Inside File: Owen's other half captured after a long courtship

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The Independent Online
WHEN seeking an uncontroversial figure to do a controversial job, look for a Scandinavian. Known as uncontentious, serious people whose governments always pay their UN membership fees on time, they are allowed to voice worthy indignation on any number of issues. And so it is that Thorvald Stoltenberg, twice Norwegian foreign minister, has been appointed UN envoy on the former Yugoslavia. It is his second chance in a top UN post in three years. Last time, he resigned after only 10 months as UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He takes over at the end of this month from Cyrus Vance to be Lord Owen's partner in what we may now have to learn to call the Stoltenberg-Owen process.

The road to Mr Stoltenberg's acceptance of the task was far from smooth. In January, Mr Vance told Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN chief and an old friend, that, at the age of 75, he wanted to step down. Mr Boutros-Ghali decided to look for a replacement without informing the parties to the talks, lest the personality issue disrupt the substance of what little progress had been made. Mr Stoltenberg was contacted: not only was he Scandinavian; as a career diplomat he had served in Belgrade, albeit 30 years ago, and hence speaks Serbo-Croat. 'Another prime consideration,' said a top UN source, 'was finding someone Owen can work with - and they don't grow on trees.' Mr Stoltenberg has known Lord Owen for 15 years, since the latter was foreign secretary.

After Mr Stoltenberg discussed the offer with Gro Harlem Brundtland, his Prime Minister, he told Mr Boutros- Ghali: 'The Prime Minister won't allow me to leave.' Mr Boutros-Ghali sought other candidates. By now, news had leaked out that Mr Vance was leaving. A short list of half a dozen names was compiled, among them another Norwegian, the then defence minister, Johan Jorgen Holst.

Early last week, Mr Boutros-Ghali contacted Mr Stoltenberg and asked him to approach his colleague, the defence minister. At this point Mr Stoltenberg said he was still interested; could they reach a compromise, such as a six-month time-limit? Mr Boutros-Ghali said he could forget that: if Mr Stoltenberg was in, he was in without conditions. Mr Stoltenberg said he would think about it. Meantime, he made it known to Norwegian media that he had been offered the job and was thinking about it.

Last Thursday he rang the UN chief and accepted. Mr Boutros-Ghali asked if the Norwegians could make that public. Next day Ms Harlem Brundtland announced Mr Stoltenberg's decision: 'When Thorvald has been appointed to something so important for all of us, then it's not a difficult choice to take, neither for Thorvald nor me.' Norway's problems were, after all, insignificant compared with those of the Bosnians.

It is important at this stage to understand the background to Mr Stoltenberg's previous spell at the UN. In 1989 Jean-Pierre Hocke resigned as High Commissioner for Refugees after claims, since disproved, that he misused funds. The same year, the government in which Mr Stoltenberg was foreign minister resigned. He ran for the UN job on a platform of cleaning up the UNHCR. Norway had lobbied on his behalf for support among other nations (apart from Secretary-General, it is the only job in the UN hierarchy subject to ratification by the General Assembly).

But when Ms Harlem Brundtland returned to power in 1990, he quit to become her foreign minister again, saying Norway faced vital choices about EC membership. Critics accused the two of giving priority to Norwegian affairs above the fate of 15 million refugees, and the UN became embroiled in a messy leadership contest to find a successor.

Norway's EC application now having been lodged and Ms Harlem Brundtland having conceded that Yugoslavia's need is greater, Mr Stoltenberg is free to go at last. That Mr Boutros-Ghali had his heart set on a Norwegian to succeed Mr Vance reflects a wish to bring in a nation that is European, a member of Nato, yet not part of the EC, which is already represented in the shape of Lord Owen. More importantly, the choice reflects the fact that Washington did not want another American to replace Mr Vance in the UN-EC effort. President Clinton has appointed his own envoy, whose role is essentially to talk to the Russians. 'The Americans wanted to be sidelined in the peace process, because at best it can only result in a disappointing compromise,' said one European official. 'This keeps the Clinton administration absolutely clean.' The egg on the face will be Europe's.

(Photograph omitted)