Building Peace After Armed Conflict in Bosnia

Provide a critical assessment of international efforts to build peace after armed conflict in Bosnia

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The Bosnian War broke out in March 1992, and persisted virulently along ethnic lines until the signature of the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina on December 14, 1995. Also known as the Dayton Accords, the peace treaty was arguably the international community’s [1] most substantial contribution to ending the armed conflict. Many observers and Bosnians assess the immediate goals of the Dayton Accords as successful: Bosnians are no longer at war, and NATO forces enforced peace with few casualties. [2] Yet, while the Dayton Accords ended the war, the structural framework that it set up perpetuates the confrontation that drove the conflict. Thus, durable peace remains elusive. This paper critically assesses the international community’s strategy to build peace in post-armed conflict Bosnia by analysing three main variables: policy, political economy, and security and rule-of-law. This paper can do justice in a brief analysis to the complex dynamics and issues of post-war Bosnia. Nonetheless, it demonstrates that the need for cooperative, local peacebuilding ownership is dire, and Bosnia requires systemic reform to enable it. Bosnia and the international actors have made great strides in forming positive peace. To date, however, the international coalition has lacked the political will and foresight to address the conflict’s underlying issues, creating a status quo that is unsustainable in the long term.

The Dayton Accords structured Bosnia as one state with two autonomous components: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and the Republika Srpska (RS). [3] The Accords institutionalised dysfunction within the political system, creating a state with uncertain capacity and legitimacy that relies on international actors and institutions. [4] Bosnia’s problems during war consisted of massacre, rape, and ethnic cleansing; today, Bosnia must deal with lawlessness, corruption, and economic stagnation. Overcoming the latter issues is critical to social, political, and economic growth. Since the end of armed conflict in December 1995, the international coalition has been attempting to transform power in war-torn Bosnia to realize a prosperous future. An effective transformation simultaneously addresses political, political-economic, and security dynamics. [5] The international community approaches these variables disparately and therefore counterproductively, detrimentally affecting social, political, and economic development.

Transforming political power and promoting self-governance

A political transformation entails channelling the competition for power through non-violent outlets, most simply manifested through free and fair elections and legitimate governance. [6] Competition in Bosnia is now focused non-violently through its political system, though this accomplishment is only a half-success. The Dayton Accords implemented a highly fractured political system that has led to a fragmented state; ethnic rivalries—relatively quiescent under Josip Tito’s Yugoslavian regime, but enflamed through the conflicts following its dissolution—are entrenched in every political decision. [7] Bosnia’s decentralised power sharing prevents violence, but it does not promote peace; it instigates political gridlock. While the decentralisation may have been necessary to frame a successful peace agreement, the systemic dysfunction was not a necessary outcome of the armed conflict. Rather, it is (at least in part) a result of rushed elections after Dayton, propped up by an inefficient electoral system. [8] This is in addition to a failure to support the creation of alternative political and social projects in civil society, which exists isolated from Bosnia’s socio-political context. [9]

The international coalition hoped that the Dayton Accords would lead to a political and social system that would help Bosnians develop a shared Bosnian identity. [10] The Accord had the opposite effect. In order to secure Bosnian-Serb support during peace talks, the negotiators agreed to establish a weak central government that would lack authority over ethnically based entities. Bosnia separated into two autonomous regions with 13 overlapping constitutions, officially dividing Bosnians into three separate ethnic groups. [11] After concluding negotiations, the international community rushed elections with a counter-productive electoral system. Rather than encourage compromise across divisions, the system reinforced ethnocentrism and the power of obstinate, nationalistic leaders. [12] Voters consistently cast ballots along ethnic lines, and the cumbersome political system masks corruption and incompetence once the leaders are in office. [13] The nationalists that entered office following the Dayton Accords delayed institutional development that may have worked to unify the highly fractured society, out of fear of giving one party too much power. [14]This has become a pattern, with the main nationalist parties from Bosniak, Serb, and Croat factions maintaining control of the country’s three-seat presidency after elections in October 2014. [15] In the current system, no party has incentive to cooperate with another, and its decentralized nature allows one party to paralyze the frequently protracted negotiations that precede nearly every decision. [16] Political inaction has compelled the High Representative, with the power to force legislation and dismiss elected officials, to intervene multiple times. Meanwhile, doing so stymies democratic development toward a self-governing state independent of any international administrator. [17]

The constitutional structure requires reform, though change proves to be difficult. To its credit, the international community has recognized this. However, diverse packages of carrots and sticks to incentivize economic and political progress–including prospective European Union membership and sanctions, respectively– proved ineffective. “Even using these potent weapons, it has not been possible to force amendments to the constitution,” says Matthew Parish, a former legal advisor to the international supervisor of Bosnia’s Brcko Districtks. [18] Nonetheless, the European Union and NATO continue to dangle membership prospects in front of the Bosnian government in hopes of encouraging reform. Any reform to improve the political system would likely strengthen the central government, thereby weakening the RS. This is the impasse between BiH and the RS. The RS frequently threatens secession in response to centralisation efforts. [19] There is no guarantee that movement toward EU or NATO membership would end the zero-sum relationship between the RS and BiH. Instead, a strong civil society may be a viable method to resolve tensions between the two entities.

