The Failure of the Dayton Peace Agreements in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH)

Article published on Feb. 12, 2003
community published
Article published on Feb. 12, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The generally held belief is that the Dayton Peace Agreements of 1995 brought an end to the civil war in BiH, the different parties agreeing to fully respect the sovereign equality of one another and to settle disputes by peaceful means. As is always the case, the reality is much more complex.

The generally held belief is that the Dayton Peace Agreements of 1995 brought an end to the civil war in BiH, the different parties agreeing to fully respect the sovereign equality of one another and to settle disputes by peaceful means. As is always the case, the reality is much more complex. For one, the fighting continued and does so to this day. Who is to blame? Are the accords themselves flawed? Or is the unwillingness of the parties involved to implement the different measures to blame? The war left enormous scars and the cycle of ethnic violence and revenge that has fuelled the Bosnian conflict is likely to continue for many years to come. The agreement was to be a foundation for reviving a multiethnic society in BiH based on the rule of law. It was praised by the international community for it seemed to promise a lasting peace, incorporating both military enforcement and strong mechanisms to protect human rights and ensure accountability for past abuses. But violations have occurred on all levels. The document itself is filled with many high principles but remains vague and contains very few precise instructions and practical information. The mechanisms created (e.g. IFOR) have encountered significant obstacles as a result. In addition, there has been a marked tendency among the different parties to minimise their own responsibility. To this can be added various other problems such as unclear mandates, imprecise operating and reporting guidelines, lack of training for field staff etc. In this short essay we will try to examine the humanitarian and civilian aspects of the agreements, as well as the mechanisms that were created. More importantly we will try to show how they have been violated, by giving some examples. Furthermore, we will mention some of the recommendations that have been made to improve the situation. The overall aim is to finally show that the protection of human rights is fundamental to the success of Dayton.

Dayton created a rotating tripartite presidency in BiH, with a Serb, Croat and Muslim member – all of whom were to be popularly elected. In addition, the country was to have a bicameral parliamentary assembly. The National House of Representatives (Predstavnicki Dom) had 42 seats elected for a 4-year term. Elections were to be by proportional representation. Annex 3 of the agreement provided for free and fair, internationally supervised elections to be conducted within 6 to 9 months for the Presidency of the House of Representatives, the House of Representatives of the Federation and the National Assembly and presidency of Republika Srpska. Refugees and persons displaced by the conflict would have the right to vote (including by absentee ballot) in their original place of residence if they chose to do so. It also insured the protection of the right to vote in secret and the freedom of expression and the press.

However, there is ample evidence showing that the Bosnian parties have failed to create the conditions for free and fair elections. It has been difficult for people to participate given that there is limited movement throughout the territory and that the press is severely restricted along ethnic and political lines. Refugees and displaced persons have not been able to return to their homes and indicted war criminals; in particular Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and military commander General Ratko Mladic maintain predominant political and military control. Alija Izetbegovic’s Party of Democratic Action (SDA), to give another example, systematically prosecuted non-SDA members. Opposition groups still have little or no access to the media and are severely restricted in their pre-election campaigning activities and in their access to participation in local politics. Local police commit frequent abuses, including the beating of individuals at the time of arrest and torture and ill treatment during interrogation, with individuals frequently targeted for their political opinions. Despite these abuses, soon after the Dayton Agreements were signed, the US Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced that the elections would go ahead. It was part of a growing campaign by the Clinton administration to ensure that the election take place in September, arguing that, although the elections would not be perfect, they would still be in the best interest of the people. In fact they were in the best interest of Mr. Clinton’s own re-election campaign. This kind of US behaviour is dangerous as it gives the idea that compliance with the Dayton agreements is not necessary or even expected. The US claimed, for example, that it was too much to expect indicted war criminals to be arrested before the elections took place. With 60, 000 NATO troops in BiH, the means exist to turn these criminals over to the Hague, but the international community has been unwilling to risk a confrontation. Furthermore, all political parties should have equal access to the media for the pre-election campaign period. In reality, alternative voices still don’t get an opportunity to be heard and there is no opposition to current political forces in place. BiH seems therefore to be doomed to ongoing cycles of conflict and violent revenge based on the false assumptions of collective ethnic guilt. SFOR and IPTF should have been requested to provide security and to prevent pre-election intimidation of voters and any candidates and political parties that had violated the agreement should have been struck from the ballot before the elections took place. Of course this is not very realistic since it would have probably involved the exclusion of all parties and most politicians from the elections. Nevertheless more could have been done.

