UNITED NATIONS -- The top international official in Bosnia warned Wednesday that Bosnian Serbs are trying to “secede” and undermine the country’s sovereignty, and he urged the international community to safeguard the rights of all its people and uphold the peace agreement that ended Bosnia’s 1992-95 war.
High representative Christian Schmidt told the U.N. Security Council that 26 years after the Dayton peace agreement was signed Bosnia is “at a crossroads,” and what happens and how the international community reacts “will resonate throughout the western Balkans.”
He said the country remains “traumatized” by the war that left over 100,000 people dead, and “every single person who lived through it is still in one way or another wounded.”
The U.S.-brokered Dayton agreement established two separate entities in Bosnia — one run by Bosnia’s Serbs called Republika Srpska and another one dominated by the country’s Bosniaks, who are mostly Muslims, and Croats. The two entities are bound together by joint central institutions, and all important decisions must be backed by both.
Since last year, Schmidt said, “citizens of the country and even international media have speculated about the possibility of another war.”
He said he sees “the desire to keep peace” among Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks and others, but the younger generations born during or after the war, “in the face of continued instability, unfortunately, are leaving the country in record numbers.”
In his report to the Security Council circulated Tuesday, Schmidt warned that Bosnia’s potential “to become a security crisis is very real.”
He said he is grateful for the European Union’s force, EUFOR-ALTHEA, which is implementing the military side of the Dayton agreement, “as a confidence-building measure and a necessary tool to safeguard peace and stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
Schmidt was delivering his first his first briefing to the Security Council despite protests from Russia and China that he is not the legitimate high representative because his appointment was not endorsed by its 15 members.
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia raised a point of order when Schmidt was invited to speak by the current council president, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, saying his presence “undermines the authority of the Security Council and the United Nations at large.” At the same time, he said, the council does allow individuals to brief members “in their personal capacity” and that is how Russia would consider Schmidt’s presence on Wednesday.
China’s deputy U.N. ambassador Dai Bing called the Security Council’s role in appointing the high representation “indispensable” under the 1995 Dayton agreement. Since Schmidt hasn’t been endorsed by the council, he said, “it is inappropriate” for him to brief members as high representative.
Last July, the council rejected a resolution put forward by Russia and China that would have immediately stripped the powers of the international high representative, who oversees implementation of the peace agreement, and eliminated the position entirely in one year.
Schmidt was formally appointed as the next high representative on May 27, 2021 by the 10-member Steering Board of the 55-member Peace Implementation Council, the international body guiding Bosnia’s peace process. Russia has suspended its participation on the board.
Thomas-Greenfield and many other council members, who insist that Schmidt was legally appointed, welcomed his participation.
Schmidt warned the council that leaders of the Bosnian Serb-dominated entity have systematically challenged provisions of the 1995 agreement and intensified their activities aimed at usurping powers granted to the federal government.
In December, Schmidt said, the Republika Srpska legislature instructed its government to withdraw from agreements including on defense, indirect taxation and the judiciary.
“If followed through, this would mean, at a minimum, the withdrawal of the Republika Srpska from the unified armed forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina -- which is the result of one of the most significant reforms of the Dayton era and one of the most positive developments seen in recent years -- and potentially the formation of its own military,” he said.
Schmidt said so far this attempt could be stopped by the international community.
But he said Republika Srpska’s authorities are pursuing through these unilateral withdrawals “a de facto secession” of the Bosnian Serb entity by attempting to opt out of Bosnia’s constitutional framework and assume its responsibilities.
“They have no right to secede,” Schmidt said, and he told council members the duty of the international community under the peace agreement “is to safeguard the rights of all three constituent peoples and others, so all citizens may express their identity with none dominating the other.”
Thomas-Greenfield stressed that “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina is paramount and unquestionable” and she called steps taken by Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik and Republika Srpska to block the work of state institutions “undemocratic,” “escalatory,” and not in the spirit of the Dayton agreement.