International Intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Why would the international intervention be considered less successful?

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2018

15 Pages, Grade: 12





The Fault-lines of Intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Timing of the intervention
Proper Understanding of the Conflict Background
Incoherent Approach
Dayton Agreement as the product of the Intervention




This paper provides an overview of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the international intervention in ending the conflict. It begins by tracing the origins of the conflict from the referendum of 29 February and 1 March of 1992 to the Srebrenica massacres. The failure by the international community to restore peace through the Lisbon and Vance-Owen peace plans through Srebrenica to finally Dayton has led to the question: Why would the international intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina be considered less successful? In answering this question the paper has used four hypothesis of; poor timing, incoherent approach, poor understanding of the conflict situation by the international community and the product of the intervention in the Dayton Peace Agreement and its implication on governance and prospects on EU accession. The paper after thorough discussion of the intervention along the four lines of hypothesis has concluded that the poor timing which goes with the mandate affected the intervention negatively, the lack of coherent approach led to continued commitment of atrocities with poor understanding of the conflict situation informing the division of the country into ethnic lines from Lisbon through to Dayton hence less successful.

International Intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina: A Failed Exercise?


The horrible atrocities of the Second World War brought to the limelight the concept of international intervention. Despite this concept having been used previously by countries intervening in the domestic affairs of other countries like the US intervention in Mexico in 1914 with President Wilson ordering occupation of Veracruz, this practice only got a boost by the formation of the United Nations Organizations (UN)(Roskin, 2012). In Chapter VII of the UN’s Charter, a state or a group of states is allowed to intervene in another state if that state is acting unlawfully and cannot solve her own problems of human rights violations. This was the case with Bosnia and Herzegovina (BH) when the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) began to disintegrate after the death of President Tito. BH has had spats of occupations by both the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires before falling under the FRY. The aftermaths of the 1990 elections which saw the three main ethnic groups win the collective presidency and a good number of seats in parliamentary elections defined BH politics as an ethnic affair with each leader appealing directly to the ethnic group they represented framing discussions in ethnic-terms(Baker, 2015).

Problems in this country began when Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia supported the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) whose leader Radovan Karadzic declared ‘Serbia Republic’ in January 1992 claiming 66 percent of Bosnian territory pointing that Bosnian would be divided(Gagnon, 2004). He called on Serbs to boycott the referendum on whether BH would become an independent state between 29 February and 1 March 1992. The consequence of which was the first break out of conflict on March 7, 1992 with Serbs paramilitary forces attacking Bosniak villages around Capljina. This led to the first international intervention in the form of mediation under Cutilheiro Plan which was brokered in Lisbon on 18 March with parties agreeing to cantonize HB along ethnic-lines like the Swiss federation. However, this would not work since there had been much of intermarriages and intermingling which blurred the ethnic boundaries. Notwithstanding the skewed nature of the division of the territory equally between the Bosniaks and Bosnian Serbs at 44 percent and the less populous Bosnian Croats getting 12 percent. The failure of this plan led to Vance-Owen Plan of 28 October 1992 headed by Finnish Diplomat and future President Martti Ahtisaari. This plan proposed that BH be divided into ten autonomous provinces between the three main ethnic groups with each having a majority in three provinces each.

This Vance-Owen Plan was rejected in early 1993 by the Bosnian Serbs parliament in Pale. Subsequently, the UN Security Council declared Srebrenica and its environs a safe haven free from arms attack and under the control of UN forces. Other areas like Sarajevo, Bihac, Gorazde, Tuzla and Zepa were also declared safe areas. However, the conflict took a new twist when on 25 May 1995, when four guns stolen from the UN collection sites were not returned hence marking the first North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) airstrikes. The airstrikes which elicited response from the Bosnian Serbs in the form of shelling Sarajevo and other safe areas killing seventy one persons in Tuzla. When NATO intensified the jet attacks, the Bosnian-Serbs responded by holding over 300 UN staff as hostage and using them as human shield. On 6 July 1995 Bosnian Serb forces under General Ratko Mladic launched an assault on Srebrenica leading to a massacre. This war which has been observed as having been not asymmetrical civil war fought by different groups claiming to be representing different ethnic interests had irreparable damage in BH (Boyle, 2014). It is estimated that it led to the death of some 100,000 people along an ethnic line with some two million being displaced (Moore, 2013). This conflict ended with NATO bombings and the conclusion of the Dayton Accord on 21 November 1995 and ceremonially signed on 14 December 1995 in Paris.

Despite the Dayton Accord bringing an end to the conflict, it ushered in a new ungovernable and unreformable system that has hindered natural healing and nurturing of good governance in BH. The International Intervention from the foregoing can be concluded to have found it all wrong in BH right from the first intervention to the post-Dayton Accord system. It is against this backdrop that this paper seeks to answer the question: Why would the international intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina be considered less successful? In answering this question, this paper looks at the different forms of intervention by international community in BH and account for both organizational and practical weaknesses that led to the unintended consequences of the intervention. In doing this, the paper examines the fault-lines on the part of the international community in their intervention as well as the complexities posed in intervening in polarized multi-ethnic environment. To sufficiently meet these objectives, the paper have the following key hypothesis: First, the international community had poor timing in their intervention; secondly, the international community had poor understanding of the conflict background; thirdly, the international community lacked a coherent approach to intervention in BH and lastly the international community had a less viable product of intervention-Dayton Peace agreement.

