Vance-Owen Peace Plan Boomerangs on Muslims

The Washington Post
April 21, 1993

TUZLA, Bosnia – When the factional fighting in Bosnia reached what seemed to be a peak last summer, the United Nations and European Community appointed special envoys Cyrus Vance and David Owen to draw up a peace plan.

After months of intense discussions with the warring Serbs, Croats and Muslims, Vance and Owen unveiled their proposed solution, but instead of stopping the fighting, it may have accelerated it. The initiative was designed specifically to resolve competing demands for territory, but it seems instead to have intensified them. Moreover, the poorly armed Muslims — whom U.N. and EC officials meant to protect — have fared even worse in the conflict since the peace plan was put forth.

Currently, there are two principal battlegrounds in Bosnia — in the eastern and central portions of the republic — and increased fighting on each of them can be traced to the proposed Vance-Owen map for dividing up Bosnia. It unintentionally spurred the Serbs and Croats to solidify their positions at the expense of the outgunned Muslims, analysts say.

The twin offensives might have been inevitable, but the Vance-Owen map probably helped push things to a climax, many analysts believe. The upshot, according to military experts and political observers, is that the peace proposal — never accepted by the Serbs, who now control most of Bosnia — has been overtaken by a chain of events it sparked, and the Muslims are far worse off than before.

“Its time has passed,” said Michael Clarke, director of the Defense Studies Institute in London. “A signed peace agreement would not make a difference on the ground.”

The Vance-Owen plan calls for dividing Bosnia into 10 semiautonomous provinces governed by local communal majorities and loosely linked under a weak central government in Sarajevo. The new internal borders would have left the Serbs in control of about 43 percent of Bosnia, while the Croats and Muslims would have had about 25 percent each. The Sarajevo area was to be under mixed control.

Serbs were angry because the plan required them to retreat from nearly 40 percent of the territory they conquered in the last year. Muslims, who are the most populous group in Bosnia and who reluctantly agreed to the map, were dismayed because they thought the Serbs and Croats got too much land. The Croats were delighted because they received a surprisingly large amount of territory.

The United Nations pressed the Serbs to accept the map and thereby make a commitment to withdraw from key areas, including eastern Bosnia, which borders Serbia — the Bosnian Serbs chief patron and arsenal in the war. This was unacceptable to the Serbs because some Serb provinces would be cut off from their ancestral motherland.

Instead of knuckling under, the Serbs mounted an offensive aimed at eliminating any chance that eastern Bosnia could be returned to Muslim control. The Muslim-held enclave of Srebrenica was on the verge of falling before a determined Serb attack when U.N. officials mediated its virtual surrender on Sunday. The only two other Muslim pockets in the east, Zepa and Gorazde, are vulnerable to Serb takeover.

With world attention focused on Serb aggression, the Bosnian Croats quietly are extending their power in central Bosnia. While the Croats are nominal allies of the Muslims against the Serbs, the alliance has always been tenuous, and ultranationalist Bosnian Croats have long argued for joining lands they control in southwestern and central Bosnia to neighboring Croatia.

For nearly a year, central Bosnia has been under the nominal joint control of Muslim-led Bosnian government forces and heavily armed Bosnian Croat militiamen. The Vance-Owen plan assigned most of the region to ultimate Croat control, and they promptly embarked on a campaign to strip Muslims there of arms and authority.

The flag of Croatia now flutters over the region, the Croatian dinar has become legal tender, and Bosnian Croat leader Mate Boban set last Thursday as a deadline for all Muslim militia units in central Bosnia to affirm their loyalty to local Croat authority. Tensions increased, and on Friday the delicate Muslim-Croat alliance fell apart.

Croat and Muslim units began shelling each other in cities and towns including Vitez, Jablanica, Konjic, Zenica and Kiseljak. In some places, Muslims reportedly forced Croats to leave their homes in Muslim-majority villages, and the Croats did the same to Muslims who lived in Croat-dominated villages. It seems that the Croats are doing far more “ethnic cleansing” than the Muslims.

Along with the expulsion campaigns, there have been reports of executions, torture and rape. The fighting has also choked off the U.N. relief effort in central Bosnia and in the northern Tuzla region, which depends on aid shipments through central Bosnia to feed an estimated 1 million beleaguered civilians.

“We really have to come down hard on the Croats at the highest level. They have to rein in {their milita forces},” said Lionel A. Rosenblatt, executive director of Refugees International in Washington. “They should not be going on a rampage in central Bosnia at this dicey period.”

The fighting also weakens Muslim forces at a crucial moment when they are trying to prevent the loss of their meager remaining holdings in eastern Bosnia. By attacking Muslim units in central Bosnia and forcing them to fight there, the Croats are indirectly helping the Serbs, who can be expected to draw territorial benefit.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.