Research, travel, and legal dispatches from my Fulbright year in Bologna, Italy.
This article was originally published by the Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development.
By Janna Brancolini
SARAJEVO, Bosnia — Twenty years ago this fall, the leaders of several Balkan states gathered to negotiate a ceasefire agreement to end the Bosnian War, Europe’s most brutal conflict since World War II.
In December 1995 they signed the Dayton Accords, putting an end to more than three years of fighting in Bosnia sparked by the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. The war came to be defined by human rights abuses such as mass rape, killings, displacement and other civilian suffering.
The past two decades have seen definite progress in rebuilding this battered country. Buildings have been reconstructed, elections held, and a census conducted. Hate crimes and violent acts of wartime revenge are extremely rare, despite high numbers of unregistered weapons circulating after the conflict.
Still, if true peace is not merely the “absence of tension but the presence of justice,” as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. defined it, today Bosnia and Herzegovina remains mired in little more than a fragile ceasefire.
On a recent trip organized by the Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development, it became clear that for most of Bosnia’s nearly 4 million residents, justice — economic, legal, political and social — remains elusive.
The Sarajevo Study Trip is held annually by the CCSDD, a research partnership between the Faculty of Law of the University of Bologna and the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy (SAIS Europe), to present students of both institutions with the challenges of post-conflict reconstruction, human rights issues and democratic development.
This year’s cohort found that unemployment in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the second highest in Europe; thousands of war crimes remain un-litigated; political stalemates have become the status quo; and the population is more ethnically divided now than it was before the war.
To the frustration of both the local population and the international community, the country still has not undertaken a formal peace and reconciliation process. All of this leads experts to question whether the war ever really ended. They argue that though the violence may have stopped, the fighting continues in legal, legislative and bureaucratic fora.
Meanwhile, Bosnia and Herzegovina has announced that acceding to the European Union and joining NATO are its primary foreign policy objectives, but experts say the country’s domestic problems mean neither goal is likely to be met for many years.
It’s a crucial time for Bosnia as the country’s human rights abuses of the past threaten to derail its future.
The Dayton Agreement
On Nov. 1, 1995, the presidents of Bosnia, Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia gathered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, under the direction of the international community.
For more than three years, Bosnia had been witnessing Europe’s most brutal conflict since World War II. In 1991, Slovenia and Croatia seceded from what was then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In February 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina followed suit and declared independence.
At the time, Bosnia was inhabited by three major ethnic groups. Bosnian Muslims (“Bosniaks”) comprised 44 percent of the population, Orthodox Bosnian Serbs 31 percent, and Catholic Bosnian Croats 17 percent. Bosnia’s ethnic Serbs opposed independence and preferred to stay with Yugoslavia because Serbia was still a part of the Yugoslav federation.
The Bosnian Serbs, supported by Serbian President Slobodan Milošević and the Yugoslav People’s Army, launched a secessionist military campaign against the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Croatia, meanwhile, wanted to claim Croat-inhabited parts of Bosnia, and so fighting broke out on multiple fronts.
In the capital of Sarajevo, citizens made due with inadequate food, water, electricity and medical care while buildings were shelled and snipers lined the city’s major thoroughfare.
Across the country, civilian areas were shelled indiscriminately, mass rape was used as a weapon of war, and eastern regions near Serbia were “ethnically cleansed” of Bosniaks, meaning Muslims were either killed or driven from their homes en masse. Cultural sites such as the National Library in Sarajevo were declared military targets and attacked with the intent to destroy.
In July 1995, in the area surrounding the town of Srebrenica, more than 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys who were supposed to be under UN protection were slaughtered by Serbian armed forces. This spectacular peacekeeping failure proved to be the tipping point for the international community, and from Aug. 30 to Sept. 20, NATO launched a bombing campaign that, combined with international pressure, forced the Balkan leaders to agree to meet in Dayton to negotiate a ceasefire.
