bosnia report
New Series No: 23/24/25 June - October 2001
Back to the future
by Esad Hecimovic

The refusal by Srdjan Dizdarevic, president of the B-H Helsinki Committee, to meet Jose Cutileiro, the UN special envoy for human rights, has renewed the debate on whether the Cutileiro Plan of 1992 sought ‘ethnic division of Bosnia’, as Dizdarevic claims, or ‘an early solution of the Bosnian crisis that would have minimised Muslim losses in particular’, as claimed by Cutileiro.



Esad Hecimovic

Back to the Future



‘While travelling to Gornji Vakuf I realised how impossible it would be to divide Bosnia into ethnic cantons. The villages are essentially either Croat or Muslim, but they themselves are intermingled and Serbs too live there. In times of trouble fear makes each village establish its own checkpoint, which need not be loyal to any army in particular - they are a product of local fear and controlled by locally induced emotions - and which make movement through such areas difficult’, wrote British colonel Bob Stewart during his journey through central Bosnia on 29 November 1992. Colonel Stewart's thoughts on the impossibility of dividing Bosnia into ethnic cantons were a pertinent reflection on the only plan which the international community had offered, and which envisaged B-H's division into three or more ethnic cantons. The plan was known as the Cutileiro Plan, after the Portugese diplomat who presided on behalf of the European Community/Union over the negotiations on Bosnia's constitutional re-organisation which were conducted in Sarajevo. Lisbon and Brussels between 13 February and 27 May 1992.

His first introductory talk with the leaders of the parliamentary parties took place in Sarajevo on 14 February 1992. The first draft plan, however, was distributed to the participants at the following meeting in Lisbon, on 21-22 February. After supper Cutileiro gave to Radovan Karadzic (SDS), Mate Boban (HDZ) and Alija Izetbegovic (SDA) a document entitled ‘Declaration on the principles of the new constitutional organisation of Bosnia-Herzegovina’. The SDA delegation, which included Alija Izetbegovic, Haris Silajdzic and Rusmir Mahmutcehajic, returned to their hotel and spent the next hours studying the brief text. Its first article stated that: ‘B-H will consist of three states’. The SDA delegation, after consulting its HDZ counterpart, decided to make their objections clear to Cutileiro on the following day. The Lisbon negotiations took the form of each delegation visiting Cutileiro's office, where he sat flanked by a Portugese and an English diplomat. The SDA trojka told Cutileiro that they had been given ‘the Serb proposal translated into English’.

Sugaring the pill

After some debate, Cutileiro handed the Bosnian political and national leaders another document. As Izetbegovic explained after his return to Sarajevo, saying that nothing had been signed or agreed: ‘The second document no longer referred to "states" but to "units". The part dealing with Sarajevo was omitted: rather then being extra-territorial, Sarajevo now appeared as the capital of Bosnia or possibly one of its regions. In other words, the offer had been improved and appeared to advocate a Swiss-type federation, in which some crucial functions would be left to the central state, such as national bank, army, police, law-making, justice, human rights, etc. But ethnically-based regions remained: that was the essential issue. They gave us this and said they wished to hear our views; that this was a proposal for consideration until our next meeting, their view of things, how they saw the division of functions: if regions were established it would be necessary to decide what would be their prerogatives and what the prerogatives of the central state. And, of course, there was the problem of how to draw the maps - this work remained to be done’.


In the Lisbon Declaration distributed by Cutileiro Bosnia appeared as an ‘independent state made up of three units’. The units were not named. It was said that the concept of the component units would have to be discussed further. The negotiations continued in Sarajevo on 28 February, in Brussels on 7 and 8 March, and again in Sarajevo on 18 March.

The Brussels talks, conducted in the ‘Elizabeth’ suite on the 26th floor of the Hilton hotel, were interesting to journalists because Cutileiro spent three hours in conference with Radovan Karadzic, who had brought prepared maps and asked that everything should be signed immediately. This, however, did not happen. The fifth round of negotiations took place in the Konak hotel in Sarajevo on 16-17 March, and ended in the early hours of 18 March. The first paragraph of the Sarajevo Declaration stated that ‘B-H will be a state made up of three constituent units based on the ethnic principle but taking into account economic, geographical and other criteria’. It was not clear whether the agreement had been signed or not. Cutileiro was not able to enlighten the journalists on this point.

Defending ethnic partition

Following the end of the war in B-H, Cutileiro publicly argued that his plan, if adopted, would have prevented the war. His letter to The Economist of 9 December 1995 contested the view, expressed in an article published on 25 November, according to which the Bosnian constitution proposed by

Cutileiro and Carrington would have transformed the country into a confederation of Swiss-type cantons, and that the Muslims had rejected it because they saw it as Bosnia's partition. According to Cutileiro, who was now General Secretary of the Western European Union: ‘Not quite. After several rounds of talks our "principles for future constitutional arrangements for Bosnia and Hercegovina" were agreed by the three parties (Muslim, Serb and Croat) in Sarajevo on 18 March 1992 as the basis for further negotiations. These continued, maps and all, until the summer, when the Muslims reneged on the agreement. Had they not done so, the Bosnian question might have been settled earlier, with less loss of (mainly Muslim) life and land. To be fair, Izetbegovic and his aides were encouraged to scupper that deal and to fight for a unitary Bosnian state by well-meaning outsiders who thought they knew better.’

