Bosnia – the international community must shape the negotiating table

The persistence of spoilers in Bosnia and Herzegovina means that the international community has a key role to play in shaping the composition of the negotiating table for constitutional reform talks.

By Graham Day

In May of 1994, during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I was sent into Gorazde as a UN civil affairs officer. Gorazde was a Bosniak enclave under siege by Bosnian Serb Forces. I was instructed to promote dialogue and any level of agreement between the warring parties. I soon found myself the senior UN officer in the enclave and was joined by another civil affairs officer. My partner and I set about ascertaining the top priorities of the parties. For the Bosniaks it was food security; for the Bosnian Serbs it was the return of prisoners of war.

Within a short time we had encouraged the parties to nominate a negotiating team each and to set about negotiating a prisoner exchange with a food convoy program piggy-backed on to it. Initial resistance within the international community – lead by UNHCR – was overcome, but the local negotiations were going nowhere. It became clear to us that the head of the Bosniak delegation was so personally traumatized by his war experiences that he could not bring himself to negotiate in a meaningful way with his sworn enemies. We took this information to the community leadership who were deeply-disturbed; not by the man’s obvious trauma, but by the fact that the head negotiator was from an extremely important family which should not be offended. We finally convinced the community leaders to appoint a real “business man” to lead the delegation, which eventually they did, and slowly the outline of a deal emerged.

When it became clear that we had a potential deal, the Bosniak side demanded to be allowed to travel as a delegation to Sarajevo to get high-level blessing. After much fuss, the local Serb commanders agreed and in late summer two UK Army Saxon armoured cars and one UN armoured Land Rover formed a convoy to take three key Bosniak leaders – led by Rijad Rascic and Esad Ohranovic (since deceased) – from Gorazde to Sarajevo.

Having passed a Serb inspection on the outskirts of Gorazde, we were routed mischievously over rough tracks and mountain pastures to Sarajevo. Mischievously, because the Bosnain Sebs were well aware by this time of the Saxon’s appalling record of falling-off unmade mountain roads with tragic consequences. We entered Sarajevo only after the delegation head called the Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic, personally on his mobile to let us in. Both my partner and I went in this convoy as personal escorts because of the Bosniaks natural fears following the Turajlić incident in 1993, when Bosnia’s deputy prime minister, Hakija Turajlić, was killed by Serbian forces when travelling in a convoy that was supposed to be protected by a United Nations Protector Force (UNPROFOR) convoy.

Much of the next two weeks saw us kept waiting, with the delegation meeting with the wartime command and then debriefing us late in the day, with us up late into the night writing reports to UNPROFOR HQ. It quickly became clear that the wartime command was split on the subject of the deal. One faction, headed by Haris Silajdžić, wanted no deal as it would allow the international community to say that it had done something about the eastern enclaves and would therefore let it off the hook. The other side was the local leadership, who were truly desperate for food security.

For ten days the result was always the same, with Silajdžić stubbornly refusing to give an inch. It was clear that his principles of pressuring and shaming the international community were more important to him than the fate of 50,000 fellow Bosniaks who were locked in Gorazde. His attitude begs the question of how well had such pressure and shame worked on a disunited international community thus far and what evidence did he have that it would work now?

We raised the point that when their delegation leader in Gorazde had earlier been psychologically unable to do a deal, then they had replaced him, albeit reluctantly. The problem for the Gorazde delegation was that it appeared that no one could replace Silajdžić. The head of the delegation was urged to seek a one-on-one session with president Izetbegovic to press the pragmatic case. This happened and, at the next plenary session, the sphinx like Izetbegovic made a judgment that the enclaves had all suffered terribly and that if something could be done to help them it must be done.

This decision paved the way for a new round of negotiations at the national-level, held at Sarajevo airport, under the chairmanship of the late Sergio Vierra de Mello, then UN head of civil affairs. The Bosnian Serbs were led by Momcilo Krajsnik, and the Bosnaik delegation headed by Hassan Muratovic. After a further ten days of painful stop-start negotiations, a deal was signed to free over 350 prisoners from jails throughout the Drina valley, allow nine convoys of food into Gorazde, transport fifty seriously sick people from Gorazde to a hospital in Sarajevo and to reunite fifty elderly Serbs from deep in the Gorazde pocket with their families. It could be argued that this was the UNs best days work that year in Bosnia.

The upcoming constitutional negotiations will require people who can live with history, not those who are dominated or traumatized by it. Negotiators who make “patriotic” maximalist demands – where the opposition would cease to exist if they agreed to them – in the end turn out to be the enemies of their own peoples’ best interests. A good negotiator is pragmatic. All negotiations take place in a context of time and a relative correlation of force between the respective parties. The oldest problem of all for negotiators is to confuse current strength with assumed future strength.

Finally, a ‘just’ solution is an enduring solution in all negotiations. Win-win will always last longer than win-lose, no matter how painful it is to see your opponents win something at the table. I have no doubt who one of the current constitutional spoilers is. His track record is studied with impossible positions defended to the extreme. Despite his loss to Bakir Izetbegovic in the race for the Bosniak member of the presidency, he will – unless stopped – still demand a place at the table when constitutional reform is discussed. This places great pressure on the international community to get rid of him in order to set a strong marker before withdrawing from Bosnia. Nor is he the only spoiler that the international community must contend with before setting the constitutional negotiating table. Failure to do so will result in the collapse of negotiations directly attributable to the international community and the empowerment of spoilers; a double loss for an enduring peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Graham Day is a former Deputy High Representative and Head of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) in Banja Luka. He was also a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.

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