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Lord David Owen

Lord David Owen, a British politician and diplomat, was European Union Co-Chairman of the International Conference on the former Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1995. He co-designed two peace plans for Bosnia - the “Vance-Owen Plan” and the “Owen-Stoltenberg Plan” - both of which collapsed in the course of 1993.

Lord David Owen describes for the court his views on Slobodan Milošević’s character.

"He was a communist, not on a Soviet model, but he was not a democrat. He didn't make too much secret of that. He came out of a system, he adapted it and modified it. Yugoslavia had already changed and modified his structure but it was basically authoritarian. He wasn't just nominally president, he was an all-powerful president."

Lord David Owen was called by the Trial Chamber to give testimony in the case against Slobodan Milošević. Owen detailed his numerous interactions with Milošević from 1992 to 1995 while he co-chaired the International Conference on the former Yugoslavia (together with American diplomat Cyrus Vance, and later, Swedish diplomat Thorvald Stoltenberg), which was mandated to broker a peace deal to end the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Owen was convinced that at the beginning of the war, Milošević held power over the Bosnian Serbs. To him, it was obvious that Milošević aided the Bosnian Serb military effort from the very outset, and that they could not have succeeded without him. “…I think the Bosnian Serb army could not have survived its fight from the moment that Bosnia-Herzegovina was recognised as an independent country [in 1992]… if they had not been supported by the former Yugoslavia.”

One example of this support related to the international embargo on military equipment and oil supplies to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Despite Milošević’s ability to seal the country’s eastern border with Serbia, which was held by Bosnian Serbs, it remained porous. Owen assumed that it was Milošević who was “turning a blind eye” to the violations, and that from September 1994 he also “ensur[ed] that key items of equipment and logistical support got through to [Bosnian Army commander] General [Ratko] Mladić [later indicted by the Tribunal for war crimes]…” Explaining Milošević’s support for the Bosnian Serbs, Owen said, “He wasn't about to ensure that they were defeated in war.”

According to Owen, the failure to enforce the blockade was a critical missed opportunity. Had it been done, Owen said, “we would have brought peace to Bosnia two years earlier with massive saving of life and much reduced ethnic cleansing.”

Between January and June 1993, Owen sought agreement from the parties to the conflict for the peace deal that he and his co-chairman, Cyrus Vance, had authored. Known as the “Vance-Owen Peace Plan,” the deal postulated the division of Bosnia into ten semi-autonomous regions. Owen affirmed that at that time, Milošević’s influence on the Bosnian Serbs was strong.

By way of example, Owen recalled Milošević’s intervention with Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladić to prevent Bosnian Serbs from capturing the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica in the spring of 1993. On 18 April, Owen spoke to Milošević over the phone. He recalled in court, “I rarely heard Milošević so exasperated and also so worried. He feared that if the Bosnian Serb troops entered Srebrenica, there would be a bloodbath…” Owen claimed that the attack was scrapped on Milošević’s intercession.

On the other hand, Owen stated that many times Milošević held back from using his influence over the Bosnian Serbs to achieve positive results. Most notably, in Owen’s view, Milošević allowed the Vance-Owen Peace Plan to fall through in May and June 1993. Although Milošević showed that he supported the deal, Owen felt that he probably deemed it a temporary solution, gambling on the Serb entities to be merged in time, and also counting on Serb forces to seize the territory they pursued.

The Bosnian Serb Assembly rejected the Vance-Owen Peace Plan in May 1993. Owen believed that this was due to Milošević’s failure to flex his political muscle. “It was a massive mistake by President Milošević not to use his undoubted power to impose on his fellow Serbs in Bosnia those same settlements, and had he done so it would have been in the best interests of the Serbian people as a whole.”

In Owen’s view, in the course of 1993, Bosnian Serbs started to break free from Milošević’s embrace and gained more confidence to shape their own policy, often against the wishes of their political godfather. Owen stated that Milošević no doubt encountered more resistance from Bosnian Serb leaders, and that their President Radovan Karadžić, Assembly President Momčilo Krajišnik (both of whom the Tribunal later indicted), and particularly army commander Ratko Mladić, had more independent sources of power among the Bosnian Serbs. However, “I would still maintain he [Milošević] did actually have the power to impose a settlement,” said Owen. Although Owen believed that Milošević’s exasperation with his adjutants’ failure to comply with his wishes was genuine, “… again there was always this refusal to force agreement, to impose it…”

In his testimony, Owen also shared his knowledge about the siege of Sarajevo, asserting that the city could have been captured by the Serbs at any time, but it was held in clinch as a handy bargaining chip for eastern Bosnia.

While looking back on his mediation work with the Serb leader, Owen gives a portrayal of Milošević as a negotiator; a man who was able to tell blatant lies and who was exceedingly skilled in testing the international community’s determination to impose solutions. Milošević’s tactic was to pounce at every opportunity that he sensed a lack of resolve, and buying time in protracted negotiations.

David Owen started his political career in 1960 when he joined the Labour Party. In 1977, when he was 38, Owen became the youngest Foreign Secretary in UK history. In 1981 he left the Labour Party in disagreement with its increasingly leftist shift, and became one of the founders of the British Social Democratic Party (SDP). In 1992, he stepped down as a Member of Parliament, received peerage and joined the House of Lords. In the same year, Lord Owen was appointed EU Co-Chairman of the International Conference on the former Yugoslavia, serving in that position until 1995. On his return to Britain, he became Chancellor of the University of Liverpool. David Owen published a book entitled “The Balkan Odyssey” where he gave a full account of his Yugoslav mediation efforts.

Read Lord David Owen's full testimony on 3 November 2003 and on 4 November 2003.