The agreement they reached aimed to promote peace and stability by balancing power among all three major ethnic groups. Annex 4 of the agreement was a constitution, often referred to as the “Dayton Constitution,” that established a state-level presidency and two houses of Parliament; two autonomous federations called Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina; and 10 regions called “canons” within the Federation.
The Dayton Constitution also created a neutral, self-governing administrative unit called the Brčko District that is formally part of both entities.
The main ethnic groups — Bosniaks, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs — are called “constituent peoples,” meaning they are explicitly identified in the constitution and are not considered minorities. Members of the remaining ethnic groups — including Bosnian Roma, Jews, and citizens of mixed ethnicity who decline to choose a constituent group — are called “Others.”
Experts agree that although these ethnic designations and power-sharing structures were necessary for brokering an end to the war, they now hold the country back in several key ways.
Progress in Rebuilding
The fall of Yugoslavia wreaked havoc on Bosnia and Herzegovina. During the war, about 100,000 people were killed, more than 2 million people were forcibly displaced, and material destruction was widespread, according to Human Rights Watch.
Even before the war, Bosnia’s economy was weak; a poorly conceived privatization scheme introduced when the country abandoned socialism in 1990 had resulted in weak infrastructure and development, one Bosnian official said. Given this mix of economic instability and widespread trauma, recovery was bound to be difficult, he added.
Progress, however, has been made. Roads and buildings have been reconstructed, and public institutions have been created.
For some locals, Sarajevo City Hall, a breathtaking neo-Moorish building designed around a stained-glass dome, serves as a symbol of the city’s rebirth. The Vijecnica (“City Hall”) doubles as the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and was targeted by Serb forces during their siege on the city in 1992. During the shelling, collections were destroyed, the interior gutted, and large parts of the exterior reduced to rubble.
After more than a decade of rebuilding and restoration, the library re-opened in May of last year. Its striped yellow and orange facade is resplendent against the dark banks of the Miljacka River. Inside, the colorful patterns on its Islamic domes have been painstakingly restored.
“Vijecnica is a symbol of Sarajevo,” Mayor Ivo Komšić told Reuters news agency when the building reopened. “The history of Vijecnica is the history of Sarajevo.”
Officials at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) point to additional signs of life, including new schools, a functioning public health system, and courts that try war criminals.
The Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina was created in 2000 and became operational in 2002. In 2003, its Prosecutor’s Office was given jurisdiction over scores of war crimes cases, which the court began hearing in 2005. At the end of last year, Bosnian courts had resolved 304 cases, according to the OSCE, and were in the process of hearing another 207.
Since 2006, Bosnians have also overseen all of their own elections — a major accomplishment since for years the OSCE had to manage and organize the electoral process. After the first autonomous elections in 2006, the head of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Delegation praised Bosnian officials for making “real progress toward democracy” by fully conducting their own “fair electoral process.”
And in another major milestone last year, Bosnia and Herzegovina held its first census since the war. Like that of all countries, Bosnia’s census data on demographics, education, income, employment and migration is critical for economic development and allocation of resources, the OSCE said.
But in Bosnia, the census is also a crucial step forward because the information gathered will be necessary for EU integration and an eventual membership questionnaire. The legislation that determined how the census would be administered also represented a major political agreement.
Three “sensitive questions” had to be decided, the OSCE said, namely whether to require answers on religion, on ethnicity/nationality, and on mother tongue. Officials agreed the questions on religion and ethnicity would be optional, while information on mother tongue would be mandatory.
The European Commission’s International Monitoring Operation declared that the census complied with international standards, and will begin releasing data this summer.
Ultimately, multi-ethnic democracy is difficult but working, according to one Bosnian official.
The Legacy of the Dayton Agreement
Despite these gains, experts agree that the country could be, and should be, making better progress. In particular, Bosnia is handicapped by the Dayton Constitution — a document written to broker a ceasefire, not to build a nation. Experts say the power-sharing structures meant to prevent any one ethnic group from taking control of the country have resulted in a bloated government mired in political standstill.
