bosnia report
No. 2 December - 1993
New Light on Owen
by By Noel Malcolm

On 30 July 1992 Lord Owen wrote a letter to John Major demanding military action against Serbian aggression in Bosnia. "Satellite and air reconnaissance could pinpoint any unauthorized military activity", he wrote, "and retaliatory airstrikes could be mounted from Nato airfields". A few days later, in early August, The Times published an article by him, outlining the same arguments, under the title: "When it is Right to Fight". So when the decision was announced at the end of that month to appoint Lord Owen as EEC negotiator on ex-Yugoslavia, it was seen as a clear warning that Europe was prepared to get tough with Serbia.

And yet, within weeks, Lord Owen had changed his tune. By 12 September 1992 he was arguing against tightening sanctions on Belgrade, and urging the world to give the "Yugoslav" government what he called "the benefit of the doubt". Of course he continued to insist that "we have to convince the Muslims that they are not going to be the victims of Realpolitik". But at Geneva during the summer of 1993 Lord Owen's main aim was indeed to convince "the Muslims" of precisely that - and to warn them that if they did not accept whatever Realpolitik was offering them now, they would be offered even less in future.

What thought processes, arguments or assumptions produced this change of approach? Two recent speeches he has made, in Dublin on 16 November and in London on 25 November, shed some important new light on his thinking.

The first common theme to emerge from these speeches is a highly questionable form of Great Power Realpolitik. "As Yugoslavia began to break up in 1991, the Western democracies saw their first challenge to ensure that the Russian Federation was not turned away from democratic and economic reforms because of the West's handling of the Serbs, Russia's traditional ally" (London speech). So Bosnia was sacrificed as a pawn for fear of offending the former Red Queen. The idea that the Russian government would have stopped its "democratic and economic reforms" out of pique if Serbian aggression had been checked in Bosnia is of course absurd, not least because Mr Yeltsin was begging the West for $40 billion at the time. But the fear of doing anything that might in any way "polarise the Security Council" (Dublin speech) was felt particularly strongly in the British Foreign Office. On this point, Lord Owen seems to have swallowed the line from London.

"To end a war", Lord Owen began his London speech. "you have to try and understand its origins". Listeners might have expected him to go on to describe the policies of Milosevic from 1987, his handling of Kosova and Serbian nationalism, his attempts to control and/or dismantle the Yugoslav federal constitution, and so on. But Lord Owen mentioned none of this. Most of his speech was about fighting in Yugoslavia during World War II.

He characterised the present fighting as "revenge" for what happened then, and talked about "ethnic violence" repeating itself in two great "cycles" in the 1940s and the 1990s. On this point, Lord Owen seems to have swallowed the line from Belgrade and Pale - which says that what has been done in Bosnia was caused not by the politicians and gunmen who did it, but by impersonal and inevitable forces of history.

It is only a short step from seeing something as inevitable to regarding it as ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ̸unstoppable. The most extraordinary section of Owen's Dublin speech compared the war to a disease which must be allowed to run its course. "As physicians and surgeons we have long been aware of the dangers of simply responding to the cry to "do something". All too often we know that an illness has to work its way through the system. As a protective mechanism the medical profession has developed the skill of masterly inactivity . . . Politicians need some of the same skills".

The question-begging and complacency of these remarks are startling enough. And yet later in the same speech Owen makes a suggestion which, translated into his medical metaphor, implies that you can stop the disease after all by starving the patient to death. He suggests stopping all aid in the spring to ensure that "we will at least not fuel with food" a continuation of the war. So much for medical ethics.

The final statement from this Dublin speech must also be recorded: "In a strict interpretation of the facts I have on a number of occasions facilitated ethnic cleansing". But the admission here is not as large as it could be. He is referring only to the transporting of refugees: he is not admitting what Tadeusz Mazowiecki pointed out in May 1993, which is that the Vance Owen plan was itself a cause of ethnic cleansing. Nor does he realise, perhaps, just how far he has facilitated the destruction of Bosnia by becoming little more than a mouthpiece for the misinformation which emanates from London, Pale and Belgrade.


   Table of contents

  Latest issue



  Support the Institute


home | about us | publications | events | news | Library | contact | bosnia | search | bosnia report | credits