I'm no Neville Chamberlain says Owen: Talking exclusively to Michael Sheridan, Lord Owen explains why he has not quit

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The Independent Online
OUTSIDE, beyond coils of barbed wire and a cordon of armed Swiss police, demonstrators were shouting for Lord Owen's head. Downstairs, the Bosnian charge d'affaires, who has said Lord Owen will be shot if he dares to return to Sarajevo, was again denouncing him in the corridors of the United Nations. The Washington Post, for its part, had called Lord Owen the epitome of appeasement and compared him to Neville Chamberlain.

The Geneva peace talks had staggered to another uneasy pause, caught between broken Serb promises and righteous Muslim fury, while the world's attention, compelled by the plight of a small girl, was once again riveted on the war that nobody seems able to stop.

'There's always a tendency, of course, in these difficult, frustrating times to shoot the mediator,' reflected Lord Owen, plainly worn out at the end of a dreadful week. 'But you know that's . . .' He broke off, searching for the right phrase, running his hand through the shock of grey hair. 'I'm no longer - I haven't got a political career. I'm out of politics. There's no ambition left in me. I'm just trying to do a job.'

It is a thankless job, he feels, and plenty of people feel he should have left it a long time ago, perhaps in May, when the Vance-Owen peace plan collapsed under a Serb veto and Bosnia became doomed to partition. He says the only real criticism of the plan he drew up with Cyrus Vance was that it was 'extremely idealistic'. He dismisses charges that its proposal for 10 provinces and a weak central government rewarded ethnic cleansing and aggression.

'Okay,' said Owen. 'I could have walked away. I can assure you it would have been very easy on 21 May, when I realised what was happening to the Vance-Owen plan and I had put all my effort, drive, energy . . . I had fought the United States over their opposition, their initial opposition to the plan, and to this day I believe it was the greatest tragedy that the plan wasn't backed heavily.' He paused again. 'But it was not backed and it eventually became unstuck. I'm a temporary appointment. I initially took this job for six months and then I'd hoped to go after Athens,' he said. All the parties signed the plan at the Athens meeting, only to see it rejected by the Bosnian Serb 'parliament'.

'Mr Vance was lucky enough to go on the day of the Athens agreement when we thought for four days we'd actually settled the issue. My problem was that I couldn't go because it fell apart a few days later. It would have been quite wrong of me to bail out. But, you know, this isn't my life's work. I don't wish to set a time when I go. I'd like to see a settlement.'

Talk to Lord Owen about appeasement, comparisons with the Thirties and of himself with Neville Chamberlain and, even on an exhausted Friday afternoon, he can spark with renewed irritation.

'It's absurd, absurd, quite absurd]' he declared. 'Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister. He was also Prime Minister when Munich took place before the war in 1938. I was called in to do this job after the war had already resulted in some of the worst ethnic cleansing, most of the territorial gains and a terrible mess. Historically it is an absurd analogy.'

He rejected the charge that he is now pushing the Muslims to give in to partition and the division of Sarajevo. 'I have never put any pressure on the government over the Serb proposals for Sarajevo because I didn't feel they were viable myself,' he claimed. Had the Muslims accused him of supporting the Serbs? 'Never to my face.'

Was Sarajevo to be carved up, joining Berlin, Nicosia and Jerusalem in the century's roll- call of divided cities? 'No. I don't think it is destined to be divided,' Lord Owen said. 'I think we may have to find a solution where out of the ashes of Sarajevo - well, perhaps out of the rubble of Sarajevo - maybe you can build back a pluralistic, multi-ethnic approach.' He seems to think that the United Nations may have to take the whole city under its protection as part of an interim settlement.

Such ideas, of course, raise once again the unhappy gap between what Lord Owen and the United Nations think they have achieved and what actually occurs. Did he not accept that people saw no connection between the smooth promises heard in Geneva and the reality of the war?

'Look,' said Lord Owen, 'rightly or wrongly the world's political leaders have decided they do not wish to be combatants.' The mediators could only reflect the decisions of the governments that appointed them. They had no divisions, only modest contingents of UN peace-keepers to watch the fighting and escort humanitarian aid to the victims. Now there were ceaseless calls for air strikes against the Serbs.

'My fundamental position on air strikes is that properly judged and at the right stages they can actually reinforce and help diplomacy,' Lord Owen said. But he has grave reservations about their consequences and effect right now.

'Like many things in diplomacy, the cocked pistol is better than the smoking gun,' he said. 'To some extent this is a matter of bluff, but in order to be effective you've got to be prepared to do it . . . I really do believe the Serb army have thought through the consequences of air strikes.'

He believes the UN should fight back if attacked - 'and I think actually there's a good deal more firing back than is usually acknowledged' - but he worries greatly about the threat to the aid convoys. 'There's a lot of bluff in the UN - what is the UN in many ways other than bluff? It rests on the reluctance of people actually to take aim and fire at a blue beret.'

Lord Owen is already keenly aware that historians will render their verdict upon his role and upon the decision to commit only limited force - not enough to stop the war, just enough to keep people in the former Yugoslavia alive.

'People will argue long and hard about the ethical questions,' he observed. 'Did you interfere with the dynamics of war? Did you just feed people in order (for them) to be killed? Was this actually an intervention that prolonged the agony? I think people will say that we saved hundreds of thousands of lives last winter. But you can't go on repeating this trick.'

Here is the key to Lord Owen's determination to stay on, despite the fact, as he says himself, that 'everybody at various stages has called for my resignation'.

'You have to have the patience of Job,' he maintained, 'but then, you know, we're not the only ones who have to have patience. There is the platoon commander, be he Egyptian, Ukrainian, British, French, Spanish, Canadian, out there day after day, negotiating convoys through - endlessly frustrating, standing around for four or five hours watching as the convoys are inspected on organised go-slows, watching sometimes as the convoys have their food taken away, ripped out of them. The constant military advice is that there's no substitute for this frustratingly tedious, difficult task.'

There has to be some sort of settlement soon, he thinks, before the Balkan weather, already treacherous, turns foul again. 'We would not be able to cope with a second winter,' he thinks. Thus there is a timetable at work, governed by the seasons, war-weariness and the ability of negotiators without armies to push three parties to a civil war and two belligerent outside states, Serbia and Croatia, into a deal. Air power is limited without troops, he believes, and more soldiers will be needed to support any fragile truce. 'If the world wants to catch up, having sat back and allowed some appalling things to be done, then they've got to take this implementation seriously. They were not prepared to do it under the Vance-Owen plan, which was one of the reasons why it became unstuck.'

So, tomorrow, refreshed after a weekend away somewhere in the warmer parts of Europe - one is asked not to say where - the man branded as 'the killer of the Bosnian people' returns once more to study the latest reports from Mount Igman and to pick up the phone to all the characters in this Balkan drama. He makes most of the calls personally. It will be time to begin the whole wearisome business again.

'You know, I still get quite a mailbag from the United Kingdom and many of the people are emotionally engaged - some angry, some anxious, many perplexed - but I think fewer and fewer people are coming with simplistic solutions,' said Lord Owen. 'Getting the war to end is my task. There it is, that's my job.' Of rewards, he did not speak.

(Photograph omitted)

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