Confronting the past in Bosnia
It has been more than 20 years since the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, popularly known as the Dayton Accords, were signed at a U.S. Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995 under the auspices of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Richard Holbrooke and former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt to end the conflict that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and created more than 2 million refugees.
Despite the continuing problems emanating from the unstable political system the Dayton Accords established, the peace, whatever we make of it, still holds, though barely. In any case, it was, as some call it, a “construction of necessity” and it saved thousands of civilians from the ravages of the war at that moment in history.
The system established in Bosnia and Herzegovina under the Dayton Accords has been ineffective and riddled with complications, including a rotating chair for the State Presidency among a Bosnian, a Croat and a Serb who are elected directly by the people from the two politically autonomous entities of the State of the Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH): the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska. However, the BIH is a complete state, not a federation or a confederation, and no entity or entities can be separated from it except through legal means. The country’s three ethnic groups are considered as constituent peoples, each having a guaranteed share of power with their own constitutions.
It is decidedly the world’s most complicated system of government that continues to trigger ethnic divisions among groups and constantly undermines the unity of the country. Yet after two decades, the country is still undivided, though perpetually on the edge of partition.
Most recently, Milorad Dodic, the president of the Republika Srpska, proposed a referendum on the authority of the national court over Serbs in November 2015, which would be a threat to the stability and unity of the BIH. The current state of the economy with a high unemployment rate, poor business climate, high costs of a large public sector and consumption-based economic growth, does not promise a positive future either. They all fuel further nationalism and division.
Even the judgment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on March 24 against Radovan Karadžić, the former president of Republika Srpska and the commander of Serbian forces during the war, was received with only grim satisfaction on the ground. He was convicted on 10 of 11 indictments, ranging from genocide to crimes against humanity (such as persecution, extermination, murder, and deportation) and violations of the laws of war (murder, terror, unlawful attacks on civilians, hostage-taking and inhumane acts). He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
The ICTY’s conviction of genocide in Srebrenica, where 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys were killed while women and children were forcibly displaced, in July 1995 was the most significant among the offences he was charged with. Srebrenica was a turning point in the war as it paved the way for NATO air strikes against the Serbian forces to stop the systematic slaughter in the country.
The somewhat delayed verdict of the ICTY in the case of Karadžić might not heal the wounds of many victims. Yet it is a milestone in international justice and law. Since its establishment in 1993, the ICTY has indicted 161 people. Some suspects died before trial, while some cases were terminated or withdrawn, but the rest faced judgment in the end. The conviction of Karadžić at long last because of his role in the massacres might not ensure that new atrocities are prevented from occurring, but it is certainly a serious warning for today’s would-be mass murderers.