It is time for a national dialogue in Bosnia and Herzegovina; one that follows the pattern pioneered in Tunisia, which brought together civil society, business groups and media as well as political parties, and helped an inclusive Government emerge.
By Lord Hylton
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, for the powerful and urgent way in which he opened this debate. I cannot claim to have been a resident in Bosnia but I have visited it, and nearby Kosovo, several times in recent years. I stood on the famous bridge of Mostar a few weeks before it was reopened by HRH the Prince of Wales. On another occasion I saw the historic Ottoman Ferhadija mosque, almost completely rebuilt. Bosnia is a unique country with Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim traditions. The sooner that it can make its own contribution to the EU, the better for all; here I agree strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown.
The Dayton agreement of 1995 gave Bosnia a most complicated constitution in an attempt to satisfy all parties and their external backers. The resulting layers of government and bureaucracy are not being helpful to economic development, as the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, reminded us, despite the best efforts of successive EU high representatives such as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown.
Early this year, 25% unemployment was a standing grievance. In the city of Tuzla, a strike by factory workers who had not been paid for some time sparked off protests. Plenums, or citizens’ assemblies, sprang up in Tuzla and 12 other towns. They demanded an end to corruption and better ways of privatising state companies. The assemblies were self-appointed and there was little linkage between them and the departments of government. Since the spring they seem to have faded away. The floods in May, which the noble Baroness mentioned, destroyed 2,000 houses and 200 schools and hospitals and left 75,000 houses damaged and 15,000 extra people unemployed. Help is therefore urgently needed now to prevent further unrest.
Civil society groups, however, have not gone away and are still demanding change. The bishop of Banja Luka was recently quoted as saying:
“People want a new way of organizing the state”.
In response to such thoughts, NGOs have been discussing the holding of a national dialogue. It might follow the pattern pioneered in Tunisia, which brought together civil society, business groups and media as well as political parties. It helped an inclusive Government to emerge.
In Bosnia it is vital that Republika Srpska should be fully involved. Its western section is probably the most economically dynamic part of the country. Women should be active participants in the dialogue. The plenums, or assemblies, have already identified many of the key issues. These need now to be formulated and presented to the political parties and the layers of government in a coherent way.
The Soul of Europe is a British charity of which I am the patron. It has worked in Bosnia and Kosovo for 13 years and stands ready to facilitate the widest possible dialogue in Bosnia. Such facilitation has already proved useful in Banja Luka and at and around Omarska, as well as over the Serbian Orthodox monasteries in Kosovo. Will Her Majesty’s Government make a contribution to the unavoidable costs of the kind of dialogue that I have described? Will they seek matching funds from the EU? This would be a significant help to a country where in the 1990s we deployed major military and humanitarian effort.
I cannot help ending by agreeing most strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, on the point that he was making about visas. I have had experience of that in a different context—in my case, a Palestinian one. It is outrageous that very poor people are expected to pay large sums of money to get a visa. The Palestinians, for example, had to go to Amman in Jordan to get their visas to leave Palestine in order to come to England. That is the kind of thing that we are up against. I urge the Government to simplify, cheapen and improve the visa system.
Lord Hylton is a crossbench peer with a long-standing interest in peacebuilding endeavours in the former Yugoslavia.
This speech was delivered to the House of Lords during a debate on Bosnia and Herzegovina on Tuesday 21st October 2014. The entire debate is available by clicking here.