Lessons in peace-building, 20 years after Srebrenica

The international community failed at preventing mass atrocities during the Bosnian war, but has it also failed in its nation-building efforts there since?
By: /
July 13, 2015
A woman reacts as she stands near a relative's grave, at the Memorial Center in Potocari near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina July 10, 2015. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov
Student at the Trudeau Centre for Peace, Conflict and Justice at the University of Toronto

Twenty years ago, between July 11 and 13, 1995, Bosnian Serb forces led by General Ratko Mladic killed 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys as they fled from the town of Srebrenica.

While women and children were ushered out of the city, the men were rounded up, executed, and buried in mass graves. Thousands of individuals, recognizing the pattern of extermination, took to the heavily mined forest to seek refuge. When the Bosnian Serb forces started firing on the tree line, a number of men decided to take their lives rather than endure being captured and submitting to the genocide that awaited them.

Only two years prior, in March 1993, French General Philippe Morillon, leading the UN mission in Bosnia, declared to the citizens of Srebrenica that they were “under the protection of the UN forces.” A month later, UN Security Council Resolution 819 would be issued, rendering the town a “safe area” to be free from attack and paramilitary occupation.

Needless to say, the massacre in Srebrenica vivified the failure of the United Nations to exert their mandate, protect an identified at-risk population, and prevent one of the worst European mass atrocities since the Second World War.

While we look back to Srebrenica this week, primarily to recall and reaffirm our commitment to preventing mass atrocities, the figurative “distance” we have covered since that time permits us a certain retrospective insight.

Where we cannot prevent mass atrocity violations from occurring, we must be committed to ensuring that, post-conflict, mediated peace-building efforts succeed in preventing the re-emergence of violence and communal tensions, and increase the likelihood for a peaceful developmental trajectory.

It is on this anniversary that we must take stock of Bosnia’s recovery thus far, so as to more effectively prescribe to future post-conflict societies a better remedy by which to heal.

The long road to recovery

Considering present-day Bosnia, the path to recovery has been flawed and incomplete. According to a report by the European Commission, the economy of Bosnia and Herzegovina suffers from “persistent structural weaknesses” and mass corruption — with a projected 45 percent unemployment this year, and consistent under-performance against the regional average GDP/capital. The 2014 report, analyzing the country’s prospects for entry into the EU, identified that legal, public and judicial administrations needed serious reform. Public institutions remain weak, unproductive, and largely at the whims of a centralized opaque bureaucracy.

In terms of the ethnic and communal landscape, the European Court of Human Rights judged the Bosnian constitution to be deliberately discriminatory towards minorities like the Roma and Jews. Finally, rather than seeing the emergence of a pan-Bosnian national identity, Transparency International reported the “country’s institutional structure remains embedded within ethnic and political divisions.”

But as deflating as Bosnia’s reality might be to future peace-builders, it is by no means the norm for countries recently emerging from war or ethnic conflict. The origins of these woes are neither endemic nor inevitable, but rather structural — institutionally designed, and internationally endorsed.

Setting the stage for division

Emerging from a conflict that took 250,000 lives, the Dayton Accord of December 1995 that put an end to the Bosnian War was a product of painful compromise. While the agreement between Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, Croatia’s Franjo Tudman, and Bosnia’s Alija Izetbegovic represented, in all likelihood, the sole grounds available for peace and demilitarization, the Accord set in motion an institutional husk of a government that easily leant itself to manipulation, rather than meaningful reconciliation. A rotational tripartite presidential system was enacted that divided the country along ethnic lines — Bosnian, Serb and Croat.

This divisive federal structure became a serious liability. By opting for a power-sharing design, the Dayton Accord effectively decided that in order to manage ethnic tensions, groups’ interests needed to be voiced at the highest levels of government. What this formula actually succeeded in doing was entrenching ethnic identities and undermining a coherent nation-building project. In the 1996 elections, moderate parties were completely swept by ethnic political parties. Rather than pursuing an integrative approach whereby the salience of ethnic identities could remain secondary to electoral cooperation at the local level, in Bosnia, elites command much of the power since cooperation was designed to occur higher up the food chain.

This empowering of an elite bureaucracy, however, became a serious problem in light of the Dayton Accord’s second major oversight — its limited timeline. While some scholars argue that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ability to consolidate a single state was sufficient to ensure a gradual movement towards peace, others, like University of Ottawa’s Roland Paris, argue that attempts to liberalize prematurely impeded the state’s transformation into a nation. While Western nations assumed that a program of economic liberalization and prosperity would produce a peaceful political union, the reality was that the quick shift to privatization opened the door for strategic manipulation of a poorly monitored financial system. Much of the corruption in Bosnian society was made possible by this policy. One might have advised a program of slow democratization, institutional consolidation, and conflict-reducing economic policies, rather than putting so much faith in the quick workings of the invisible hand.

Despite Russia’s veto in the UN Security Council last week, the international community largely considers what happened 20 years ago in Srebrenica to have been indeed genocide — an ethnically targeted mass extermination of Bosnian Muslims, and a mass atrocity. In this light, no matter the formal civic structure that the Bosnian state was to take after the war, what was — and is — undeniable, is that any country that suffers a similar trauma has a challenging path of persistent reconciliation and attentive nation-building ahead of them.

“Don’t live under the dream that the West is going to come and sort this problem out,” David Owen, a European Union peace negotiator, famously said to the Bosnian people months before the Dayton Accord. But “sort it out” — or broker — they did, and they may do so again. If that time comes, as the international community learns from past mistakes and continues to struggle with the question of when and why to intervene, policymakers must also question how to “intervene” and what it means to build a lasting and consolidated peace.

The repercussions could be decades in the making.