Ambassador Okun Testifies About the Cause of Yugoslavia’s Dissolution - May 13, 2010


Written by: Andy Wilcoxson


Hearing Date: April 23, 2010


Ambassador Herbert Okun, who served in the former Yugoslavia from 1991 to 1997 as the special advisor and deputy to the personal envoy of the UN Secretary-General, continued his testimony in the trial of Radovan Karadzic on Friday, April 23rd.

Okun concludes his examination-in-chief


Okun told the prosecutor, “Dr. Karadzic said more than once that the ethnic groups could not live together and had to be separated.  He added that perhaps one day, undetermined, in the future that might happen but that at present they could not live together.”


Ambassador Okun testified that “In all of the conversations about ethnic cleansing with the Bosnian Serb leadership, it was highly unusual, almost never the case, that they denied it.  When they were asked about it, the almost invariable response was, ‘Look what they're doing to our people,’ or from Dr. Karadzic, ‘Sarajevo is a concentration camp where our people are being held prisoner, hostage.’ So that was the typical dialogue about ethnic cleansing.  No denial on the part of the accused and others, but, rather, a finger pointing at the other parties.”


When asked about ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Bosnian-Serb forces Okun said, “The two main areas for the cleansing were the Drina River and the Posavina ... particularly the western bank of the Drina River, where there had been seven majority Muslim opstinas (municipalities), and they were all occupied and taken by the Bosnian Serbs.”


Okun was quick to admit that the Bosnian-Serbs weren’t the only ones guilty of ethnic cleansing. His notebook contained a statement by former Yugoslav president Dobrica Cosic which said: “Ethnic cleansing continues - all do it.” When asked about that entry Okun said, “Yes, that’s what he said, and that was the case.”


Okun testified that Karadzic was the man in charge of Bosnian-Serb forces. He said, “In Geneva we had conversations in which Dr. Karadzic said that he was in control of the Bosnian Serb armed forces.” Okun’s notebook contains a statement by Karadzic where he said “We can do anything. The army has a unified command. I have full power.”


Okun described Karadzic’s perceptions regarding the balance of military forces in Bosnia. He said Karadzic’s belief was that “the Bosnian Muslims and the Bosnian Croats, have the men, and, we [the Bosnian-Serbs] have the weapons.  If we give up our weapons, then we are doomed.”


When it came to stopping the war Okun said that Karadzic “would more often say ‘We are ready to stop fighting.’  Of course, at that point, the Bosnian Serb army was occupying 70 per cent of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and they in fact had what they wanted, well, almost all of it, so that it was easy to offer stopping the fighting.”


Okun reiterated his earlier testimony about the objectives of the warring factions. He said, “Both the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian Croats wanted to carve out of the area of Bosnia-Herzegovina separate individual political entities” while the Muslims wanted a unitary state.


Radovan Karadzic begins his cross-examination


When asked whose interests the Okun was representing in the former Yugoslavia the Ambassador said, “Mr. Vance and I, to the maximum degree possible, sought to carry out the mandate that was given us by the [UN] Secretary-General ... at no point did we represent purely American interests.”


Okun described the role of the Badinter Commission saying, “The Badinter Commission, in an important avis, an opinion, said - and this was the fall, early winter of 1991 - that the state of Yugoslavia was in a ‘processus de dissolution,’ was undergoing a process of dissolution, and that the Yugoslav claim, basically the Serb claim that the declarations of independence by the four republics that we've mentioned, the Serb claim that this was wholly illegal and could be -- was unjustified, that that claim was not correct because the state was, in fact, dissolving.”


For those who don’t know, the Badinter Commission was officially known as the “Arbitration Commission of the Peace Conference on the former Yugoslavia.” It was established by the Council of Ministers of the European Economic Community and consisted of five members: Robert Badinter, president of the Constitutional Council of France, Roman Herzog, president of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany, Aldo Corasaniti, president of the Constitutional Court of Italy, Francisco Tomás y Valiente, president of the Constitutional Court of Spain, and Irene Petry, president of the Constitutional Court of Belgium.


The findings of the Badinter Commission contradicted the rulings of the Constitutional Court of Yugoslavia regarding the secession of Yugoslavia’s former republics. For many, the work of the Badinter Commission has raised serious questions about national sovereignty and the right of states to territorial integrity. Critics of the commission claim that its work violated Yugoslavia’s rights under the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act and that the Commission helped sow the seeds of conflict in the former Yugoslavia.


In his testimony, the Ambassador sought to downplay the role that Germany played in the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Although he did admit, “in the fall of 1991 Germany took a very strong anti-Yugoslav and pro-Croatian position.  For example, it said it would recognize Croatia regardless of what the rest of the European Community did.”


According to Okun, core of the Yugoslav crisis was the Serbian-Croatian conflict. When asked what led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia the witness said:


“My own view was and is that the adoption of the constitution of 1974 basically decentralized but did not democratize Tito's Yugoslavia.  It gave a great deal of power to the Communist parties of the republics.  In that sense, it decentralized. But the modus operandi was still dictatorial.  And I think that was a mistake, to put it mildly, on the part of Marshal Tito.


“And the other fact that led to the disillusion was that after Marshal Tito's death in May 1980 and with the gradual improvement of Soviet/American relations after Mr. Gorbachev came to power in the 1980s, that Yugoslavia lost somewhat of its favored position in the West, because, as we all know, after the break between Stalin and Tito in 1948, Yugoslavia assumed a leading position in what came to be called the nonaligned movement.  And this led to quite a lot of contact with the West and good relations.  And those good relations were not just political; they were also military and economic.  If I might give you just one really extreme example but a good one:


“In 1991 when when Secretary Vance and I first sat down with General Kadijevic, the Chief of Staff of the Yugoslav Army, in October 1991, he told us that he had been trained in the United States at Fort Leavenworth.  We did not know that.  But he knew very well the US Army.  So that gives you an example that the Chief of Staff of the Yugoslav Army, the JNA, had been trained in the United States.


“And on the economic front, the largest debtor to the World Bank from 1945 to 1990 was not some underdeveloped country that you might name or some developing country, it was YugoslaviaYugoslavia, obviously with the help of the Western powers, was granted enormous loans from the international monetary authorities, which obviously helped the economy and therefore assisted Tito in his rule.  So that there were many reasons that Yugoslavia persisted as a powerful independent state from  the end of World War II till roughly the mid-1980s, but then a decline set in politically, economically.  The country did decline.”


Karadzic’s cross-examination will continue in the forthcoming summary for Monday, April 26th.


A full transcript of this hearing is available at:

If you found this article useful please consider making a donation to the author by visiting the following URL: