Q&A: Dayton Peace Agreement 20 years on

Al Jazeera speaks to former US special envoy on the effectiveness of Dayton and the Bosnian War.

War of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Houses with walls riddled with bullets
The Bosnian war resulted in about 100,000 deaths and left two million people displaced [Francoise De Mulder/Roger Viollet/Getty Images]

It has been 20 years since the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords that officially ended the three-and-a-half-year Bosnian war, which resulted in about 100,000 deaths and left another two million people displaced.

Bosnia and Herzegovina was recognised as independent from Yugoslavia on April 6, 1992. Under the leadership of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the Army of Republika Srpska – formed by Bosnian Serbs, the Yugoslav People’s Army, and paramilitary units – attacked Bosnia and Herzegovina with the aim of creating a “Greater Serbia”. 

Serb forces committed genocide in Srebrenica and ethnic cleansing against Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Bosnian Croats, as concentration camps, indiscriminate shelling of cities, and systematic mass rape spread across the country. The ICC found Serbia not guilty of genocide but it ruled that it was responsible for not stopping the Bosnian Serb Army and police from committing genocide in Srebrenica. Croat forces also attacked western Bosnia, aiming to secure the region as Croatian. 

On November 21, 1995, the late US ambassador Richard Holbrooke brokered a peace deal in Dayton, Ohio with the three warring factions: Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who all signed the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the bloody conflict.

The agreement divided Bosnia and Herzegovina into two semi-autonomous entities: the Bosniak-Croat “Federation” and the Bosnian Serb “Republika Srpska”. It formed what could arguably be the world’s most complicated and decentralised system of governance. Three rotating presidents – a Bosniak, Croat and a Serb – govern with 14 governments, 180 ministers and 700 elected state officials for a population of only 3.8 million people.

Listening Post – Bosnia: Divided country, divided media?

Although Dayton achieved its goal of ending the bloodshed, ethnic divisions are still alive. The international community has repeatedly warned in recent years that the country is in a real danger of collapse

Since becoming the president of Republika Srpska in 2010, Milorad Dodik, an open genocide-denier, has repeatedly threatened secession. Most recently, he has called for an independence referendum for 2018. 

Al Jazeera English spoke with Daniel Serwer, who served as the US special envoy and coordinator for the Bosnian Federation entity, and who negotiated the first agreement reached in the Dayton peace talks. 

Al Jazeera: What was the atmosphere like during the Dayton Accord negotiations? How difficult was it to reach an agreement?

Daniel Serwer: It was very difficult to reach an agreement. The main difficulty came from President Izetbegovic, whose forces were winning the war at the time. He did not want to settle on peace, which he thought was unjust. But once Tudjman and Milosevic had agreed, he was boxed in and had to agree as well.

Al Jazeera: What were Izetbegovic, Milosevic and Tudjman like as you got to know them?

Serwer: Well, I didn’t know Milosevic all that well, but a number of people described him in some detail at the conference … He would often bluff; he would say things that weren’t true; he was very difficult that way. And he was a very heavy drinker.

Izetbegovic was a completely sober man, who said very little, who relied enormously on his advisers. Milosevic didn’t rely heavily on his advisers – he made his own decisions. [Izetbegovic] was trying very hard at Dayton to get the very best deal he could for his country, he was under enormous pressure from the Americans and the Europeans to make an agreement.

Tudjman came to Dayton right from the first with the highest cards. He had retaken three of the UN-protected areas in Croatia already; he was going to get the fourth by peaceful negotiation. He had enabled the Bosnian army and the HVO [Bosnian Croat army] to take a very large percentage of Bosnia very quickly from the Serbs. They were at 67 percent of the territory when the Dayton ceasefire went into effect. So Tudjman was, in many respects, the one who had already gained the most – and stood to continue gaining the most – from the agreement. The Croats got a very good deal at Dayton because they got half the federation and a third of the state, and that was because Tudjman was in a very strong bargaining position.

Milosevic needed peace because he couldn’t afford to have 500,000 Bosnian Serbs walk out of Bosnia the way 200,000 Croatian Serbs walked out of Croatia just a few months before. That would have been a disaster for him politically inside Serbia.

Tudjman had the highest cards, Milosevic had a bad position, and Izetbegovic was trying to get a good deal – as good a deal as he could get, given that he probably would have preferred to continue the war for a few more days.

Al Jazeera: Do you think the timing of the signing of the agreement had something to do with US President Bill Clinton’s re-election bid? 

Serwer: Yes, I think the timing had everything to do with his re-election bid. Senator [Bob] Dole [who was running for the presidency against Clinton at the time], was criticising him very severely for failing to bomb the Serbs as he [Clinton] had promised to do three-and-a-half years ago, during his first election campaign. And once they bombed the Serbs, that changed the situation on the ground very rapidly. It’s my view that the Americans were just concerned to bring this war to an end – as quickly as they possibly could – to get it out of the American political scene.