The accusation was directed at Warren Zimmerman, who was at the time the US ambassador to Belgrade. Both Izetbegovic and Zimmerman denied the charge. In an interview published in the Belgrade weekly Vreme, Zimmerman said: ‘I saw him [Izetbegovic] on his return from Lisbon. He told me he had accepted an agreement which he did not like. I told him: "If you did not like it, why did you sign it?" I tried to persuade him not to withdraw from negotiations, since my government's view was that we would support whatever the three parties agreed with the European Union. New York Times misrepresentation of this occasion was subsequently endlessly repeated in the Serb press.’

The reference is to the New York Times of August 1993 (‘US policy makers on Bosnia admit error in opposing partition in 1992’), in which David Binder wrote: ‘The three Bosnian leaders gave their support on 23 February in Lisbon to the proposal that the republic be divided into three ethnic regions. Izetbegovic’s acceptance of the division, which denied to him and his party a dominant role in the republic, shocked American policy makers. Ambassador Zimmerman telephoned him after his return to Sarajevo and asked him why he had signed a plan he did not like.’ In his article Binder also wrote that ‘on 16 March Karadzic had warned of "a civil war between the ethnic groups and regions leading to hundreds of thousands of dead and the destruction of hundreds of cities". The three leaders met that day and signed a new agreement which divided Bosnia into "three constituent units" based on ethnic criteria. Karadzic euphorically called this "a great day for B-H". In the following days, however, Izetbegovic expressed grave reservations, saying he had accepted this plan only because the Europeans had told him that he had to sign in order to be granted international recognition.’ In his Memoirs Izetbegovic writes that ‘no one, including Ambassador Zimmerman, suggested or promised Western diplomatic or military intervention to stop the Serbian aggression if he refused to sign the Cutileiro Plan’.

Praise from the enemy

In a letter to the Belgrade weekly NIN, General Milan Kukanjac, commander of the Sarajevo military district, wrote: ‘I must stress that Cutileiro, together with General Lewis MacKenzie, was the most objective and honest person involved in the resolution of the Bosnian crisis. We had many meetings dedicated to how to unravel this knot. He would say: "I am not getting anywhere with the political leaders and need your help." To the good fortune of the B-H citizens, a plan was accepted and signed on the morning of 2 May 1922 in Lisbon, according to which the Serbs would gain 52%, the Muslims 30% and the Croats 18% of B-H territory. The Serb, Croat and Muslim leaders accepted and initialled this plan, but there were complications which led to the plan being abandoned. The plan was "torpedoed" by the Muslim side at the insistence of Warren Zimmerman and several other personalities.’ Kukanjac did not mention what happened next.

The truth is that during April 1992, despite Cutileiro’s mediation, the conflict had gained in intensity. Cutileiro visited Sarajevo on 11 and 12 April and invited the Bosnian politicians to Lisbon. New negotiations took place between 28 April and 2 May, when Izetbegovic decided to return to Sarajevo in view of the worsening situation in B-H. Upon their arrival at the Sarajevo airport the whole delegation, which included Zlatko Lagumdzija, was abducted and imprisoned in the JNA barracks in Lukavica. Cutileiro convened another conference on 21 May, but the negotiations were broken "at the request of the Muslim side" on 27 May 1992, after an artillery shell had exploded in Sarajevo’s Vaso Miskin street, killing a score of people waiting in a bread queue.

During Cutileiro’s negotiations with Karadzic, Boban and Izetbegovic, numerous grave crimes were committed against B-H civilians in Sarajevo, the Banja Luka area, northern Bosnia and elsewhere. The Portugese diplomat, however, concentrated on drafting documents and drawing maps, thus proving that he did not know a crime when he saw one and could not tell the difference between appeasing the criminal and protecting the victim. Several years on Cutileiro was still unable to see what the brave Colonel Stewart had realised during his visit to central Bosnia at the end of 1992: that it was impossible to make ethnic cantons in an ethnically intermingled land. In the spring of 1993, when following the establishment of ethnic cantons in line with the Vance-Owen Plan crimes were committed in Ahmici and elsewhere, Colonel Stewart did not negotiate or offer concessions to the criminals, but instead did all he could to publicize the crime and ensure that the criminals be punished. Stewart did what diplomats like Cutileiro had failed to do. The imposition of a division into ethnic cantons, in accordance with both the Cutileiro and the Vance-Owen plans, was conducive not to the prevention but to the committing of mass crimes against civilians.

The imposition of ethnic supremacy suspended the rights of ‘national minorities’, which Cutileiro's plan had proclaimed on paper. His assumed role of protector of human rights in this region is consequently an insult to the memory of the victims who died because the Portugese diplomat and his masters chose not to confront the criminals but rather to support their plans.

This resume of Cutileiro’s efforts in 1992 was published in Dani (Sarajevo), 20 July 2001.


   Table of contents

  Latest issue



  Support the Institute


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