This blog post was published under the 2015 to 2024 Conservative government

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Matt Field

British Diplomat

Part of UK in Bosnia and Herzegovina

19th November 2020

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.

4 comments on “A floor not a ceiling

  1. Well, Dayton Peace Accords is an illegal agreement founded on genocide, crimes against humanity, and worst war crimes in Europe since World II. It is in breach of the ‘ius cogens’ norm which is legally binding for all UN member-states. Insisting on sticking to Dayton Peace Acvords would be the same as if trying to keep Third Reich after the Nuremberg trials.
    Bosnia has all legal rights (in international law) as well as moral and human right, to have the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina reinstated along with its civil Constitution that has been illegally suspended by Dayton Peace Accords. As a country boasting about its democracy and civil society, you one would not expect the UK to support a genocidal and fascist Dayton Peace Accords aa it goes against everything that the UK boasts to stand for.
    The way forward is to have Dayton Peace Accords set aside, and have the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its Constitution reinstated to bring back a civil society, and modern civilisation values.

    1. Dzena, there is no one perspective in BiH so if we all want to go to the future and develop BiH we ALL again must take into account these perspectives, attitudes, feelings, etc. The comment you wrote recall 1990’s which provokes referendums, feeling of fear, and ruling BiH by nationalistic parties to eternity. Maybe that is your interest!
      Talks, discussions, cooperation, acceptance of feelings and attitudes and uniting around common interests should be a way to develop BiH.

      Dear Ambassador Field, it is an interesting article. I would suggest you to this and similar articles publish in local language in local newspapers and journals, presenting your thoughts that are, by my opinion, somewhere in the “middle” favoring only modern BiH in the future.

  2. Thanks for this. Corruption is a corrosive and systemic issue which undermines all other areas of public life: it must be a priority and i am glad this is recognized. The UK and all international actors should do all they can to promote anti-corruption measures, including by supporting investigative journalism and judicial capacity-building. This should be highly visible to assure citizens that the international community recognizes the problem and is trying to address it.

    Long-term, future peace and prosperity is highly dependent on a shared understanding of the country’s history, and in particular an understanding of the events that led up to the conflict. A segregated education curriculum will only breed grievances and inter-ethnic disharmony. The international community must also focus on ensuring future generations aren’t subjected to sectarian and inaccurate versions of history drawing them to extremism.

  3. Wrong direction! The bad approach Mr. Field !
    Having a bad floor, there is no existence of a good, if any ceiling.
    “Dayton” Constitution is illegal because it has been never adopted in Parliament of RepublicBiH/BiH. The Republic of BiH Constitution is valid only.
    Please, answer me, is it possible the UK governs on using illegal its Constitution!?
    If “Dayton” is a good floor, why do not you suggest the UK peoples adapt it for use in the UK or in the entire Commonwealth!
    As a high representative of the UK, you should know that “Dayton” is constantly violated and not implemented, so it is not valid. The Constitution of the Republic BiH is valid only!
    I am sure you are informed that aggression, genocide occurred in Republic BiH and
    and joint criminal enterprises and that the highest UN courts have ruled for genocide. What was achieved by genocide can never be legalized even by your “Dayton.” This is against the domestic valid RBiH Constitution and all international laws, the UN Charter, the convention on the prevention and punishment of genocide crimes. This is against the ius cogens legal norm. Can you imagine someone occupying half the territory of the UK after genocide and joint criminal enterprises, and the UK Parliament accepts it and admits and that the Bosnian ambassador comes to London and says that a peace treaty with the enemy is a good foundation and he salutes illegal Constitution! Can you imagine Mr. Churchill accepting such a thing? Would you be at the King’s Crossing before he gets to Parliament? Can you imagine a court in the UK not executing its verdict, like Tribunal and ICJ regarding the genocide verdicts in RBiH? Why do you give us something you can’t even imagine about happens in your own country? How is it possible to invoke the execution of European court verdicts only, but not the tribunal and the ICJ on genocide and joint criminal charges, when justice must be comprehensive for all? Do you honestly think that it is possible with this set of nationalists to carry out the verdicts of the European Court because they imply a civil state, not a tribal state that you suggested diplomatically? I expect answers to these questions! And, after that, there will be more! With big respect, I would like to note you that the RBiH reserves the right to sue every UN member state, including the UK, for the contribution to the genocide, impose of illegal Dayton at wartime, and push it for the future as the only solution of our illegal carved state, and the failure to accept the rule of domestic and international law and justice.

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