The Fault-lines of Intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The four different hypothesis of poor timing of the intervention, incoherent approach to intervention by the international community, the lack of proper understanding of the conflict situations in BH and the Dayton agreement as the product of the intervention are discussed. Timing of intervention provide insights on when and the method of intervention which was used and why it was not appropriate at that particular time hence ending up less effective in averting atrocities and death. The division on the part of the international community on what was the best method of intervention and how that division created loopholes for the actors in the conflict to commit more atrocities which culminated to the Srebrenica is discussed. Finally the poor understanding of the conflict and the framing of the agreements from the Lisbon agreement, the Vance-Owen Peace Plan and the Dayton Peace agreement. Here the emphasis is placed on the conceptualization of the conflict as an ‘ancient ethnic hatred’ which meant the country had to be divided along ethnic lines a recurring feature in all the agreements. The complexities ushered in by Dayton accord is looked into in regard to this misconception and how it is hindering not only reforms and improved governance but also the dream of EU accession.

Timing of the intervention

The need to contain a situation before it worsen and taken other dynamics should be the motivating factor for the international actors who wants to intervene in conflicts. The best time being before the conflict turn out into armed conflict. Timely interventions also help the intervening actors to be proactive avoiding reactionary behaviors. This also means that they monitor the evolution of conflict and the dynamics that the conflict is assuming hence proper understanding of the conflict situation giving them room to adjust accordingly. Despite the UN issuing Resolution 743[1] on February 21, 1992, of the deployment of the protection force with the observation that the occurrences in Yugoslavia was a threat to international peace, the actual deployment of this force came way late after the conflict had broken out and there was no peace to keep(Pushkina, 2002). Similarly it has been observed that UNPROFOR deployment was of little help since the war had already began. Further, it is observed that early intervention optimizes the opportunity for success what UNPROFOR had missed since they were to establish peace which was beyond their mandate(Brisson, 2017). This hampered their operations and activities preventing the effectiveness of the force in containing the situation in BH hence the UNPROFOR failure.

Proper Understanding of the Conflict Background

The need for actors to have a proper understanding of conflict situation is very vital for a successful international intervention in a conflict situation. This is so because ill-information on the part of the international intervener has an effect on the negotiations which find their way to peace resolutions. This was the case in BH when the international community conceived the conflict in Yugoslavia as that based on ‘ancient hatred’ and was unavoidable informing their skewed tilt in favor of ethnic solutions(Brisson, 2017). The ‘ancient hatred’ conceptualization is opined to have been fueled by the media outlets in the West which presented Bosnian Serbs as resentful since losing Kosovo in 1389 hating also Bosnian Croats from the Second World War(Schwartz, 1999). This argument gives a blind eye to the inter-ethnic co-existence before the periods pointed to have led to resentment thereby, pointing to skewed interpretation of history. The international interveners with this biased notion, proposed peace agreements in ethno-nationality terms to a conflict which could have not just been on ethnic basis(Woodward, 1995).

In similar vein, part of the international interveners over-emphasized the peaceful co-existence in the Balkans especially in Bosnia where Orthodox, Jews, Muslims and Catholics lived peacefully for a ‘multicultural heaven’ where different cultures could arise and flourish(Hromadžić, 2015). However, even those who subscribed to this logic did not go deep to find what other causes would have contributed to this conflict. Problems of this kind of misunderstanding began featuring in the Lisbon Agreement which haphazardly divided the country into ethno-nationality grounds avoiding the intermingling and intermarriage which had been practiced over the years. It is reported that in one quarter of the 109 municipalities there was no ethnic majority with 54 municipalities having 25-50 percent of people belonging to different ethnic groups other than the majority(Moore, 2013). This actually contributed to the failure of the Lisbon agreement. The Vance-Owen Plan similarly envisioned BH decentralized along the ethno-nationality[2] with provinces as the center of most government activities.

This kind of conceptualization of this conflict as based on ethno-nationality is blamed for the failure of the intervention. First it is argued that the framing of the conflict as an ‘ancient hatred’ provide the actors who do not want to intervene with an excuse assuming, ‘implicitly or explicitly, the moral equivalence of warring parties’(Schwartz, 1999). Further, it has been argued that this conceptualization based on ‘ancient hatred’ provided the international actors with a scapegoat for lacking a coherent policy or to provide simplistic solutions(B. M. Denison, 2015). It has been lamented that the ongoing negotiations of give and take that had long informed the relationship between different Bosnian identities was ‘absent from the crude multicultural logic underlying the Dayton Peace Agreement’(Hromadžić, 2015). The results being BH compulsion to run a government which has framed everything in ethnic terms balancing off ethnic dominance(Tzifakis, 2012). This did not only inform the failure of the two previous agreements before Dayton but has seen Dayton ushered in a complex political system that is threatening the survival of BH.

