Britain’s role in the world has long been that of the convener. The grown-up power that brings people together, that listens, and that shapes international responses to unfolding crises. The time for us to convene the world again has arisen, and Britain must take her role in preserving the peace, and preserving human rights, once again.
The Balkans has been a tinder box for as long as history has been recorded – the confluence of Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Islam. In many respects, this has created a unique and wonderful corner of the globe – with fine food, welcoming people and an architectural history that is both fascinating and unique.
Bosnia is the centre point of that meeting of ethnicities with Bosniak Muslims, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats sharing one country. However, Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, sees Bosnia as the final frontier in the centuries-old ambition of a Greater Serbia – most viciously pursued by Slobodan Milosevic.
It was this dream of a Greater Serbia that led to the catastrophic Bosnian War of 1992-1995 – which saw around 110,000 Bosnians lose their lives, including the estimated 8,000 who were massacred at Srebrenica in 1995. This was the first genocide since the Second World War and it is genocide denial which is really at the heart of the worrying – and developing -situation in Bosnia.
The war was ended by the Dayton Peace Agreement – which not only brought in a fragile peace, but established a new constitution for Bosnia. One which divided the country into the Federation of Bosnia (predominantly Croat and Bosniak) and Republika Srpska (predominantly Serb). There are joint institutions – such as the Army, the Police and the Judiciary – with a UN-appointed High Representative to act as referee, who has wide-reaching powers, such as that of veto and introducing legislation.
Dodik, leader of Bosnia’s Serbs, is one of these genocide deniers – an alarmingly common trait in Republika Srpska. The last time I was in Bosnia, there were protests by genocide-deniers outside a funeral for the recently-identified remains of someone murdered in the war. Funerals are still being held to this day, because only now are enough bones to constitute a whole person being discovered as there were significant, industrialised efforts to obscure the mass graves by callously digging them up, and scattering remains in multiple mass grave sites. I remember seeing the stacks of bones – categorised and still being poured over to try to identify the victims. To deny that this was a genocide is inhuman – and a pure denial of truth.
The former High Representative, Valentin Inzko, introduced a law to outlaw genocide denial. Inzko’s replacement, Christian Schmidt, reaffirmed that denial of genocide was unacceptable, resulting in Putin and China announcing that they would not recognise the High Representative – seeking to undermine the Dayton Peace Accords.
Dodik has gone further, threatening to pull out of national institutions. He responds to sanctions by laughing them off and stating that his friends in Moscow and Beijing will simply step in to help. This is, as Christian Schmidt said to the UN, a country on the brink of collapse. The international community cannot sit by and let this happen. We cannot let a peace agreement that we brokered be trampled over by dictators concerned only with the end of the international system. Conflict is not inevitable, but that requires us all to step forward, now.
Already, the United Kingdom has taken action. In an Urgent Question in Parliament in early November, I set forth some ideas for how the UK can make it clear that we stand by peace in the Balkans. So much of this is about bringing the world together to recognise that this oft-forgotten corner of Europe is on the brink of crisis.
This week makes clear the UK’s commitment to maintaining peace in Bosnia. High Representative Schmidt is coming to the UK – and I look forward to welcoming him to Parliament. Bosnia has been put on the agenda at the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting in Riga this week by the UK – hopefully leading to shared action by our allies. Lord Ahmad has been to visit Sarajevo, to understand the situation on the ground and Baroness Goldie will visit to mark Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Armed Forces Day. On Thursday 2 December, Parliament debated the situation in Bosnia and unanimously approved the motion to support Dayton and the High Representative.
The United Kingdom cannot act alone. I’m delighted that EUFOR – the European defence command – has had its mandate to Bosnia expanded by a year. It’s encouraging that parliaments, such as the Dutch House of Representatives, have taken steps towards imposing sanctions on Dodik. I am hoping that parliaments in other countries around the world will raise their voices on Bosnia, and encourage their governments to act to preserve peace in Europe, and not go down the avenue of appeasement.
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We must make it clear to the dictators that the free world will stand up to the likes of Dodik, who seek to undermine the foundations that peace is built on. If we fail to uphold Dayton, we let Moscow and Beijing know that they can dictate terms elsewhere in the world. If we fail to recognise Bosnia’s national institutions, we make ourselves weaker in the eyes of the world. And if we fail to protect Bosniaks, around two million European Muslims will become stateless. We must not allow another massacre to take place, and conflict is not inevitable. The time for diplomacy is now.
Alicia Kearns MP for Rutland and Melton, Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and National Security Strategy Committee.