The Dayton Constitution created a four-tiered government — state level, federation level, canon level, and municipal level — with 170 ministers and about 800 lawmakers, and all for a country with just 3.8 million residents.
The government is expensive, redundant and contrary to international law, according to international monitoring bodies such as the European Commission for Democracy through Law.
At the state level, there are two chambers of Parliament: the House of Peoples and the House of Representatives. Both chambers are divided among ethnic lines; two-thirds of the representatives are Croats and Bosniaks elected by citizens of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and one-third are Serbs elected by the Republika Srpska.
For a measure to pass Parliament, it must be approved by a majority of each ethnic group, not just a simple majority of all representatives.
Similarly, the presidency is comprised of three individuals: a Bosniak and a Croat elected by residents of the Federation, and a Serb elected by the Republika Srpska. Any member of the presidency can declare a parliamentary measure against the “vital interests” of his or her ethnic group, which triggers additional proceedings. Ethnic delegations in the House of Peoples can also oppose proposed legislation based on the vital national interest of one group.
Local experts agree the government structure is overly expensive and, perhaps worse, hurts legislative priorities.
“Resources are not invested in areas that would create wealth,” one EU official said.
The EU has invested between 3 and 4 billion euros in Bosnia over the last 20 years, but the unemployment rate is still about 28 percent for the general population — the second highest in Europe — and 62.7 percent among young people, according to the EU.
When Croatia joined the EU in 2013, Bosnia’s agricultural exports dried up because the country lost its most important trading partner, according to Austrian diplomat Wolfgang Petritsch, who served as the EU High Representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1999 to 2002.
Now, the country’s infrastructure — including its roads, railways and electrical grid —are too underdeveloped to take advantage of other potential industries such as energy exports, an EU official said.
Political gridlock makes it unlikely these areas will be improved upon anytime soon. The problem, according to experts, is that the Dayton Agreement didn’t include a sunset provision that would force lawmakers to draft a new constitution with a more efficient governmental structure.
Instead, politicians and elites are benefitting from the status quo at the expense of the rest of the population.
“The problems come in a lack of co-ordination between the levels of authorities, a lack of political will to co-ordinate and meet key targets and measures, and in some cases a refusal to pursue the needed reforms,” the EU official said.
The Dayton Constitution provisions have been under scrutiny at least since 2002, when Bosnia became a member of the Council of Europe.
In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights held that the Dayton Constitution violated the non-discrimination protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights, which was incorporated into Article II of the Dayton Constitution.
The court’s reasoning was that only self-identified members of constituent ethnic groups could run for Parliament or the presidency. Members of minority-constituent groups — for example Croats in the Republika Srpska or Serbs in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina — are also shut out of electing their ethnic representation at the state level.
The political parties are so divided that few are hopeful the Dayton Constitution will be amended in the next four years. The constitutional setbacks are in turn hurting Bosnia’s two most important foreign policy priorities: joining NATO and acceding to the EU, one Bosnian official said.
Bosnia lags behind the other Balkan states in realization of either goal. Serbia, Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia have all obtained EU candidate status, whereas Bosnia is still just a “potential candidate” due to its slow economic development and problems with rule of law.
Lack of Peace and Reconciliation
On a wet, cold day in late January, a low fog hung over the Drina river valley, the location of some of the worst atrocities committed in Europe since the end of World War II.
In April 1993, the U.N. declared parts of the valley, including the area surrounding the city of Srebrenica, a “safe area” under U.N. protection. Tens of thousands of civilians came seeking U.N. protection, and handed over their weapons in exchange for entry to the safe area. In the summer of 1995, the Bosnian Serb army began advancing on the region.
About 400 Dutch peacekeeping troops had been assigned to protect the residents, but they had orders not to fire on the Serbs so as to remain “neutral” in the conflict. They fired warning shots as the Serbs advanced and requested NATO air support for the town, but eventually fled or surrendered as the Bosnian Serb army took control of the area.
