Ever since my arrival in Sarajevo four and a half years ago, I have been utterly bewitched by this incredible country, its stunning countryside, and its funny and capable people. So why have we not seen greater successes in the 25 years since the war? Why are young and talented people leaving in pursuit of a brighter future elsewhere?
Part of this challenges traces back to the start of the peace, and a place called Dayton, Ohio. The agreement reached on that distant air-force base has had a profound impact on the shaping of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It ended a terrible war, something that seemed out of reach at the time. It formed the Constitution. It confirmed the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of BiH. It began 25 years of peace.
Dayton is still invoked by politicians in BiH on a near daily basis. Sometimes as the root cause of problems faced today. Sometimes as an ‘original’ blueprint, which should be returned to. Sometimes in terms of a ‘spirit’ against which the current institutions fall short, even if the institutions are themselves defined in that Dayton Constitution.
How then to look at Dayton, and even more importantly, where do we go from here?
There are legitimate criticisms of an agreement which tried to broker the interests of politically and ethnically defined opponents, through power sharing and vetoes, checks and balances. It prioritises collective over individual rights, and a complicated administrative arrangement that divides responsibilities rather than considering practical function. Research has demonstrated that peace agreements which include women in talks are far more sustainable and successful – they were notable by their absence in Ohio.
But criticism that the agreement failed to anticipate these problems is also unfair, and not only because of the complete absence of trust amongst still warring sides. Even at the time, it was never meant to be an end state. It provided the conditions for ending the fighting, yes. And for beginning the process of rebuilding the country.
Lord Paddy Ashdown perhaps expressed this best, in his inaugural speech as High Representative, when he said:
Dayton is vital. Without it there would be no peace.
But Dayton is the floor, not the ceiling.
It is the foundation for the state we are trying to construct. And like all foundations, it must be built on.
Dayton was never set in stone. There have been many positive improvements built on that first foundation, including a single unified Armed Forces, a single currency, a single system of ID cards, a single Indirect Tax Authority, a State Border Service, and a Court of BiH. We have seen the start of the EU accession process, membership of the Council of Europe, partnership with NATO, and €billions in assistance from friendly countries, to rebuild and build anew. All of these have benefited the citizens of BiH, without taking anything away from them.
Those calling for a return to ‘original Dayton’, or claiming the sole right to interpret ‘the spirit of Dayton’, ignore the hard-won progress made since that day. Time travel remains out of reach. And I meet few people across BiH who would welcome a return to the events of 1995 in which this agreement was achieved.
So if we cannot go back, how do we go forward?
We can start by fixing the things that have been most clearly picked out as problems. The European Court of Human Rights has issued several judgements against BiH – ‘Sejdic-Finci’ being the most famous – because political rights cannot be limited on the basis of where in the country you live and what ethnicity (if any) you choose to identify as, Constituent People or not.
Such changes must be based on consensus, compromise, and above all the long-term interest of BiH citizens. And they should make BiH more functional, better able to take on the responsibilities of membership of the EU, NATO or other bodies and alliances.
But political reform is not the only work in front of BiH. When I talk to young people across the country, I hear a range of issues on their minds, and pushing them and their friends towards leaving. Tackle these and I believe we can create opportunities for them to succeed here. These priorities drive everything the UK is doing, to improve public services, to create more and better jobs, to depoliticise state companies, to teach problem solving and critical thinking, to improve infrastructure, and more.
But perhaps the biggest concern I hear is the need to improve the rule of law. That is partly about the legacy of the 1990s, and I am proud of UK support to the continued search for the missing, the prosecution of war crimes including rape, and opposition to the celebration of war criminals. Moving forward requires coming to terms with the past.
Building a brighter future for BiH, on top of that Dayton foundation, must mean a country in which resources are governed fairly and no-one is above the law. Yes, this is needed to move towards the EU and NATO. But it is even more important to citizens right now. That means transparency, accountability, and real action against corruption and abuse of office, resulting in prosecutions and convictions of high-ranking officials. Citizens demand these changes.
And it is precisely because of these amazing people, this beautiful country, that I remain an optimist about the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The UK, like many other friends of BiH, is here to help them get there.
Matthew Field is the British Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Matthew has previously served in a number of overseas political and policy roles, since joining the Diplomatic Service in 2003. He was Political Counsellor and Head of Political and Security Group in the British Embassy in Brasilia, overseeing staff and projects from five different government departments.
In the EU Mission in Skopje, he served as a political adviser to the EU Special Representative, liaising with political parties and civil society. He was Head of EU and Political Team in the British Embassy in Zagreb, working on Croatia’s EU accession talks. Most recently, Matthew was seconded to the EU Special Representative Office in Sarajevo, as a Senior Adviser and Head of Political. He is accompanied in Sarajevo by his wife, Martina, and their two sons.