Paddy Ashdown, Balkan peacemaker

Paddy Ashdown made a real difference. Just one of his many successes in the region was to force through reconstruction of the Old Bridge in Mostar, a city in southern Bosnia. That bridge, destroyed as an act of inter-ethnic malice during the war, is once again a symbol of cooperation and cordiality overcoming ethnic hostility and the most malign horrors of civil war. The bridge will stand as a permanent monument to this giant of men.

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By Matthew Parish

Paddy Ashdown was admired in a variety of contexts for his domestic political career. But the circumstances in which he made by far the most difference in the course of his varied lifetime of public service was as a senior official of the United Nations. This was the High Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina between 2002 and 2006. Outside the country over which he effectively operated as colonial governor, his works in the region were seldom reported. Yet the difference he made to that benighted post-war nation was profound.

Ashdown’s first engagement with the Balkans was as a British political delegate to the former Yugoslavia amidst Bosnia’s three-and-a-half-year civil war between 1992 and 1995. By reason of his service with British special forces, Ashdown was able to penetrate the contours of the Bosnian war to a degree that few other politically vocal observers of the conflict could perceive. Ashdown witnessed some of the worst miseries of the war. This included the carnage of neighbours murdering one-another; the re-emergence of concentration camps for the first time in Europe since World War Two; violent population transfers of one group within communities, a practice that subsequently became known ubiquitously as ethnic cleansing; and the siege of Sarajevo, in which an entire city suffered abysmal living conditions throughout the war’s duration.

His experiences shocked and even traumatised him – as they did so many others who witnessed by far the bloodiest civil war of recent times. Some 2.5% of the population died, more than ten times the proportion of deaths in the Syrian civil war that has so far lasted twice as long. In the war’s aftermath, the Great Powers powers devoted colossal military, financial and civilian resources to Bosnia’s reconstruction. Ashdown was one of the principal western advocates of sustained commitment to post-war Bosnia. He saw the progress the country was making after the US-brokered peace agreement signed in December 1995 as depressingly slow, and he sounded the horn for maintaining a high level of international resolution towards Europe’s most deprived corner.

In the period of seven years following Bosnia’s peace, the country threatened to fracture into pieces. Ethnic cleansing had been mostly successful, in the sense that post-war Bosnia was divided into three approximately contiguous territorial regions each of which was dominated by one of the country’s ethnic groups: the Bosniacs (Bosnian Muslims), the Serbs and the Croats. Fearful of the country’s division, that he considered would legitimise the war crimes committed between 1992 and 1995, Ashdown pushed for an increasingly muscular civilian presence in the country. Bosnia became run by an international civilian proconsul from 1998, called the High Representative. From 2002, Ashdown himself occupied the role he had helped to fashion.

The Dayton Peace Accords, bringing a precarious peace to Bosnia, had created a series of confederal democratic structures by which the three separated ethnic groups would largely govern themselves subject to an overarching but weak system of central government in which inter-ethnic cooperation would be gradually but inexorably promoted out of the ashes of war and post-conflict animosity, fear and suspicion. The problem was that the three ethnic groups did not, in the post-war politicians they elected, show significant inclination to cooperate in the way the Dayton Peace Accords had anticipated. The High Representatives, of which Ashdown was the apex in authority and influence, decided to compel the local politicians to do so. Given the international military and law enforcement resources present in the country, they had the means to achieve this.

Ashdown exemplified this trend to a substantial degree and more than any of the other European diplomats who held the role. His offices drafted swathes of legislation that would unify administrative functions under the auspices of Bosnia’s central government. He would then present this legislation to the country’s political parties and leading politicians for enactment. If and when they declined to act in accordance with his wishes, Ashdown would impose the legislation by decree. If that did not work, he would remove democratically elected politicians from office by personal fiat. He would impose severe penalties upon the politicians he considered most obstructive, and he secured a number of extraditions to the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in The Hague. From his experience as a British politician, he also proved adept in directing the media narrative of which few post-war Bosnian political actors, with their origins in the one-party state of Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia, had experience.

The entire process was profoundly undemocratic. Ashdown’s philosophy was that democracy had hardly done much good for the people of Bosnia: it had initiated a shocking war, and installed in office a series of people many of whom were entire obstructive to peace-building and a number of whom were war criminals who had presided over the carnage of the Bosnian conflict with barely a note of regret, mercy or pang of conscience for what they had been doing. Visceral ethnic hatreds run deep, in a way that is barely comprehensible to those that have not experienced them first-hand. Hence the country would be run with benevolent but uncompromising international oversight, and more money per person in international development assistance than any other conflict ever, to force peace and central government upon post-war Bosnia.

