One of the rare, sane, objective accounts of the tragedies of internecine warfare in the former Yugoslavia was presented by former British Foreign Secretary, Lord David Owen, whose “Balkan Odyssey” recounts his intimate personal knowledge of almost every aspect of that horrific struggle, and places it in the historic context required for understanding the xenophobic passions that have sometimes characterized those atrocities.
We all learnt at school that on 28 June 1914 the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated while visiting Sarajevo. Yet I suspect I am not alone in never realizing that the visit was made with deliberate Austrian provocation on Serbia’s National Day, comparable – according to the historian A.J.P. Taylor – to sending a member of the British royal family to Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day at the height of the troubles. On 23 July the Austrian government, knowing that the assassination had been done by a Bosnian Serb with the nationalist motive of achieving a greater Serbia, sent a threatening and humiliating ultimatum to the Serbian government. The British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, offered to mediate and attempted to persuade the German government to restrain the incompetent militarists in Vienna. Despite the Serbian government accepting virtually every demand and satisfying Kaiser Wilhelm sufficient for him to comment ‘every reason for war disappears,’ on 28 July Vienna declared war and the Austro-Hungarian armies started to bombard Belgrade. Within six weeks Grey was declaring ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe,’ and a war which claimed 8 million lives in Europe had begun.
In April 1941 Germany attacked Yugoslavia and the German Luftwaffe bombed Belgrade, killing between 5,000 and 17,000 civilians. Hitler proceeded rapidly to dismember Yugoslavia, giving parts of it to Nazi Germany’s allies Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. The Nazis also endorsed the creation of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), which included Bosnia-Herzegovina, divided into German and Italian spheres of influence, with the Croat Fascist Pavelic as its puppet ruler. Over the next few years Pavelic and his armed Ustashas committed atrocities and massacres of an unspeakable kind. Later Nuremberg judged what happened to the Serbs at the hands of the Croats and the Germans as genocide. No one knows exactly how many Serbs were killed The Serbs say three-quarters of a million, the Germans 350,000. Whatever the number, it is hard to deny that these killings are an essential part of the background to the wars of disintegration today in the former Yugoslavia. ..Although there were cases of Ustasha atrocities against Muslims, there were also other incidents where Muslims were encouraged by the authorities to massacre Serbs.
Carrying a peace plan designed to stem the hemorrhage of wars in the disintegrated Yugoslavia, Lord David Owen, a man of brilliance and intellectual integrity arrived at the United Nations, early in 1993, after confronting an obediently indoctrinated editorial board of The New York Times, where he denounced their servile demonization of the Serbs: Lord Owen scathingly declared:
“Don’t speak to me of Serb atrocities! All sides are guilty of committing atrocities.” As a result of his principled refusal to get on board the bandwagon demonizing the Serbs, Lord Owen was savagely attacked by the Times editorial Board. Appalled and disgusted by their crude attitude, David Owen walked out of that first meeting stating: “When you are prepared to behave in a civilized manner, I am prepared to discuss this.”
Lord Owen’s voice of reason and objectivity, and his determination to negotiate a peaceful end to the bloodshed in the Balkan wars was sabotaged by those whose geopolitical agenda was impeded by the Vance-Owen Peace Plan, and the efforts by Lord David Owen and former US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to achieve a negotiated settlement of the crisis. Lord Owen was unpopular with the mainstream media, which was promulgating the US-NATO agenda, obsequiously cultivating Bosnian President Alia Izetbegovic, whom they, with great familiarity nicknamed: “Izzy,” while waiting sometimes twelve hours on a Sunday at the VIP entrance to the Secretary-General’s office, hoping for further opportunities to ingratiate themselves with him.
