Bosnia Needs Accelerated Reforms

"My job is to get rid of my job," says top western diplomat in Bosnia.

Bosnia Needs Accelerated Reforms

"My job is to get rid of my job," says top western diplomat in Bosnia.

It is three months since the fall of the Saddam regime, and every day testifies to the huge challenge of building a durable peace. It is very hard, and it takes a very long time. It requires a great deal of stamina, and a willingness to see the job through to the end.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is nearly eight years since the guns fell silent, and still we are engaged - day in, day out - working to make peace irreversible.

Everyone agrees with the objective, but now that it is, at last, coming into view, opinions differ as to the best route to take.

Some commentators contend that the only way is to scale back the international community's role, and to do away with its executive powers. They claim - provocatively - that the Office of the High Representative is presiding over a "European Raj".

It's an analogy that makes for an easy headline. But it stretches credulity to the extreme, as the international community is in Bosnia at the request of the Bosnians, it is pouring millions into the country, not taking money out, and it has made clear that its job is to work itself out of a job.

Others argue equally passionately that far from scaling back, the international community must get more, not less, heavily engaged if it is to finish the work it has started.

The respected International Crisis Group, ICG, in a new report, argues that, "The terminal phase of the international community's belated effort to build a self-sustaining state in BiH [Bosnia and Herzegovina] will be replete with paradox. In order to get out, the country's foreign guardians will have to get in more deeply. In order to abjure the use of the Bonn powers, Ashdown will need in the short run to use them more intensively."

Tellingly, the ICG also notes that "it is too soon either for despair or for neo-colonial guilt… the international community needs still to expatiate a different sort of guilt - for a war that need not have happened, or lasted so long, a peace that established only the possibility of creating a viable state, and for the several years that followed when it was not even feasible to try".

So views differ. For my part, I am very clear that my job is to get rid of my job, and that the only way to do this is to drive forward reform as rapidly as possible in concert with our partners in Bosnia.

It is a joint effort that has made, and continues to make, considerable progress. Bosnia in 2003 is almost unrecognisable as the same country that emerged from the horror of war.

Come to Sarajevo today, and you will find a bustling city, with supermarkets and DIY stores. Nearly a million refugees have returned to their homes. Bosnia has one of the most stable currencies in the Balkans. Freedom of movement is now taken for granted, following the imposition by one of my predecessors of a car license plate system guaranteeing ethnic anonymity - a change opposed by many of the politicians in power at the time, but widely applauded by the public.

What should all this mean for the role of the international community here, nearly a decade since the war? Is it time for us to scale back our involvement, and, in particular, to relinquish some of the powers that we exercise?

One of the biggest conundrums facing any international mission is how to drive forward peace implementation as rapidly as possible, but in a way that lasts, and without retarding local democratic development. We face these problems in Bosnia today; and no doubt we will face them in Iraq tomorrow.

Every situation is different, of course. Today, Bosnia is setting its sights on membership of the European Union and NATO. So, there are those who argue that the country's problems now look increasingly like those of transitional countries, Poland or Hungary for example, and that Bosnia should be left to handle them itself. They compare the international community's powers in Bosnia to those of a colonial governor, and argue that they have no place in a modern, democratic Europe.

As a Liberal politician, I understand those arguments. Bosnia is in much better condition than it was eight years ago. But dangers remain. Ask Bosnians if they want the international community to leave and the vast majority say not yet. Despite governmental improvements in recent years, this country still suffers from a dysfunctional political system, weak institutions and the enduring threat of crime and corruption. These problems are being tackled, but they are not yet beaten. The job is nearing completion, but it is not yet done. To scale back our involvement too quickly, before peace has been fully secured, would, frankly, be to gamble with this country's - and this region's - future.

The international community is rightly blamed for failing to act decisively to end the war here. But it has earned grudging respect for demonstrating greater resolve in implementing the peace, and for the resources it has devoted - and is continuing to devote - to the task.

None of which means that there should not be a proper debate about the powers of the international community in Bosnia, or about how the transition from powerful international oversight to genuine local self-government should be carried out.

It is true that the High Representative in Bosnia has the power to impose or revoke laws and to remove obstructionist politicians. But it is not true that he is not accountable for this. The High Representative's authority comes from the Peace Implementation Council - made up of the 50 countries responsible for overseeing the Dayton Peace Agreement, including Bosnia itself.

His decisions are subject to international oversight, and to the scrutiny of the country's constitutional court and, ultimately, Bosnia being a member of the Council of Europe, of the European Court of Human Rights itself.

But ultimately, the strongest check and balance of all is the people of Bosnia, on whose consent international authority ultimately depends. Opinion polls consistently show that Bosnians fully support these powers and think they are used, not too much, but if anything too little.

That is not to say that our presence here should be prolonged any longer than is necessary. Which is why when I arrived just over a year ago, I drew up a Mission Implementation Plan, setting out the tasks that need to be completed before we can safely give up the intrusive executive powers vested in my office, and make the transition to a more normal European mission, supporting Bosnia on the next stage of her journey towards EU membership.

We are already paving the way for that transition. Our numbers are dropping and so is our budget. We have launched an aggressive programme to get Bosnians into key positions within the mission.

Furthermore, my office is increasingly using its powers under Dayton not to impose legislation, but to help the local authorities reach agreement. For instance, we have established policy commissions, made up almost entirely of local politicians and experts, to reform Bosnia's fragmented tax system, military structures and intelligence sector.

The legislation drafted in these commissions - stamped "Made In Bosnia" - has already started to go through Bosnia's parliaments. By contrast, the number of pieces of legislation that have been imposed, and the number of officials removed from office, far from increasing exponentially, have in fact dropped significantly in recent months, a downward trend I am determined should continue.

The fact that we are now approaching the day when the international community can relinquish its powers in Bosnia bears testimony to how far we have come in recent years. But that progress has only been possible because we have had the power to clear away problems and open up solutions. Our task now is to work with our friends in Bosnia to finish those tasks that must be completed for peace to be secured, and to set this country on the road to Europe as a fully independent, modern democracy.

Lord Paddy Ashdown is the High Representative in Bosnia. This opinion piece was prepared in response to the European Stability Initiative's open letter of July 16. It is based in part on an article published in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on July 11, 2003.

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