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6 May 2020

Progress in Bosnia and Herzegovina Hampered by Political Standstill, Corruption, High Representative Tells Security Council

Corruption and political stalemate still hamper post-war progress in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 25 years after the Dayton Peace Agreement, but the international community must not lose sight of what is at stake in the Western Balkan country, High Representative Valentin Inzko said during a 6 May videoconference meeting* of the Security Council.

Presenting his semi-annual report (document S/2020/345) on the implementation of the Dayton Agreement, formally known as the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the High Representative appealed for patience and warned against changing the international presence in the country.

He opened his remarks by saying that Bosnia and Herzegovina has so far avoided significant loss of life due to the COVID-19 outbreak, after its two entities — the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska — swiftly took appropriate measures and initially showed preparedness to work together.

However, while the international community is providing financial and material assistance at all levels, a functional coordination mechanism has yet to be put into place to deal with the health crisis and its economic consequences.  Nor, he added, have the authorities reached agreement on the distribution of International Monetary Fund (IMF) assistance.

That opens the door to potential corruption, he warned, strongly recommending that the international community set up and run mechanisms to counter profiteering, alongside national efforts to investigate alleged wrongdoing.

On the political front, the High Representative — whose briefing came on the same day as a European summit hosted by Croatia on the future of the Western Balkans — applauded the launching on 28 April by the tripartite Presidency of a process to implement 14 key priorities for achieving European Union membership.

He expressed concern, however, that some political parties “will soon return to the pre-pandemic status quo” in which decision-making at the State level was blocked by parties belonging to Republika Srpska’s governing coalition.  Those parties had tried to force a discussion on the removal of the three foreign judges who sit on the Constitutional Court — an outcome that would potentially enable those groups to enforce separatist agendas with the Court’s assistance, he said.

He went on to note that, more than 18 months after country-wide general elections, a new Government has yet to be appointed in the Federation.  In Mostar, citizens still lack the right to vote in municipal elections.  And no State budget has been adopted for 2020, prompting the Central Election Commission to warn that it might not be possible to prepare for municipal polls scheduled for October.

Looking ahead to the twenty-fifth anniversary in July of the Srebrenica genocide — in which thousands of Bosniak men and boys were slain by Bosnian Serb forces in a United Nations-declared safe area — he said that commemorative events might need to be scaled back due to the pandemic, “but the tragedy nonetheless looms large in our collective memory”.  No one can rewrite history, yet there are still people who deny the genocide and glorify war criminals.  “This must stop,” he said, suggesting it might be time to legislate an end to genocide denial.

“Above all, Bosnia and Herzegovina must improve the rule of law and the fight against the big pandemic called corruption,” he said, describing how young people are emigrating not for lack of jobs, but for the lack of the rule of law.  He added:  “The international community must not lose sight of what is at stake in Bosnia and Herzegovina and work together to preserve its collective investments in time and money over the last 25 years — not for their own sake, but in honour of the lives that were lost during the conflict and in honour of those who survived and are still hoping for a better future for themselves and future generations.”

Irena Hasić, Executive Director of Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, also briefed the Council, explaining that gaps in the educational system must be filled if young people are to become active and responsible citizens and drivers of change.  Fifty-six schools are operating under the “two schools under one roof” paradigm, in which students are divided not only by ethnicity, but also by textbooks.  They even enter through different doors.  “Something that was established as a temporary solution to overcome conflict has become permanent” and young people now consider segregation a natural state of living.  She discussed the Youth Initiative’s work to address the problem, organizing alternative schools, open discussions, visits, exchanges, cultural events where young people are given facts and an opportunity to connect with others from different ethnic and religious groups.  During a Youth Forum in 2019, participants discussed youth and the political situation, activism in formal education and reconciliation.  Their recommendations were clear:  proper political education, awareness of the importance of voting and restoring trust in institutions.  “They are aware of flaws and irregularities in the election process,” she said.  “It is time to modernize it.”

