What Has to Happen After People in Bosnia Vote

More time should be spent listening to their concerns

To vote or not to vote, that has been the question. For months the world's pundits have debated the merits of holding Bosnia-wide elections tomorrow, Sept. 14. That they will now happen is a foregone conclusion. But what happens on election day and thereafter?

Bosnia's people, especially the 2.3 million who are displaced, want to know and are quick to offer their own views. During three years of emergency and development work in the region, Oxfam UK/Ireland has listened and learned from Bosnia's remarkable citizens.

As with any country, a great swath of society in Bosnia could not care less about election day. Indifference is greatest among those who see the elections as a tactic of President Clinton's own reelection campaign. But for the displaced who invested some hope in the Dayton peace plan, this election is a matter of great concern. This is what they are saying to Oxfam:

Humanitarian assistance continues to be manipulated for political gain. Despite the postponement of municipal elections, those who stand to gain from ethnic cleansing have continued to ignore the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is responsible for human-rights monitoring and election supervising.

Eligible voters are afraid that they will face terror when they return to former communities to vote. Why? Because NATO's Implementation Force (IFOR) and the International Police Task Force have failed to deter local authorities who publicly oppose the right of refugees to go home. Having insisted on a September vote against the wishes of prominent political parties, the international community is obligated to protect this brave citizenry.

The elections will legitimize power-holders who have no interest in implementing the Dayton peace agreement or reuniting the country. In fact, far more people have been expelled since Dayton than have returned home, and virtually no one has returned to areas where they would be a minority.

The vast majority of people feel that there is still no freedom of expression. Voter education has failed to counter nationalist propaganda and widespread misperception about what the elections will achieve. After the postponement of the municipal elections, there is great concern that registration forms approved for that vote will be used to legitimize residence and property claims for future elections. The OSCE has tried to clarify legal technicalities, but the most complicated elections in history defy easy explanation.

Many are concerned that the elections fit into Mr. Clinton's disengagement strategy and are a rubber stamp for NATO's withdrawal. Events may prove otherwise, but those voters who see Dayton as a long cease-fire will stay home and prepare for their own departure on the back of IFOR.

How can the international community improve on current practice?

*We can refocus our sights on basic rights and the humanitarian needs of vulnerable people, especially as another hard winter approaches. We can demand that the elderly, the disabled, and isolated groups that have been moved into private accommodation receive the unconditional assistance they need.

*We can promote the safest possible environment on election day. In an early round of the Mostar elections in July, IFOR demonstrated how serious it can be by producing enough hardware to ensure that thousands could cross the former confrontation line and interact peacefully with former neighbors.

*The international community can listen to what Bosnia's people are saying. If the OSCE had paid more attention to local experts, the municipal elections would have been postponed weeks ago and refugees in Europe would not have cast ballots that are now invalid. For months, advocates for disabled groups have asked about arrangements on election day. Experts say that almost 10 percent of the population has a disability, and almost nothing has been done to ensure their right to vote.

*We can be more vigilant after the elections to ensure that the candidates who are intent on destroying the Dayton plan for joint institutions do not succeed. The likelihood of partition - conventional wisdom's favorite question - misses the point. Unless the status quo authorities transfer their power to a federated governing structure, Bosnia will remain the divided, increasingly segregated country it is, and refugees will never be able to return to their homes. Reconstruction aid is the principal lever for promoting cooperation and it can be be used to hold the parties to the agreements they have already signed. Meanwhile, basic humanitarian aid programs must be protected from manipulation. Otherwise, today's poverty will give birth to a new generation of warmakers.

*Finally, the "great" powers that acquiesced to Sarajevo's siege can extend the mandate of IFOR. The US, the European Union, and NATO's highest council hold Bosnia's fate in their hands. There is almost universal consensus among Bosnians and international agencies that IFOR is the single most important factor in consolidating the peace. Many Bosnians are beginning to realize the limits of international assistance and the possibility for generating their own political power. IFOR's separation of the combatants has created a political space in which the grass-roots institutions of civil society can grow. But Bosnians need time and freedom from fear.

At best, tomorrow's elections will permit a mingling of former neighbors and give voice to the moderate and manipulated majority being ignored. At worst, the results will further marginalize the displaced persons who want to go home and reconcile this forcibly segregated society.

All the world's agencies, and all the world's will, cannot put Bosnia back together again. But we can listen and learn from the people who can.

*Lukas H. Haynes is regional representative for Oxfam UK/Ireland, a British relief and development organization that has been working in Bosnia-Herzegovina since 1993.

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