by Maddalena d’Aquilio

On the outskirts of Srebrenica is the Srebrenica-Potočari Monument and Graveyard: a vast expanse of small, white gravestones, all the same, set on a green hill. Opposite, the former barracks of the UN contingent stand as a reminder of international responsibility.

That July of death was 28 years ago. Blood had been flowing on the tormented land of Bosnia since ‘92.11 July commemorates the Srebrenica massacre, committed in July 1995 by Republika Srpska forces led by General Ratko Mladić. In Srebrenica, 8372 Bosnian men and boys, Bosnians of Muslim faith, were shot and thrown into mass graves. Many of the women and girls were raped and abused before being moved to other areas.  The genocide took place in and around the small town in eastern Bosnia. With the specific intention of eliminating the Bosnian population, it was the culmination of three and a half years of war crimes, abuse, torture and killings by Serb forces on Bosnian soil. Even today, in certain public speeches in Republika Srpska, Serbia and elsewhere, Srebrenica is reduced to an event. As if a massacre and genocide could be considered “just” an episode. Worse, even today, Srebrenica is denied in certain Bosnian Serb (political) circles, Serb and otherwise. The glorification of war crimes is nothing more than the will to distort history, its denial is the will to erase it. 

While the victims cannot find peace in the collective memory, Bosnia-Herzegovina cannot find peace with them because of the constant attacks on a weakened and immobilised state. Bosnia is hostage to nationalist and extremist politicians who have made ethnic-nationalist claims the way to build their personal power. Long political careers at the expense of everyone, including people of their own ethnicity.

The end of June saw another separatist act by the Serb entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), the Republika Srpska (RS). On 28 June, the RS National Assembly passed a law declaring the decisions of the BiH Constitutional Court inapplicable. The law was immediately seen as another blatant move to undermine the authority of the Constitutional Court and, ultimately, the integrity of the Federation. A challenge that also extended to the authority of the OHR (Office of the High Representative for BiH). Indeed, the RS Assembly decided to prohibit the enforcement of OHR decisions. The OHR is the ad hoc body created to oversee the implementation of the Dayton Accords that ended the war.  Normally, the Constitutional Court would consist of three international judges appointed by the European Court of Human Rights, four judges appointed by the Parliament (usually two Croats and two Bosnians) and two judges appointed by the RS. For months, however, the Constitutional Court in Bosnia has not been operating at full capacity because the two entities that make up the Federation have not appointed judges to replace those who have just retired. In addition, the RS put pressure on the other judge it had appointed, Zlatko Knežević, to retire early. In order to be able to do its job, the court itself decided on a change to its rules of procedure so that a simple majority of judges could decide. The RS then responded with the law on the inapplicability of the Court’s decisions in the Bosnian Serb entity.

More than one observer has pointed out that the goal of Dodik and his allies is to oust the international judges from the Court and to transfer decision-making power to the entities. In doing so, Dodik is seeking a conciliatory response from the international community rather than decisive action against him or the RS. Once again, these laws fit into the broader secessionist strategy of Milorad Dodik, the current president of the Serb entity. And one must speak of a real secessionist plan, given the decisions that the RS has been continuously pursuing since 2021. Dodik has thus resumed his attack on the central institutions, which he wants to empty of power by stripping them of their powers. As he himself admitted, the outbreak of war in Ukraine put the secessionist project on hold in order to avoid further complications in the geopolitical positioning of the RS. It should be remembered that the Serb entity of Bosnia  remained neutral in the face of Russian aggression. Dodik, probably Putin’s closest ally in Europe, reportedly tried to block Bosnia’s vote in favour of the UN resolution condemning the aggression. The RS President continued to maintain close ties with Moscow.

Writing for Foreign Policy, Hamza Karcic, associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo, said: ‘Under normal circumstances, a state would respond to such blatant moves towards secession by overturning illegal decisions and issuing arrest warrants […]. But in Bosnia, the state has been held hostage for some time […]. The former Serb secessionists were granted extensive powers – a highly autonomous Republika Srpska and vetoes at the state level – in exchange for staying in Bosnia. As a result, secessionist forces came to occupy a number of key institutional positions in the country. With the conquest of the state almost complete, Bosnia now faces the final step towards secession. Indeed, in any other democratic state, an attack on the Constitutional Court would be considered a coup.  The OHR itself, whose powers have been challenged by the RS, would also be criticised for giving in to ethno-nationalist demands. The reaction of the High Representative – a position now held by former German agriculture minister Christian Schmidt – was not long in coming. Schmidt argued that the laws passed by the RS Assembly were in clear violation of the BiH constitution. Since the laws of the RS cannot deviate from the provisions of the Constitutional Court, these laws are clearly unconstitutional and their implementation is punishable by law.

In short, these laws are illegal. Professor Hamza Karcic recalled that ‘unlike Bosnian politicians in the Federation, Dodik has steadfastly refused to recognise Schmidt’s appointment as High Representative and has vowed to ignore the body’s decisions. And so far he has kept his word, at least officially. [Now he has upped the ante by officially preventing the implementation of OHR decisions in 49% of the country. [Dodik’s actions,” he continues, “are a direct challenge both to Schmidt personally and to the OHR as an institution. Schmidt’s response will therefore be crucial in determining the future of BiH. In an open letter to national and international actors, a group of BiH intellectuals and artists called for resolute resistance to disruptive factors (and actors). The signatories demand that no compromises be made with such actors to the detriment of the state of BiH. The letter also states that the OHR, in the person of Schmidt, has so far largely failed to act in accordance with the obligations of its mandate. In addition to criticising the negative changes to the electoral law, Schmidt is also accused of failing to remove from office those responsible for laws that destroy the constitutional order. The international community is accused of only condemning the repeated attacks on the Bosnian state over the years, without following up its words with effective action to stop them. The OHR and the international community are said to have been mere observers of an ongoing crisis, confining themselves to expressing concern.

*photo by Maddalena D’Aquilio