Young people lack a voice in their communities, she added.  They need tools, mechanisms and education to contribute to change and bring their ideas to life.  However, civil society organizations face financial and institutional obstacles.  In Republika Srpksa, the Youth Initiative is denied access to schools, while in the Federation, it must get permission from the Ministry of Education in each individual canton.  Moreover, she explained, the political elite portrays diversity as a weakness and as “weeds to be uprooted”.  It thus falls on civil society to advance human rights and democratic values, and create a better future for — and with — young people.  Twenty-five years after the Dayton Agreement, which transferred the conflict to the political stage, no one is satisfied, as the current administrative configuration — far from sustainable — is ineffective and unable to invest in development.  Emphasizing that Bosnia and Herzegovina has Europe’s highest percentage of youth unemployment, and a growing number of young people emigrating, there is an urgent need for reforms and investment, and to update the Dayton Agreement.  “For that, we need help from outside,” she said, adding that it is time to find answers together.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers — including representatives of Bosnia and Herzegovina, its neighbours Croatia and Serbia, and the European Union — addressed the need for sweeping reforms, respect for the rule of law and open, fair and transparent elections.  They underscored their delegations’ support for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and its aspirations for European Union membership.  Many looked ahead to the Srebrenica anniversary and criticized those who deny that the genocide ever happened.  Several also mentioned how political uncertainty is prompting thousands of young people to emigrate.

The representative of the United States said that the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s response to the coronavirus proves that it can serve the people “when there is a will to do so”.  Efforts to combat the pandemic and mitigate its effects must continue to be well-designed and precisely targeted, and also adhere to the country’s constitutional and legal framework.  Political leaders, meanwhile, must take steps towards reconciliation and long-overdue reforms.  “The United States objects in the strongest terms to efforts undertaken by malign actors to exploit the political landscape in Bosnia and Herzegovina for personal, political and financial gain,” she said, warning that external and malevolent actors are posing a serious threat to lasting conciliation.  She said that Bosnia and Herzegovina must stay the course towards European integration and trans‑Atlantic cooperation, adding that agreed conditions for the closure of the Office of the High Representative can “most assuredly” be achieved.

The Russian Federation’s delegate said that the High Representative’s reports fail repeatedly to give a balanced picture, as they criticize Bosnian Serbs for all the challenges that Bosnia and Herzegovina is facing.  Most issues stem from the lack of consensus among the country’s three constituent people.  He recommended that the Office of the High Representative encourage dialogue and help Bosnians resolve their own disputes.  “The time for external governance is gone.  The Bosnian people deserve the right to determine their fate on their own.”  The situation there is calm, stable and no threat to international peace and security, yet the High Representative still finds made-up arguments to preserve an outdated international protectorate over a sovereign and independent State.  The Council and the Steering Board of the Peace and Implementation Council, which oversees implementation of the Dayton Agreement, should take steps towards the early closure of the Office of the High Representative.  He emphasized that there is no consensus in Bosnian society on Euro-Atlantic integration and that the High Representative should not abuse his mandate by promoting it.

The representative of the United Kingdom said that his delegation is impressed by the discipline and solidarity of the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina in battling the COVID-19 pandemic and welcomes the sense of unity among political and institutional leaders to tackling that common problem.  The past six months have demonstrated that blockages can be overcome, he said, pointing to the December 2019 agreement to form a stable Government and a ground‑breaking agreement on socioeconomic reforms.  He urged politicians to engage constructively in the Euro-Atlantic integration process, which will achieve more for citizens than threats of a political blockade that only make it harder to bring international supervision to a close.  Noting the upcoming anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, he said that it is concerning that the glorification of war criminals remains on all sides.  It is also unacceptable that individuals and sections of society, including politicians, continue to deny the genocide.

France’s representative pointed to several positive developments, including the swift response to the pandemic and good coordination among all actors, as well as the formation of the Council of Ministers in December 2019.  He called on all stakeholders to respect Constitutional Court rulings, adopt a State budget for 2020 and enable institutions to function normally as soon as possible.  He welcomed last week’s agreement by the tripartite Presidency on implementing the European Commission’s recommendations on the rule of law and democratic functioning, saying that, more than ever, reforms are necessary for development and European rapprochement.  He added that France strongly condemns the glorification of war crimes, and that transitional justice and reconciliation processes remain the only solid foundation for the country’s future.