The OSCE [20]has defined civil society in Bosnia as ‘the sum of public wills that act independently of the state without obstructing the state in carrying out its responsibilities’. [21]It is a space where civilian collectivization, through a diverse set of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), counterbalances the state’s power and prevents it from dominating society. [22] Ideally, a strong and functioning civil society would generate tolerance, modernisation and social participation, emphasising local participation in peacebuilding. [23] Given this potential, the international community has exerted significant effort to cultivate a strong civil society. Despite its attempts, however, the international community’s extensive influence in the country undermines its efforts.

International efforts to bolster civil society growth are more often associated with the quantity of NGOs rather than their quality, and Bosnian citizens see civil society building programs as discounting local history and social dynamics. [24] Further undercutting its significance, political officials are arguably more accountable to the international community than to their voters. The High Representative ultimately determines the course of Bosnia’s politics. ‘Thus, the expectation that local organizations will hold political leaders accountable is a fundamental illusion,’ and civil society will remain weak and insecure. [25] Bosnian politics—opaque, unaccountable, and corrupt—are consequentially unaccountable to civilians. [26] The constitutional structure, while preventing violence, maintains ethnic tensions and causes citizens to pragmatically adhere to ethnic politics in response to their perceived insecurity and lack of political participation. [27] A strong civil society is not an antidote for Bosnian politics’ ills, though it is vital for long-term democratic growth. [28] Presently, citizens’ insecurity and its isolation from the state provide it with little space to promote reconciliation and contribute to peace.

Establishing security and the rule of law

While it may not necessarily be causal, one of the most accurate predictors of whether or not a state will descend into civil war is whether it has already experienced one. [29] A vital factor to prevent resurgent conflict is to establish a secure environment which precludes militant factions from pursuing goals through violence. [30] It is equally important to secure this environment with an institutional capacity to maintain the rule of law and to exact justice. [31] The international community in Bosnia has prevented conflict relapse, though it has done so by institutionalising the conflict, maintaining tensions. Simply put, the international community has created an environment in which it is costlier to fight a war than it is to compete for power through politics. [32] While resurging war may not be a likely possibility, Bosnia is mired in corruption, organized crime, ethnic tension, and violence that prevents political, social, and economic development—maintaining a status quo between armed conflict and durable peace. This is partially a result of internationally mandated post-conflict amnesty laws, prolonged war-criminal prosecutions, and a failure to transform the wartime economy into a legitimate formal economy.

The international community demanded the establishment of the Federal Amnesty Law to prevent political prosecution of returning refugees, draft dodgers, and soldiers ‘charged with a crime, other than serious violation of international humanitarian law.’ [33] The international community intended to provide Bosnian citizens security whilst they rebuild their lives following the conflict. A number of Bosnian politicians and elites took advantage of the amnesty laws to include crimes like illegal commerce, tax evasion, and illegal use of humanitarian aid, and they expanded the time the amnesty covered to include January 1991. [34] These pardoned offenses may have provided relief to a number of soldiers that had committed regular wartime acts in line with the terms of the Amnesty Law. However, the expanded time-period also provided cover for corrupt officials’ crimes more than a year prior to the war. Amnesty laws forced prosecutors to drop pending investigations and indictments for politicians in the main nationalist parties, allowing them to continue to compete for power after the war.

International actors sought prosecution for the alleged criminals that the Amnesty Law did not excuse. Chief among these prosecutions was that of the leaders of the warring factions for committing crimes against humanity, including genocide. As the international community saw was necessary following the Second World War, the Rwandan Genocide, and East Timor, justice is often requisite to attain durable peace. [35] The international community lacked the political will after the Dayton Accords to pursue war criminals for arrest, despite indicting them for their acts. The United States, for one, NATO’s member with the greatest capacity for force, refused to risk another Somalia-like war criminal hunt. The international tribunal had to rely on its member states to extradite the alleged criminals. This proved ineffective until the early 2000s: the international community was unwilling to take meaningful action to hasten or force extradition, and the states where war criminals resided were either unwilling or incapable of pursuing them. [36]

Nearly twenty years after the war’s end, Ratko MladiA‡, Radovan KaradA?iA‡, Goran HadA?iA‡, and Vojislav Seselj–four of the conflict’s most notorious war criminals–remain on trial. While 141 proceedings of the 161 indicted criminals have concluded, many critics state that the international tribunal has taken far too long to bring the accused to trial, and that those who have been found guilty have received lenient sentences. [37] This perceived lack of justice prevents closure, and perpetuates the doctrine of collective guilt over individual responsibility for atrocities. As a 2013 UN poll demonstrated, Bosnians must reconcile their past before they embrace their future. [38] The international community’s role in this has so far been mixed: the atmosphere of impunity is now over, though the results have been demonstrably underwhelming. [39]

