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Peace in Bosnia is unravelling – the UK must not let Karadzic proclaim victory from his prison cell

3 min read

Many people may be surprised to hear that today, 26 years after the signing of the Dayton Agreement, peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina is unravelling. Despite slow progress in reforms over the past decade, Bosnia and Herzegovina has nevertheless been considered a success story of international intervention and state-building. Yet a long brewing crisis has come to the fore, shaking the foundations of Dayton, and if it is allowed to proceed, the crisis could quickly push the country, and the Western Balkans, to the brink.

Allow me to explain. The Dayton Agreement achieved much: it stopped the war and preserved the integrity of the state, giving it a chance to develop with the goal of European Union and NATO membership as part of a long transition toward self-sufficiency, democracy, and a free market economy.

However, Dayton also bequeathed a discriminatory constitution and a complex and multi-layered system of government, with complicated decision-making hampered by excessive checks and balances often used to disrupt. The most dangerous legacy of Dayton is that it failed to address the issue that led to the war in 1992 – pretensions over Bosnia and Herzegovina territory from its neighbours.

The international community must decide whether to finally stand up to bullies threatening peace or continue accommodating their demands

The Dayton system worked for 26 years, assisted by the international community. When these international institutions worked at full capacity, centrifugal forces were kept in check, the country progressed. The formation of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Armed Forces, comprising three formerly warring sides, was the crowning achievement of this process. Moreover, in 2008, Bosnia and Herzegovina signed a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU, and two years later became a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

However, centrifugal forces, in particular the leadership of Republika Srpska (RS), an entity that comprises 49 percent of Bosnia and Herzegovina territory, has sought to stop and revert 26 years of progress. Their approach has been to undermine and weaken state institutions by producing political crises, to neuter international presence and to attempt to sow ethnic division.

After a decade of international retreat through compromises with the RS, we have reached a point where if their current demands were not met, RS representatives will continue to boycott state institutions and the RS entity parliament will unilaterally pass legislation removing the state-level institutions from the RS and creating their own – including new armed forces. In this, they are supported by Russia, which has its own anti-NATO and anti-EU agenda.

The formation of parallel structures is secession in all but name, and it carries a profound risk of violent confrontation within legal state institutions. Furthermore, the unravelling of the state would not stop with the RS. Nationalist Croat structures view this crisis as an opportunity to pursue their own wartime goal of autonomy through electoral changes that defy the five verdicts by the European Court of Human Rights on discrimination in the electoral process.

The international community, as the last defence, now must decide whether to finally stand up to bullies threatening peace or continue accommodating their demands, until they can accommodate no more. The tools for action exist – within multilateral bodies such as the Office of the High Representative, European Union Force Bosnia and Herzegovina, EU and NATO but also within individual states.

The United Kingdom has an opportunity to shape the international response. Countering Russian influence in the region, while stabilising Bosnia and returning the country to the Euro-Atlantic path, is clearly in their interest. Crucially, the UK must not allow Radovan Karadzic, who is serving a life sentence for genocide at HMP Parkhurst, to declare victory from his prison cell.


Vanja Filipovic is the Ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the United Kingdom.

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