Belgium’s delegate encouraged political leaders to keep coordinating their actions in the fight against COVID-19.  It is essential that they practice good governance at a time when it is most needed, including by making the prevention of corruption a part of their response to the outbreak.  He underscored the need to strengthen the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, and regretted that the Bosnian authorities have yet to comply with the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling in the Sejdić and Finci case, which would permit Jews, Roma and other minorities to seek election to high office.  He emphasized that reconciliation is not possible without sincere recognition of war crimes, including the Srebrenica genocide, adding that war criminals must be held accountable.  He joined others in calling for the “two schools under one roof” policy to be scrapped.  It is an impediment to reconciliation when schools should promote tolerance and mutual understanding.

Indonesia’s representative, emphasizing the need to respect the rule of law, wondered how Bosnia and Herzegovina’s divisions can be explained to its young people who were born after the war.  Investing in youth means investing in the future, which also means investing in peace.  He urged the High Representative to explore innovative ways to advance the peace process and to consider using his so‑called “Bonn powers” to deal with those who are unable or unwilling to cooperate.  He went on to say that the COVID-19 pandemic is a turning point that will hopefully endure long after the outbreak has passed.  Political identity and divisions cannot save humanity, but “solidarity is key”.

Viet Nam’s delegate said that it is encouraging to see Bosnia and Herzegovina bring the pandemic under relative control.  Politically, however, the picture that the High Representative painted is a gloomy one, replete with divisive rhetoric and actions.  Moreover, the World Bank expects the country to enter a recession in 2020, while more than 60,000 people emigrated in 2019 alone.  “We cannot afford to delay the implementation of the Peace Agreement for another time of a generation,” he said, calling on political leaders to give the utmost attention to national harmony; to focus on the rule of law, public administrative reform, economic development and regional integration; and to live up to their Dayton commitments.

China’s representative said that his country has maintained consistent respect for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  He expressed concern over the political divisions, stressing that peace and development is in the common interest.  He urged political leaders to work together to unify the country, enhance State institutions and improve the efficiency of decision-making.  Development also should be vigorously promoted and all parties in the country should bolster investment in education, health care and infrastructure.  “The issue of Bosnia and Herzegovina is complex and sensitive,” he said, and the international community should listen with an open mind to the positions of all parties, taking a balanced and prudent approach.  He expressed hope that the European Union-led military operation will continue to strengthen engagement with the parties.

South Africa’s representative expressed concern over the lack of progress on the dialogue process and called on all parties to refrain from actions that could undermine its prospects, thus stalling reconciliation.  He urged all stakeholders to work within the parameters of existing agreements and mechanisms to advance the process in good faith, emphasizing that national ownership of the peace process resides with all Bosnia and Herzegovina stakeholders.  Pointing to the negative impact of ongoing disagreements between political parties on the “5+2” agenda, he welcomed the appointment of a Chair for the Council of Ministers and encouraged parties to expedite the conclusion of other appointments, including those of the Constitutional Court judges.  “It is only through dialogue and compromise that a political settlement can be reached,” he observed.

Tunisia’s delegate, also expressing support for the High Representative’s efforts, said that many issues remain unresolved.  Political leaders must prioritize the interests of all citizens and pave the way for the younger generation to build a better future based on ethnic and cultural unity.  All parties must also strengthen the rule of law and ensure the participation of young people and women throughout political processes.  Noting the upcoming anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, he said that Tunisia is deeply concerned by genocide denial.  In that regard, he appealed against glorifying and memorializing war criminals.

Niger’s representative said that the success of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s efforts to combat COVID-19 hinges on adherence to the country’s laws and Constitution, transparency and full respect for human rights.  Challenges to sovereignty and territorial integrity seriously threaten political stability and implementation of the Dayton Agreement.  All parties must therefore work to ensure the functioning of all the country’s institutions.  He added that realization of the right of refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their homes of origin remains at the core of the peace accords.  Authorities at all levels must therefore create political, economic and social conditions conducive to voluntary returns, with no preference for any particular group.

