top of page

Lord David Owen: Discussing Ukraine, Gaza, and the role of the United Nations today

By Toby Gill


Official Portrait of Lord David Owen | Credit: Chris McAndrew, Wikimedia Commons

Lord David Owen was a Member of Parliament for Plymouth for 26 years from 1966-92. Under Labour Governments, he served as Minister of State for Health and Social Security, Under-Secretary of State for the Royal Navy, and Foreign Secretary from 1977-79. Lord Owen co-founded the Social Democratic Party established in 1981 and served as its Leader from 1983-87 and 1988-90. He currently sits in the House of Lords as an independent Social Democrat. From 1992-95 Lord Owen served as EU peace negotiator in the former Yugoslavia. He is the author of multiple books, including most recently Riddle, Mystery, and Enigma: Two Hundred Years Of British-Russian Relations (2021). 

Note: this interview was recorded on November 30, 2023.

Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine began over a year and a half ago; the conflict has raged on for around 21 months now, with no end in sight. What does a victory over Russia look like at this stage, and is a Ukrainian victory a possibility at this point? 

Lord Owen (LO): As far as the second invasion by Russia is concerned, let's remember what we were seeing; there were tanks amassed in Belarus in very large numbers, and it was very clear that the Russians expected a victory parade in a few days’ time. Their soldiers had their ceremonial uniform attached with them, and bands were going to play for an expected great victory within a matter of days. Well, it was completely repulsed, militarily, with some very effective use of anti-tank hand-held missiles, which the British have supplied, and the dream of a quick takeover of Ukraine was shattered. So as far as I’m concerned, victory, or other words like that don't really matter. Russia is a very powerful country still, although not as powerful as many of us thought. 

And the answer to your question is, the Ukrainians have rallied; they have reversed the assault on the capital, have managed to regain a very substantial amount of territory, and are fighting over a very difficult area on the Sea of Azov, which the Ukrainians need to go through the sea and out under the bridge, which has been built at Crimea. So, I think you shouldn't talk in terms of victory. It's a remarkable achievement of Ukraine, that they have done so well. And what we must remember is: this is a new form of NATO action. NATO cannot go to the defence of a country, unless it's a member state; Ukraine is not a member state, and therefore, we are not at war with Russia. What we have done is make available to Ukraine considerable arms and munitions, a lot of advice, and we have given them the means to hold back the Russian attack. I think this is a considerable success for Ukraine and a considerable defeat for Russia. But if you think there's going to be a complete victory, bear in mind that very few wars end without negotiations, so it is difficult to predict. 

Ultimately, it's up to Ukraine to decide - I'm not in favour of telling them how to conduct their own war. All I do believe is that NATO has responded extremely well and generously, it’s extremely unique. So, I think we have just got to stay the course. I'm not in favour of alarmism or of pessimism – just keep plugging away. Or as Churchill used to say, keep buggering on!

You have had a lot a lot of experience working with Russia over the years, and you've recently written a book ‘Riddle, Mystery, and Enigma’ focused on British Russia relations. Do you suppose there was a moment where Britain and the West had a chance to improve relations with Russia to avoid this conflict ever happening at first place?

LO: Yes definitely, there was a place and time, and that was when Yeltsin was in power. I mean, Yeltsin did everything we could possibly expect. He collapsed the Communist Party; he took the view that Russia didn't need an empire, and he encouraged Ukraine and Belarus to become independent countries along with Russia. This, of course, is what Mr. Putin is trying to reverse. He wants to restore the Russian Empire, but the fact of life is the Cold War was lost by Russia. The fall of the Berlin Wall marked a considerable change, and that was an example of the strength of nations’ positions. It was a Cold War, and it was a long, vigorous attempt to take on Russian ideology, as well as to ensure that Russia couldn't take any territory of NATO countries. 

Look, working with Ukraine is novel - we've never done this before. It has some disadvantages, of course. But the hard part now is holding back Russia, as they improve their performance, improve their numbers, and get arms from Korea and elsewhere, and particularly, some quite good missiles from Iran.

