U.S. State Department Geographic Bureaus: Europe and Canada Bureau

U.S. Department of State
95/08/25 Briefing by Assistant Secretary Holbrooke on Bosnia
Office of the Spokesman


Washington, D.C.
August 25, 1995

MR. DINGER: Good afternoon. I would like to introduce Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs and head of the delegation leaving this weekend for the former Yugoslavia to continue negotiations on a peace agreement.

As you know, a week ago Ambassador Holbrooke was traveling in Bosnia with peace negotiators when a tragic accident occurred, killing three of our senior representatives.

This afternoon Ambassador Holbrooke is here to help explain past events in the area and answer your questions concerning the negotiations that he will resume next week.

Ambassador Holbrooke.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: Thanks. First of all, let me just apologize for keeping you waiting and explain that we did a very brief, no-questions, sound-bite joint statement downstairs at C Street which some of you heard, with the Foreign Minister, Minister Sacirbey.

Let me just explain to you what we did down there and then get on with it. We wanted to reaffirm clearly, jointly that despite the unfortunate situation that's occurred in Gorazde today -- on which the details are, I might add, murky -- that the NATO commitment, the American commitment, the commitment that came out of the London Conference, at which Secretary Christopher and Secretary Perry forged a statement on Gorazde, still applies. Because there were rumors beginning to circulate, the Foreign Minister and I and Acting Secretary Strobe Talbott decided that we would just get it out.

So we went down there. We gave a very quick statement, no questions, and the Foreign Minister went on to meetings in the building with my colleagues, and I'm here to answer any of your questions.

Secondly, I'd like to tell you about the condition of our Regional Security Officer, Peter Hargraves, who was one of the two survivors of the crash. Acting Secretary Talbott called on him at Walter Reed last night and gave us a very moving account of Pete's present situation.

I happened to be the first American to get to Pete, in a situation where he was unrecognizable up on the Igman Road, and I know what he did. He is a genuine hero for what he attempted to do and did. He got one person out alive from the vehicle who subsequently died, as you know, and then repeatedly tried to get back in to save the other two people who were not savable at that point. They had not survived the fall, and then the whole thing exploded.

I just want to give you an update on his situation. He is incidentally, from Houston. He's a former policeman in Houston, and a man that I would go anywhere with under any circumstances. He has suffered a broken nose, a broken arm, several cracked vertebrae and numerous burns and bruises and lacerations.

He is in good spirits, considering, and is expected to make a full recovery. He will return to Houston this weekend. For your background, he's been a member of the Diplomatic Security Service as a Special Agent since 1986 and went to Sarajevo this spring after serving a two-year tour at the Diplomatic Security Field Office in Houston. He has previously been assigned to other garden spots: San Salvador and Mogadishu.

Colonel Gersteen, who also survived, is at home right now recovering, and I think his recovery will be rather rapid.

As for our schedule, the reconstituted team will leave for Paris Sunday night. We are in intense consultations now. As you know, those included a discussion with President Clinton at Fort Myer the day before yesterday. Secretary Christopher and Acting Secretary Talbott and I and my colleagues have been in extensive conversations, joined by Roberts Owen, who I am delighted is joining our team -- a brilliant lawyer that I've worked with for many years when he was Legal Adviser in the Carter Administration.

We do not consider that the negotiations were suspended or stopped as a result of the tragedy, because they've been going on all this week here in Washington. We will meet in Paris in ascending order of importance with the Contact Group, with the French bilaterally, and, most importantly, in extended series of discussions with President Izetbegovic.

At the conclusion of those, which I think will be Tuesday night, we will fly to Belgrade. We will have very limited press availability during the trip, because in the middle of an ongoing negotiation, in the middle of a shuttle, it can get very, very confusing. So the Acting Secretary and his colleagues thought that we'd do this one press availability.

I'll be happy to take any questions you have on any aspect of this, but I hope you understand in advance that there are certain things I'm just not going to be in a position to answer.

Q At what point, if ever, in these explorations and discussions do you ever make contact with the Bosnian Serbs?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: I don't know. I don't know. The Bosnian Serbs have refused to accept the Contact Group Map as the starting point for negotiations, and our position on that has not changed. Milosevic has accepted it. Tudjman has accepted it. Izetbegovic has accepted it. But to negotiate with the Bosnian Serbs at this point, given their present position, including recent statements that they want 64 percent of the land, when they know full well what the Map says, would be tantamount to a major change in position in return for nothing at all.

