Look Below Top Leadership To Find Hope in Bosnia

Bosnia has been getting a lot of bad press lately. But while implementation of the Dayton accords has been slow, and the top leaders show little sign of a commitment to peace, that is not the whole story. Below the top level of leadership is another level of actors whose efforts signify support for the goals of Dayton.

Two events demonstrate this. On July 3 and 4, some 20 Bosnian officials from the three ethnic communities - Bosniacs, Croats, and Serbs - met with international experts and officials in Strasbourg for a round-table on justice and reconciliation. They met to explore options for dealing with the aftermath of abuses committed on all sides and to consider how to achieve a sense of justice that would accelerate reconciliation.

It was the first time key officials agreed to meet on these issues. Although the attempt to bring them together fell apart several times, and preparations for the round-table had to be made via phone lines that often didn't work, across five time zones, and through the use of interpreters, the meeting yielded positive results.

Wide-ranging participation

The Bosnians included a minister of justice, supreme court judges, prosecutors, and leaders of three war crimes commissions. Helping to craft the consensus that emerged were international legal scholars, senior officials of the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague and the Office of the High Representative (responsible for civilian implementation of Dayton), and a member of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Also involved were representatives of the sponsoring organizations - the US Institute of Peace, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

That we met on the Fourth of July made the discussions more poignant. Bosnians raised issues that triggered flashes of the struggles and achievements of America's history, achievements that are only beginning to be recognized in Bosnia - a free news media, a police force that protects civilians rather than political interests, an independent judiciary, and the protection of individual rights.

The significance of the day was not lost on the Bosnians either. One said: "There are very few things that Bosniacs, Croats, and Serbs could agree on, but we can agree to greet our American colleagues on this their Independence Day and to salute their great country, without which there would not be peace in our country."

The overall tone of the meeting included relatively tolerant and professional exchanges, a recurring expression of the need to deal with the abuses for the sake of the victims and for reconciliation, and a yearning for a society based on a rule of law. Consensus was reached on a dozen points for action, including concrete steps to improve The Hague Tribunal and to enhance the credibility and fairness of domestic war crimes trials, as well as proposals to exclude from the police and certain government positions those involved in abuses.

This consensus among disparate interests is not an isolated event. The agreement reached by top religious leaders in Bosnia to form an Inter-Religious Council, to work "together to replace hostility with cooperation and respect," and to acknowledge their shared moral commitment is another achievement that gives hope that Bosnia is in a different place than it was a year and a half ago.

Opening for peace

It is a fragile place, and most of the top political leaders are not there yet. Agreements by a group of individuals below the top leadership on significant issues do, however, present small openings for Bosnians and for the international community to choose a very different way to end this conflict.

Peace building is a messy, complicated, and lengthy process. There is much evidence of donor fatigue and flagging interest in keeping up the pressure on leaders. Members of the international community increasingly ask: Is it worth it? Can a lasting peace be achieved to justify the investment of money, troops, and energies?

The round-table in Strasbourg and the creation of the Inter-Religious Council show the willingness of second-level officials to seek reconciliation. Now is the time to support those efforts and those people who do not have the freedoms we celebrate on the Fourth, but who yearn for them deeply. Their media keeps them captive, and their leaders deprive them of the tools to change the course of history.

Whether we like it or not, the international community is needed still to press top leaders to honor commitments made at Dayton, to find ways to support those away from center stage, and to cultivate new leaders in the process.

* Harriet Hentges is executive vice president of the United States Institute of Peace.

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