Home / Europe / The Dayton Accords 28 years later: The Security Landscape in Bosnia-Herzegovina

The Dayton Accords 28 years later: The Security Landscape in Bosnia-Herzegovina

11 December, 2023

By Oliver Hegglin – Junior Fellow

Commonly known as the Dayton Accords or Dayton Peace Agreement, the “General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina” was reached in November 1995 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio in the USA, and signed in Paris that December, ending the three and a half year-long Bosnian War. This conflict was part of the break-up of Yugoslavia, resulting in over 100,000 deaths, ending upon international intervention. However, this peace agreement was not intended as a permanent solution, and has since left Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) with “one of the world’s most complicated systems of governance and deeply divided among ethnic lines”.

This solution effectively froze the conflict along ethnoterritorial lines, impeding progress and causing spikes in tensions. Two entities, two former belligerents, would comprise the new Bosnian state: the Bosniak-Croat ‘Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’ and the Serbian ‘Republika Srpska’. Events since 2021 have incited fear that the fragile peace is being undermined, resulting in speculation about the possibility of another conflict.

The Dayton Accords

The State of BiH served as the battlefield between Serb and Croat forces, aiming to establish “Greater Serbia” and “Greater Croatia”. NATO’s ‘Operation Deliberate Force’, in collaboration with the UN’s ‘United Nations Protection Force’, intervened in August 1995, targeting Bosnian-Serb forces which had attacked designated ‘safe areas’. The campaign ended that September, with the Bosnian Serbs suing for peace and leading to the negotiations that resulted in Dayton.

Dayton linked the two factions with a rotating tripartite inter-ethnic presidency and two chambers in the legislative branch, each with equal representation by the three major ethnic groups: Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. Both entities gained their own executive and legislative branches, resulting in a total of “three Presidents, 13 Prime Ministers, 14 Parliaments, 147 Ministers, and 700 parliamentarians”. To ensure stability in the new State, the Accords called on the UN Security Council (UNSC) to adopt a resolution to establish “a multinational military Implementation Force” (IFOR), composed of NATO and non-NATO nations. IFOR would evolve to today’s EUFOR and be tasked with implementing Dayton’s military components. Politically, both sides agreed primarily to “settle disputes by peaceful means” and to “fully respect” and “promote” the demarcation between the two entities, as well as the Constitution.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization

From the onset, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) played a central role in establishing stability in BiH. The UN-mandated and NATO-led IFOR had a one year mandate and 60,000 personnel, taking over military responsibilities from UNPROFOR, the “United Nations Protection Force”, which was tasked with delivering humanitarian aid, and monitoring the “no fly-zones” and “safe areas”. Operating under UNSC Resolution (UNSCR) 1031, IFOR was authorized to not just maintain peace, but also enforce it if necessary. Its main tasks however, were to separate the armed forces of the two entities and guarantee an end to the fighting. Within a year, by the September 1996 elections, the military aspects of Dayton had been successfully completed. Despite this, the security environment remained unstable and IFOR evolved into a “Stabilization Force” (SFOR), to continue supporting civilian aspects and the political process with a new mandate.

SFOR was conceived under UNSCR 1088 in 1996, initially numbering 31,000 personnel, and gradually being reduced to 7,000 by 2004. SFOR inherited the tasks of maintaining a Safe and Secure Environment (SaSE), preventing a relapse of hostilities, and supporting the peace process. To achieve this, the NATO-led mission carried out patrols, arrested indited war criminals, supported de-mining, assisted in the return of refugees, collected and destroyed weapons, participated in maintaining road infrastructure to ensure Freedom of Movement (FoM), and supported the establishment of a unified national Command and Control structure to one day make BiH’s unified armed forces NATO-compatible.