Beginning July 12, the Serbs deported about 30,000 Muslim women and children to Bosnian territory that wasn’t controlled by Serbs. Over the next several days, the troops murdered more than 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys. To this day, mass graves are still being uncovered and the remains identified. More than 1,000 victims remain unaccounted for.
Inside a home in the village of Potočari, women who were driven from the area but eventually returned recounted through a translator their experiences during the war. One woman had lost three sons, a husband, and a grandson. The remains of her sons weren’t discovered until 2009; it was one of the hardest moments of her life, she said.
Another said she couldn’t even count all the murder in her family. A third began to sob, saying it was years before she could greet her Serbian neighbors when she first came home after the war.
The women are part of a group called Snaga žene, or “Strength of Women,” a nonprofit that provides psychological, social and economic rehabilitation to women from the Srebrenica area. Many of the women were traumatized during the war and then re-traumatized when they returned.
They said they came home and discovered that many of the people who had attacked their families were walking around free. Some even held positions of authority with municipal agencies. For many of the women, finding the strength to face these individuals on a daily basis was a key part of their rehabilitation. Nonetheless, it’s clear that anger remains.
“My husband and son didn’t do anything wrong,” one woman said. “If they had, I wouldn’t have come back.”
The situation in Srebrenica is one of co-existence but not reconciliation, according University of Birmingham Prof. Janine Clark, an expert on transitional justice who works closely with Snaga žene. In Srebrenica, residents exist peacefully side by side, but there is a fundamental lack of trust between them, she said.
Reconciliation is not an act, but a process — one that Clark describes as both “top down and bottom up.” At the top, there needs to be restoration of the rule of law and prosecution of war criminals, she said. This creates the conditions required for reconciliation to develop from the bottom up. For Clark, that means creating opportunities for former enemies to come together and challenge the prejudices they have about one another.
“When people realize that they have things in common — from economic interests to shared suffering — you have a basis for building reconciliation,” she said.
Although there is a large cemetery and memorial site dedicated to the victims of the Srebrenica massacre, the consensus on the ground is that Bosnia never undertook a formal peace and reconciliation process after the war.
Clark said a fundamental obstacle in Srebrenica has been denial. Serbs still deny that a genocide took place in Srebrenica, and Bosniaks have little interest in atoning for crimes committed against Serbs because they feel that those crimes are not comparable to the July 1995 massacre.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague was supposed to aid the reconciliation process by prosecuting the worst offenders from all sides and establishing an extensive record of what really happened during the Yugoslav wars.
Many Bosnians, however, agree the tribunal has been too slow to have much impact, and has failed to create a strong narrative of the crimes committed.
Trials are still ongoing for Ratko Mladić, the leader of the Bosnian Serb army, and Radovan Karadžić, political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, for their roles in the Srebrenica massacre. Both men spent years in hiding before being arrested in 2010 and 2008, respectively. Other investigations have stretched 10 years or more.
The Constitutional Court has also undertaken efforts to provide justice to victims of the war, with the goal of resolving more than 1,500 war crimes cases by 2023. An original deadline of 2015 has been abandoned, and even the 2023 goal is looking less realistic. As of early 2015, 207 cases were ongoing, and about 1,100 open investigations had yet to go to trial, according to the OSCE.
The process has gone on too long and has failed to punish scores of people who played major roles in the war, according to one Bosnian official. Many also accuse Bosnia’s politicians of exploiting these wounds and stirring conflicts between groups to remain in power.
“Political parties operate mostly on ethnic lines,” said Albin Zuhric, secretary of the multi-ethnic, social-liberal Nasa Stranka political party. “Each group’s mission is to employ as many of their group as possible using public money and budgets.”
Hopes and Fears for the Future
Above: Gen. Jovan Divjak founded a nonprofit in 1994 called Obrazovanje Gradi BiH, or Education Builds Bosnia and Herzegovina, to improve access to education in post-war Bosnia. Today, Bosnian students are more ethnically segregated than their pre-war predecessors.
