Srebrenica 20 years on

Fosa común en Srebrenica (fuente Flickr, "matsj", 11 Abril 2010)

By Publio Manuel Isaldi

Everyone knew this year´s 20th anniversary of the first “crime of genocide” committed on European soil since World War II was going to be special. There was of course the symbolic twenty-year mark, which prompted a flurry of articles from left and right on everything from the infamous UN Dutch peacekeepers who stood aside while the Bosnian Serbs separated women from men to the labours of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), where Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb General responsible for the killings, is now being tried. There was also the expectation surrounding the attendance of world leaders, including the EU´s High Representaive Federica Mogherini but also the Serb Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic, the same man who had famously promised in the wake of the genocide to “kill a hundred Muslims if they killed one Serb”. And there was also a draft Resolution proposed by the UK in the Security Council aimed at condemning the massacre as a “crime of genocide”.

And special it was. Mogherini, who was scheduled to be in Srebrenica, cancelled her trip at the last minute to stay longer in Vienna, where negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran were ongoing. The Serb Prime Minister, who did show up, was booed and attacked by stone throwers and had to be hastily evacuated from the ceremony. The UK-sponsored Resolution was vetoed by Russia, arguing that it was “politically motivated” and “confrontational”. And the myriad of articles and commentaries on Srebrenica seemed to overlook a fundamental fact, namely that Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a dysfunctional country and that its prospects of ever joining the EU are still slim at best.

Indeed, Bosnia and Herzegovina (or BiH) is perhaps the only nation in the world where the Constitution is an annex to a peace treaty (to be precise, annex four of the General Framework Agreement or “Dayton” Agreement signed in 1995). Its administrative structure, also laid out in the deal, defies anyone´s imagination: on the one hand, a Federation (of BiH Muslims or Bosniacs, and Bosnian Croats) sporting its own federal parliament, composed of cantons, each with its own government and parliament, plus municipalities, on the other hand, a Republic (of the Bosnian Serbs), with its executive and its assembly. Next to these two, the agreement also created a District for the region of Brkco, which had been disputed by the parties in conflict. To top it all off, the peace agreement establishes a state government and a state parliament.

In all of these institutions a delicate balance between the so-called “constituent peoples” (Bosniacs, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats) needs to be maintained. This applies all the way up to the Head of State, where the office rotates every six months among the three members of the collective Presidency, each one of whom represents an ethnic group of “constituent people” of BiH. But in reality, the highest political authority in the country is not the Head of State but a foreigner, appointed by the UN Security Council, as High Representative, endowed with sweeping executive powers, including the possibility of removing BiH officials from their posts. Meanwhile, domestic politics remain the realm of well-established clans. Old-fashioned nationalist parties, such as the pro-Bosniac SDA, the pro-serb SNSD or the pro-Croat HDZ, compete with newly created formations. The leaders of these parties, who have been in the driving seat for decades, are also involved in the country´s big business and are therefore very influential within their respective communities. In fact, as an analyst in Sarajevo once told me, BiH has become an oligarchy where seven leaders[1] wield more influence than all the elected officials in the country. Indeed, one is tempted to refer to these politicians as the “Magnificient Seven”. They rose to the top of their respective organizations in a climate of fear and mistrust and they have consolidated their personal authority along ethnic, rather than ideological, lines.

So, if anything, one could hope that this sad anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide would put BiH firmly back on the international community´s agenda. This was indeed the case last year, when Germany and the UK presented a joint initiative to reactivate BiH´s stalled process of EU accession. Some thought that, after years of virtual paralysis, things would move forward. After all, the two countries sponsoring this initiative have both the clout and the resources to assist Sarajevo in achieving meaningful progress. Critics of the move, however, argue that it is useless, as it drops conditionality as a tool to press BiH leaders to enact needed reforms and does not define any mechanism to measure accountability nor to engage with the (by now very frustrated) citizenry. The initiative, adressed to the “leaders of BiH”, acknolwedges the fact that the country´s institutions are powerless and further undermines their credibility.

While things in BiH have not really changed, the world around it has. Russia´s foreign policy is more assertive than ever. The US has shown little interest in military ventures overseas and new threats, such as ISIS/Daesh, have emerged. The EU´s financial crisis, compounded by the Greek drama, has eroded the appeal of EU membership. In the Balkans, Serbia is torn between Moscow´s overtures and Brussels´ promises of a better future. Tensions flare every now and then in Kosovo and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as it is formally called, is not faring much better.

Twenty years ago, few would have thought that a genocide was possible in European territory. The EU and its Member States, along with the international community, have the responsibility to ensure that such a crime happening ever again remains unimaginable. To do that, BiH needs to move beyond the “Dayton” logic, which stopped the killing but perpetuated political paralysis, and undergo constitutional reform, restructuring key provisions of the agreement, wresting away powers from decentralized entities and building a cohesive, democratic state where, instead of further promoting ethnic divisions, the national interest of all citizens is defended and promoted.

[1] They are the leaders of the Serb Democratic Party (SDS), Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), Social Democratic Party of BiH (SDP), Croatian Democratic Union 1990 (HDZ 1990), Union for a Better Future of BiH (SBB) and the Party of Democratic Action (SDA).

Publio Manuel Isaldi is an expert in international relations and diplomacy. He was born in Cordoba, he holds Law Degree by the University of Paris. He has worked in Africa and the Middle East. He is specialized in Islamic issues and Arab politics. 


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