So I would call on the Bosnian Serbs once again to participate in this process and not try to destroy it.

Q Can you get a deal if you don't have Karadzic and the rest of the Bosnian Serbs?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: That's two different questions, and the answer is the Bosnian Serbs must in the end be party to a deal. Karadzic, himself, I'm not sure what his role is going to be. I don't know what his standing is, and we'll deal with that if and when he understands that the Contact Group Map and the Plan have to be the basis for the negotiation.

I also want to talk a moment about the War Crimes Tribunal. Whatever else we do, the process will not affect the War Crimes Tribunal process, and that is not part of this negotiation.


Q We spent some time yesterday with the delegation that the Belgrade Government had sent here to the memorial service, and they talked, as you can well imagine, at great length about the fairness for all Serbs that they want as a principle of any agreement. And they talked about not making only the Serbs the target of any talk about using force; not having only Serbs the defendant in any War Crimes Tribunal; not having only Serbs portrayed as the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing after what happened in Krajina. How do you propose to respond to that kind of -- it's not a negotiating demand, it's really an attitudinal demand.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: Without getting into the specifics of what they said to you, because we've had separate talks with them, let me just be clear on something. There are three ethnic groups in the area, and they're all scattered in all three countries.

We have repeatedly stated -- Secretary Christopher most eloquently and repeatedly during the Geneva process -- that all the rights of all the ethnic groups and individuals should be respected.

For example, when the Serbs from the Krajina were driven out during the recent operation, we publicly and privately said they should have the right of return to the land they have held and lived on for two to three centuries or just compensation.

I had very serious talks about this with President Tudjman. He said he agreed. He said he has announced this publicly and the American press hasn't reported it adequately. I'm just quoting him now. But he does not dispute the theory that you've articulated, Tom.

I also want to be clear that there's a difference between a rather ruthless or brutal expulsion, which has been reported, and mass exterminations. In Srebrenica, a war crime of historic proportions took place. An unknown number of people, but certainly in the thousands, were massacred deliberately in Srebrenica, and we've got to distinguish between bad things and really bad things, between acts that are a horrible consequence of war -- and I'm not justifying or modulating or condoning those -- and crimes -- war crimes, crimes against humanity.

I have no doubt that what happened in Srebrenica happened as reported by your newspaper and others -- none. I've talked to American Foreign Service Officers who are bilingual who did the interviews, who have spent years doing this. I have had family members in the area participating in interviews, incidentally, to add to my own sense of conviction.

This happened, and I hear what you're saying, and I take the point, but let's keep the point in perspective.

Q What would you say are the chances of the success of your mission? And, secondly, what are the specific objections -- what are the biggest obstacles to success?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: I'm not going to bet on games I'm playing in, Steve. My job is to maximize the chance for success. It's your job to assess its chances. I think I slipped a little this morning and said "pretty small" in answer to -- Charlie Gibson phrased the question very cleverly, and I answered it, and then those two words got taken out of context.

I'm not going to give you a judgment on the chances. We've got a mission. We've got a window of opportunity which is small and a window of danger which is large. It's an uphill struggle, but we are committed to it, and we think there's a chance.

The second part of your question was the major obstacles. I think we all know what the major obstacle is. It's the Bosnian Serbs.

Q A follow-up. What will you do if the Bosnian Serbs refuse to negotiate, refuse to accept the Contact Group Map?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: I'm going to just duck that one, Steve. I'm just not in a position to go into the details. But I'll give you a generic answer. There will be consequences, and the consequences will not be those that the Serbs would wish to see happen. But to go any further would be to go beyond the vale, and I would prefer not to.

Q Yes, thank you. I want to say we're glad you're here and healthy. And regarding the window of opportunity matter, two things that come to mind, for those of us who were not outside, who do not know what the current status in Gorazde is. And, secondly, with regard to Dubrovnik, in that area, has the shelling ceased? Is the danger of the Croatians, the Bosnian Serbs and the Yugoslav army locking horns in that area -- is that -- do you think that's a major flashpoint?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: You have probably as much or more data than I do on Dubrovnik today. I've seen no change in the situation, unless Aric or my other colleagues have an update. The first part of your question was about what?

Q About Gorazde, you mentioned.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: As I said earlier, the Gorazde situation is somewhat murky but very unfortunate. No one wants to see U.N. peacekeepers firing on and killing Bosnian soldiers which apparently happened. I don't know the details. The Foreign Minister is upstairs now talking to my colleagues about that issue, among others.

