Bosnia and Herzegovina Debate
Tomorrow morning (10 May), the Security Council will hold its semi-annual debate on Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). High Representative for BiH Christian Schmidt is scheduled to brief on the latest report of the Office of the High Representative (OHR), which covers the period from 16 October 2022 to 15 April (S/2023/318). Željka Cvijanović, the Serb member of the rotating tripartite inter-ethnic Presidency of BiH and the incumbent Chairman of the Presidency, is expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.
The 1995 General Framework Agreement for Peace, also known as the Dayton Agreement, created two entities within BiH: the predominantly Bosniak and Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) and the predominantly Serb Republika Srpska (RS). The two entities are linked by a rotating tripartite inter-ethnic presidency and a two-chamber legislative branch with equal representation of the three major ethnic groups (Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs). Both entities also have their own executive and legislative branches.
Tomorrow’s debate takes place amid growing divisive rhetoric and separatist actions in BiH. On 28 December 2022, the National Assembly of the Republika Srpska (NARS) adopted a law on “Immovable Property Used for the Functioning of Authorities”, which seeks to establish the RS’ ownership of select property used by RS public authorities. A similar law, which was adopted by the NARS on 10 February 2022, was declared unconstitutional on 22 September 2022 by BiH’s Constitutional Court, which ruled that property used by public authorities falls under the jurisdiction of the Bosnian state rather than either of its entities. Schmidt issued a decree on 27 February suspending the new law until the Constitutional Court renders a decision on the matter.
On 24 March, RS President Milorad Dodik said: “I see the future in the unification of Serbia and Republika Srpska”, warning that “the moment you attempt to seize property, we will pass a decision on the independence of Republika Srpska”. The latest report of the OHR, which was circulated to Council members on 3 May, urges the Security Council to take Dodik’s secessionist threats seriously, stressing that such inflammatory rhetoric poses a “threat to peace and stability in the country and potentially to the wider region”.
The OHR report also notes “a clear tendency toward authoritarianism in Republika Srpska”, warning that BiH “risks becoming a country divided between authoritarianism in one entity and democracy in the other”. On 23 March, the NARS adopted amendments to the RS’ criminal code, criminalising acts of defamation. It also adopted restrictive legislation on the financing of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the Law on Special Register and Transparency of Work of Non-Profit Organisations, allowing RS authorities to designate certain NGOs as “foreign agents”. A day prior to the legislation’s adoption, the Peace Implementation Council (PIC) Steering Board described it in a joint statement as an attempt to “shrink the civic space and reduce public debate”, urging the NARS to “stop any activities that silence independent voices among media and civil society”. (The PIC was established in December 1995 to garner international support for the Dayton Agreement.) The OHR’s report says that such legislation “places unreasonable burdens on the right to freedom of association and leaves too much space for political manipulation and abuse”, cautioning that “its passage would significantly threaten human rights and democracy in the Republika Srpska”.
On 15 December 2022, the European Council—a body which defines the EU’s overall political direction and priorities—unanimously decided to grant BiH candidate country status, marking a milestone in the country’s path towards EU integration. However, relations between the RS, on the one hand, and the UK and the US, on the other hand, have deteriorated as RS authorities pursue closer ties to China and Russia. On 8 January, Dodik reportedly awarded Russian President Vladimir Putin its highest medal of honour for his “patriotic concern and love” for Bosnian Serbs. Dodik thanked Putin for helping preserve the RS’ “voice and position…under the onslaught of international interventionism”. The OHR’s report notes that BiH’s “clear commitment to the EU path is especially relevant when international law is being trampled, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of independent states in Europe are being violated”, pointing out that Dodik has “shown sympathy with Russia’s role in the war in Ukraine”.
On 24 March, Dodik said that the RS will no longer cooperate with the staff of the UK and the US embassies in BiH, after the US imposed sanctions on three individuals, including Director of the Republika Srpska Administration for Geodetic and Property Affairs Dragan Stankovic. On 11 April, Dodik announced that the RS will suspend all cooperation activities with NATO. In response, the US embassy in BiH issued a statement noting that Dodik does not have the authority to unilaterally suspend or amend BiH’s 2005 Law on Defense, which mandates the RS’ cooperation with NATO.
At tomorrow’s debate, Schmidt is likely to emphasise the need for BiH leaders to remain engaged in the reconciliation process and to avoid counterproductive rhetoric and actions. The OHR’s report suggests that “the re-direction, suspension or conditioning of funding are tools which international partners have at hand” to respond to the RS’ secessionist policies.
Council members may also be interested in hearing Schmidt’s perspectives on the political situation in the FBiH and his efforts to address the entity’s political deadlock. FBiH ministers appointed in 2015 after the 2014 elections have been serving under a technical mandate since 2018 because political processes have been blocked over demands for electoral reform. Schmidt’s decrees have sought to establish mechanisms to unblock paralysis in FBiH’s legislatures.
Cvijanović is likely to emphasise the need for all parties to respect BiH’s territorial integrity and constitutional order. The RS’ 29th report to the Security Council, published on 27 April, argues that “the decentralised structure set out in the BiH Constitution is essential for maintaining stability and progress in a country with deeply rooted interethnic distrust”. Cvijanović may also express the RS’ rejection of Schmidt’s authority as High Representative for BiH. The RS’ report contends that there is no place in BiH’s constitutional order “for a foreign official who claims that his word is law”, suggesting that “neither the Dayton Accords nor any other source of law give the High Representative authority to make any binding decisions at all, let alone act as a foreign dictator”.
Council members are expected to express sharply diverging positions on the situation in BiH and on the OHR’s role. Deep divisions related to BiH’s Euro-Atlantic integration and possible accession to NATO—particularly between Russia on the one hand and the US and European Council members on the other—colour Council dynamics on BiH.
Most Council members are expected to express support for the continued implementation of the Dayton Agreement and for the OHR in advancing the 5+2 Agenda—a set of five objectives and two conditions that need to be fulfilled prior to the OHR’s closure, adopted in 2008 by the PIC’s Steering Board. Some members—including European members and the US—are likely to welcome the EU’s decision to grant candidate status to BiH and call on the country’s authorities to take the necessary political and legal steps to advance toward EU integration.
Several members may voice concern regarding BiH’s divisive ethnic politics and express support for efforts to reform BiH’s constitution. Some members may condemn the glorification of war criminals and the denial of genocide, while expressing concern over the RS’ legislative measures that risk shrinking civic space in the entity.
China and Russia have questioned Schmidt’s appointment process and have not recognised his authority as High Representative for BiH. These members previously blocked Schmidt from briefing at the Council’s 3 November 2021 and 2 November 2022 debates on BiH, apparently by threatening to veto the Council’s renewal of the authorisation for the EU-led multinational stabilisation force (EUFOR ALTHEA). (For background, see our 21 July 2021 and 2 November 2021 What’s in Blue stories.) While these members are unlikely to request a procedural vote regarding Schmidt’s participation at tomorrow’s debate, they are expected to object to his briefing and reiterate their view that the post of High Representative remains vacant.