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Bosnia: An Unfinished Intervention

By Dr Rowan Allport, Junior Fellow

14th August 2014, Security and Defence, Issue 3, No. 5. 

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July saw the deployment of a pair of British Army reconnaissance platoons to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) to provide additional support to the EU-led peacekeeping force in the run-up to the October 2014 general election. This latest move marks a continuation of British military involvement in the country that has (with a few gaps) so far lasted twenty-two years. The number of individuals involved – 95 Army personnel – pales in comparison to the mid-1990s peak UK deployment of roughly 10,000 soldiers; and the current international peacekeeping contingent of 600 troops is only a shadow of an overall force which once numbered around 60,000. However, the need for a continuing international armed presence in the country almost two decades after the war ended serves as a reminder that whilst the international community’s intervention in BiH did – after many false starts – manage to end the fighting, the country still has a significant number of unresolved issues.

The events of the Bosnian War were deeply intertwined with the broader collapse of Yugoslavia. However, without wishing to recite the build up to and complex history of the 1992-1995 conflict, the short-term trigger for the fighting was the October 1991 decision by the Bosniak (often referred to as Bosnian Muslim) and Croat elements of Bosnia’s parliament to vote in favour declaring Bosnia an sovereign entity, paving the way for it to declare independence from Yugoslavia. The Serb elements of Bosnian society rejected this move, boycotted a subsequent referendum on independence and moved to form their own political entity – the Republic of the Serb People of Bosnia and Herzegovina   – which they intended would remain part of Yugoslavia. In March 1992, Bosnia declared itself an independent state. One month later, from their self-proclaimed capital Banja Luka, the Bosnian Serb political leadership severed the political ties between what was to become the Republika Srpska and the Bosnian government. Fighting between forces allied to the Bosniaks and those allied to the Bosnian Serbs (the latter supported by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic) began almost immediately, and continued until October 1995. In June 1992, a second parallel war commenced between the Bosniaks and the Bosnian Croats (the latter supported by Croatia), a conflict which would drag on until February 1994.

Armed intervention within Bosnia by the international community commenced with the decision in June 1992 to expand the mandate of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) – a force originally created the previous February to support peacekeeping efforts in Croatia – to include escorting the delivery of humanitarian aid within the country. In this limited task, the UN force was broadly successful. However, the decision to further extend the mission of UNPROFOR to include the protection of ‘Safe Areas’ in Bosnia proved catastrophic. Although protected from Bosnian Serb air attacks by NATO fighters, the UN personnel on the ground were outnumbered, outgunned and denied access to prompt air support. Of the six safe areas declared in 1993, two – including Srebrenica – were overrun by Bosnian Serb forces, and a third – Sarajevo – was subjected to the longest siege in modern history.

The beginning of the end of the war came in August 1995. In the aftermath of the Srebrenica massacre the previous month, the UN and NATO drastically changed the procedure required to launch air strikes, freeing up NATO to use force as it judged necessary. Ultimately, it was a Bosnian Serb attack on a Sarajevo marketplace that proved the trigger for a decisive air campaign. Operation Deliberate Force, which ran from 28 August to 20 September, 1995, struck hundreds of Bosnian Serb targets. In parallel, Croatian and Bosniak forces launched their own joint ground offensives against Serb elements in both Croatia and Bosnia. In the aftermath of these offensives, which saw the Serbs in both Bosnia and Croatia take major losses, all parties to the conflict were placed under immense political pressure to reach a settlement. The ultimate result of the negotiations which took place was the Dayton Agreement, which was signed in December 1995.

Having learnt the lessons of the disaster under UNPROFOR, no chances were taken in the enforcement of the peace agreement. Instead of the UN, NATO took direct charge of security efforts in the country. The Implementation Force (IFOR) deployed to BiH was far larger than UNPROFOR, and possessed sufficient equipment to put down any attempt to re-start the conflict. A year after the deployment of IFOR, the Stabilisation Force (SFOR) – half the size of initial force but still 31,000 personnel strong at its peak – took over. Seven years later, NATO handed over the mission to European Union Force Althea, which continues to carry out operations in Bosnia today.