The representative of the Dominican Republic underscored the importance of respecting the country’s constitutional and legal framework, as well as international and European standards on human rights.  He called on political leaders to complete the appointment of remaining authorities at the federal and cantonal levels.  In addition, talks must be resumed to finalize long-awaited elections in Mostar.  Expressing concern that a State budget has not been approved to meet the most urgent demands, he underscored the international readiness to support Bosnia and Herzegovina in the fight against COVID-19.  While the current situation may affect the holding of local elections in October, approval of the State budget for their conduct is essential.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines urged all parties to refrain from any divisive rhetoric that might hamper the COVID-19 response.  Underscoring the need for constructive dialogue, she said that long-term peace and reconciliation requires inclusive national ownership over the political and peace processes.  Hopefully, the parties can break the deadlock over implementation of the objectives and conditions of the Peace Implementation Council’s Steering Board.  She also called for greater representation of women, whose role can neither be dismissed or diminished.

The representative of Estonia, Council President for May, spoke in his national capacity to register regret over the paralysis of many State institutions, including the Bosnia and Herzegovina Parliamentary Assembly, by the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, and over divisive rhetoric by the Republika Srpska, asking whether leaders can halt their regression towards the pre-pandemic status quo.  He also expressed regret that some Government authorities continue to block State-level decisions and restrict revenues to State institutions.  Estonia strongly supports the European Union’s €3.3 billion package to address COVID-19 in the region, as well as the continued executive mandate for EURFOR-Althea.  Expressing concern over the reported hailing of war criminals and naming of institutions after them, he said spreading national rhetoric, denying war crimes and glorifying convicted war criminals does not align with the country’s Euro-Atlantic perspective.  He expressed hope that municipal elections in October will be free and fair, and called on authorities to find a solution that will allow those in Mostar to take place.  He also called on Bosnia and Herzegovina authorities to strengthen the rule of law and to implement binding judicial decisions.  “Estonia is certain that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s future is adjoined with the Euro-Atlantic path,” he said, urging political leaders to carry out fundamental reforms.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s representative, speaking after the Council members, said that the authorities moved swiftly to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, declaring a state of emergency and establishing mandatory quarantines.  In addition to its impact on the health system, the pandemic is hitting the economy hard, and it will take time and significant resources to recover.  Help from IMF, the World Bank and others will be needed, he said, adding that the role of the United Nations through its country team will be indispensable, as well.  He noted that the Council of Ministers that took office in December 2019 is cooperating with the Federation and Republika Srpska on European integration and reforms, and that the Presidency has adopted a reform programme defining future relations with the Atlantic alliance.  He emphasized that the authorities are fully committed to implementing the reforms needed for European Union integration and urged the bloc and its member States to intensify their support.  For its part, Bosnia and Herzegovina is stepping up efforts in several areas, including socioeconomic reforms and strengthening the rule of law and good governance.  Most importantly, the Presidency adopted on 28 April a plan for implementing a set of recommendations from the European Commission as a step towards European Union candidacy status.

He said that his country continues to fulfil its international obligations regarding countering terrorism and violent extremism.  With support from the European Union, it has also taken significant steps to strengthen the rule of law, fight organized crime and prevent money‑laundering.  Judicial institutions are processing individuals who fought on behalf of terrorist organizations and those who facilitated the recruitment of terrorist fighters.  Concerning processing war crimes in domestic courts, he reiterated that fighting impunity is vital for a multinational State such as his.  He expressed concern about a growing number of illegal migrants whose final destination is not Bosnia and Herzegovina, saying the Government needs stronger international support, particularly from the European Union and the United National system, to deal with the issue.

Serbia’s representative said that the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to demonstrate that, by acting together, States can overcome the difficulties the world is facing today.  “At these difficult times, we have witnessed remarkable friendship and solidarity between Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and their citizens,” he said, pointing to a faster cross-border flow of humanitarian products, including medicine and protective equipment.  He emphasized Serbia’s strong support for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s efforts towards European Union membership, as well as for its territorial integrity and sovereignty.  Noting that Serbia is a guarantor of the Dayton Agreement, he reaffirmed the validity of that text and recalled that the mechanism to change it implies consent by the two entities and three constituent peoples.  “Insistence on, or imposition of, a solution either from within or outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina is unacceptable.”  There is no need to change the Constitution, he said, calling instead for the focus to stay on reforms needed for European integration.

