Twenty years after the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the vast majority of international and Bosnian experts and officials believe the country has become a hostage to it - specifically the part that established the country's constitution.

Assumed to be temporary, the constitution defined Bosnia and Herzegovina as a democratic state of three constituent peoples - Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.

The country was divided into two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, as well as a third, self-governing unit, Brcko District.

The agreement stipulated that the high representative of the international community - a role created immediately after its signing and intended to oversee its implementation as well as to represent the countries involved - had a duty to preserve peace, but also the right to impose political decisions.

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Working within one of the most complicated political systems in the world, most Bosnian politicians and foreign officials now agree that the Dayton Peace Agreement has run its course. What they cannot agree on, though, is how it should be modified.

'The weakest link'

In Republika Srpska, the ruling politicians want greater decentralisation of the state and more authority to be given to the entities; Bosniak representatives in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, meanwhile, seek to strengthen state institutions; and Croatian officials are calling for a third entity to be established.

"The weakest link of the Dayton Peace Agreement is its Annex 4, the constitution. Back in Dayton, Richard Holbrooke [the late US diplomat who led the peace conference] told us that we had to live with this constitution for at least 15 years, and it would then be time to change it," said Miro Lazovic, the first president of the Assembly of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and a member of the Bosnian delegation in Dayton, Ohio, 20 years ago.

"Today, it is the ground for political misunderstandings and conflicts, and it does not allow full recognition of human rights and freedoms in Bosnia and Herzegovina."

The Dayton Agreement cannot be eternal and it is not intended to be eternal. It is time to look to the future, to look to the European Union.

Federica Mogherini, EU foreign policy chief

'A long way to go'

The war in Bosnia raged from April 1992 until November 1995, becoming the bloodiest of all the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

According to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, 100,000 people were killed, two million were displaced - as much as half of the population - and thousands of women were systematically raped. Also, more than 8,000 men and boys were massacred in the Srebrenica genocide, the first in Europe since World War II.

Numerous proposals were put forward to stop the conflict, but none were accepted in their entirety - until Dayton.

"The war ended, and that was the most important thing at the time," said US General Wesley Clark, the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and an envoy to the Dayton Peace Agreement negotiations, at the 20th anniversary of the Dayton Agreement Conference held in Dayton, Ohio in November. "I think it was a great success, of course, but there is a long way ahead of us because people are not satisfied.

"But, in my opinion, Bosnian politicians are fully responsible for changes in the country," Clark added.

Agreeing to disagree and disagreeing to agree

Today, 13 governments exist in a country of fewer than four million people. The resulting bureaucracy is often criticised as highly dysfunctional, while high rates of corruption, unemployment and discrimination are seen as obstacles to Bosnia and Herzegovina's progress in joining the European Union and NATO.


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However, any change to the agreement must be approved by representatives of the three constituent peoples - and this is especially problematic because they do not agree. All previous amendments to the agreement, made mainly in the 10 years after the war, were carried out under pressure from the international community and by the decision of the high representative.

The political leaders of Republika Srpska recently accused the state's judicial system of being biased against Serbs in war crimes cases. In July, the parliament of this entity approved a referendum on the Court and Prosecutor's Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the powers of the high representative. The move was condemned by European and US officials.

"They are trying to make a state out of Bosnia and Herzegovina by force. This implies intervention of foreigners," said Milorad Dodik, the President of Republika Srpska, adding that this entity could exist only if "we defend the Dayton Agreement".

Ironically, international officials believe that Republika Srpska's referendum would violate that very agreement.

One hundred thousand people were killed during the three-year war in Bosnia and Herzegovina which ended 20 years ago with a US-brokered peace accord, agreed on November 21, 1995 in Dayton, Ohio. [Fehim Demir/EPA]

"Right now the biggest challenge for the Dayton Agreement is a referendum which was announced by Republika Srpska politicians and which is not legitimate according to the peace agreement," said Valentin Inzko, an Austrian diplomat who has served as the high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2009.

"We just need to remember that the first decade after Dayton went very well. I do not want to accept that Bosnia can't continue its progress," Inzko added.

Indeed, it is generally accepted that the first decade of the Dayton Peace Agreement brought some progress - uniform identity documents and a common currency were introduced, unified armed forces and an intelligence service were created, and state-level institutions were established.

From Dayton to Brussels

However, the past 10 years have been marked by stagnation, and in 2008, the European Union blocked the signing of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), part of the process of joining the EU, because of the paralysis of the country's political system and a lack of constitutional reform.

One of the main reasons for blocking the signing was the fact that the decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in the "Sejdic-Finci" case had not been implemented.


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In the case, brought by Dervo Sejdic and Jakob Finci, who are of Bosnian Roma and Bosnian Jewish ethnicity respectively, Bosnia and Herzegovina's constitution was deemed to be in violation of EU human rights laws since it prohibits minorities or individuals who do not identify themselves as Bosniak, Croat or Serb from running for the country's tripartite presidency and other offices.

Although the ruling of the ECHR has not yet been implemented, the SAA entered into force in June this year, with the EU setting a series of political, economic and social reforms as conditions for future membership.

And while the European Commission's report on progress in 2015 stressed that Bosnia and Herzegovina was "back on the reform path", it also noted a long list of negatives.

More than half a million people are unemployed, about 60 percent of young people do not have a job, corruption is widespread, citizens' rights are violated in many areas, and, according to data from the European Statistics Agency (Eurostat) from April, Bosnia and Herzegovina was the poorest country in Europe.

Among the most vulnerable groups are the returnees, those coming back after fleeing their homes and even the country during the war, and the roughly one million displaced people who have not yet returned to their homes 20 years after the war's end, but whose right of return was provided by Annex 7 of the Dayton Agreement.

"We don't have jobs; my wife and I pick wild berries and fruits or coal and then sell that to survive. We fled from the Srebrenica genocide. I applied to return to my home five times, but nothing happened," said Hajrudin Zahirovi, who lives in a shack in a refugee camp near Tuzla in northeastern Bosnia.

These days, European officials are sending a message that it is time for Bosnia and Herzegovina to finally work on reforms.

"The Dayton Agreement cannot be eternal and it is not intended to be eternal. It is time to look to the future, to look to the European Union," stressed the European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, at a conference marking the 20th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Agreement.

However, all agree that this future is in the hands of the Bosnian politicians who must now decide whether finally to move from Dayton to Brussels.

Source: Al Jazeera