Looking at Europe, there's been a lot of evidence this year of Russia working closely with Serbia, supplying more weapons, and supporting an increasingly aggressive rhetoric by Serbia towards Kosovo. How likely is another conflict in the region, and would Russia benefit from such a conflict?

LO: I spent two and a half years trying to bring peace in the Balkans, and I'm reluctant to get into a lot of predictions of the future, because they’re given more weight in the Balkans than they deserve. I'm just a normal member of the British public now, but it's always been obvious to me, that the Bosnian Serbs would create difficulties with the settlement that was negotiated by the United States. 

It was very similar, of course, to the Vance-Owen Peace plan. But it's predominantly a matter now for the US to determine the policy because they were also very heavily involved with the NATO war against Serbia, over Kosovo. And a lot of the root of the difficulty we’re getting with the Bosnian Serbs is also a difficulty in northern Kosovo with the Serbs, who are largest groups in one of the big northern towns. Now, of course, Putin’s style is to create trouble in lots of different areas – to divert resources, give the impression that Russia is heavily involved, and ultimately to create unrest, and it's very possible that we may see a change in attitudes in the future, but who knows. 

I want to move on slightly to the situation in Gaza. You have called for a UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) to safeguard humanitarian aid deliveries into Gaza, why do you think the UN has been reluctant to propose such a resolution yet?

LO: I think Israel doesn't want the UN involved in Gaza. It is not likely to encourage it, in fact, they probably actively discourage it. But the fact of the matter is that the indiscriminate bombing should not continue. And my hope is that it will not, as Israeli troops are now on the ground in Gaza, and they can ensure precision attacks on targets such as the underground networks which have been built. A commitment by Israel to stop the blanket bombing, as their forces are now inside Gaza – I believe that would be the best outcome at this point. 

I do think it will be a different type of fighting: more focused, with more use of precision missiles and precision bombing targets, which forces on the ground will have been able to localise - to ensure targets are Hamas fighters and not civilians. Now, even in that situation, there will be problems. We have seen that medicines and food supplies are running out in the Gaza population. WHO have predicted that more people are likely to die now, if the bombing continues as it did in the past, from illnesses, a lack of heating, and to some extent malnutrition, than from anything else. And we can do something about getting medicines, and we can do something about getting water and food to those in need. But it's difficult with the fighting on the ground. 

Therefore, in the past, we've used UNPROFOR; the most recent example that I was very closely involved in was the UN Security Council resolution to authorise UNPROFOR to escort lorries on humanitarian missions in Bosnia, to alleviate the threats of extreme cold winters and malnutrition. Ultimately, all that I'm asking is that the UN does what they did in Bosnia and use UN force to get some essential humanitarian supplies to the Gazan population. This is possible even while Israel fights their war, but it will require a Security Council resolution. I don't think that would be vetoed, but who knows - you never can be sure.

And beyond the immediate humanitarian concerns, do you believe the UN will play a role in facilitating a longer-term resolution between Israel and Palestine? Whether that be a new form of a two-state solution or something entirely different? 

LO: No, I do not think the UN has got a very big role in this, and by-and-large the UN is not a good negotiator of a peace agreement between two warring factions. They've done some of that in the past, but more and more we are tending to go either to independent negotiations, or to use different mechanisms entirely. But look, I do think we do have a mechanism, and that is the Abraham accords. This was signed under President Trump after a great deal of work by his son in law, Jared Kushner. And two Arab states have so far signed bilateral agreements with Israel on a comprehensive agenda. After all, remember that Israel at one time was not talking direct to Arab governments, and they were being boycotted by Arab governments, Israeli goods were being boycotted. Things have moved on significantly since then.

Looking at Britain's stance on the conflict in Gaza. How should Britain approach the conflict in Gaza; bearing in mind the huge public interest in the conflict, which is quite unique, and considering Britain's strategic interest in supporting Israel?

LO: Well, I think that Britain and France, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, should consult in New York, about a UN resolution to create UNPROFOR to operate in Gaza. It can't be done without Security Council support, and it will not be wanted by Israel, no doubt about that. Now as you said in your summary, which is accurate, we have agreed in the UK, but also in more and more aspects of the world, that Israel must have the right to take on Hamas after their brutal assault on Israeli citizens. 

