The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s was the worst conflict in Europe since 1945. More than 100,000 people died and two million were displaced, alongside the mass rape of Bosniak women, prison camps, genocide of Bosnian Muslims and a not-so-fair peace treaty.
The indecisiveness of the United Nations and NATO over the nature of the war and lack of common vision between the European Union and the United States prolonged the bloodshed.
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In late 1995, however, several developments on the ground and pressure from Congress provoked the US in to finally taking a determined lead and pushing for a military intervention.
The General Framework Agreement for Peace, widely known as Dayton Accords, was reached on November 21, 1995 and formally signed in Paris 20 years ago today on December 14.
The signatories were Franjo Tudjman, the president of Croatia, Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia – who later was tried at The Hague as a war criminal– and Alija Izetbegovic, the president of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Why Europe let the Serbs do it?
Throughout the war, the Bosniaks had continuously sought the lifting of the arms embargothat had left them at a distinct disadvantage against the heavily stocked Serbian and Croatian armies.
According to Bill Clinton, the former US president, the European allies constantly blocked proposals to either adjust or remove that unfair embargo.
Moreover, as revealed in Taylor Branch’s book “The Clinton Tapes“, the European insistence was not based on humanitarian grounds, as officially claimed, but on a more cynical motive: “That an independent Bosnia would be ‘unnatural’ as the only Muslim nation in Europe.”
As further noted in the book: “President Francois Mitterrand of France had been especially blunt in saying that Bosnia did not belong, and that British officials spoke of a painful but realistic restoration of Christian Europe.”
Today, the Islamophobic strain in Europe has become even more explicit with racist, discriminatory rhetoric used against Muslims. Though in part a reaction to Muslim extremists, it is also a manifestation of Europe’s own biases.
From Srebrenica to Dayton
In July 1995, due to weak retaliations to Serbian provocations and attacks, the Bosnian Serb forces felt vindicated enough to commit genocide in Srebrenica, the greatest single massacre in Europe since World War II.
Today, 20 years after the signing of Dayton Accords, the hopes for prosperous, heterogeneous co-existence in a secure Bosnia, relieved of nationalist and emotional tensions, linger in the limbo of lost dreams.
Revealingly, the documents that the US National Security Archive published in November 2015 detail the failure of the UN and the international community.
In her recently published book, The Sebrenica Affair, Florence Hartmann, the veteran journalist, writes, on the basis of previously declassified US documents, that the Western powers knew of the Bosnian Serbs’ plan to attack Srebrenica weeks before it happened.
More than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed soon after, one by one; while more than 40,000 women and children refugees were expelled from an enclave that was a UN “safe area”, supposedly protected by Dutch peacekeepers.
After the fiasco in Srebrenica, things moved fast. On August 30, 1995, NATO launched a bombing campaign against Serbs to increase pressure on them after the Croatians had inflicted a defeat in Western Bosnia.
There seemed to be momentum for ending the war, so the US wanted to harness it by working towards a three-party conference and seal a deal. After difficult negotiations, a nationwide ceasefire was reached on October 11, followed by peace negotiations in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995.
In his memoirs, Richard Holbrooke, chief of the American delegation at Dayton, recalled the negotiations as “simultaneously cerebral and physical, abstract and personal, something like a combination of chess and mountain climbing”.
Holbrook elsewhere said: “Each of the parties challenged the prospects for success in their own way: the Bosnians were disorganised, Milosevic dishonest, and Tudjman disengaged.”
After weeks of frustrating negotiations, with the delegations finally agreeing to defer the much-debated status of the northern town of Brcko for a later decision by an internationally appointed arbitrator, the deal was considered done.
Outcome of Dayton
As a result of Dayton, Bosnia-Herzegovina was divided between two entities, so that 51 percent of territory was granted to the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (created between Bosniaks and Croats), and 49 percent to the Republika Srpska (composed of Serbs).
The final organisation of today’s Bosnia-Herzegovina includes 10 cantons with their own governments, one district, and more than 143 municipalities. Colossal public administration in both entities that hold strong autonomous powers is highly nepotistic.
Today, 20 years after the signing of the Dayton Accords, the hopes for a prosperous, heterogeneous co-existence in a secure Bosnia and Herzegovina, relieved of nationalist and emotional tensions, linger in the limbo of lost dreams. Changing the problematic constitution is impossible in the current environment.
More than anything else, as a living reminder of the war’s unjust peace stands the Republika Srpska, a political entity established on genocide and ethnic cleansing.
By yielding to Milosevic’s conditions for the establishment of Republika Srpska’s at Dayton, the accord’s creators blurred the line between aggressors and victims. The orchestrators of genocidal politics were not punished but rewarded.
Moreover, denial has all but wiped away war crimes, and the false mythologising of war criminals as heroes lingers. And, as secessionist narratives persist, Bosnia and Herzegovina has become more ethnically polarised since Dayton.
But, one can ask, without Dayton, was peace even possible otherwise?
Probably not without further killing, so we should give that credit to Dayton Accords.
Yet, it remains a horrible basis for successful state-building. Academic Valerie Perry rightly describes Dayton as “a type of Bosnian entrapment: An institutional trap imposed or at least facilitated by outsiders that makes Bosnians choose ethnonationalism against their best interest.”
The country is still a single state today, but one can only foresee bad scenarios for tomorrow. To be optimistic, though, Bosnians have always been resilient and excelled at improvisation, so when push comes to shove, those who fought so hard for Bosnia and Herzegovina will somehow come through.
Riada Asimovic Akyol is pursuing her doctorate in International Relations at Galatasaray University in Istanbul. She has been a contributing writer for Al-Monitor and other publications.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.