Al Jazeera: It’s been 20 years since the signing of the Dayton Accords. How effective do you think it has been in providing stability and progress in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Serwer: It has certainly been very effective in providing an end to the war. From 1997 to 2006, there was a lot of progress made under pressure from the international community. Since 2006, the international community has ceased to provide as much pressure, and much less progress has been made.

Al Jazeera: What’s curbing Bosnia’s progress?

Serwer: In my view, it’s basically a constitutional problem. The way power is distributed by the Bosnian constitution makes decision-making exceedingly cumbersome and difficult, and, without international pressure, [it] just doesn’t get done. But the European Union, in particular, wants the Bosnians to take responsibility for meeting European Union requirements and doesn’t want to dictate to the Bosnians, and the result is very slow progress or no progress at all.

But there has been some progress. I’d like to point to two things that have been quite extraordinary: One is that the three armies have been unified. These are three armies that fought a war with each other and they are now in a fully integrated armed force. And the other thing I’d point to is the town of Brcko in northeastern Bosnia, which was one of the most difficult issues for the negotiations [because of its ethnic multiplicity]; it was postponed at Dayton. It’s now been settled with the help of an American arbitrator and the town has become a decent model of ethnic integration.

READ MORE: Bosnia and Herzegovina – a Hostage to Dayton?

 Al Jazeera: What concrete constitutional amendments does Bosnia need to make in order to move forward?

Serwer: Well that’s up to the Bosnians of course, no international [body] is going to dictate any longer what the constitution says, but in my opinion the most important single thing is that it has to be clear in the constitution that the central government of Bosnia in Sarajevo should have all the authority it needs to negotiate and implement the rules of the European Union. I think if there were an agreement on that, a lot of other things would fall into place.

Al Jazeera:How seriously should Bosnians take Milorad Dodik’s calls for a referendum and secession of the Republika Srpska?

Daniel Serwer negotiated the first agreement reached in the Dayton peace talks [screengrab/Al Jazeera]
Daniel Serwer negotiated the first agreement reached in the Dayton peace talks [screengrab/Al Jazeera]

Serwer: Well, it’s not a serious proposition in the sense that the proposition is stated in the referendum as idiotic and no one is going to recognise an independent Republika Srpska; it’s all a political show. On the other hand, it’s a political show that could cause real instability in the Balkans because of the reaction of Muslims, Croats and others in the Bosnian state. So I think it has to be taken very seriously and there would have to be very real consequences if Dodik goes ahead with the referendum.

Al Jazeera: The British historian Marko Atilla Hoare said in an interview in 2010: “Unless Bosnian patriots can devise a strategy to overturn the Dayton Accords, I believe the Republika Srpska could eventually become an independent state, or at the very least, a de facto independent state, like Taiwan.” How much do you agree with this statement?

Serwer: I think a de facto independent state like Taiwan is a possibility if, as he says, Bosnian patriots don’t overturn the Dayton order. I think everybody has agreed that in order for Bosnia to become a member of the European Union, it needs a constitution different from the one provided at Dayton. You have to remember that back in 1995, nobody was thinking about Bosnia becoming a member of the European Union; that was the least of our worries. They only thing we were seriously concerned about was ending the war … The whole agreement – but in particular, the constitution – was designed primarily to end the war, not to build the state, and now they need to build the state.

Al Jazeera: International politicians have been repeating for years now that Bosnia is a dysfunctional state and that we’re living in dangerous times. However, back in 1995, when foreign politicians created the Dayton Peace agreement, dividing the country into two entities and giving the Great Serb perpetrators most of what they wanted with the Republika Srpska, what were their expectations for Bosnia? How did they expect the country to function?

Serwer: They weren’t really worried about the country functioning as much as they were about ending the war, and it did end the war. There were 100,000 people dead, and there would have been many more dead had the war continued. That would be the argument, but I’m not sure if it’s entirely true. We worked very hard right after Dayton to get the government up and functioning, and then from 1997 onwards when the Bonn powers were given to the high representative, the internationals brought an enormous amount of pressure to try to make the country functional. And they paid a lot of money and provided a lot of troops. I think it would be wrong to say the internationals hadn’t done anything; they stopped the war and they tried to get Bosnia off on the right foot.


It was Bosnians who, in 2006, rejected the April package of amendments to the constitution, which would have been a major change in the Dayton order, and those amendments were negotiated under my supervision at the US Institute of Peace, where the Bosnians themselves decided what changes they wanted in the constitution, but then they were rejected by two votes in the Bosnian parliament. So who do you blame for that? I blame the Bosnians; I don’t blame the internationals.

Al Jazeera: If you knew then what you know now, what would you have changed in Dayton?

Serwer: Even then, I thought that the war should not have ended exactly when it was; I thought we should wait a few more days to see how much more progress the Federation forces could have made, but that’s hindsight … The fact is, the war was ended and the peace has been maintained. The problems in Bosnia are problems of governance, not of war and peace. 

Source: Al Jazeera