SOAPBOX – Bosnia-Herzegovina and the importance of accountable structures that deliver

The ink on Columbia’s peace deal with the FARC rebels is barely dry and no doubt like other regions their odyssey as a post-conflict society will not be totally smooth. Peter Osborne chairs the Community Relations Council and reflects on a recent visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina 21 years after its conflict ended.

Peter Osborne Bosnia-Herzegovina 2I had both the pleasure and sobering shock to the system of a visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina with Remembering Srebrenica last week. Bosnia-Herzegovina is remarkably beautiful and diverse; but more than 20 years after the conflict, it is still a divided country with uncertainty surrounding the future.

More than 8,300 Bosnian Muslims were killed in the genocide at Srebrenica-Potocari. The white markers of the victims in the memorial park seem to go on endlessly to the horizon; victims still bearing witness to the extent of the savagery that week in European history – in Europe, a three hour flight away from Britain and Ireland.

The sense of grief at the genocide is evident amongst those most directly affected. Families are traumatised still, 21 years on. People will be traumatised for the rest of their lives; the society will be traumatised for generations.

Peter Osborne Bosnia-Herzegovina 3It seems clear and obvious that at Srebrenica in 1995 the United Nations and international community let down thousands of Bosnian Muslims.

What is still not clear in 2016, though, is whether the international community will let Bosnia-Herzegovina down again as it continues to come to terms with its divisions and competing identities.

That is one of the reasons why it is important to keep remembering the events at Srebrenica in 1995. It is a reminder to a new generation of decision-makers that neglect and poor understanding of circumstances can encourage wrong-doing and thereby help create more victims.

The visit left me valuing even more the peace process in Northern Ireland. While Bosnia-Herzegovina was in conflict 1992-1995, while Sarajevo was under siege and the Srebrenica genocide was occurring, Northern Ireland was experiencing ceasefires and embryonic peace negotiations that eventually culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Northern Ireland now has a relatively stable power-sharing government between very different political outlooks with contrasting national aspirations. It has a system of local and central government that works, albeit at times slowly with some issues still not resolved.

Britain and Ireland are engaged positively (if not always getting things right) with the most constructive East-West relationship in decades, if not ever. There should be no neglect in understanding local circumstances.

Peter Osborne Bosnia-Herzegovina 1Northern Ireland still has much to learn from elsewhere but we also have much to give to others; much to share and significant learning to provide. More than most others we should appreciate the value of outside support, and be ready to offer that support to places like Srebrenica and Bosnia-Herzegovina in whatever way is appropriate.

The international community needs to take the uncertainties in Bosnia-Herzegovina seriously and help the country work through those issues. Northern Ireland, Britain and Ireland can help even if only to remember the events of 21 years ago in Srebrenica and to remind a new generation of what caused them.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina it seems to me that people need to see the structures throughout the country in all regions working, being accountable and delivering for the whole country and its citizens; fairly, for the greater good, for all.

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  • eamoncorbett

    Judging by recent events the political agreement signed in ’98 is being tested to the limit which goes to prove that you can’t build a stable society with sand as a foundation .
    If NI s government is left solely to SF and the DUP and these guys remain the people’s choice , there is no future , and before anyone tells me this is what they signed up to , you can sign up to anything ,it’s what you do afterwards that counts.

  • Granni Trixie

    I’m surprised that with reference to NI the post makes no mention that though the extremes share power politics are still run on a sectarian basis rather than ‘what’s good for everyone’. I thought that one of the main drivers of CRC was to address sectarianism?

  • Declan Doyle

    The problem with the middle ground is that it presents itself as somehow aloof towards those who vote along socio religious and ethnic lines. Almost Half the entire NI electorate do not vote; this is a strong indication that middle ground parties like Alliance have been an abject failure. Those who do vote choose by a margin of 9 to 1 to vote for their ‘tribe’. Those who do not vote may reject the tribal choice but at the same time they also reject the so-called middle ground. Politics is ‘run’ on the basis of the ideology of those successfully elected. If you fail to reach a power mandate, the failure is yours.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Declan, this block vote for either of two polarised parties is something which reflects an historical trajectory, rather than being in any way a reflection of careful and evaluated choice. NI started in 1920 with an STV system of voting, which encouraged many parties to proliferate, including socialist and even alternative Unionist parties. This was speedily changed to a FPTP system in local council elections with the result that both the UUP and the Nationalist party dramatically strengthened their representation. As Labour were in power over the water in 1924 Craig was concerned that should he change the STV system in Stormont elections Westminster might set a precedent by direct intervention on behalf of smaller parties (they retained full power of veto for NI legislation through the Crown), but with a Conservative administration fully in power ayWestminster in 1928 he altered all voting to the FPTP system. He quite openly stated that his aim was to exclude those “members of our [NI] House of Commons who should never have been elected…Mr Devlin [the Nationalist party leader Joe Devlin] and his party are the natural opposition” and to ensure that the one third nationalist two third Unionist split was reflected in two parties only, creating two clearly defined political ghettos. This has over much of a century encoded an ingrained habit of “tribal” voting in our population, something which was only challenged with the 25% Labour cross community vote in 1962, something which was quickly demonised in a “project fear” campaign carried out by the “liberal” Unionism of Captain O’Neill, no less. (A case of “liberal, perhaps, but entirely on Unionist terms”.)

