Dayton 25

John McDougall

This week marks the 25th Anniversary of the ratification of the Dayton Peace Accords, held in Paris on the 14th December 1995. Writer John McDougall reflects on his research for A Balkan Journey, and how it continues to have resonance within international affairs

When Chris asked me to get involved with the Balkan Journey project, I was quietly terrified. He’d seen a text I’d written for the Photographic Parallels exhibition at Streetlevel Photoworks in Glasgow and felt the way I’d interpreted the collaborative internationalism of that project in the face of hardening borders across Europe had suited his work. But I knew little about Bosnia.

I knew the breakup of Yugoslavia had been violent and cruel, and the suffering of the people caught up in it was some of the harshest the world has seen. Growing up in County Donegal, the news was dominated by the slow crawl towards peace just over the border, and the developing Peace Process which would eventually share some similarities with the Dayton Agreements. A friend’s dad had been part of the Irish contingent of UN Peacekeeping forces in Kosovo, but he never spoke to me about it.

Having admired Chris’ work for years though, I couldn’t say no. I set about reading as much as I could, journalistic accounts, academic and human rights groups publications. Watching old news footage, documentaries and listening to podcast. At the beginning of 2020 I went round to Chris’ home and watched the movie ‘Welcome To Sarajevo’  while drinking too much red wine, I took in everything I could to give myself a starting point. I needed a working knowledge of what happened, before I could even think about what came next.

The more I became informed the more I started to realise not just the relationships between the Dayton Agreement and Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement, but also the aftershocks of the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia which are still being felt today. I realised the horrible connections between some of the darkest moments in recent human history and those of the people who ordered genocide in Bosnia. The murders of men women and children in terrorist attacks in New Zealand and Norway, the growing white supremacism in the west.

I began to write about the “Battleground of Cultural Memory” and since publication of the book I continue to think about that. This week, as part of the discussion around the 25th anniversary of the Dayton Agreement, the group “Remembering Srebrenica” held a webinar discussing the issues faced by both Dayton and Good Friday Agreements. While listening to representatives from both regions speak about their hopes and fears for their respective futures the question that kept coming back was “if peace cannot allow for remembering the past, what hope does the future have?”. Of course, the past will always be as strongly contested as the future, and it is important that cultural memory does not give rise to hatred and violence.

We often blame “The Right” for such issues, the pantomime villains of Tommy Robinson, UKIP and Britain First as being the ones who uphold those ideologies of racism and nationalism from the fringes. There’s no doubting that they’ve gained prominence in the last decade or so, stretching back to the British National Party’s Nick Griffin’s appearance on BBC political programming such as Question Time. But what of our mainstream politicians? Can you even begin to imagine a Labour leader taking radio phone in calls from right wing activists about the so called “Great Replacement” theory and not challenging it for the dangerous lie that it has been proven to be throughout history? Labour, the party of the working class, being pulled into this sort of rhetoric would once have been unthinkable. Where can we possibly go from here?

There is much relief in world politics right now, and rightly so, as Donald Trump’s loss in the US Presidential Elections becomes official. In many ways it is a bullet dodged, although his very existence in US politics has awakened some dark forces. But now its time to turn our attention closer to home.

As the UK races towards a No Deal Brexit it is likely the mood of the people is going to become angrier. Even if Boris Johnson somehow pulls a last-minute agreement out of negotiations, the realisation that being “Sovereign” brings very little to the average family’s table will sink in quickly. Coupled with growing anger at the ongoing mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic, we will see a government who will need to paint someone as the enemy.

It’s Keir Stamer’s job, as the leader of the Labour opposition to stop them from stirring up racial hatred. To stop them from developing scare stories and bringing out fear and anger towards those of the population who happen to have darker skin or differing accents.  He chose to agree to disagree with them. He chose not to challenge their lies.

We need to learn the lessons of the past, and we need to do it quickly. We need to hold our politicians and public voices to account when they are unwilling to challenge racism and persecution head on. We cannot continue to believe that it couldn’t happen here.  This week, the 25th anniversary of the agreements which stopped the killing in Bosnia, is a good time to think about that.