Following an improving security situation, NATO decided in 2004 to end SFOR, after which the European Union’s “European Union Force” (EUFOR) Operation “Althea” inherited the responsibility to ensure stability in BiH. While no longer functioning under a UN-mandate, NATO maintains a presence in-country to support institutional and defense reform, counterterrorism, and in other areas, likely to ensure adherence to NATO standards and interoperability for eventual membership and to secure the country’s ‘Euro-Atlantic path’. BiH joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 2006, and subsequent processes and initiatives in following years, is a testament to the country’s growth in the security sector, with the armed forces being one of the country’s strongest multi-ethnic institutions. To facilitate cooperation, BiH has a diplomatic mission at the NATO headquarters in Brussels and a liaison office in Mons, the location of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe.

Most recently, since Russia’s war on Ukraine, NATO has taken steps to increase support for its partners and in February 2023 launched a new ‘Defense Capacity Building package’ for BiH to further support the country in fields such as crisis management, cyber-defense, and counterterrorism. With Russia allegedly looking to destabilize the Balkans, a stable BiH is of ‘strategic interest’ to NATO, indicating the Alliance is unlikely to drop support for the country and will continue to support EUFOR’s operation.

The European Union

With UNSCR 1575 the baton was passed from NATO to the EU, in a sign of the EU’s desire to increase its role as a security actor in Europe. Entrusted with maintaining SaSE and ensuring FoM, EUFOR-Althea has broad support in the UN as a stabilizing force. It continues to receive NATO assistance in planning, logistics and command support, as the EU is developing the integrated BiH armed forces to NATO standards. To monitor developments, 19 ‘Liaison and Observation Teams’ are imbedded across the country in local communities, acting as information gatherers so the international community is aware of events on the ground. EUFOR works with local security authorities, also training the national armed forces, and their Multinational Battalion can provide support when and where needed. Helicopters, an Explosives and Ordinance Disposal Team, and the ability to bring in reserves from Europe are at hand. The mission also supports BiH’s Mine Action Strategy, providing expertise and educating vulnerable communities.

By the end of 2023, some 1,100 military personnel from 22 EU, non-EU European countries, as well as extra-European partner states assist the government of BiH in maintaining stability with the ultimate goal of handing over responsibilities to national authorities according to the principle of “local ownership”. Simultaneously, EUFOR’s work promotes an environment in which the peace process can continue on the political level.

The EU’s involvement in BiH goes beyond EUFOR-Althea, with the military force supporting the EU’s comprehensive strategy for BiH. The goal, as per the 2003 Thessaloniki Declaration, is to welcome the country into the Union, for which it needs to achieve stability, guarantee democracy, ensure the rule of law, and respect human rights and the protection of minorities. In parallel, BiH’s 2018-2023 foreign policy strategy includes full EU membership. A European Commission Opinion on BiH’s European progress indicated that “Foreign, Security and Defense Policy” along with “Justice, Freedom and Security” need “significant effort”. EUFOR-Althea is a way for the country to reach these goals along with political efforts; The Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) of the EU provide the framework. Touching on human security, the EU’s 2020 to 2027 Economic and Investment Plan also includes demining and a 2015 framework on BiH’s inclusion in EU crisis management operations also serves to include the country in the wider European security landscape.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe

Present throughout the Balkans, the Organization for Security Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in BiH is also charged by the Dayton Accords as “one of the bodies responsible for helping to secure lasting peace in the country”. The OSCE is involved in non-security aspects in the country, such as in political and education reform, and in the promotion and protection of human rights. Similarly, the United Nations presence in-country appears to be focused on the Sustainable Development Goals. OSCE security-related tasks consist of security governance and co-operation, arms control, and anti-terrorism, including by training and helping border police address cross-border crime.

Parallel Institutions

The current 1,100 EUFOR-Althea personnel are double what they were in 2021, having been increased by 600 as a “precautionary measure” in 2022 through activation of the EUFOR Immediate Reserve Force following a spike in tensions in 2021 and a deteriorating global security situation.

