The Dayton Agreement

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By Aida Zekić

Do peace deals have expiration dates? De jure, they do not. Ever since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, peace agreements do not only settle the conflict in question; they also establish the principles which define international justice for many years to come.

De facto, however, certain peace deals are way past their use-by dates. Let us take a look at Bosnia and Herzegovina’s peace deal, that may have ended one war, but is now so obsolete that it could start yet another.   

The so-called Dayton Agreement was signed by the Bosnian, Croat and Serbian leaders of a shattered Yugoslavia in Dayton, Ohio, in December 1995. As a belated response to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s bloody civil war, the international community promoted a new state where the conflicting ethnic groups could live side-by-side, in harmony. How was that possible, you may wonder? Let me explain… (Spoiler alert: it was not).

In conformity with the Dayton Agreement, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a state with:

  • Three territories:

One mainly populated by Bosniaks and Croats, one mainly by Serbs, and one small territory which the Dayton Agreement could not resolve who it should belong to.

  • Three rotating, state-level presidents:

One Bosniak, one Croat and one Serb that rotate the Presidential chair on an eight month basis. Obviously, citizens find it difficult to keep track of who their current President is. The power holders resent each other equally and veto one another’s policies. And if you happen to belong to another ethnic group, the Dayton does not allow you to participate in presidential politics.

  • Three territorial presidents:

They are seated in Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and Brčko, respectively. At present, they all deny being part of today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Conflicting worldviews have arisen out of the mix: “The Serb territory is autonomous from Bosnia and Herzegovina”; “Croats should have their own territory”; and “Bosnia and Herzegovina should be a centralized state”.)

  • 14 parliaments:

One central, three territorial, and ten local ones in the Bosniak and Croat territory.

  • 65 political parties:

This was the number of parties that competed in the 2014 elections. Most parties are ethnic, but some are “mixed”. Other parties have buried the hatchet and now cooperate in controlling  the media and/or engaging with the mafia.

  • One international observer:

This administration has the ultimate word (once upon a time its head was Mr. Carl Bildt).

  • About 3,500,000 inhabitants:

A surprisingly small number, given the huge political apparatus in the country.

So what has the Dayton Agreement accomplished? Whilst it ended the immediate war, it has created a country that is impossible to govern. It has been infeasible for three different ethnic groups (all with conflicting agendas) to operate effectively within three levels of government. The President of the Serb-dominated territory, Milorad Dodik, routinely declares yearly referendums on autonomy, and refuses to acknowledge the state-level Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is still struggling to resolve war crimes and meet the requirements for EU integration. Dodik’s populist rhetoric has the capacity to inspire ethnic hate crimes at his own convenience. The divides between the territories are not only growing bigger in a symbolic sense; it is becoming increasingly difficult for Bosnian citizens to move between them.

The three dominant (and ever antagonistic) ethnic groups, also called “constitutional peoples”, are the only ethnic groups acknowledged by the Dayton Agreement. Why does this matter? Well, whilst the three constitutional peoples are guaranteed political representation thanks to the Dayton, other ethnic groups are excluded. Since 2009, Bosnia and Herzegovina has been facing a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights for not letting a Jew, Jakob Finci, and a Roma, Dervo Sejdić, run for political office. They still have not agreed on what to do about it, though.

Not many things unite the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina — except their hate against the Dayton. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, “Dayton” is synonymous with the country’s poverty, unemployment and isolation. It reminds its citizens that no matter which side they fought for in the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina was more stable and cohesive before its war for independence. It is a dark irony that the international society which failed the country during five years of conflict, “made it up” by imposing an untenable peace.

The Dayton Agreement is a catch-22. Everyone wants out, but there is no way of agreeing on how.  The Dayton’s legacy lives on in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but it will set no precedent in international law. In contrast, it will be the warning example of how a peace deal should not be made.

By Aida Zekić

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