The Dayton Peace Agreement: 20 years old and still challenged

Wednesday, 16. December 2015
Katja Creutz
Senior Research Fellow - The Global Security Research Programme

The peace agreement was contested from the beginning, but so far it has managed to secure peace in the Bosnia and Herzegovina. Yet, twenty years later, few are celebrating its anniversary as Bosnia and Herzegovina is still plagued by many problems that stem from the agreement and in particular the constitution made by outsiders.

On 14 December 1995, the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA), which ended the Yugoslav dissolution war, was signed in Paris. One of its main functions was to create a constitution for a multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was laid down in Annex 4 to the agreement. The peace agreement was contested from the beginning, but so far it has managed to secure peace in the Bosnia and Herzegovina. Yet, twenty years later, few are celebrating its anniversary as Bosnia and Herzegovina is still plagued by many problems that stem from the agreement and in particular the constitution made by outsiders.

One of the main problems that the DPA created was the institutionalization of ethnicity into the political structure of the state. The war, which was marked by the perpetration of war crimes, crimes against humanity and even genocide, had been fought along ethnic lines between Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs and Croats. The DPA sought to secure a multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina by constructing a state composed of these three ‘constituent peoples'. Two Entities were created: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina where Bosniaks and Croats mainly live, and Republika Srpska, which is mainly inhabited by Bosnian Serbs. A cumbersome administration of the country was created with three or even four levels of government: the state-level, the Entities, cantons (in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina) and municipalities. Multi-ethnicity was to be guaranteed by, inter alia, the creation of a rotating presidency between the three communities of Bosnia-Herzegovina and ethnic quotas in the parliament.

In many respects, the efforts to secure multi-ethnicity backfired. The creation of a state along ethnic lines led to the institutionalization of ethnicity, which is still a determining factor in Bosnian politics instead of concrete issues and values. Separatism prevails in the country, and the leader of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, has constantly been threatening to arrange a referendum on the Entity's secession. As late as in November 2015 he planned to hold a referendum on the authority of the state-level judiciary, which has however due to complaints been postponed.

But the DPA has not only created a burdensome governance structure and political problems, but legal problems as well. When the DPA sought to assure the participation of the three constituent peoples in the country's administration, the outcome was that ethnic minorities were excluded from effectively partaking in the governance of the state, as, for example, certain positions are expressly reserved only for persons from the constituent peoples. Thus, the European Court of Human Rights in 2009 found in the case of Sejdić and Finci v. Bosnia and Herzegovina the constitution to be in violation of the prohibition of discrimination in the European Convention on Human Rights. In 2014, the Court anew called for constitutional change as it found the same violation to have taken place in Zornić v. Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Despite all the problems, the cohesion of Bosnia and Herzegovina has been secured so far. Still, few are willing to declare the peace agreement as a success. Only the test of time will show whether the legal and political problems created by the DPA will be overcome. As for the international community, it has probably learnt the lesson that negotiating peace should be an inclusive process, and that constitution-making requires national ownership.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors