The Dayton Accords
On Nov. 21, 1995, the Dayton Accords were completed in Dayton, Ohio. The peace agreement ended a four-year war in the Balkans that claimed the lives of an estimated 100,000 people. The deal has been declared brilliant, insufficient, crucial and shortsighted. A former Bosnian energy minister described it as, “diplomatic and political butchery,” while simultaneously stating, “it was by far the best option available at that particular moment in history.”

These juxtaposed opinions are commonplace for the Dayton Accords, as it managed to end a horrific, genocidal war while enshrining a political system in Bosnia and Herzegovina that some believed was nothing more than, “a house of cards about to come tumbling down.” As similar wars driven by territorial conflict and ethnic tension continue to haunt people around the world, it bears consideration what lessons in conflict resolution can be taken from this peace agreement.

Bringing Enemies to the Table

The agreement itself was negotiated in just 21 days from within the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. U.S. Diplomat Richard Holbrooke served as the chief negotiator between the Presidents of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Additionally, a contingency of Russian, French, British and German negotiators was present at Wright Patterson, though the U.S. took the lead in the proceedings.

One of the more notable aspects of the negotiation process was Holbrooke’s care. He sought to create an environment that forced an agreement among representatives who appeared reluctant to come to one. Representatives were not allowed to discuss the negotiations with the press. They were each given their own floor of the building so that Holbrooke could work separately with each party. He went from floor to floor, slowly hammering out an agreement to end the conflict for good. The result created one country composed of two parts. It was complex, but the preceding nightmare that brought them all there was worse.

Ending a War

The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina had raged for four years, with “Serb and Croat forces aiming to carve the country up into a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia, respectively.” Bosnia’s four million citizens belonged primarily to three main ethnic groups: Bosniak or Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats which made up roughly 44%, 31% and 17% of the population, respectively. The remaining 8% was Yugoslav.

The war began in 1992 when Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia and was met with a swift military assault from Bosnian Serbs seeking to gain territory and commit ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population. During the genocidal conflict, 80% of the fatalities were Bosniaks. Additionally, numerous atrocities and war crimes were committed across the conflict. One U.N. report discussing artillery attacks on Sarajevo in 1994 stated that 200 to 300 impacts were a “quiet day” in contrast to an “active day” which could see 800 to 1,000 impacts from shelling by Serb forces.

In February 1994, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) began its first combat operation in history, shooting down Bosnian Serb aircraft to enforce a U.N.-declared no-fly zone. This would be followed up with later bombing raids that would eventually force Presidents Milošević, Tudjman and Izetbegović to the negotiating table.

A New Nation

The Dayton Accords cut Bosnia almost exactly in half. The predominantly Bosniak-Croat Federation took 51%, and 49% went to the Bosnian Serbs as the Republika Srpska. There the simplicity stopped. According to The Guardian, “Dayton spawned a political system that is a cash cow for politicians. It is among the most complex in the world.” Rather than solving ethnic tensions, it froze them in time with a constitution that allocated key government posts to Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. All other ethnic groups would remain barred from political positions throughout the government.

Beyond the issues of complexity, many view the Accords as having rewarded genocide and numerous other war crimes, as the original aggressors walked away with major territorial gains. President Milosevic of Yugoslavia, President Karadzic of Bosnian Serbia and General Mladić (known as “The Butcher of Bosnia”), all went on to be tried for international war crimes. Dayton’s harshest critics see the peace agreement as having been a strategic win for those men. It is believed that NATO forces would eventually have been able to roll back the incursions they made.

25 Years of Hindsight

The flaws that the Dayton Accords both perpetuated and created are numerous and frequently pointed to amid calls for its reform or complete scrapping. However, its legacy lives far more as a mixed bag than as an outright cautionary tale. The peace created, while fragile, has lasted longer than many experts dared hope. The Accords brought an end to a genocide, the likes of which had not been seen in Europe since the Holocaust. Yet conversely, it trapped the split nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in unending ethnic discontent and a political system predisposed to corruption. Looking at Dayton as a future peace negotiation model will require reconciliation with each of these conflicting narratives.

Scott Mistler-Ferguson
Photo: U.S. National Archives