Q And any meeting with the Contact Group?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: We are going to meet with the Contact Group on Tuesday in Paris. That will also include the Spanish and the European Presidency. The Italians, who are very critical here, the Canadians and Carl Bildt and Thor Stoltenberg.

Q What's the Serb window of opportunity by two months? What would make it --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: I never said two months. That's somebody else's phrase. I'm not going to put ourselves under an arbitrary time limit, but I will tell you that the sense of urgency is caused by several factors. The weather. If you're going to withdraw, you don't want to withdraw in winter, and the U.N., leading countries, particularly the British and French, are worried about that.

Secondly, the tremendous growth in the level of violence. Srebrenica, Zepa, the Krajina, Drvar, Dubrovnik, the fighting up towards Gorni Vakuf, up the Livno Valley, and the threat that it will spread to eastern Slavonia. That's what the time pressure comes from.

Q Does the U.S. see a window of opportunity in its negotiations with Milosevic, in the sense that he might be in a position to put pressure on Mladic, where he wasn't able to put pressure on Karadzic, and maybe Mladic is more important in the scenario today.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: I don't know the answer to that question, but it's a question I ask myself all the time.

Q Richard, do you feel a threat if there is not an override of the President's veto of the bill to unilaterally lift the arms embargo?


Q Well, a threat in the region that arms could start flowing to the Bosnians, and once that breaks down --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: I'm not sure I follow the structure of your question. Am I worried if it is overridden?

Q If it is not overridden? If the vote stands.


Q Right.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: Okay. Then what's the rest of the question? I'm very slow today.

Q Does it concern you that that then joins the -- sort of the policy mix in this situation? Does that mean that other countries will feel -- Muslim countries in particular would feel free to start supplying more arms more openly to the Bosnians, and does that change the political and military mix?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: Your question allows me to make a generic statement on the Dole bill and then go on to your question.

At this critical juncture in the negotiations, a two-thirds vote in support of this amendment by both houses would absolutely undermine whatever chance we have for a successful negotiation. Let me be as clear as I can about that.

I understand the sentiments and the frustration which have led many members of Congress to vote for this amendment, many of whom have told me privately that they don't actually support its substance, but they wanted to voice their concern. I respect that. Several members have suggested that they voted the first time for the frustration and might reconsider the second time. I hope they will, because that amendment -- that resolution is deleterious to the cause of peace and puts us on a road -- and I won't rehash all the arguments you've heard before in this room and elsewhere -- on a road which now would also wreck whatever chance the peace process has.

Q Foreign Minister Sacirbey said that the amendment could serve as a useful lever or club to pressure the Serbs and Bosnian Serbs to be more flexible in their bargaining, isn't that true?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: That's his opinion. That depends what happens.

Q I know you can't get into detail, but is there anything you can -- any general comments you can make about the proposal that you're carrying?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: You look very frustrated. (Laughter) Let me tell you what the principles are that we're seeking, okay, without the details of the negotiating process, some of which has been in the press, some of which has been in the press inaccurately, and some of which, mercifully, still hasn't appeared in print. So there's a challenge to you.

The principle we are working on is that the state of Bosnia- Herzegovina remains a single internationally recognized state. We're not supporting partition, divisions, secession, or any of these other things that keep being speculated about in the press.

The political arrangements between the different factions in Bosnia are a critical issue for negotiation between the Federation and the Bosnian Serb entity. But, as has been evident in all my previous answers, that comes back to the Bosnian Serbs, and that's why I said in answer to several questions -- yours, yours -- that the Bosnian Serbs are the biggest problem.

In addition, we want the equal treatment -- again, as I said earlier, the equal treatment of all ethnic groups in all the countries. Their rights have to be respected, both as individuals and as members of ethnic communities. That latter point is quite different from American political tradition, at least in theory, but it is a right enshrined in the European Union and the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. It's a right the Hungarians, the Slovaks, the Romanians, the Ukrainians are all negotiating now for minorities. It was negotiated between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and it should be respected in this part of the world as well. That's the second one.

The third point is the territorial integrity of the Republic of Croatia, including eastern Slavonia. We want eastern Slavonia settled peacefully, but we are unambiguous. Eastern Slavonia, Sector East on the U.N. maps, is part of Croatia.