The recent degradation in stability was sparked when in July 2021, the EU’s High Representative for BiH, which neither the Republika Srpska nor Russia recognize and demand it be shut down, banned the denial of genocide and war crimes, and glorifying war criminals. That December, Bosnian-Serb lawmakers voted to withdraw Republika Srpska from the Armed Forces of BiH (security), and the judiciary (legal) and tax (economic) systems, indicating a potential move to secede from BiH. Milorad Dodik, the Serbian representative in BiH’s tri-partite presidency, has said that the BiH security, intelligence, and judiciary agencies would be banned from operating in Republika Srpska. The opposition criticized this as campaigning for elections in 2024 and concerns were raised of the potential escalation to a new war. Ultimately this move did not pass due to insufficient support of the Republic’s upper house. Nevertheless, it is indicative that the status-quo that Dayton established remains solidly in place with a large part of the Serbian half of the country aiming for independence. Western Embassies also issued a joint statement saying the parliamentary motion was a “further escalatory step”.

Dodik has long threatened secession and indicated the desire to join Serbia, with Serbia’s 2019 National Security Strategy exclaiming that “advancing the position of Serbs in the region and world is of special importance for the security and defense of the Republic of Serbia”. He has also been strongly opposed to NATO membership due to the Alliance having targeted Serbian troops during the Bosnian War. This is in natural opposition to Bosniaks and Croats who find that NATO membership would ensure peace and stability in the country, with BiH’s Minister of Foreign Affairs indicating NATO membership should be achieved “as soon as possible”.

On January 9, 2022, Republika Srpska celebrated its ‘national’ holiday with a military parade, convicted war criminals present, despite a judicial ban. This holiday marks the day in 1992 when Bosnian Serbs declared independence, leading to the Bosnian War. Dodik was sanctioned by the USA for “threatening the stability and territorial integrity of Bosnia”. In September of that year, after the country’s constitutional court ruled that property used by public authorities falls under the jurisdiction of the Bosnian state rather than one of its entities, Dodik responded by saying that attempts to seize property would result in passing “a decision on the independence of Republika Srpska”.

While undermining BiH’s unity, Dodik has been seeking closer ties with Russia, which continues to exert its influence in BiH; An unstable BiH has the potential to destabilize Europe. Doing so keeps BiH out of NATO, a pattern that has been seen in Serbia and Kosovo as well. In recognition of Russia’s efforts, Dodik has in 2023 awarded Russian President Vladimir Putin with the Republika Srpska’s high honor for his “patriotic concern and love for Bosnian Serbs” under the “onslaught of international interventionism”.

28 Years Later

Increased rhetoric and actions with the ability to undermine Bosnia-Herzegovina’s constitution have marked the time period from 2021 to 2023 as the most volatile since the end of the Bosnian War. 28 Years after the signing of the Dayton Accords, the Security Landscape in the country remains volatile, with attempts by Republika Srpska to secede and potentially join Serbia. The withdrawal of state institutions and reclamation of competencies from the federal government has sparked fears among the population and the international community while rationalizing the need for a Peace Mission.

Dissatisfaction among a large percentage of Bosnian Serbs, and also among Bosnian Croat nationalists who want higher representation in national institutions, is indicative that the Dayton Accords are not a permanent solution and never have been. They were a way to stop the war, which they did, but have since entrenched the country in a position from which it has not changed. While the UN-mandated, NATO-backed, and EU-led Peace Mission EUFOR-Althea continues to maintain peace and stability, it is up to the political process to find a lasting solution to a clearly unresolved frozen conflict.

Image: EUFOR-Althea troops on exercise (Source: Bundesheer via CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

About Oliver Hegglin

Oliver Hegglin is a geopolitical threat analyst in the private sector and has a master’s degree in international affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and a dual bachelor’s degree in international studies and anthropology from Washington College. Between and during degrees he completed internships with diplomatic representations and the United Nations, and worked for a developmental NGO. Oliver is a Specialist Officer with Swiss Armed Forces International Command where he supports the training for peace support operations and has served abroad in Mali and Kosovo. He is a board member of the NGO Imholz Foundation. His research interests include peacekeeping, the Arctic and Swiss and global security issues.