I worked for Ashdown on this project. I did not at the time agree with everything he did. As time progressed – I stayed in Bosnia for a year or so longer than him, and I remained in contact with him subsequently until this year – I acquired greater sympathy for the approach he had adopted. Ashdown was perceived as anti-Serb, and the greater majority of the forceful measures he employed were directed against the Serb group in post-war Bosnia. His reply to this criticism would have been that the Serbs were disproportionately at fault in the commission of war crimes, the promotion of ethnic hatreds and the destruction wrought upon the country.

Ashdown was of the view that the Serbs needed to engage in a historical reckoning with what they had done in post-war Bosnia. While this might have been a noble aspiration, the Serbs were not the only ones at fault. There was very little civility on any side in the Bosnian civil war. The Serbs were better-armed: they inherited the bulk of the remnants of the Yugoslav National Army’s presence in wartime Bosnia and Herzegovina. There were more Serb war criminals than war criminals from either of the other two groups. But it is dangerous to attribute collective responsibility to any peoples.

Perhaps a more fundamental critique of Ashdown’s approach in the Balkans was that for all his energy, enthusiasm and good intentions, what he was trying to achieve in centralising a dysfunctional and divided post-war state was not sustainable. Eventually the international community would tire of the level of resources it was continuing to invest in the country a decade or more after the cameras had stopped rolling, and it was at this stage that Ashdown decided his time was up. Having become embroiled in a series of public disputes with the leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, Ashdown quietly withdrew at the beginning of 2006 and left his UN position to a series of more conciliatory international diplomats. Foreign troop levels had been drawn down to a bare minimum. Resources for reconstruction, too often wasted away amidst reams of opaque procurement processes in the classic United Nations way, were erased from international budget lines. Ashdown had made some enemies in the international community through exercise of his muscular style, and he decided to leave while he remained at a relative pinnacle of authority.

The most important persistent question about Ashdown’s tenure is whether the contortions he imposed upon Bosnia’s emergent post-war democracy were worth it. By intervening as an international proconsul, did he prevent the country from a potentially catastrophic break-up? Did he hinder the development of less fragile democratic institutions? Was the extended period of international oversight for which he was principally responsible a deterrent to the international investment and institutional improvement the country still so desperately needs? Did Ashdown merely delay the inevitable, given that Bosnia’s politics currently bear all the vestiges of continued imperilment? Through his hostility to the Bosnian Serb leadership, was he in part responsible for driving them into the hands of the Russians?

None of these questions have easy answers, and only the future political trajectory of the region might be able to shed light upon them. Nevertheless a number of things can be said. Ashdown cared, and he cared a great deal more than many or even most of the international actors who meddled more clumsily than him in the politics of post-war Bosnia under the auspices of the United Nations. Ashdown brought political skill and acuity to the Bosnian body politic. He was arguably the best post-war politician Bosnia ever had. He was a decent man, who dripped integrity even if he periodically took disputes with some of his colleagues, and with Bosnian politicians more generally, a touch too personally. It is at least arguable that his anti-democratic instincts were justified in maintaining stability in the country at a time when there was a real danger of collapse into further conflict with deleterious consequences for Bosnia’s neighbours, themselves new countries that had emerged from wars that had been almost as bloody.

Ashdown had a far greater impact upon the lives of the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina than he ever did in the country of which he was the leader of the third-largest political party for a number of years. In post-war Bosnia, Ashdown had the opportunity to show his most admirable qualities and skills, of integrity, decency and determination to do good, at the final substantial stage of his career. Whether the philosophy he embraced in seeking to shape Bosnian politics – which was undoubtedly a product of his strong personality and moral conviction – was a propitious one, we will have to wait and see. Ashdown made a real difference. Just one of his many successes in the region was to force through reconstruction of the Old Bridge in Mostar, a city in southern Bosnia. That bridge, destroyed as an act of inter-ethnic malice during the war, is once again a symbol of cooperation and cordiality overcoming ethnic hostility and the most malign horrors of civil war. The bridge will stand as a permanent monument to this giant of men.

Jeremy John Durham Ashdown, Baron Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, multilateral diplomat, 27 February 1941 to 22 December 2018.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

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