Bosnia’s unreformed political economy

The World Bank estimates that Bosnia’s shadow economy composes X percent of its GDP. [40] The formal, legitimate economy remains highly dependent on external support, and founders in comparison to the underground market. The Dayton Accords catalysed an internationally led privatisation effort that led to rent-seeking and corruption; organized crime is woven tightly through the public and private sectors. Consequentially, the current situation in Bosnia is rife with contradicting relationships: the shadow economy complicates peacebuilding and international efforts, though international intervention has fuelled organized crime; moreover, while the clandestine economy frustrates reconstruction, citizens depend on it for survival–the formal economy cannot support them. [41]

The international community imposed an arms embargo on Bosnia in September 1991. The Bosnian-Serbs were better positioned geographically and financially to circumvent the embargo, and armed themselves through relatively accessible smuggling channels. [42] The Bosnian faction relied on international actors and, despite the United States’ tacit refusal to enforce the embargo and Iran’s assistance, was unable to obtain much more than small arms. At the start of the war, the Bosnian-Serbs possessed far superior artillery and firepower, outgunning the Bosnians nine to one. [43] Partially because of the military imbalance, the Bosnian-Serb forces were able to stage the longest siege in modern history on Sarajevo. Supplemented by the UN’s massive humanitarian relief aid effort, the Bosnians survived the siege through its reliance on diverse and ubiquitous smuggling networks—which the international community supported, often directly. [44] People most connected to the underground economy allowed the war economy, and thus the people, to survive. Throughout each side of the conflict, the newly enriched criminal elite formed ties with political leaders that persisted after the conflict. The international community has largely ignored a key correlation, and has thus failed to create a gainful, legitimate political economy: ‘The more criminalised the conflict, the more criminalised the state, economy, and society that emerge…criminal capital accumulated during a criminalized war has been converted to political [and economic] capital after the war.’ [45]

`International finance institutions, particularly the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, mandated widespread privatisation. Bosnia, especially immediately after the Dayton Accords, lacked coherent regulatory institutions to manage market liberalisation and fair economic competition (Paris 2004). The international actors approached liberalisation before institutionalisation. Despite international oversight, this led war-time criminal elite to co-opt privatisation and deregulation. Corruption and botched privatisation efforts are in part responsible for today’s 44.5 percent unemployment rate (60 percent for 15-to-24-year-olds) and a $545/ month average wage. [46] Ostensibly, this partly caused protests in February 2014 across 30 cities throughout BiH and calls for the government’s wholesale resignation. [47] Bosnia’s post-Dayton political system facilitates this corruption through its radical decentralisation and weak regulation, failing to dismantle the criminalized war-time economy.

Bosnia’s future and the international intervention

The international community’s direct intervention, in seeking to end the conflict swiftly, entrenched the confrontation in a top-down, zero-sum political system that lacks local legitimacy. If politicians adhere to international mandates, they risk alienating citizens. Local ownership, in its current form, would therefore limit external assistance. One possible remedy is to convert Bosnia to a welfare state. The international finance agencies have so far focused on establishing an environment conducive to private business. Privatisation, however, has returned few positive results. Massive, state-driven job creation could give citizens a stake in the government and spur economic development that private sector oligarchs are unwilling to approach. However, the state lacks the coherence and self-regulation to work across ethnic groups; it would require reform before taking such action, and if history is any indicator, opposing parties are likely to block any changes. Nonetheless, the international community’s neoliberal, one-size-fits-all approach may not be suitable to Bosnian economic development.

Bosnia faces a number of structural challenges that limit development. While it has managed to transform the competition for power through political channels, it maintains an insecure atmosphere in which Bosnians cannot hold their state accountable. In order to become more centralised–and therefore more efficient–the RS would necessarily relinquish power to the Bosniak majority. This is zero-sum dynamic that the Bosnian-Serbs find threatening. Reflecting on past tensions, they fear tyranny of the majority. Proponents of NATO and EU membership aver that membership would relieve the Bosnian factions of the fear that prevents constitutional reform. While EU membership would require the reform that it would ultimately allow, NATO membership requires less and is a relatively achievable future. [48] Nonetheless, NATO’s security guarantee does not necessarily extend to intrastate conflict. It is highly likely that NATO would intervene much swifter in a resurgent conflict in order to prevent a Srebrenica massacre redux, but that is already the case. Membership would provide measures to prevent the RS from seceding, but only to an extent; after all, this did not stop Scotland’s 2014 attempt at secession. International peacebuilding has so far provided Bosnians with security from armed conflict, though it has maintained an otherwise politically and economically insecure state. The ethnically divided country requires reform—that much is evident. While the international community is partially responsible for state’s dysfunctional structure, this does mean it should disengage from the country. On the contrary, the dysfunction has created a situation in which Bosnia is entirely dependent on international actors—disengagement could prove cataclysmic. Rather, the international community must change its strategy. Until it does, the international community must maintain a dysfunctional state, otherwise doomed to languish under ineffective domestic leadership and international stewardship.