Therefore, I'm not saying that the fighting should stop. It won't stop. And there is no doubt that their fight has been delayed, but it can now take place, because Israel is back inside Gaza with a substantial fighting force aimed at eliminating Hamas fighters. There's no doubt about that. I'm not saying that should stop. I think that is a reasonable interpretation of the laws of war that Israel has the right to retaliate against the quite unwarranted attack from Hamas. 

But what I am talking about is a wider issue, which is the fact that the innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza, who are not connected to Hamas, are suffering a great deal, particularly young children. There are not sufficient antibiotics, and there is not sufficient food for babies. Now, this is a serious humanitarian crisis, which the UN is ideally suited to do. All that they need is a protection force for those lorries that would go into Gaza during the fighting, preferably with some form of understanding with Israel about routes that they would follow, and places where they could deposit medicines. This would be the best solution to ensure the wellbeing of the innocent Gazans trapped in the conflict.

I briefly touched on the huge public and international interest in the War in Gaza, which makes it difficult to get clear insight into the conflict. How can Britain contribute to fostering a more substantive political dialogue, both at home and abroad, to ensure we handle conflicts like Israel-Gaza in a collaborative and meaningful way?

LO: Well, Britain is a permanent member of the Security Council, so therefore it has powers and influence in New York, and it should use it. I think that when these sorts of issues come up, traditionally we work with France, and that partnership has been very effective over the years. So, I think it's a good idea to work with France over this issue, and I think it's a humanitarian obligation to try and weave our way through this very extraordinary situation of a war impending, stalled because of the need to use the Red Cross to get as many hostages back as possible. 

So, Israel has been content to do this, why are they doing it? They have always attached huge importance to getting hostages back and have paid the price. They're paying the price by letting Palestinians in Israel, who have been apprehended by the law and imprisoned, be released. They've done that in the past, and they've turned out to be Hamas fighters, so it is a dangerous trade for Israel. But they're risking that for their own people, and that's absolutely correct. So, I hope that process continues. But I hope it will lead into a more substantive political dialogue through some Arab countries. Ultimately, we need a dialogue between Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

Remember, Saudi Arabia have put down proposals for quite some time now for a new industrial partnership between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, and they would certainly want that to be extended to any new Palestinian state. They also want to build a big new city [NEOM] in a part of Saudi Arabia, which is closer to Jordan and Egypt. Now, there is a framework out there for the discussion on a Palestinian state. Hitherto, Netanyahu has been totally against it, and Israel has not accepted the idea of two states, and they want to do it all within one state. Most people believe, and I certainly believe, that there will be no peace unless there is a two-state solution. I think the sooner we get into direct talks between Israelis and Arab states about that, the better. We don't need to negotiate with Hamas about this - they are a terrorist organisation, and they need to be dealt with, unfortunately, via weapons of war. There is no role for them, certainly at this point in time, on the path to establishing a peaceful resolution.

Changing focus slightly, and without going down the path of speculation, it does seem as if there's a chance of a second Trump Presidency in the US. Similarly, political analysts indicate a resurgence in populist politics in Europe. We've seen the likes of Geert Wilders in in the Netherlands and Viktor Orban in Hungary take power. Could there be a resurgence of right-wing populism, and what threats does that pose to the West’s ability to collaborate in tackling issues like Ukraine and Israel for example?

LO: Well, you use the word populism. Be careful about that word. If populism is expressed in democratic elections, then you accept it. So, I am ready to work with the Hungarian government because they are democratically elected. And the same in Holland, there has been an election and because they have a proportional system, it's rather complicated and will take time to form a new government. But the new government will be formed soon. You can work with the old in the meantime, but regardless of who is elected, we just carry on. 

So, I think we should be cautious with the word populism, as it is usually said with a curled tongue, stemming from people’s preconceptions of the word. If it's populism when it comes from no democratic basis, that can be treated with a certain disdain. But if it comes from a democratic base, then we just must grapple with it. So okay, if you want to call Trump a populist, you can, but if he wins the election and becomes President, we have to work with him. And that's it.

