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Bosnia & Herzegovina: 15th anniversary of signature of Dayton/Paris Peace Agreement

Foreign Secretary marks the progress made in the last 15 years and urges Bosnia and Herzegovina's politicians to approach constitutional changes in a 'constructive spirit of compromise and pragmatism'

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague

Fifteen years ago today the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, negotiated painstakingly in Dayton, was signed in Paris. Many of you will remember the day when the war ended. Some of you may not have been born at the time. But all of you will have benefited from Dayton. Since 1995 Bosnia and Herzegovina has enjoyed a peace that some thought impossible.

Your country has moved forward in some ways since those dark days. Bosnia’s citizens enjoy free and fair elections. Good progress has been made in implementing many aspects of the Dayton Peace Accords, including the return of displaced people and the restoration of properties. A single armed forces has been created which has made valuable contributions to international military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bosnia and Herzegovina has reached the first stages of the EU and NATO accession processes, and next month it will assume the chairmanship of the UN Security Council.

Many talented young people from BiH have made an impressive impact in sport and culture. Your best footballers are the subject of bidding wars between major European clubs. Bosnian film directors have won prizes including the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and the Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear. They are powerful ambassadors for your country.

But Bosnia and Herzegovina could and should do more, for the sake of all its citizens, who should be able to look forward to a future as a modern, democratic and prosperous European state not one forever caught up in its tragic recent history.

In 1995 the Dayton negotiators were working towards one overwhelming objective: ending a terrible conflict that had claimed thousands of lives. But Dayton was understandably less focused on the goal that Bosnia would also one day need to do the homework necessary to join the European Union.

Any country wishing to join the EU needs government structures that are able to adopt, implement and uphold the huge volume of legislation that makes up the EU acquis. Getting into the EU is akin to obtaining a degree. If you are not prepared to do your homework you will not pass the exams. And if you do not prepare for your exams by getting the books, attending the classes and studying hard then passing your exams will not be possible.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has a lot to do in this regard. The current constitutional structures require change because they are in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights. The recent Sejdic-Finci judgement was immensely significant. It is the first time ever that a Constitution itself has been found to contain provisions incompatible with the ECHR. I am disappointed that nearly a year after the judgement there has been so little follow-up. I can understand that a pre-electoral climate during much of 2010 has complicated the task of reaching agreement. But I cannot understand why the parliamentary working group tasked with preparing draft amendments was on many occasions unable to operate because of the lack of a quorum. To an outside observer that looks dangerously close to political indifference towards a very serious breach of the ECHR.

There is a wider reason why change is needed. The present constitutional arrangements are geared towards obstruction and work against Bosnia’s citizens and their aspirations for EU membership.

So while the citizens of this country dream of good schools, hospitals and roads, politicians can easily find multiple ways of blocking legislation they do not like. This major brake on reform progress means that BiH has started to lag behind its neighbours on its path to the EU. The 2010 Commission Progress Reports show that countries which until recently were in the same place as BiH are now clearly pulling ahead.

The people of BiH do not deserve this trend to continue. They have shown immense fortitude and determination over the last two decades and are entitled to the economic and social benefits that will flow from EU membership. Your politicians have a responsibility to attain these benefits, but without constitutional changes the journey to the EU will take much longer than it needs to.

I firmly believe that the current arrangements can be refined and updated - without prejudice to the interests of any constituent people - in a way that will promote more effective decision-making. The balance enshrined within Dayton and the reassurances it provides to each constituent people must be retained. But equally functionality must be improved to help deliver the pace of legislative progress necessary for BiH to fulfil its EU aspirations.

How best to achieve this is a matter for Bosnian politicians. The international community’s role is one of encouragement, guidance and determined support. Britain will be at the forefront of those countries supporting Bosnia’s EU aspirations. Securing consensus will no doubt be hard work given the divisions within BiH. But I urge BiH’s politicians to forsake maximalist agendas and zero sum game mindsets and to approach the issue in a constructive spirit of compromise and pragmatism.

It is no criticism of the Dayton Agreement to argue that it needs updating. The world does not stand still and neither do countries. In Britain since 1995 we have seen substantial changes in our own institutional arrangements, including the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, an elected Mayor in London and reform of the House of Lords.

The Dayton Agreement has been a success for BiH. The challenge now is to update it so that it does not become an impediment to BiH’s further development. Constitutional changes are both an international legal obligation and a practical necessity. I believe that constitutional reform must be foremost among the priorities of the new coalition government that emerges after the elections. I hope that in a year’s time - when we mark the next anniversary of the Dayton Agreement - we will have seen constitutional change that refines and updates Dayton so that it continues to provide a sure foundation but also enables the country to accelerate its progress towards EU membership.

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Published 15 December 2010