The way things stand at the moment, persons indicted for war crimes monopolise the media. It would be interesting to find out who they are funded by, but such information is too sensitive in the current situation ever to reach the public domain. Yet there is really no reason why exposure of such corruption should be impossible. Clearly, improvements in the provision of information are necessary if the situation is to be remedied. The provision of proper material and equipment to facilitate information exchange that is not controlled by the three ethnically based political parties, for example. Joint television, radio and newspaper projects could be set up to be run by non-nationalist Bosnians so as to counter the ongoing propaganda and hate speech from all sides that promotes the idea that co-existence is not possible. Here we see another danger threatening the peace of the region: the lack of free exchange of unbiased information has kept the element of hostility and intolerance alive in the minds of many soldiers, civilians and politicians. People remain susceptible to abuse because of their religious, national or political affiliation.

The civil war in BiH left 250,000 people dead and 200,000 injured. Of the one million people displaced only 200,000 have returned to their original homes. Annex 7 of the Dayton Peace Agreements dealt with refugees and displaced persons. The agreement granted refugees and displaced persons the right to safely return home and regain lost property, or to obtain just compensation. A commission for displaced persons and refugees was to decide on the return of real property or compensation, with the authority to issue final decisions. Once again, the three parties have refused to comply with these critical components of the agreement. They have refused to allow people to return to their homes, have prevented free movement throughout BiH, and have convinced their own people to abandon their life-long homes, telling them that it is not possible to coexist with people of different ethnicity. For example, Bosnian Muslims around the town of Teslic, in central Bosnia, were forced to flee their homes following a campaign of bombings, beatings, stone throwing and threats by Bosnian Serb displaced persons. Local police refused to offer protection. Civilian aid workers of the UNHCR, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other agencies were attacked and unable to protect non-Serbs due to the unwillingness of the UN to support and assist their work. The threat to the peace agreement is evident: repressive forces under the above conditions have undoubtedly come to recognise that little stands in the way of renewed abuses. Minorities remaining in majority areas still live under the fear of being forced from their homes. There have even been reported cases of political resettlement of civilians. In Sanski Most, Bosnian government authorities held Serb civilians for exchange. In Banja Luka, hundreds of men remain in forced labour or are otherwise unaccounted for. The bad news gets worse as the international community remains silent on the issues – there has been a marked absence of a strong international response to these abuses.

An office of the High Representative (OHR) was created to oversee the implementation of the civilian aspects of the Dayton Agreement. It’s main power is set out in the UN Security Council Resolution 1022 which clearly requires the re-imposition of sanctions in the event of non-compliance with the human rights provisions of the Dayton Agreement. Annex 6 of the accord deals with these human rights. A Commission on Human Rights, composed of a human rights Ombudsman and a Human Rights Chamber (court) were created. The Ombudsman is authorised to investigate human rights violations, issue findings, and participate in proceedings before the Human Rights Chamber, which is authorised to issue binding decisions. In addition, under annex 7, the parties committed to cooperate with the ICRC in finding all missing persons. However, resources and resolve applied to the civilian aspects of Dayton lag far behind those committed to the military component. In addition, IFOR’s scope of action has bee tightly circumscribed to exclude pro-active protection of venerable civilians or arrests that would cause controversy. Minority populations are still at risk of abuse. Ethnically and politically motivated killings have been reported by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, as well as arbitrary arrest and detention, physical mistreatment and harassment of minorities. One of the major problems is that the OHR has insisted on a very narrow interpretation of its powers and has remained silent in the face of mounting evidence of abuse. Local police forces have been responsible for many abuses against civilians. These acts have been dismissed as acts by « rogue elements ». There have been other reports of unauthorised centres of detention where people have been severely mistreated. Lists of prisoners are not made public so that the fate of the growing number of missing persons is undetermined. One can also see discrimination in employment. Testimonies and confessions that are taken under duress or signed as a result of torture and other mistreatment by law enforcement officials were and are still being used in court proceedings. Basic things such as the right to be informed of your rights, the charges made against you and a counsel of choice when detained are not guaranteed. One remedy would be to publicise all police abuses as they occur. Over 100 civilians were executed en masse in the region of Bosanska Krajina just prior to the final signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement. In mid January 1996 European Union monitors and Bosnian investigators identified six mass graves in north-western Bosnia containing the bodies of approximately 240 suspected victims of « ethnic cleansing » by Serbian forces in 1992. IFOR troops refused to step in and halt the destruction of evidence. In one particular case their headquarters were located a mile from a mine in which corpses were being destroyed. Another major problem has been that there are no guidelines about how and to whom to report abuses. As a result abuses generally go unrecorded, even though Annex 11 states that personnel must report any credible information on human rights violations to the Human Rights Commission, the Tribunal or other appropriate organisations.

