David Owen's papers on the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia

Scope and Content

The papers of the Right Hon. Lord David Owen, collected during his role as Co-Chairman of the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia. The papers include official documentation: telegrams, facsimile transmissions, reports, memoranda plus newscuttings, audio-visual material, articles, maps and correspondence.

Administrative / Biographical History

NB: Section headings taken from Balkan Odyssey.

Mission Impossible? 1918-Aug 1992

The Yugoslavia which existed in 1990 was created at the end of the first world war in 1918 with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the unification of a Yugoslav state. It originated as the "Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes" and was renamed Yugoslavia (literally "Country of the South Slavs") in 1929. A diverse mix of ethnic groups Yugoslavia is made up of 3 main religions (Serb Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Muslim) in "6 custom areas with 5 currencies, 4 rail networks, 3 banking systems and, at one time, two governments" (Balkan Odyssey). Attacked and broken up by Hitler during the second world war, Yugoslavia was reunited by Tito and the Partisans and remained under Communist rule from 1945 to 1990. The relative calm of Yugoslavia came to an end with Tito's death in 1980 which was coupled with the declining Yugoslav economy and the rise of Nationalism. In Dec 1990 Yugoslavia held its first proper elections for 45 years and communist rule was ended in 4 of its 6 states.

With growing nationalism in many Balkan states, the initial movement towards independence from Serbia and Yugoslavia came from Slovenia, a more homogenous state (90% Slovenes) and in a better economic position than the rest of Yugoslavia. With Slovenia seeking independence Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were left with the choice either to remain in the increasingly Serb dominated Yugoslavia or to risk war and seek independence. Croatia opted to declare independence on the same date as Slovenia, on the 25 Jun 1991, a decision which resulted in an almost immediate civil war. War in Slovenia lasted only 10 days yet in Croatia it continued until 2 Jan 1992 when a cease-fire agreement was reached. By March 1992, UN Protection Forces had been deployed to Croatia to supervise the negotiated peace.

The outbreak of war in Bosnia held off until March 1992 when the Bosnia referendum for independence on the 1 Mar, boycotted by the majority of Serbs, acted as catalyst and saw the onset of violence between Serbian Irregulars and Bosnian Government troops and police. Throughout March the JNA launched attacks on urban centres throughout Bosnia and began the killing of Moslems. By April JNA forces and Bosnian Serbs had surrounded Sarajevo to coincide with the European Community's recognition of Bosnia. This heralded the beginning of a war which would see large scale "ethnic cleansing" and would prompt the return of David Owen to the International arena.

David Owen's involvement with the Balkans conflict was instigated on the 29 Jul 1992 when he was contacted, as Chairman of the Humanitas charity, by a reporter from the BBC Today Programme in relation to Serbian Prison Camps in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He went on to appear on this programme calling for military action. On the 30 Jul 1992 he dictated a letter to John Major which again called for action: "the first essential step is to stop by threat of force the use or movement of any military aircraft, tanks, armoured vehicles or artillery in the former territory of Yugoslavia" (Balkan Odyssey). He followed this with an article in the Times before heading off to New York in August for a holiday. Whilst there he met with Cyrus Vance, Personal Secretary of the UN Secretary General to former Yugoslavia, and General Boutros Boutros Ghali, UN Secretary. In their meeting Vance and Owen discussed Peter Carrington's desire to appoint an 'alternate' chairman of the EC Peace Conference on Yugoslavia for the London Conference on the Former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia 26-27 Aug 1992. Vance suggested he put forward David Owen's name for this position, he did, Owen was accepted and officially, along with Vance, became Co-Chairman of the of the ICFY on the 27 Aug 1992.

Establishing the Conference, Sep 1992 - Jan 1993

On the 3 Sep 1992 the first meeting of the Steering Committee of the ICFY was convened in Geneva. It coincided with the shooting down of an Italian humanitarian plane in a Bosnian Croat Army (HVO) controlled area over Sarajevo. Flights into Sarajevo airport were cancelled immediately. In the months following, the Co-Chairmen became occupied by a staggering volume of meetings and engagements as they set about the task of developing a plan to bring peace to the region. Their Co-Chairmenship began with a visit, 9-12 Sep, which took in Zagreb, Belgrade and Sarajevo. Meetings took place with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs Radovan Karadzic, also with FRY President Cosic Dobrica and Prime Minister Milan Panic. During this trip Owen sent his first official telegram (COREU) to European Foreign Ministers dated the 10 Sep 1992.

On the 4 Oct, Owen and Vance received a paper on the constitutional options for Bosnia-Herzegovina. They selected option 2, "a centralised federal state with significant functions carried out by between four and ten regions" as promising the most stable government and set about turning this option into a formal Peace Plan which would become the Vance-Owen Peace Plan (VOPP). The plan was made public in Jan 1993, the period running up to this release having seen the implementation of a no-fly zone over Bosnia; David Owen suffering acute sciatica and undergoing surgery to remove a disc; further evidence of widespread ethnic cleansing; the Second Meeting of the Steering Committee of the ICFY on the 27 Oct; Slobodan Milosevic winning the Serbian election and David Owen arranging oil supplies for the besieged Kosevo hospital in Sarajevo in Dec 92, oil which was redirected to the military after Christmas.

