The arrest on May 26 of Ratko Mladic, the fugitive former Bosnian-Serb Army Commander, brings at last the prospect of justice for the victims of the genocide at Srebrenica 16 years ago. It offers the chance of closure to the families of the victims. And it offers a vital opportunity to draw a line under the past, and to move the entire Western Balkan region decisively towards a better future.
Already there has been considerable progress. The situation in Serbia and Croatia is dramatically different to that of two decades ago. Those countries are now moving steadily forward to membership of the European Union. Croatia is already a member of NATO and seeking conclusion of its accession negotiations with the EU. Serbia is working in pursuit of EU Candidate status. But while its neighbors are looking to the future, the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina itself gives rise to mounting concern.
For half a decade now, Bosnia and Herzegovina has been sliding backwards. That slide has accelerated in recent months, and now demands a firm response from the international community, above all from the European Union. The country’s institutions are gridlocked. In the Republika Srpska entity, harsh nationalist rhetoric and actions challenging the Dayton framework risk dragging BiH back towards the past – just at the moment its neighbors start moving towards a European future.
The real victims of this paralysis are not Bosnia and Herzegovina’s politicians, but its citizens – the very people these political leaders were elected to serve. Instead of living in a free, fair and prosperous society, many still live under the shadow of division and fear, suffering from poverty, unemployment and lack of opportunity.
It need not be like this. Bosnia and Herzegovina has every prospect of a bright and hopeful future. It is a beautiful European country, with talented and resourceful people. It has a rich heritage and an abundance of natural resources. It has always been, and remains, a bridge between East and West. The Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina have a long tradition of moderation, and are a continuing rebuke to the notion that Islam has no place in Europe. We want to see BiH thriving as a peaceful member of the European Union and NATO, with the conflict and suffering of the 1990s left behind never to return. We know that the citizens of this unique country want this too, from Prijedor to Travnik, from Foca to Livno and from Mostar to Brcko.
So how can we make this a reality?
First, the international community needs to stay focused on Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Western Balkans as a whole. Yes, there are plenty of other challenges – from Afghanistan to Libya, from the Arab Spring to the Middle East Peace Process. But we know all too well that what happens in one Balkan country has inevitable knock-on effects across the region. Nowhere is that more true than Bosnia and Herzegovina. What happens there will affect what happens to its neighbors, and vice versa.
Second, there must be no doubt about the resolve of the international community to stand by the settlement agreed at Dayton which ended the conflict. Our message is crystal clear: we are committed to Bosnia and Herzegovina as a single state, with two vibrant entities and three constituent people. We will not tolerate any challenges to the country’s unity and sovereignty. Our support for the Office of the High Representative in upholding the Dayton Agreement will be firm and unwavering. We will hold personally accountable politicians and those around them who seek to undermine this framework.
Third, we look to the political leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to work with each other and with their counterparts in the region to move beyond the stale arguments of the last two decades which have served the peoples of BiH so poorly. It is time to build on the successes of the last 16 years – the restoration of freedom of movement, the repair of BiH’s physical infrastructure, the reform of its defence sector – and to equip Bosnia to move forward alongside its neighbors to membership of the European Union.
That means looking at the Dayton Agreement as a foundation to be built on, not a chain to be broken. BiH needs more effective and efficient government at all levels – a state government that can meet the requirements of Euro-Atlantic integration; entities and lower levels of government that are economically sustainable and can deliver basic services. And above all it needs political leaders who are ready to take courageous decisions towards these ends rather than in their own narrow personal or ethnic interests.
To those who say this is impossible, we say that the rest of the region is proving every day what progress is possible. It is time for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s leaders to deliver for their people too.
In March, European Union nations agreed a reinvigorated strategy for Bosnia and Herzegovina, including the creation of an enhanced presence in Sarajevo with a strong mandate and resources. This strategy should allow the EU to play a leading role in supporting positive change and protecting against threats to stability. EU High Representative Ashton has named Peter Sorensen, a senior diplomat with 15 years of experience in the Balkans, to lead this EU effort. The U.S. and UK will be strongly supportive of Ambassador Sorensen, using all of the levers available to achieve progress, while working in close partnership with the Peace Implementation Council and the Office of the High Representative.
As Mladic faces justice at last, the world has a duty to commit itself once more to standing by the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The vision of a stable, prosperous and sovereign BiH as a member of the EU and NATO is not an impossible dream, it is our firm objective. That is what the people of Bosnia want, and what we want too. As President Obama said in London on 25 May, “We have always believed that the future of our children and grandchildren will be better if other people’s children and grandchildren are more prosperous and free – from the beaches of Normandy to the Balkans to Benghazi. That is our interests and our ideals.” In Bosnia and Herzegovina, let us hold true to that principle.