But focusing on the War in Ukraine specifically, looking away from the focus on whether these figures are populist, does the election of leaders who are more sympathetic to Russia’s cause, pose a threat to our combined response to the War in Ukraine?

LO: I’m not sure it affects the British response. We're not a member of the EU, so what Hungary or Holland does is up to them. I think it is possibly disruptive within the European Union. The question is, would it be disruptive for NATO? Now, the Biden administration is solidly supportive to Ukraine. If President Trump was to be elected, he will have to face that reality. At the end of the day, a lot of nonsense is written about Trump - he came in as a President very hostile to NATO; he criticised European countries who were not fulfilling their obligation to spend as minimum 2% of GDP on NATO. If Trump was to come in the first thing a British Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister should say to him is “you were right, and your demand for more Europeans to pick up the share of NATO Defence has been met. And I'm glad to say, Mr. President, that you got what you wanted.”  There is a much greater response now, within the EU, for the member countries to pay their dues, and I think myself that it's possible to work with Trump. It’s not ideal, but if the Americans return President Trump again, we'll have to work with him as we did in the past. I don't think, on issues of defence, that he is in the habit of ignoring professional military advice. He's got quite a lot of respect for the American military, and I think that they know how to handle him, as do some of the diplomats. So, I think that we shouldn't get too obsessed about this. 

Look at the EU who must grapple with having Hungary as a member, who is obviously keener on Putin than most of us would like. It’s the same thing happening in Slovakia. That's part of democratic politics. Putin is not a democrat, but we have to agree amongst ourselves in organisations, to respect our own internal democracy, and that's the huge problem as far as Britain is concerned. We’re not in the EU, but we are in NATO, and so we have the right to demand that Hungary listens to other member states. And incidentally, we can demand that Turkey listens a bit more than they are at present, and instead of busting oil sanctions and buying Russian goods, they should be abiding by NATO decisions. But it's not a perfect world. It never will be.

As we approach the new year, are there any key conflict areas or areas of interest for British foreign policy that that we should focus on looking forwards to 2023?

LO: Well, I think that a fundamental issue is China, and how we respond to that. When I was Foreign Secretary, Britain had very good relations with China, and that was then followed later by Margaret Thatcher making an agreement with Deng Xiaoping, and everything was going alright. Then suddenly Xi comes in and breaks a treaty between Britain and China over Hong Kong – I don’t like that sort of behaviour, and it must be condemned when it arises. The Chinese are in the wrong in the way they’ve behaved. But that’s life – they’ve done it now. It’s done damage to Hong Kong, and it has done damage to the Chinese economy. We weren’t going to get a great reversal, but we should argue for a more defined difference, particularly in commercial matters, between Hong Kong and China.

 But we should go on talking to China – I will say, I do not like this build up, this atmosphere in Britain to become anti-China. China is a very big country, very diverse, and there are lots of aspects that we can live with, even where we have disagreements. It does not mean that we should walk off and try to cut off commercial relations with China, or healthy political debates with China. One of the most important things that has happened in the world in the last year is China making it abundantly clear to Putin that if he was to continue the fight in Ukraine, he was not to use nuclear weapons – and he hasn’t. And I don’t think he will, and that’s a wide use of Chinese power. Likewise, it was a good thing that Biden-Xi got together, and maybe there is a chance for US-Chinese relations to improve. And relations should improve between Britain and China too. 

Today we mark the remarkable life, the 100 years of Henry Kissinger. He never had any question of doubt that China was a country that had to have dialogue, and he helped break the embargo on Chinese relations and encouraged President Nixon to have that discourse with China. That was hugely productive, it is under strain now, and it needs to be repaired. So, as far as Britain is concerned, I do think we should be tough on military material, we should be careful with our technology sharing with China, we should regard China no longer as a friend, but we can still have a productive dialogue with China. This idea of Britain walking off from any form of Chinese relationship is immature nonsense. 



bottom of page