The Dayton Peace Agreements also stated that all people were guaranteed the right to move freely throughout the country, without harassment or discrimination. The UN was requested (in Annex 11) to establish an International Police Task Force (IPTF) to carry out various tasks, including training and advising local law enforcement personnel, as well as monitoring and inspecting law enforcement activities and facilities. Annex 6 (on human rights) demanded that the parties agree to grant UN human rights agencies, the OSCE, the Tribunal and other organisations full access to monitor the human rights situation. Independent observers and humanitarian workers are supposed to have complete and unrestricted access to all areas of, and persons residing in, territories of BiH. But as well as refusing to allow civilians to move freely within the territory of BiH, the parties have obstructed the free movement of representatives of international organisations as well. As of late February 1995 the IPTF has deployed fewer than 300 of its planned force of 1,700. Contributing nations dragged their feet on providing funding and staff for the IPTF. The transfer of power in areas of Sarajevo provided one of the first opportunities for the IPTF to play an important role. Unfortunately, the force was not fully operational, increasing the insecurity and fear of Serbs living in the suburbs surrounding the city, which were returned to the control of the Croat/Muslim Federation. As with the other institutions created, the IPTF has defined its role very narrowly, saying it does not have independent powers of investigation or arrest. Who can the victims turn to? Their options are certainly limited. A further example of the lack of free movement: ad hoc checkpoints continue to spring up where local police officers continue to harass members of other ethnic groups travelling through the respected areas.

As well as the IPTF, the agreement invited into BiH a multinational military Implementation Force, the IFOR, under the commandment of NATO, with a grant authority from the UN. It has the right to monitor and help ensure compliance with the military aspects of the agreement and to fulfil certain supporting tasks with the use of force if necessary. It has unimpeded freedom of movement, control over airspace and status of forces protection. One could well question the level of independence that BiH exercises at the moment, seeing how outside forces control so many domains. On the judicial level, compliance with the request and orders of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia constitutes an essential aspect of implementing Dayton. The principle idea is that a strong military presence would be needed in deterring abuses and helping civilian agents to protect human rights, conduct police patrols, deliver humanitarian aid, elect representatives who will not advocate violence as a solution to problems and build the rule of law. But even though IFOR leaders are responsible for keeping the peace, they have shown reluctance to play a role in human rights issues, arguing that their principal task was to implement the military aspects of the agreement. IFOR contributing countries – USA, GB, France – have focused more on monitoring the cease-fire and the separation of Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian government armies and the Bosnian Croat militia. Preventing renewed attacks on non-combatants, let alone bringing to justice those who organised the killings of the recent past, has been a low priority. Perhaps more seriously, they seemed to have somehow made the decision that arresting indicted war criminals encountered would upset their mission under the Dayton accord. The IFOR has in fact failed to arrest such persons on several occasions. The failure to make this behaviour public has undermined even further the peace effort. Another great problem has been encountered as regards the positioning of troops. IFOR commanders have been reluctant to station troops away from military front lies – even though that is where most abuses are likely to be committed. A good example is that of Banja Luka, distant from the « zone of separation », where human rights abuses have been present since 1992. The unfortunate message being put forward seems to be that there is no price to be paid for the slaughter of civilians, at least so long as it takes place away from military front lines. Another rule that has not been followed is that which obliges local authorities to obtain prior authorisation from the ICTFY before arresting anyone suspected of having committed war crimes or crimes against humanity – to avoid domestic prosecutions for war that might be motivated by revenge.