Incoherent Approach

The international community consisting of many different actors with power and authority always make them conceptualize their role differently in a conflict situation(Coles, 2010). The grouping of governments, inter-governmental organizations, the militaries et al mostly get involved in ‘sporadic and haphazard efforts’(Brisson, 2017). However, with the organizations in the level of UN and NATO this ought to have been mediated to a degree. This soft under-belly of the international interveners’ was first revealed when the Army of Republika Sprska was able to cut off aid to the six safe areas declared by the UN under the Resolutions 819 and 824 because they controlled access to the areas(Baker, 2015). This was possible since the UNPROFOR lacked mandate to appropriately respond. Neither was the mandate updated to take care of this kind of situation. The underfunded and understaffed UNPROFOR forces could not effectively ensure that the safe areas remained safe making them to fall under the control of the warring factions(Woodward, 1995). The results was holding of hostage of about 400 Dutch UNPROFOR soldiers by Bosnian Serb forces.

The Bosnian Serb forces held the Dutch soldiers because NATO carried out airstrikes on ammunition bunkers in Pale and also to find it easy in entering the Srebrenica (Scheffer, 2012). This however placed in jeopardy intervention measures by UN with European member countries questioning the rationale of risking more lives of their peacekeepers in protecting Srebrenica. It is observed that on July 8, 1995 Srebrenica was taken over by Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces following the decline of request by Dutch UN soldiers to use airstrikes by both UNPROFOR commander and UN special envoy(Baker, 2015). The basis of denial got support from the then US Secretary of State-Madeleine Albright claiming the airstrikes would break neutrality and would make the international community look as if they are siding with Bosniaks(Scheffer, 2012). The consequence of which was the abandonment of Srebrenica by the Dutch forces leaving the thousands of Bosniaks at the mercy of Bosnian Serb paramilitaries. As the international community was still debating the question of neutrality, between 11-13 July, the paramilitary took 8000 men and boys from the Srebrenica to a nearby site and had them all executed and buried in mass graves(Baker, 2015).

This made the international community to fail especially the UN for taking the ‘nobility of neutrality too far’ when crimes against humanity was being committed(Brisson, 2017). Srebrenica which was a safe UN area therefore, ‘has come to represent the worst instance of the war’s collective violence and the ineptitude of the international community to protect the vulnerable’. In similar vein, the US has been accused of failing to act in saving the Bosniak men and boys despite having Satellite technology which monitored the killings(Wagner, 2008). The international community could have save the lives from the point of request by the Dutch forces for airstrikes in protection of Srebrenica to US view of activities through Satellite technology but these failed due to obsession with neutrality and inappropriate conceptualization of the conflict as inevitable. The underfunding and understaffing also contributed to this genocide for they all undermined both the capacity and will to prevent Srebrenica massacres.

The incoherent approach was witnessed by different countries adopting different stances avoiding the united approach in finding a common solution to the conflict in BH. For instance France, UK and Russia wanted the country kept together thereby supported the Serbs whereas Germany, Austria and Hungary opposed the idea of keeping the country together with support for separationists. Turkey on the other hand supported the Bosnian Muslims while the US worked closely with UK and France. This was exemplified when the US declared her hesitation in recognizing Croatia and Slovenia(Baker, 2015). President Clinton favored the policy of ‘lift and strike’ which envisioned the lift of UN arms embargo and using airstrikes on Serb targets to contain the conflict. Despite sending of the then Secretary of State Warren Christopher to promote this idea among allies in Europe, President Clinton is reported to have decided against the policy[3]. It is observed that despite the US public support of a robust military intervention, it opposed it privately(Drew, 1994). It is noted that in February 1993, President Clinton’s security advisory while briefing European ambassadors stated the strong support for the Vance-Owen plan while indicating that US would not intervene on behalf of the Bosniaks. The Bosnian Serbs correctly interpreted this to mean no imposed deal will be forced on them hence rejecting the deal[4].


[1] UN Security Council Resolution 743, 1992

[2] Vance-Owen Peace Plan, 1993, Section I

[3] United States Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Office of the Historian, The War in Bosnia 1992-1995

[4] Kinzer, Stephen. Conflict In The Balkans; Serbs Reject Bosnia Pact, Defying Friends and Foe. New York Time. 6 May 1993, as retrieved from

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International Intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Why would the international intervention be considered less successful?
Political Science and International Relations, Contemporary Balkan Politics
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International Intervention Bosnian and Herzegovina, Timing of Intervention, Conflict Background and Dayton Agreement
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Development and International Relations Calvince Omondi Barack (Author), 2018, International Intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Why would the international intervention be considered less successful?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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