Kate Ferguson is Chair of Policy at the European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and is Fouding Director of Protection Approaches, which has convened The UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group since 2017.
Most people think that mass atrocity crimes are rare, exceptional aberrations, but they are actually fairly common. Where there are means of criminal enterprise, motivation of populist bigotry or manipulation of identity politics, and opportunity of unchecked power violence against groups becomes likely. All are present and worsening in the Bosnian-Serb majority entity within Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), Republika Srpska.
Thirty years ago these same propellants were left unchecked, and succeeded in driving a political campaign that saw the deliberate, systematic violent targeting and forced expulsion of Muslims and Croats by a coordinated coalition of Bosnian-Serb and Serbian state and non-state armed formations.
Ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and genocide are never inevitable, but they are predictable. The escalating risks in Bosnia today are familiar – and must – be confronted before the already precarious situation worsens.
Boris Johnson, in the outcomes of his Integrated Review of international policy, rightly made atrocity prevention a new strategic priority of British foreign policy: Bosnia is now the test case for this commitment.
This December marks the 26th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which established the two-entity make-up of the country – an agreement that froze rather than resolved the violence, and which preserved the single state by establishing a complicated system of power-sharing governance that includes a tri-partite presidency, with a rotating chairmanship.
Uneasy peace has held, but not taken root. Recent months have seen escalation of inflammatory actions and rhetoric by the Bosnian Serb member of the BiH Presidency, Milorad Dodik. Dodik has announced his intention to withdraw Republika Srpska from many state institutions, including the border police, judicial institutions and the armed force of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In 1991 as now, the Bosnian Serb leadership is testing the attention and resolve of the international community as it escalates the political crisis and heats up its incendiary rhetoric. Dodik and his coterie – as Radovan Karadžić and all violent populists before him– know that these misdeeds help to gauge international appetite for censure, while also serving to incite local level identity-based violence. If Dodik is allowed to continue, we will see an uptick in violence.
Such incidents are already not uncommon in Republika Srpska, where Bosniaks who were ethnically cleansed in the 1990s have returned to their homes are now often targeted, threatened and assaulted.
This violence is not new. The hurling of stones at the Serbian Prime Minister in 2015 during the twentieth commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide drew international attention, but only because it occurred in front of the world’s media.
Three days later, a returnee to RS was attacked by masked men who carved the four Serbian Cs in a cross on his stomach, but this was not reported in English language press. But tensions are now mounting, and returnees fear history is repeating itself.
While the current crisis is not a new one it is, in part, a consequence of BiH’s allies failing to adequately respond to the pernicious and persistent denial of the genocide of Bosnia’s Muslims, and to the ongoing incidents of the enduring identity-based violence that rarely draw headlines outside of the region.
Late in the day it may be, but friends of Bosnia must now step up fully, and emphatically communicate that the errors of the mid-1990s will not be repeated and that red lines, if crossed, will result in coordinated response.
So far, the UK is emerging a potential leader on the international stage – a stark contrast to Britain’s Bosnia policy of the 1990s. Being outside of the European Union but working with European partners places the UK in a unique and strategically useful position.
The British Embassy in Sarajevo, led by Matthew Field, the Ambassador, is very well respected. Here, Parliament has already held a number of debates – another later today brought by Alicia Kearns, Sarah Champion and Stewart McDonald – which communicates solidarity and cross-party political will. (Hansard’s records for December 1991 contain not a single reference to Bosnia).
But how the commitments of the Integrated Review are reflected in Britain’s Bosnia policy are not yet clear. The Government continues to reject cross-party calls for a comprehensive, cross-departmental strategy of atrocity prevention, arguing its narrow approach to conflict is sufficient.
During the 1990s, the then Conservative government failed to identify the campaigns of identity-based violence and atrocity for what they were and tried – and failed – to apply a framework of conflict resolution: at its heart, the violence between 1992-95 wasn’t a conflict, but a coordinated assault on populations, with the clear-eyed intention of removing or destroying them, in whole or in part.
The same mistake cannot be made again by the UK. Britain’s Bosnia policy needs to specifically recognise and respond to the rising risks of identity-based violence and atrocity.
BiH is the latest in a line of current and emerging crises where this policy gap can be seen to restrict the UK’s capacity to respond –the absence of central thinking strategically about preventing identity-based violence leaves even the most proactive country teams and embassies with their hands tied; they have to follow policy.
If the UK wants to stand with Bosnia, the Government needs to follow through on the promise of the Integrated Review. The IR claimed new emphasis on confronting grievances, criminal economies, political marginalisation as drivers of violence: this is what Bosnia needs.
Prevention policy requires a different way of doing things – it requires strategy, analysis, consultation, and coordination. But it doesn’t necessarily require big resources – in fact, effective prevention always saves both lives and money.
Since Dayton, Bosnia has been a frozen crisis. If Dodik is allowed to continue raising the temperature we will quickly reach the point there the thaw cannot be prevented. The goal for the UK and all allies of Bosnia mustn’t be to simply keep the uneasy peace, but instead to comprehensively support Bosnians who are working towards a safe, inclusive and resilient society.