As has been somewhat demonstrated above, enormous problems have been encountered in the implementation of the agreements. Evidently, there is room for improvement. For one, human rights operations have to be transparent – reports of human rights abuses should not be withheld from the public for political reasons, and disclosure should be timely. IFOR and IPTF could increase patrols with vulnerable minority populations and position their troops in the areas where abuses are likely to occur. IFOR should not limit its deployment to zones of separation. It must support the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in its collection of evidence – to give an example; it should protect grave sites. Needless to say it should also arrest and detain those indicted, especially as it has the means to do so. The Bosnian government itself should cease the interference with the rights of Bosnian Serbs and Croats to return to their places of origin. Police should be held accountable for abuses in Federation territory and people should not be pressurised to join the ruling SDA party. A system could be set up whereby the different parties received assistance only if they made certain undertakings to meet different criteria. The fate of all those, both civilians and combatants, killed in the war should be determined, as well as those that have disappeared and gone missing since then. The IPTF could be granted stronger powers, including the power of intervention when working with the human rights monitoring mission and helping them with investigations of abuses. The office of the Ombudsman could interface with local groups interested in human rights and directly involved in order to increase the capacity to investigate and provide remedies for victims of human rights violations. Projects of reconciliation could be set up although their impact would be likely to remain minimal in the near future due to the presence of raw emotion caused by remaining memories of the conflict in many people’s minds. Assistance programmes such as landmine awareness would be very practical. Human rights monitors could be more strategically employed if their security could be ensured. Training is needed for personnel – the provision of information about international human rights and humanitarian law, for example. The parties should be required to investigate fully charges of ongoing as well as past abuses and to publicly denounce such activities. Administrative and legal sanctions should be applied by the parties to persons violating the law, ranging from dismissal to criminal persecution. A standard operating procedure should be agreed upon for addressing human rights violations (during UN’s mission in the Former Yugoslavia civil police assigned to UNPROFOR conducted investigations of human rights abuses but had no effective procedure or channel for reporting human rights violations).

This essay has tried to show that a demonstrated respect for human rights and the rule of law by the political leaders from all three sides of the conflict in combination with the international community is a prerequisite to the successful implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreements. Priority should be given to the respect for human rights and the prevention of further abuses. Since the end of the war, however, the international community appears increasingly willing to tolerate the status quo, even though this ignores the legally binding obligations created by the Dayton accords and a host of UN Security Council resolutions. Rather than offering real protection to survivors and creating the possibility of co-existence and fair political participation, they seem to have been focusing instead on creating an illusion. This can be seen by the decrease in international media attention on the region following Dayton. The illusion? The war had ended. There was nothing more to be done and the society could once again go back to normal, a democratic system having been put in place. To a great extent the illusion has worked. The daily reality for the people of Bosnia remains, however, and is not likely to change in the near future. The only people who have benefited from the war, as is always the case, are war criminals, corrupt politicians and others who took advantage of the general confusion of the conflict. One million people have emigrated from BiH. The country is in economic ruins. Politically, even simple co-operation between the different sides seems a long way off, even though peaceful co-existence is clearly the only solution for the region. One might ask oneself what was the use of the war in the first place? Nothing has been solved and so many new problems have been created. It would be interesting to see who really benefited from the war on the international level and who benefits now from the country’s weakness. Unfortunately these questions reach beyond the scope of this essay. Since Dayton a number of further agreements have been signed: in Geneva 8 September 1995, in New York 26 September 1995, and a Stability Pact for Eastern Europe has been drawn up to help the development of the region. These have brought little concrete improvement, for they are only a reaffirmation of what has already been said at Dayton i.e. that the three sides agree to cooperate etc. Of course there is no going back. But there remains ample room for improvement. The international community should take its responsibilities more seriously and ensure the implementation of what has been agreed upon. Only then can we hope for signs of a return to normality for the region.

Bibliography: (see also hyperlinks)

J. Rupnik, Les Balkans, paysage après la bataille, 1996, Editions Complexe

J. Rupnik, Le déchirement des nations, 1993, Seuil