March 1993. According to Lord Owen, “we knew as Co-Chairmen we would have to put down as the judgment of Solomon a map for the provinces, and then fight for it and stick to it with all the tenacity we could muster.” The VOPP attempted to preserve the multi-ethnic character of a unified Bosnia, albeit in 10 provinces or “little Bosnia’s.”
Lord Owen asserts that countless hours of studying Bosnia-Herzegovina gave him and the ICFY as a whole a superior feeling for a fair settlement, with particular attention to the Bosnian Muslims who were the principle victims of the war. He writes: “I liked to get into the minds [End Page 215] of those with whom I was going to negotiate.” Concerning Bosnian President Izetbegovic, Lord Owen argues that he was not “manipulative and untrustworthy,” which was how some people viewed him. In addition, toward the end of his book he says that “the record will show that [the ICFY was] the most consistent protectors of the interests of the Bosnian Muslim citizens.”
As an individual who was present as an interpreter at meetings between the ICFY and the Bosnian Croat delegation, I felt that Lord Owen was more interested in achieving a settlement than fighting for the interests of Bosnian Muslims. Lord Owen specifically mentioned that the present Muslim-led Bosnian government could lose its international legitimacy if it did not negotiate in meetings with the Bosnian Croat delegation. It is possible to fathom the occurrence of this situation had it not been for members of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Muslim world who have influence in the UN General Assembly and single-handedly promoted Bosnia’s UN membership during the crucial period at the end of 1992.
At another occasion he expressed bitter dismay after he found out that President Izetbegovic lied to Croatian President Tudjman about accepting a proposed military agreement with the Bosnian Croats. This event, although omitted in the book, occurred at the March 1993 signing of the VOPP, which Lord Owen characterized as a “bizarre ceremony in the basement of the UN building” and was one of the reasons the ICFY, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs waited four hours for the Bosnian government delegation to arrive.
When he agreed to reverse “ethnic cleansing,” Lord Owen thought that border changes should also be explored for a comprehensive settlement for all of Yugoslavia’s problems. He believed that it might be possible to construct a mutually agreed upon change in international...