Reflexions on working in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Nine years of working in Bosnia and Herzegovina with the Soul of Europe has taught a number of important lessons about the need for a coherent and integrated framework for peace-building, including greater attentiveness towards religious and business issues.

By Reverend Donald Reeves

These reflexions on working in Bosnia and Herzegovina arise out of nine years of the Soul of Europe’s activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly in the Republika Srpska. The Soul of Europe is a small NGO committed to helping former adversaries realise Nelson Mandela’s words to Northern Ireland politicians – ‘if you want peace, don’t talk to your friends, speak with your enemies’.

Reflexions on working in Bosnia and Herzegovina

1. Coherence
In Bosnia and Herzegovina there was a lack of coherence in the aftermath of Dayton. There was a rush to ensure security – sixty-thousand NATO soldiers were deployed; there was a random approach to the repair and restoration of infrastructure and capital projects. And there was also a rush to establish democratic structures – resulting in the two entities and a weak central government. What might have been more useful was first to establish the rule of law, install a non-corrupt judiciary and police, thereby creating the minimum conditions necessary for economic activity and foreign investment. However, when abstractions like democratisation and human rights, peace-building and reconciliation take over, the ground is less safe.

So in Bosnia and elsewhere, a coherent plan of intervention has to include attention to peace- building, alongside political and diplomatic, legal and constitutional, economic and social security and military measures.

2. Integrated Framework
The limitations of ‘top-down’ peace agreements needs to be noted. Sometimes hailed as solutions, they frequently conceal the seeds of further conflict; the conflict carries on in people’s heads. It is often only a matter of time before ‘the agreement’ collapses and conflict resumes.

In Bosnia there were many uncoordinated initiatives in peace building – NGOs often occupied the moral high-ground but failed both to transform their activities into networks of civic engagement and to address key people, particularly spoilers and hard-liners.

So an integrated, holistic approach to peace-building is required – one where the process is as important as the outcome – and attention must be paid to the psychological aspects of conflict, which needs to be reflected in the language of politics. Very rarely is the word ‘healing’ used in public or political discourse.

It also needs to be recognised that local people are the key players in peace-building not outsiders, however well-intentioned. But there is very little opportunity for ‘training’ – particularly given the model of ‘learning by doing’. Rather, experienced mediators need to be brought together with those who are learning – as mentors creating bonds of solidarity – rather than employing the language of ‘building capacity’.

In Bosnia we discovered a marked reluctance to provide the resources for peace-building. Some officials told us it was too difficult; others wanted concrete outcomes and a quick fix; they were impatient of the long-haul.

Then the language of the market and management just does not fit the long work of peace-building. A major task for international donors is to work on criteria for the success or failure of projects which avoids business models. In spite of the EU’s policy on subsidiarity, fundamental decisions are made in Brussels. No one has yet found a way of relating the grass roots and middle-ground of peace-building to the formidable bureaucracy of Brussels, who provide the resources. One of the most inaccessible offices in Sarajevo was the European Commission’s ‘bunker’. To reach it a visitor had to go through four checkpoints.

3. Religion

In Bosnia we detected widespread ‘religious illiteracy’ amongst the international community. So many people just do not understand ‘religion’ and are suspicious of it because it may seem to be proselytising. There was no dialogue between religions and secular NGOs and activists. Churches and Mosques are routinely described as ‘cultural heritage’. The failure to recognise the significance of religion is based on enlightenment attitudes that religion is just a private matter. In the Balkans, religious leaders are the ‘cradles’ of nationalism, but they are invariably ignored by international organisations. This, as we discovered, is something which all the religious leaders shared – a sense of being ignored.

4. Business
There was no recognition that business can take its place in peace-building processes – like the Peace Dividend in Northern Ireland. This is a large subject, but a Peace Dividend works most effectively when business begins to act collectively, and contributes to the establishment of partnerships which include the public and voluntary sectors.

Reverend Donald Reeves MBE is the founder of the Soul of Europe. The Soul of Europe works as catalysts and mediators to ensure a peaceful resolution to conflicts, particularly in the Balkans

For further information about the Soul of Europe, including relevant archive material and a review of publications, please visit



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