20 Years After the Dayton Agreement: “The Sky is Darkening in Bosnia”

November 5, 2015

By Jonathan Bucks

On Wednesday 4 November, the Frontline Club marked the twentieth anniversary of the Dayton Agreement – the peace agreement that marked the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina – by welcoming a panel of those who helped shape negotiations at the time, and who reported on the three year conflict.

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The discussion was moderated by Allan Little who reported on the war for the BBC. Anthony Loyd, foreign correspondent for The Times who reported on the Bosnian war in 1993 and wrote about his experience in My War Gone By, I Miss It So, recently returned to Bosnia for the first time in 20 years and kicked off the discussion.

Describing Bosnia as two countries, Loyd said: “In most of the towns they seemed as depopulated as they had done in the war… Sectarian divisions were more glaring than ever before and had been entrenched by Dayton. It seemed a sad and zombified place.”

Kemal Pervanic survived the atrocities of the Omarska concentration camp and has since dedicated his work to education and reconciliation in Bosnia. He painted a picture of a country whose youth are seeking to heal the wounds of the past and look to the future. “There’s a crop of new people, born towards the end of the war, a small group of people who want to see real change.”

Describing the often tortuous reconciliation process, Pervanic told of a fellow volunteer who had tried to kill him during the war. “We reached a point where he kind of apologised to me,” he said. He also blamed the government for the country’s division, saying: “Politicians are driving a wedge between us and young people.”

Zrinka Bralo was a radio journalist in Sarajevo and came to London in 1993 where she has fought for social justice and refugees’ rights. She described how “consumerism and capitalism [had] moved in and glossed over” many of the country’s issues, particularly the lack of democracy in the Bosnian constitution which reserves the highest political positions, including the Presidency, to three “constituent peoples” – Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.

Paddy Ashdown served as high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina and the European Union special representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina from May 2002 until January 2006. He was instrumental in ensuring the success of Dayton in the early years. His outlook for the country’s future was bleak. “The sky is darkening in Bosnia, by the day, by the month and by the year,” he said.

Ashdown was particularly critical of the international community for failing maintain peace and stability in the country. “It takes a long time to wash away the aftermath of conflict. You need strategic patience to see it through and the international community has failed to see it through.”

He described the first ten years after the Dayton agreement as “brilliant” but through neglect, the progress of the country “has been allowed to unravel.”

Bralo and Ashdown both spoke of a country returning to a “three mono-ethnic state” – Bosniak, Serb and Croat – in which multi-ethnicity is in “severe danger.” Bralo lamented the fact that Jews and Protestants are blocked from standing for president.

Among the audience questioners was Clive Baldwin, a lawyer for Jakob Finci, a Bosnian Jew who successfully launched an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights on the basis that Bosnia’s Constitution violates the European Convention on Human Rights. Baldwin pointed out that six years later nothing has been done and the constitution has not been changed. “It’s because Europe has given up on Bosnia,” Ashdown said.

Bralo agreed, saying: “Bosnia wanted to become more like Europe but Europe is becoming more like Bosnia.”

Pervanic, to the agreement of the panel, identified the youth and grassroots level initiatives as the key to the country’s development. Ashdown added: “They need time and need to get rid of generation that ran the war. The people in charge are exactly the same people at Dayton and they use peace for the same purposes of the war. They need to create a state were younger people can break through.”