This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Sound governance, justice still elude Bosnia and Herzegovina

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Thirteen years after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the ethnically divided nation has failed to determine its collective future because the most important provisions of the U.S.-brokered Dayton Accords that brought peace to the region have not been implemented, said one of Bosnia's top leaders in a campus lecture.

Good one.editedHaris Silajdzic, a member of the tripartite rotating presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, said in a public talk at the School of Law that his nation lacks political stability because a complex ethno-territorial arrangement is not only hampering parliamentary decision-making but also preventing war refugees from returning to their homelands, as stipulated by the 1995 agreement reached in Dayton, Ohio, by Serb, Croat and Bosnian leaders.

Titled “Fulfilling the Promise: Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Dayton Agreement,” the Feb. 17 talk was sponsored by law school’s International Human Rights Law Program.

Bosnia is politically dysfunctional because constitutionally, less then 25 percent of the Parliament can veto house bills, Silajdzic said. In fact, over the past 13 years, the state has adopted 280 laws – but no fewer than 260 were blocked by 22 percent of deputies. “The state cannot block the entity, but the entity can block the state,” he said, referring to the three major ethnic groups – Bosnian, Croat and Serb – that share power in Parliament.

“No country can function as a viable state if every decision can be blocked,” Silajdzic said, noting that it’s almost a taboo to utter the word “citizen” in Bosnia. “You can be a Bosnian, a Serb, a Croat, but you cannot be a citizen,” he said.

What’s more, because of the “targeted obstruction” of hundreds of thousands of Bosnian refugees, politicians are forced to rely on narrow ethnic appeals that can quickly turn into dangerous cleavages rooted in old hatreds, especially amid the global economic meltdown currently underway, the president warned.

“In my view, [political] decisions should be made on economic regions, not ethnic regions,” he said. Besides, “by electing their representatives from the country as a whole, the voter will be able to choose between those who offer concrete economic and social programs and those who are mired in the politics of the past,” he added.

Although the Dayton peace agreement was undoubtedly “made under duress, it had enough good elements to do good things,” said Silajdzic, a former academic who served as prime minister and foreign minister of Bosnia before being elected to the shared presidency in 2006. “The question is, shall we implement it or consider something else?” He urged the United States to fulfill its stated objective of creating a single state instead of one divided into two entities – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Srpska.

Silajdzic cited the February 2007 ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that institutions within Srpska, particularly its army and police, committed genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1992-95 Bosnian war in which large numbers of Muslim Bosnians from Silajdzic’s community were killed.

Good.closeup“Serbia, at the same time, became the first country in history to be found responsible for violating the genocide convention,” Silajdzic noted. The war crimes in Bosnia, he added, prompted former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan to say that “what happened there was a big mistake, and the United Nations will be haunted forever because of it.”

Yet politicians on both sides of the Atlantic want to sweep the ICJ’s verdict under the carpet because “the mantra everywhere is ‘Let’s go forward, let’s not play on the past,’” Silajdzic said.

One foreign official from a major European nation went so far as to say that “the verdict should remain in the Hague – in other words, they should put it in the archives,” Silajdzic said. And when he quoted Annan’s words in a 2008 speech at the U.N., Silajdzic said he was reprimanded by a Bush administration official. The message behind such reproaches is that “I can kill my neighbor and get away with it,” he added.

Silajdzic said he was very hopeful that the new administration of President Obama will “renegotiate with Bosnia and Herzegovina in such a way that it will promote [American] values,” thereby communicating to the world that “the right thing is not to condone war crimes and genocide.”

Bosnia’s ancient and highly pluralistic society is “unique in Europe, and it is dying,” the president warned. “In the 16th century, when there were no United Nations, no conventions, no sanctions, Bosnia was open enough to accept persecuted refugees – total strangers with different languages and cultures – from other parts of Europe,” he said. “The paradox,” he added poignantly, “is we want to close that society in the 21st century.”
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