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One Last Hurrah for Bosnia’s International Rulers

February 25, 2009

By Dr. Darragh Farrell*

By the beginning of next month it should be known who the next High Representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) will be. It is probably safe to assume that the next High Representative will also be the last, despite the fact that the previous two holders of the post, Christian Schwarz-Schilling and Miroslav Lajcak, arrived in Sarajevo with the tag of being ‘the final High Representative.’

At its meeting in February 2008, the Peace Implementation Council, the body which decides international policy in BiH and guides the High Representative and his office (OHR), decided that the OHR would close when certain objectives and conditions were met. Following a number of agreements between the main domestic politicians over the last three months, these benchmarks have almost been reached and OHR closure in the next six months is a real possibility.

Termination of the OHR will bring to an end an intriguing and controversial experiment in international state-building and the external management of the democratisation process. The OHR was created under the Dayton Peace Agreement and is mandated to oversee the implementation of its civilian aspects.

In 1997, the OHR was given additional authorities (the ‘Bonn Powers’) by the Peace Implementation Council to impose legislation and remove any officials or elected representatives who it considers are obstructing Dayton.

Through the use of these somewhat draconian powers, the OHR was able to enact and execute a number of reforms that have had a positive effect and improved the quality of life in BiH. Included among these reforms are the post-war implementation of a uniform car licence plate system throughout the country, enabling people to travel freely without fear of indirectly revealing their ethno-nationality, the introduction of VAT, which has led to increased social welfare spending, and the legislation which helped facilitate approximately one million people to exercise their right to return to their pre-war homes.

The OHR has also used its Bonn Powers to remove a number of what it has deemed unpleasant nationalists and corrupt representatives from the political scene. In post-war BiH, the OHR has overseen a period of consistent, if limited, economic growth and the chance of the country slipping back into conflict is remote, regardless of occasional alarmist reports to the contrary from some foreign journalists.

Despite these constructive changes, it is the contradictory and insidious consequences stemming from the anti-democratic character of the OHR that have most impacted on the political and social development of BiH. The removal of elected representatives, including a president of the Republika Srpska (the Serb dominated entity of BiH) and several ministers, for example, was arguably justifiable in the immediate post-war years. However, the colonial-like powers of the High Representative were increasingly hard to defend as time passed.

Paddy Ashdown’s frequent use of the Bonn Powers during his term as High Representative, including dismissing some sixty officials in one day at the end of June 2004, provoked strong criticism from liberals both inside and outside BiH. A squeamishness in certain EU capitals over removing democratically elected politicians, however disagreeable they may be, contributed to Ashdown’s successors using the Bonn Powers much more sparingly.

Additionally, the Council of Europe began to criticise the OHR’s sweeping authorities in its reports while some of the officials removed from office have taken their cases against OHR action to the European Court of Human Rights.

Besides the dismissal of elected representatives, the OHR’s ability to impose legislation and shape the policy agenda has also had harmful consequences. The insistence of the OHR to focus on politically sensitive issues, such as police reform, pushed other, more pressing issues, down the agenda while also providing sustenance to nationalist politicians. Furthermore, the continued existence of the OHR, and its powers, gave the BiH political elite the perfect cover and excuse to behave irresponsibly, able to point to the presence of the OHR and to blame any failings on their lack of authority. The power of the OHR also led to domestic politicians directing their attention towards it rather than to the electorate in an attempt to either curry favour or gauge OHR opinion and possible action.

The unhealthy political culture in BiH, which the OHR has contributed to, has undoubtedly hampered the country’s development. The irresponsible political elite have failed to tackle, for example, the chronic unemployment problem in the country, with approximately 40 per cent of those of working age without a job, according to official statistics. Recent figures also show that 64 per cent of the 18-35 age group would emigrate if they could.

The prospect of another armed conflict is remote not because of any real reconciliation between the three main ethno-national groups but rather due to a general weariness amongst the population, a still vivid memory of the war and the personal losses involved, and the fact that each of the three groups now live, by and large, in ethnically homogeneous areas, with an absence of ‘flash points, bar one or two exceptions, such as Mostar. Only one in five Serbs in the country expresses any pride in being citizens of BiH. Despite stating their desire to join the EU, political representatives have made slow and limited progress in implementing the required reforms.

At its Thessaloniki summit in 2003, the EU stated that the Western Balkan states, including BiH would be welcomed into the Union once they satisfied the accession criteria. It is clear, however, that a country could not join the EU while an unelected institution, such as the OHR, is operating and performing legislative and executive functions. To prepare for the termination of the OHR and the increasing role of the EU in directing BiH’s path towards membership of the Union, the EU has ensured in recent years that the High Representative also serves as EU Special Representative (EUSR) in the country.

Certain EU members’s unease with the Bonn Powers, previous criticism of the High Representative’s authorities and increasing resistance to their potential use from BiH representatives, from the Republika Srpska in particular, have meant that the OHR has become a political eunuch, shorn of its powers now considered illegitimate. A continued OHR presence in the country is therefore pointless, only serving to provide an excuse for failing domestic leaders.

The incoming High Representative, therefore, should concentrate on ensuring that the PIC objectives on the closure of the OHR are met as soon as possible, ideally in the next three to six months, resisting any temptation there may be to extend its mandate. Once the OHR is shut and the associated Bonn Powers terminated, the High Representative can continue under the mandate of EUSR, bolstered by a new EU commitment to the country as promised by the Union’s Foreign and Security Policy chief, Javier Solana, and the Enlargement Commissioner, Olli Rehn.

The EUSR has an important role to play in assisting local representatives harmonise any constitutional agreement with future EU membership needs and providing assistance and advice on what has to be done to achieve EU membership. After over thirteen years of external supervision, it is high time that the international community handed over political responsibility to the elected representatives, regardless of how corrupt or inept they are considered to be. By removing the defunct frame of external management, this corruption or irresponsibility of politicians will become fully exposed to the local electorate, who should be the ultimate holders of sovereignty. If the electorate continue to select irresponsible and/or nationalist candidates, that will be its decision.

At some point, the citizens of BiH will have to decide for themselves about the composition and future direction of their country. As for the legacy of the OHR, it is an example to more recent state-building efforts that the legitimacy of external rule is temporary, and if prolonged becomes counterproductive and even harmful.


*Dr. Darragh Farrell is an Irish scholar with the Centre for the Study of a Wider Europe at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. The CSWE is a new interdisciplinary centre aimed at producing high quality work on Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe.  Dr. Farrell recently completed a PhD at the same university which studied the impact of international intervention on democratic development and political responsibility in the Republika Srpska. He has published a number of articles on the politics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and is currently undertaking further research while based in Sarajevo.

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