The fourth principle -- and I'm just giving these in random order -- the fourth principle is, of course, that when there's a peace, we want a regional economic reconstruction effort. And we are working very closely with the European Community, led in this case by Foreign Minister Solana of Spain, the Spanish being in the Presidency, to work on this issue.

In addition, as you know, we've talked about the readiness of the United States to participate in a peacekeeping enforcement effort if there is a peace, and the terms and conditions of that are under intense discussion. I've left out a few points, but those are all key goals and principles that we want to work towards.

Q On your fourth point, the economic reconstruction, Minister Sacirbey has been talking first in terms of the present external debt of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which he says is about $2 billion, which would have to be either forgiven or absorbed.

Beyond that, how much money -- can you give us a magnitude of how much money do you think is going to be required?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: First, on your first point, we have talked a lot to the Bosnians about this step, and the real issue, I think, is the interest that's accrued on the debt since the breakup of Yugoslavia, which is, I think, around $500 million, divided into two types. Secretary Christopher talked to Foreign Minister Sacirbey about that, and then at Secretary Christopher's request, senior Treasury Department officials -- Bob Rubin and Larry Summers being unavailable -- I think it was Jack Schaefer, but don't hold me to that -- had a lengthy discussion on this issue, and we are continuing that issue. It is important, but it's not a deal-breaker on the peace.

In regard to the regional economic package, we're still discussing this with the European Union. We have not had full discussions with Congress yet. In any case, I want to stress that this, like so many other economic packages associated with major negotiations that you've all been familiar with, particularly in the Mideast, this is tied to a settlement. We're not throwing more money down the sinkhole here.


Q Can you explain to me how a peace agreement based on the Contact Group Plan is not a partition of Bosnia?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: It depends on what you mean by "partition," Tom. I use the word "partition" to mean two separate countries, and that is not something the United States will support. What did you mean by "partition"?

Q I mean the Bosnian Government controls 51 percent of the country and people who are not subjects of, or loyal to, or consider themselves part of the Bosnian Government, control territory that they regard as outside the Bosnian state.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: But they're not going to have the right to simply declare a separate country or to secede and join their neighbor Serbia. That's what I meant by "partition." Maybe we had different semantic uses here.

MR. DINGER: Last question.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: Was that all right, Tom? Is that clarifying something to you?

Q It certainly does.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: It sounds like I said something that -- and I'm just saying something, Tom, which has been crystal clear in the Contact Group Plan from the beginning, and I wouldn't say this is a new announcement I've just made. I'm just trying to clarify very clearly what our position is here. I'm not going into this negotiation to participate in the carve-up of Bosnia. The integrity of Bosnia's international borders is what's at stake.

The Bosnian Government itself at the highest levels -- the President, the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister -- has repeatedly said that special relationships between the Bosnian Serbs and the Serbian people in Serbia are acceptable to them, but within the framework of a single state.

Q Would you articulate the position of -- oh, sorry.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: No, I just think this gentleman hadn't had a question yet, so why don't we take two quick ones. Yours and then yours.

Q You've articulated the position of the Clinton Administration from Dole legislation, and you said that if the arms embargo would be lifted unilaterally, it can really destroy the efforts that you're working on. In the meantime, the Europeans have been leaking information that you have used this to threaten him to go along with the American initiative. Is that true at all?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: We never threatened the Europeans. Tony Lake went to London, Paris, Bonn, Russia, Ankara, Rome and I believe Madrid. He outlined his plans, the proposal. Everyone supported it in general terms -- not every detail. I then flew to London. He and I did a tradeoff, and I continued into the region.

At no time did Tony threaten them or bargain with them. He outlined it, and we were very encouraged by their support.

Q Mr. Holbrooke, could you please update about the humanitarian assistance in that area? Will it be a point of discussion in your --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: Do you mean humanitarian as opposed to reconstruction? Are you making a distinction?

Q Right. I'd just make a distinction.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HOLBROOKE: It's a valid distinction. I think your question is about reconstruction aid. Humanitarian aid continues. That's the UNHCR. That's our desperate efforts to help the people survive. That has got to continue. I hope the distinction was clear to everyone. In answer to your question, John, I was talking about a reconstruction package that's contingent on a settlement, and I did not mean in any way to suggest that humanitarian aid is, because that would be very unfortunate.

MR. DINGER: Thank you very much.

(The briefing concluded at 2:53 p.m.)


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