The Vance-Owen Peace Plan (VOPP), Jan 1993 - May 1993

On the 2 Jan 1993 the first plenary session of the Bosnian leaders convened by the ICFY was attended by five delegations: the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosnian government, the Bosnian Croats, Croatia and the FRY. At the meeting Owen introduced the VOPP, a "three-part package comprising ten constitutional principles, a detailed cessation of hostilities agreement and a map". The plan proposed to divide Bosnia into 10 "ethnic cantons" retaining a central government with minimal powers. The Bosnian Croats accepted the plan immediately whilst the Bosnian Serbs saw it as an "acceptable basis for starting negotiations" but rejected the distribution of territory. The Bosnian Government initially accused the plan of legitimising ethnic cleansing but by March diplomatic and military pressure had convinced Izetbegovic to accept. Finally, in Athens on the 1-2 May, Karadzic signed the VOPP on the condition that his signature was conditional to the ratification of the Bosnian Serb "parliament. On the 3 May Cyrus Vance handed his Co-Chairmanship to Thorvald Stoltenberg with the belief that the VOPP would succeed whilst Owen talked of a "a bright, sunny day in the Balkans".

The Ditching of the VOPP, May 1993

The VOPP was destined to fail when on the 6 May the Bosnian Serb Assembly voted 51 : 2 against ratification of the VOPP. The ICFY continued to pressure for the implementation of the VOPP and was backed by the EC and Russia. The US, though, having in February refused to endorse the plan, continued to hold back implementation because of their opposition to sending American troops to Bosnia. On the 22 May the US, Russia, UK and Spain put forward a "Joint Action Plan" (JAP) advocating "a three-way partition whose terms were dictated by the Serbs and Croats - and mediated by Owen and Stoltenberg" (Laura Silber and Allan Little. The Death of Yugoslavia. Penguin Books/BBC Books, 1996).

A Union of Three Republics, Jun - Oct 1993

From June to September Owen was involved in negotiations between Balkan leaders to try and achieve an agreement over Bosnia. During meetings on the 15-16 Jun between Milosevic, Tudjman, Bulatovic, Izetbegovic, Karadzic and Boban the foundations were laid for a Union of the three republics which were based on a policy of partition. In July, further meetings were aimed at convincing the Serbs and Croats to grant the Muslims 30% of Bosnia. As this territorial wrangling continued Bosnian Serb troops brought the talks to a Stalemate by their occupation of Mt Igman near Sarajevo. Forced to abandon by the threat of UN air strikes the talks continued. On the 20 September, parties involved in talks were flown by helicopter to HMS Invincible in the Adriatic to discuss a modified package for peace. By the end of September the Bosnian Muslims would still not endorse the new revised plan and appeared to have chosen to continue with war.

The EU Action Plan Nov 1993 - Feb 1994

On the 5 Nov 1993 Owen submitted an EU long paper "Joint Action on the Former Yugoslavia". This went on to form the basis of the EU Action Plan which was developed and discussed through the winter. Talks toward the creation of an independent Muslim state with up to 33.6% of Muslim territory continued but suffered under the growing reluctance of the Bosnian Muslims to settle and stop fighting. By Feb 2 1994 the ICFY were forced to accept that the 3 parties seemed intent on continuing to fight and that in this climate little could be done.

The Contact Group, Feb 1994 - Aug 1994

Action was stirred on Feb 5 1994 when 69 people died in a Mortar attack on a busy Sarajevo street. In reaction, on the 9 Feb, NATO issued an ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs demanding that they withdraw heavy weapons. Despite the efforts of Lt Michael Rose the Serbs made no move until 17 Feb when the Boris Yeltsin offered to replace the Serb troops with Russian ones. In March agreement was reached on the constitution of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. After paying a visit to Milosevic and his wife at their home, Owen became involved with the formation of a Contact Group who put forward yet another map of Bosnia in July and called for a four month cessation of hostilities. On the 22 Jul Owen sent a COREU which called for the lifting of the arms embargo coupled with air strikes to bring about peace. This action would not be taken for over a year.

Soldiering On, Aug 1994 - Jun 1995

In August Milosevic gave his support for the Contact Group plan and, on the 4 Aug, broke political and economic relations with the Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serbs) by imposing border sanctions. The ICFY became involved in setting up a mission to oversee these sanctions through the following months. By January 1995 Owen had made the decision to surrender his role in the Balkan crisis. He notified President Mitterand, Douglas Hurd and John Major who suggested June as a possible date for his resignation. On the 13 Jun Owen attended his final Steering Committee in Geneva with his successor Carl Bildt.

In his maiden speech to the House of Lords, Owen talked about the Balkans situation: "The Bosnian Muslims, the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian Croats cannot go on much longer blaming all their problems on one another and on countries and organisations that have paid a heavy price in money, men and materials to help them. They have to compromise amongst themselves and use the impartiality of the UN and those governments who are ready to live within that discipline - I am proud that one of them is my own - to help them make peace." (House of Lords, 31 May 1995). By the end of 1995 the US had finallly entered into peace talks and had engineered an agreement on Bosnian partition and an end to the war.


The papers are arranged into the following series:

  • D 731 1: Personal files
  • D 731 2: Lord Carrington
  • D 731 3: Subject (1)
  • D 731 4: Subject (2)
  • D 731 5: Reference
  • D 731 6: Public correspondence
  • D 731 7: Press cuttings
  • D 731 8: Audio-visual material
  • D 731 9: Reference and Publications
  • D 731 10: General papers
  • D 731 11: Balkan Odyssey

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