Bosnia’s failure to pursue reconciliation and move beyond ethnically motivated political battles has led some to say it feels like the war never ended, but rather continued through bureaucratic and policy means.
It’s the reason EU and NATO membership are so important to Bosnia two full decades after the fighting stopped; many say the population is more segregated now than it was before the war.
The women of Srebrenica say this is true of work, school and social life. Many companies and industries that were once integrated now employ predominantly one ethnicity or the other.
Children of different ethnic groups also attend different schools or even different classes in the same building. They follow different lesson plans, studying history and literature from the perspective of their own group instead of learning a multi-ethnic curriculum.
Like the Dayton Constitution, these “two-in-one” schools and “national group subjects” were originally implemented as temporary solutions but have continued long-term, the OSCE said. The result is that children are divided at a young age and have fewer opportunities to interact with children of different backgrounds.
“This is particularly concerning in ethnically diverse communities that were deeply affected by war, and where deep divisions and mistrust exist,” an OSCE official said. “Rebuilding communities and breaking down stereotypes are more difficult tasks when children, teachers and parents are divided.”
The OSCE supports educational programs aimed at striking a balance where children are neither assimilated into numeric-majority ethnic groups nor separated due to fears of assimilation or discrimination. Inter-ethnic interactions should be “normal uneventful occurrences” at school, the OSCE official said.
Local nonprofits are also working to engage younger generations. Snaga žene, for example, has programs to encourage the children and grandchildren of the women of Srebrenica to work with their relatives and help heal the region.
Another organization, Obrazovanje Gradi BiH, or Education Builds Bosnia and Herzegovina, provides increased access to education regardless of students’ ethnicities. Its founder, a decorated army general named Jovan Divjak, said he began the group in 1994 after witnessing first-hand the devastating impact that war has on children.
Many worry that if the younger generations remain segregated and without viable career options, they won’t have the social and economic incentives to resist future conflicts. In a perverse way, these high stakes might be precisely what forces Bosnia beyond its current, politically entrenched milieu.
Residents want to join NATO and the EU to prevent another internal conflict stoked by external players. Meanwhile, the crisis in Ukraine has generated renewed outside interest in bringing Bosnia and Herzegovina closer to Europe, with the concern being that if Europe doesn’t step in, Russia might seek to expand its influence in the Balkans beyond its already-close relationship with Serbia.
A new proposal from Germany and Great Britain aimed at breaking Bosnia’s EU membership deadlock has generated some cautious optimism. When he announced the plan in November, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond described it as a “pragmatic and flexible approach” that would align priorities more closely with the country’s “urgent needs” — namely, economic development.
“Previously we hadn’t identified the right people to implement change and the right incentives,” an EU official said more recently.
Now, after several years of pushing for comprehensive constitutional reform, Europe has decided to take a more piece-meal approach, the official said.
“Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to address [constitutional reform] eventually, but maybe not up front,” he said. “My impression is that, as it’s been the case in several eastern and central European countries, Bosnia and Herzegovina will need to go through several stages of constitutional reform during the accession process. Poland changed five times. It’s natural.”
The more gradual approach has the added benefit of putting constitutional reform in a less political context, he added.
International officials also recognize that even if 15 years pass before Bosnia actually attains EU membership status, the country will see improvements in rule of law, civil institutions and education in the meantime.
The Bosnians themselves seem to have also reached a tipping point of sorts. Fed up with the stagnant economy and political gridlock, protests erupted in several cities, including Sarajevo, in February of 2014.
The protests started with workers from several factories that had gone bankrupt, and gained momentum as students and political activists joined, the BBC reported. Eventually things turned violent as government buildings were set on fire and property was destroyed.
The protests mostly failed to bring about widespread political change during Bosnia’s general elections last October. A few reform-minded candidates were elected, but the political gridlock remains.
Still, some see the protests as the beginning of something, not the end.
“There are people living here who like it enough to stay no matter what opportunities we have to leave,” Zuhric of the Nasa Stranka political party said. “I am going to get up every day and work.”
That, he says, is reason to be optimistic.