David Owen’s possessed an extraordinary capacity to illuminate even the most complex and obscure situations in the former Yugoslavia, and his great personal familiarity with the warring territories’ geographic terrain was the basis for his fascinating explanation of the imperative need for extreme caution in the use of air strikes. He stated:
“in densely forested areas, you think you are bombing a heavy weapons depot, and discover that instead you have just destroyed an entire village.” Lord Owen’s allegiance to fact and truth and peace was an impediment to another, and alien geopolitical agenda, and a mere 5 months after his arrival at the UN I was informed by a Washington Post colleague that “Lord Owen is no longer welcome on this side of the Atlantic.”
Having dispatched Lord Owen and the Vance-Owen Peace Plan, the way was now clear for further bloodshed in the Balkans, especially the events raised at the recent UN Security Council meeting SC11961, The Situation in “Bosnia and Herzogovina.” Russia vetoed the draft resolution put forth that day, which stated, among other allegations:
Agrees that acceptance of the tragic events at Srebrenica as genocide is a prerequisite for reconciliation, calls upon political leaders on all sides to acknowledge and accept the fact of proven crimes as established by the courts, and in this context, condemns denial of this genocide as hindering efforts towards reconciliation, and recognizes also that continued denial is deeply distressing for the victims.
China abstained on the draft resolution, with Ambassador Liu Jieyi stating:
“Currently, Security Council members still have grave concerns about the draft resolution to commemorate the Srebrenica event (S/2015/508). To force a vote on a draft resolution on which major differences still remain is not in conformity with national reconciliation within Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the region at large. It will also affect the unity of the members of the Council. China believes that the council members can continue their exchange of views on the draft resolution, but should refrain from hasty actions.”
Before the vote, Russian Ambassador Churkin stated:
“The British draft resolution immediately aroused an extremely painful reaction in Bosnia and Herzogovina and beyond. The diametrically opposed proposals coming from the various entities in Bosnia and Herzogovina serve to illustrate that the draft resolution before us will not promote peace in the Balkans, but will instead doom the region to tension and make the prospects for sustainable peace ever more remote…Given that there is no consensus on this issue in Bosnia and Herzogovina itself – as the Council is aware, neither in the country’s Parliament or among the members of the Presidency – the Council’s adoption of this draft resolution in its present form would be completely counterproductive and lead to greater tension in the region….We therefore appeal to the authors of the draft resolution and to you, Mr. President, not to put the draft resolution to the vote. Otherwise, we will be forced to vote against it for the reasons I have set out here..”
The United States Ambassador stated:
“I was a 24 year old reporter in July 1995 living in Sarajevo when the Bosnian Serbs made their move on Srebrenica. I was there when, a few days after the Srebrenica safe area fell, a colleague first told me about reports of mass executions. ‘No!’ was all I could say. ‘No!’”
The US Ambassador was evidently ignorant of facts documented by Lord David Owen, which would have tempered her self-righteous and melodramatic remarks: (page 105 of “Balkan Odyssey”)
“I sent a personal telegram to Robin Renwick in Washington which spelt out the issues and my frustration with the Clinton administration very frankly: ‘We have this Administration briefing the press in a way that could not but stiffen those Muslims who want to continue the war. We have Sacirbey openly telling everyone that the US Administration has said that they should not feel any need to sign the map. We know that Tudjman had formal representations from the US against the Croats putting any pressure on the Muslims to sign up for our package.’ The telegram also referred to the most flagrant and best-documented episode of Muslim army units provoking the Serbs to fire on their fellow Muslims. An UNMO team near Kosovo hospital in Sarajevo had witnessed a Bosnian government mortar crew set up in the grounds of the hospital and fire over the hospital into a Serb area. They had quickly packed up and gone, only for the UNMOs to see a television crew arrive and then record the retaliatory Serb shelling of the hospital. It was the very hospital that I had visited the month before and which had so shocked me with its shell holes in the recovery room. I asked General Morillon why the UN had not gone public on the issue; he wanted the truth out but said ‘we’ve got to live here.’ ..But I found this particular Muslim provocation, involving the very hospital about the shelling of which I had personally protested strongly to General Mladic a few weeks before, especially troubling. Even at that time there was a feeling among some in UNPROFOR that the albeit only a small element in the continuous sniping in the central part of Muslim held Sarajevo, was being undertaken by Muslim units firing on their own people. Those suspicions were never confirmed until August 1995 when a French UN team pinpointed some of the sniping to a building which they knew was controlled by the Bosnian government forces.”
