19th November 2020 Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
A floor not a ceiling
Dayton. The very name evokes both peace and division. This 21 November marks the 25th anniversary of the accord secured in Dayton, Ohio, and then signed on 14 December in Paris. How do we mark this moment?
The agreement reached on that distant air-force base has had a profound impact on the shaping of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). It ended a terrible war, something that seemed out of reach at the time. It formed the Constitution. It confirmed the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of BiH. It began 25 years of peace. And peace can never be taken for granted.
Dayton is still invoked by politicians in BiH on a near daily basis. Sometimes as the root cause of problems faced today. Sometimes as an ‘original’ blueprint, which should be returned to. Sometimes in terms of a ‘spirit’ against which the current institutions fall short, even if the institutions are themselves defined in that Dayton Constitution.
How then to look at Dayton, and even more importantly, where do we go from here?
Firstly, the legacy. Whichever accounts of the negotiations at Dayton one reads, the imperfections are clear to see. More than the basis of a modern and inclusive country, the agreement tried to broker the interests of politically and ethnically defined opponents, through power sharing and vetoes, checks and balances. It prioritises collective over individual rights, and a complicated administrative arrangement that divides responsibilities rather than considering practical function. Research has demonstrated that peace agreements which include women in talks are far more sustainable and successful – they were notable by their absence in Ohio.
But criticism that the agreement failed to anticipate these problems is also unfair, and not only because of the complete absence of trust amongst still warring sides. Even at the time, it was never meant to be an end state. It provided the conditions for ending the fighting, yes. And for beginning the process of rebuilding the country.
Lord Paddy Ashdown perhaps expressed this best, in his inaugural speech as High Representative, when he said:
Dayton is vital. Without it there would be no peace.
But Dayton is the floor, not the ceiling.
It is the foundation for the state we are trying to construct. And like all foundations, it must be built on.
Change was inherent in the accord reached at Dayton. That is why the agreement itself contains the mechanisms for updates, limiting the ability to impose those changes over and against the will of one of the communities, requiring consensus and compromise. Dayton was never set in stone.
This is also evident in the period since 21 November 1995. There have been many positive improvements built on that first foundation, including a single unified Armed Forces, a single currency, a single system of ID cards, a single Indirect Tax Authority, a State Border Police, and a Court of BiH. We have seen the start of the EU accession process, membership of the Council of Europe, partnership with NATO, and €billions in assistance from friendly countries, to rebuild and build anew. All of these have benefited the citizens of BiH, without taking anything away from them. The Office of the High Representative has played a vital and supportive role throughout this period. And when it closes, it will be on the basis of the country’s progress.
Those calling for a return to ‘original Dayton’, or claiming the sole right to interpret ‘the spirit of Dayton’, ignore the hard-won progress made since that day. Time travel remains out of reach. And I meet few people across BiH who would welcome a return to the events of 1995 in which this agreement was achieved.
So if we cannot go back, how do we go forward?
We can start by fixing the things that have been most clearly picked out as problems. The European Court of Human Rights has issued several judgements against BiH – ‘Sejdic-Finci’ being the most famous – because political rights cannot be limited on the basis of where in the country you live and what ethnicity (if any) you choose to identify as, Constituent People or not.
The European Commission Opinion on BiH makes another important and relevant recommendation, identifying problems in decision-making, and requiring improvements in functionality. I see a clear link to some of the challenges still present today in the way politics are carried out, at all levels, when ‘Vital National Interest’ is used as cover for political, party, or private interests.
Changing the country’s Constitution seems a large and difficult step, especially if it is to be achieved through democratic institutions rather than external imposition. But a Constitution is meant to be a living document, and every country joining the EU has to incorporate changes. That process must be based on consensus, compromise, and above all the long-term interest of BiH citizens. And it should make the decision-making of BiH more functional, better able to take on the responsibilities of membership of the EU, NATO or other bodies and alliances.
But political reform is not the only work in front of BiH. We know that young and qualified people across the country are wrestling right now with the decision to leave this country to fulfil their dreams and potential elsewhere. Creating the opportunities for them to succeed here drives everything the UK is doing, to improve public services, to create more and better jobs, to depoliticise state companies, to teach problem solving and critical thinking, to improve infrastructure, and more.
But perhaps the biggest concern I hear is the need to improve the rule of law. That is partly about the legacy of the 1990s, and I am proud of UK support to the continued search for the missing, the prosecution of war crimes including rape, and opposition to the celebration of war criminals. Moving forward requires dealing properly with the past.
Building a brighter future for BiH, on top of that Dayton foundation, must mean a country in which resources are governed fairly and no-one is above the law. Yes, this is needed to move towards the EU and NATO. But it is even more important to citizens right now. That means transparency, accountability, and real action against corruption and abuse of office, resulting in prosecutions and convictions of high-ranking officials. The UK, and many other friends of BiH, stand behind Dayton – but more importantly we stand behind BiH. We are here to help.
A country that stays still cannot thrive or grow. It cannot meet the needs of its people. But building on that strong foundation since Dayton, better meeting international standards and the desires and self-fulfilment of citizens, I believe that BiH can succeed. And that is still something to celebrate.