    So it is no surprise that “Those who do vote choose by a margin of 9 to 1 to vote for their ‘tribe’ ” looks to outsiders as not so much a reasoned personal choice as a confirmation of inherited voting patterns strengthened beyond challenge by some generations of an ingrained habit of conformist tribal voting. As this pre-packaged result is all that is on offer with elections here in the eyes of most thinking people, the failure of half our population to get out there and act reflects far, far more on the “tribal” parties who monopolise this captive vote that, it is clear, the middle ground parties can never hope to capture until an older generation of solidly pre-committed voters passes away. Until then voting for any of those parties politically marginalised by the sclerotic dead hand of conformity is clearly simply an act of spoiling ones ballot.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Eamon, its structurally encoded in voter habit, see my big posting above.

  • Granni Trixie

    I trust there will always be a movement resistant to tribal conditioning and who try to find ways to exercise influence including in the political sphere.
    Failure? You may say so. But to advocate, as you appear to, “voting for your own”, now I call that a failure of imagination.

  • Declan Doyle

    Nothing wrong with voting for ‘your own’, if your own are more likely to deliver on issues that affect you, or things that are important to you across a range of issues. Unionists and nationalists rarely vote across the line because they have fundamentally differing values and because they have different ideas on what sort of future they want and the context in which they want that future to unfold. It’s pretty standard politics, nothing radical or indeed sectarian (seriously incorrectly over used word in the north) about it.

  • Jollyraj

    “Nothing wrong with voting for ‘your own’, if your own are more likely to deliver on issues that affect you”

    Genuinely curious as to which issues that affect you personally Sinn Fein have ‘delivered’ on.

  • tmitch57

    As someone who volunteered for deployment and spent over six months deployed with the SFOR peacekeeping force in 1997-98, I have followed with some interest what has occurred since then. The peace settlement can be termed a success only on the lowest of bars–peace has remained in place since 1995. The government is run on a consociational basis with two levels of federation (the top level handles foreign policy and the next level within the Bosniak-Croat federation handles the distribution of power among the long cantonal governments and the federation’s budget. Most of the national budget comes from international aid and much of it is eaten up before it ever gets to the local level where ordinary citizens would see any benefit from it. The ruling elites of all three ethnic groups are tightly linked to criminal mafias who participated in the Bosnian civil war of 1992-95. Bosnia took even longer than Belgium to form a national ruling coalition government a few years ago. The international aid helps to strengthen their grip on power in exchange for them keeping the peace among the ethnic groups (sound familiar ?). The “successes” of both the NI case and the Bosnian case are good arguments for abandoning the consociational model in favor of a vote-pooling model that incentivizes voters voting for moderate parties interested in operating either on non-ethnic lines or in cooperating with other ethnic groups.

    Incidentally I find interesting the increase in the figure given for the number of victims in the Srebrenica massacre over the last two decades. It has increased from 6,000 when the massacre was first reported and the first mass graves found, to 7,000 a decade later to over 8,000 in this article. This is at the same time that the overall number of those killed in the civil war has shrunk from 250,000 in 1995 to 200,000 and finally to 100,000 in recent years.

  • Granni Trixie

    Would you not agree that cross cutting values and humanity are part of the picture too? For example, during the troubles on hearing of someone murdered I like to think people didn’t just respond in terms of ‘their own’. Or when I went into a school for children with special needs I’m not thinking in terms of which tribe they belong.

    Also, rather than be concerned about misuse of the word sectarian I am more concerned that many in Ni (including political parties) are continually in denial about the existence of sectarianism hence do not think resources should be put into addressing it.

  • Declan Doyle

    During a time of intense conflict normal human reaction tends to be temporarily suspended and gives way in many cases to a heightened sense of self and the prevailing condition of ones own community.

    Not everybody manages to distance themselves from the perpetrators of perceived injustices by declaring them wrong, immoral, misguided or just plain evil. Ethnicity is both straight forward complicated and can’t be explained on the basis of just one point of view or one apparent logical perception. Acceptance of difference and accommodation of diversity is usually the best platform from which to launch the basis of a new or enlightened socio political experiment or initiative.

  • Granni Trixie

    thank you for re minding us of the bigger picture.

  • Granni Trixie

    After a period of time in living in ‘normality’ in NI I think many look back to say “what have we done to each other” so I agree that during the conflict people tended to get desensitised.mHowever although I certainly observed institutionalised discriminatory practices and attitudes impacting on Catholics, that did not make me support the IRA or feel as much sympathy for Protestant/Unionists killed as for anyone else. Again, it all boils down to who who is “my” community.
    I think Benedict Anderson’s idea of an “imagined community” of interests is relevant in this discussion.

  • Slater

    Meaningless article that told us nothing.