Continuing, he said that Serbia unequivocally supports dialogue to resolve all outstanding issues within Bosnia and Herzegovina.  All actors must show the necessary level of responsibility and refrain from inflammatory rhetoric, mutual accusations and unilateral acts that run counter to the letter and spirit of the Dayton Agreement.  All actors involved in the political process, as well as representatives of the international community, must also show more responsibility and forgo rhetoric aimed at disqualifying other political actors, especially those elected legitimately in democratic elections.  Describing Bosnia and Herzegovina as one of Serbia’s key regional partners, he said that Belgrade welcomes economic progress and that it will continue to promote regional cooperation.  He concluded by saying that, sadly, 25 years after the conflict, the devastation of the war cannot be restored and those who perished cannot be brought back to life.  What can be done is to condemn all crimes and bring their perpetrators to justice, while paying respect to and empathizing with each and every victim irrespective of ethnicity and religion.

Croatia’s representative noted that today’s meeting coincided with a summit of 27 European Union and six Western Balkan leaders that was originally planned to be held in Zagreb, but which is taking place via video-teleconference instead.  Hopefully it will be a catalyst for encouraging Bosnia and Herzegovina to pursue its European Union agenda and related reforms.  Emphasizing Croatia’s support for Bosnia and Herzegovina, he said that the recent formation of a Council of Ministers will hopefully untangle political knots and open the way for much-needed reforms.  “It is evident that Bosnia and Herzegovina will need to invest enormous efforts and undertake significant political, institutional and economic reforms.”  Such reforms must be home-grown, he said, adding that they can only be achieved through a rational and inclusive consensus-based process and with a spirit of compromise and reconciliation.  It must stem from agreement among legitimate political representatives of all three constituent peoples, as set out in the Dayton Agreement, and based on the principles of equality.

He added that Bosnia and Herzegovina today needs far less division, inflammatory rhetoric and actions that generate distrust, and much more reforms aimed at strengthening of institutions, including the rule of law and judiciary.  Too often, policies towards Bosnia and Herzegovina have been trapped between the extremes of unitary domination and separation, both of which would prove destructive.  He recalled that successive European Parliament resolutions have determined Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot be a successful candidate for European Union membership until the appropriate conditions — based on federalism, decentralization and legitimate representation — are met.  He emphasized that many citizens, unable to participate in political and social life, are fleeing to other European countries.  “People today, especially young and educated, are voting with their feet.”  Reforms typically breed adversaries, as they target narrow specific interests, but fighting for a better past is useless.  What is worth fighting for, however, is a better future for all and for the wider common good.

The European Union’s delegate said that, in these difficult times, Bosnia and Herzegovina could count on the bloc’s solidarity in practice, including €7 million in response to urgent medical needs, €73.5 million in medium- and long‑term support for economic recovery, a potential €250 million in macrofinancial assistance and unprecedented access to European Union civil protection and health mechanisms.  Extraordinary measures to protect citizens and overcome the COVID-19 crisis should be proportionate and temporary, with respect for the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights.  He acknowledged that authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina have made greater efforts to cooperate and hoped that this will continue once the pandemic has passed.  He called on all political leaders to enable State-level institutions to resume their work, adding that the country must deliver tangible proof that it is willing to do what it takes to become a European Union member.  Political leaders must refrain from nationalist, divisive and provocative rhetoric and take concrete steps to promote reconciliation.

Revisionism, particularly the minimization or denial of the Srebrenica genocide, and the glorification of war criminals contradict the values of the Union and are incompatible with the prospect of integration into the bloc, he said.  “The European project was built on reconciliation and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s institutions and leaders must honour their commitment to sustainable reconciliation.”  He went on to underline the need to strengthen the rule of law, particularly the independence and impartiality of the judiciary, fighting corruption and organized crime, countering radicalization and tackling migration challenges, guaranteeing media independence, promoting youth employment and education, gender equality and socioeconomic reforms.  Election issues should be addressed urgently and in line with European standards.  On the security situation on the ground, he conveyed the bloc’s firm support to the European Union military mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina (EUFOR-Althea) peacekeeping force and the mandate entrusted to it by the Security Council.

Also participating in the meeting was the representative of Germany.

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* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.