Owen later stated:
“Against all the odds, even against my own expectations, we have more or less got a settlement but we have a problem. We can’t get the Muslims on board. And that’s largely the fault of the Americans, because the Muslims won’t budge while they think Washington may come into it on their side any day now. What do they want down there, a war that goes on and on?”
During the UN Security Council meeting on Bosnia and Herzegovina, the US Ambassador, selectively choosing the “genocides” she condemns, stated: “If the mothers of the boys executed in Srebrenica – boys executed just because they were Bosnian Muslims – were present today, they would ask how anybody could abstain on their reality,” (clearly a swipe at China), “but, far worse, they would ask how any country could use the privilege of permanent membership on the Council to negate entirely what has happened to them.”
The then 24 year old US Ambassador in Sarajevo in 1995 was evidently ignorant of, or flagrantly ignored the facts documented by the more impartial Lord David Owen: (Page 352, “Balkan Odyssey”): “The Croatian attack into Western Slavonia in the Western UNPA in early May 1995 resulted in 15,000 Croatian Serb refugees fleeing across the border into the Banja Luka district. The Croatian government attack on the Krajina in early August 1995 created the biggest single flood of refugees – over 150,000 Croatian Serbs – in the break-up of Yugoslavia….in the three and a half months from May to August 1995 the map of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina was dramatically changed. The loss of life and casualties from the fighting were accompanied by appalling atrocities and ethnic cleansing by all parties on a scale that we had not seen before in such a concentrated period of time.”
Following the vote, the Chinese Ambassador stated:
“China notes that the draft resolution introduced by some countries on the commemoration of the Srebrenica event has given rise to controversy within Bosnia and the countries of the region, and that some Council members have strong reservations on the draft. In such circumstances, forcing a vote on a contentious draft resolution goes against the spirit of promoting reconciliation within Bosnia and Herzegovina and among regional countries, and undermines unity among the Council members. China regrets that, and was therefore compelled to abstain in the voting on the draft resolution.”
The West’s attempt to demonize the Serbs, a loyal ally of Russia, is discredited by that most courageous and honorable Englishman, Lord David Owen, who recognized, both that blame and responsibility must be shared by all parties to those deadly conflicts, and that there was a historic context that could never be ignored, which fueled the hatreds. As Jews could never forget Auschwitz, and the genocide called the “holocaust,” as Armenians could never forget the massacre by the Turks, which the UN has declined to describe as genocide, so the Serbs and the world should never forget the Jasenovic Concentration Camp, where more than half a million Serbs were hideously murdered, with the blessing of the Vatican and Pope Pius XII. The Nuremberg Tribunals described the massacre of the Serbs during World War II as genocide.
Probably the most relevant objection to the draft resolution was put forth by the Russian Ambassador when he stated:
“We recently marked the fortieth anniversary of the end of the war in Viet Nam. Why did we not hold a Security Council meeting to commemorate that? Why was no draft resolution presented to condemn the carpet-bombing of Hanoi, the use of napalm, or the massacre in My Lai led by Lieutenant Calley, who was pardoned by the President of the United States? We also recently marked the tenth anniversary of the illegal invasion of Iraq by the United States and the United Kingdom, as a result of which over a million people may have perished and the entire region remains in crisis to this very day. Why have the United States and the United Kingdom not suggested that the Security Council adopt a resolution on that topic, in which events could be called by their rightful names? The problem is that the humanism of these delegations can be switched on and off depending on political circumstances, which undermines our trust in their statements and actions.”
NATO Bombing of Yugoslavia,1999