Jon-Baldvin Hannibalsson

Doing the right thing

By 1991 it looked as if the situation in the Federation of Yugoslavia was slipping gradually out of control. The center could no longer hold. What could be done about it?

One option for the “international community” was to wait and see and let events run their course.This was for instance the E.U. stance at the time.This involved a high risk that outstanding grievances would be settled by force. The risk was civil war – the most gruesome of all wars.

Another option was to accept as a matter of fact that the federation could no longer be held together except by force. If you wanted to avoid war and seek a peaceful solution, you should therefore accept the emergence of the constituent nation- states from the disintegration of the federation.

In that case the role of the international community would be actively to grant diplomatic recognition to the emerging states and to offer its services to settle border disputes and other outstanding issues – and help keeping the peace on the ground.

I was firmly of the opinion that this was the right course of action. This conclusion was based on my recent experience (1988-91) of dealing with the volatile situation on the Baltic rim, where fomerly subjugated nations were breaking out of the Soviet Federation. The only peaceful solution in this case, and in accordance with the will of the people, was to grant the embryonic nation-states full diplomatic recognition as soon as possible.This is what I fought for.

But in the case of the Balkans, Iceland was only a small “far-away-country” with no means to affect the situation in those distant lands. As an EFTA-country we were nonetheless in close cooperation with Austria. The Austrian foreign minister, Mr. Alois Mock, kept us well informed about the situation in Slovenia and Croatia.

For domestic reasons it seemed however that the Austrians could not take the initiative.
Mr. Genscher, our German colleague, assessed the situation in the same way as we did. But he needed an outside stimulus to help turn E.U.- policy around. That is what we tried to offer.

“How could the European Union justify being the last major player to make up its mind on this incendiary issue? Could the E.U. passively stand by while a bloody civil war was brewing in their own backyard?”

Those types of questions logically led to the unavoidable answer. Of course the E.U. could not. But of course the European Union should have acted much more decisively than it did to prevent the war. That is one of the big lessons from the Balkan tragedy which is still vivid in our memory.

Slovenia´s success story since those days twenty years ago has conclusively disspelled any doubts as to who was right on those fateful issues at the time.

Please accept my most sincere congratulations from the High North on the twenty-year annivesary.


Reykjavík, January 3rd, 2011
Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland