The integrity and stability of Bosnia and Herzegovina is under attack. Just 25 years since the first genocide in Europe since the Second World War, the prospect of the disintegration of Bosnia, and armed conflict, is a real possibility.
It is only through dialogue, respect and co-operation that Bosnia will succeed, and presently its delicately balanced power-sharing agreement is being trampled upon by the Serbian member of the state Presidency, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik. Some may say that Dodik has a habit of marching the international community to the top of the hill and then marching down again having won small victories that contribute to his long-term goals. That has its roots in truth – but every time he marches back down, he has a long-standing habit of not getting quite to the bottom. As recently as 2017, he was sanctioned by the US for obstructing the Dayton accords. So why is this time different?
Dodik has long called for the dissolution of the country, but he has now announced vast swathes of legislation to divorce Republika Srpska from Bosnia and is working to systematically undermine the instruments of the very state that he is constitutionally mandated to protect: Parliament, the judiciary, the Armed Forces, and countless others. In a haunting reminder of Slobodan Milosevic’s dream of a ‘Greater Serbia’, he has called for the merging of Republika Srpska with Serbia to create a new unified Serbian nation. This is not the peace that British soldiers fought and died for, and we are on the precipice of conflict.
As the High Representative Christian Schmidt set out in his recent report to the UN, Dodik’s action “is tantamount to secession without proclaiming it”. But beyond the international community’s assessment, it is how it feels to citizens of Bosnia on the ground, for whom fear and disbelief that tensions are so acute has become a daily preoccupation.
Dodik has long rolled out his narrative of hatred, genocide denial, populism, disinformation and promises of a new greater nation whilst forcing as close to secession as he can. His words and actions rip deep into the painful memories of Bosniaks for whom the precarious stability of Bosnia has never been without heartache as the community continues to this day to hold burials for their loved ones as their remains, callously scattered across mass graves, are gradually identified through DNA analysis. I recall observing a funeral a few years ago, and the visceral pain of the community that whilst some loved ones had now finally been laid to rest, that so many more were yet to be found. I remember also while visiting the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial, the group of young men in a car rolling down their windows and shouting in Serbian while throwing empty plastic bottles towards the cemetery and memorial site. Desecration of the cemetery, an act encouraged by the strident anti-genocide of Dodik and his followers.
So how do we, as the international community, respond to help prevent descent into bloodshed?
Thankfully this week EUFOR, the 600-strong EU peacekeeping force responsible for maintaining a stable Bosnia, had its mandate renewed at the UN Security Council – but this will not be sufficient to avoid secession and conflict. In 2020 we withdrew British troops from this mission (which despite its name has non-EU participants such as Turkey and Chile). We should consider re-joining the mission, or as a swifter option, increase our deployment to NATO HQ in Sarajevo. We should also urge NATO to consider a joint exercise in the Balkans to demonstrate its continued focus on the region. When I worked for the Foreign Office, one thing was very clear: the UK is respected around the world, and our ability to bring other nations together and to achieve results is second to none. We are the conveners of the world, and when we seek to bring together the international community we are effective. Therefore we should convene a meeting of the NATO QUINT urgently to identify multi-lateral efforts, and push for the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina to be on the agenda at the NATO Foreign Ministerial in Riga on 30th November.
The Office of the High Representative is the emblem of the Dayton Accords, the symbol of the post-conflict Bosnia and of reconciliation between Bosniak and Serb. It was created to oversee the civilian government in Bosnia and has wide-ranging powers of oversight, and a veto over domestic policy. Christian Schmidt, the current High Representative, is unrecognised by the Serbian community, and indeed the Russians (and Chinese) stand squarely behind them on this. Indeed they forced the High Representative’s name to be removed from the text of the EUFOR resolution last week. Inviting Schmidt on an official visit to the United Kingdom would serve to show the world that we stand firmly behind the Dayton agreement, and the credibility of the office. I for one stand ready to welcome him to Parliament.
Equally, to demonstrate that we have not taken our eye off the situation, a senior member of the British Government should travel to Bosnia. During this visit neighbouring countries such as Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia should be visited to demonstrate our resolve to the entire region as they stand strong against Russian pressure, and make clear that we don’t take stability, or them, for granted. This visit should include Serbia, because this is not about choosing one side. It is about upholding peace and stability, and preventing hatred, and its backers at home and abroad, from further de-stabilising our near neighbourhood.
The UK and our allies could also consider a series of Magnitsky sanctions further down the line to crack down on the financial criminality surrounding some of those pushing hardest at division, especially Dodik and those around him.
But all of this activity should be underpinned by an activation of our newly established Conflict Centre to ensure our understanding of the dynamics is robust, and that we identify now which actions we might take to help prevent escalation into conflict, and ultimately reduce tensions. The Conflict Centre can map out which interventions: diplomatic, aid, political, military and more discreet, will actually secure improvements on the ground and then ensure a whole of Government effort to deliver them. The Conflict Centre was set up to prevent atrocities, and now is its opportunity to be stood up before the situation becomes too grave.
The UK has a special place in the heart of the Bosnian people, not least thanks to the actions and legacy of Paddy Ashdown who and oversaw the implementation of the Dayton Agreement, and also my friend Colonel Bob Stewart MP, the first British Commander of United Nations peacekeeping forces in Bosnia during 1992-93. As a Parliamentarian I am therefore working to secure a debate on the floor of the House of Commons so that we can send a clear message to the Balkans that the British parliament is watching, and that we remain committed to upholding peace. I would urge NATO and EU member Parliaments to do the same, to signify the strength of our shared resolve, and for all of us to continue to raise our voices in concern at the situation on the ground.
There is no doubt that Dodik has but one goal: the failure of the Bosnian state. His success, would be our failure, and it would almost certainly bring bloodshed to our doors. Britain needs to stand by the peace accord that we worked so hard to help enact. Global Britain in action is one that works to uphold international agreements, and above all else, protects life and security – not least in our own backyard. History has a nasty habit of repeating itself, we must prevent that and if we act now, with our allies, we can.
A shorter version of this article appeared in The Times on 8th November 2021