The contemporary problems of BiH manifest themselves not through violence, but political dysfunctionality. This issue – which stems from constitutional arrangements arrived at as part of the Dayton Agreement – is evident on two main levels. Firstly, the 1995 settlement divided BiH in two: The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is inhabited primarily by Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats; and the Republika Srpska, mainly populated by Bosnian Serbs. The small Brčko District is shared between both entities. Virtually all domestic affairs are devolved to governments of BiH’s two sub-components. Until 2005, both political units even had their own separate armies. The state government, whilst the international face of BiH, has been kept intentionally weak.

As might be expected, such an arrangement, whilst necessary to end the war, has proved ill-suited to the requirements of post-war reconstruction and nation-building. A country that effectively has two governments, and with them (at least) two sets of supporting institutions, is not ripe for economic development. This is a particularly important point in the context of the great hope for Bosnia’s future: EU membership. With an official unemployment rate of 27 per cent (more realistically 40 per cent) and many of the population living below the poverty line, the country is desperately in need of both direct EU aid and the foreign investment membership of the EU trade block would bring. However, the complex nature of the EU accession process means that BiH will require institutional arrangements to allow it to take a single position on a multitude of issues – something that the current system of devolved governance could not support. Addressing this situation would require significant constitutional reform, but the divided nature of the internal politics of BiH currently prevents this.

BiH’s second major challenge emanates from the state-level power sharing arrangements agreed on at Dayton.  The three major parties in the conflict were understandably unwilling to agree to submit to a political system that would risk any of the three major ethnic groups being excluded.  Given this, a compromise was reached which saw all three of Bosnia’s main ethnic groups guaranteed a share of political power at the national level. This is most clearly seen in the rotating presidency, which sees not one, but three individuals – one Bosniak, one Bosnian Serb and one Bosnian Croat – elected to the presidential office. The seats in the parliamentary assembly are similarly pre-allocated by ethnicity.

Whilst this arrangement may seem superficially elegant, the problem is that by splitting political offices between Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats, the constitution excludes any member of another ethnic group from political power. In a not unsurprising move, in 2009 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that such an arrangement was in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, thus making BiH ineligible for further European integration. Resolving this issue would, again, require amendments to Bosnia’s constitution, but little progress in this direction has been made.

As a result of the deficiencies outlined, BiH’s road to EU membership is blocked. In 2011, the EU suspended the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) – a key step to full membership – it had signed with BiH in 2008. In late 2013, the EU announced that it would halve the pre-accession funding it gave to the country. With Croatia joining the EU in July 2013, and Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia now all officially recognised as EU candidate countries (complete with functional SAAs), BiH faces the prospect of being isolated in the region.

The next major political event in Bosnia will be the general elections that are currently scheduled to take place in October 2014. The elections will occur in the aftermath of civil disturbances that were triggered by unhappiness with the economic and political situation. However, based upon analysis of the likely results, it seems improbable that the new balance of power that will emerge will result in political reconciliation. On the other hand, sensationalist threats of a unilateral declaration of independence by the leadership of the Republika Srpska seem unlikely to be acted on, and there is little realistic expectation of a return to fighting. Instead, it seems more likely that BiH’s many existing problems – as opposed to a return to the old ones – will be what continue to hold the country back.

However, whatever the ongoing difficulties being experienced by BiH, international efforts in the country can broadly be judged to have been a success. The nearly twenty years of peace the country has experienced can alone be seen as proof that the efforts made have been worthwhile. What is now needed is a willingness within BiH’s political leadership to move beyond the post-conflict phase of the country’s recovery, and into an era in which the mundane challenges of providing jobs and good governance take precedence.

Dr Rowan Allport is contactable at: rowan.allport@hscentre.org

Please cite this article as:

Allport, R. (2014) ‘Bosnia: an unfinished intervention’. Human Security Centre 

About Rowan Allport

Dr Rowan Allport is a Senior Fellow who leads the HSC's Security and Defence team. Rowan holds a PhD in Political Science and an MA in Conflict, Governance and Development from the University of York, as well as a BA (Hons) in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of Hull. Specialising in strategic analysis and international security, Rowan's primary areas of interest lie in the defence issues in and around the NATO region, interstate conflict and US foreign policy discourse. He is also the lead author of HSC's recent The Two Per Cent Solution: an Alternative Strategic Defence and Security Review report.