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Bosnia: The International Community And The Role Of ‘Experts’ – OpEd


Even if we accept that the international community had to act pragmatically in imposing the Dayton Accords and Bosnia-Herzegovina’s constitution, the current criticisms cannot merely focus on local politics and ignore the role of international ‘experts’.


By Elena Cirkovic

Ironically and symbolically, I write this response to the recent debate on the current constitutional crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) on the premises of Bonn University.

Whilst Charles Crawford provides several arguments which shed light on important topics not raised in Jasmin Mujanović’s article, the general difference in tone – and professional and academic background, as explicitly stressed by Mr. Crawford – represents some of the tensions in contemporary perspectives on BiH. Whatever anyone may think of the Left, anarchists or those of a “youthful predisposition”, Mr. Crawford’s description of Mr. Mujanović as a “self-proclaimed ‘proud Wobbly’” sheds little light on the latter’s actual background academic, or otherwise. My own research in Latin America and the Balkans, plus that of others, has problematized the role of so-called “experts” in conflict societies and the profoundly negative effects they can have on the situation. Knowledge production represented by a publication at Harvard or work as an Ambassador does not need to displace or eliminate other sources. Let us not forget that precisely such work has often shaped and even caused conflicts.

Though Mr. Mujanović emphasizes only certain sources of conflict, Mr. Crawford overemphasizes – and thus stays within one established camp of thought on BiH – the alleged helplessness of “Dick Holbrooke and the international expert team working to pull together the draft Accords”. This is an (again well documented) image of the helpless international community trying to calm down local hatreds. However, one need only look at academic and expert research into the arms trade and global influence on local conflicts. The Balkans were hardly a black hole in which the rest of the world had no interest until it exploded violently in the nineties. Unfortunately, we observe similar rhetoric in the cases of Iraq and, more recently, Syria.

With respect to the International Crisis Group’s report on BiH, entitled “Bosnia’s Gordian Knot: Constitutional Reform Europe”, I agree with Mujanović’s comment stressing that it “has reproduced most of the same fallacies which have informed the international community’s attempts to “deal” with the country since (at least) 1991-92”. The report is deeply-concerned with the incapacity of BiH to reform its constitution to take into account the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in the Sejdić-Finci case. Even if we accept that the international community had to act pragmatically in imposing the Dayton Accords and BiH’s constitution, we cannot ignore the fact that it was indeed imposed. As such, the current criticism of said constitution cannot merely focus on local politics and ignore the role of international ‘experts’.


The current constitution is an example of the elimination of an identity, and the creation of new ones or the recognition of only select identities. First, this process re-defined citizenship in post-war BiH, directly correlating it to local ethnic identities. Second, the ‘citizen’ of BiH could only be found if identified according to her or his ethnicity. Third, such a re-definition has created a category of people who do not ‘belong’ in the current constitutional order as free and equal citizens. This re-definition of what is Bosnian – or Bosniak/Muslim, Serbian, Croatian, Jewish, Roma and so on – is very real, because it sought to eliminate another reality; namely, that of centuries old multiethnic co-existence and inter-mixing of peoples.

This co-existence was never harmonious, but it was the reality. Forcible displacement, ethnic cleansing or genocide are hardly a solution, yet were propagated by ethnic leadership in the former Yugoslavia. Why, then, would the international community support the interests of ethnic leadership, if it had an interest in promoting a democratic post-socialist transition? Exercises in nationalism and secessionism only resulted in the classic “onion effect”.

Here I quote Martti Koskenniemi, international lawyer and former Finnish diplomat, in an article entitled “National Self-Determination Today: Problems of Legal Theory and Practice”:

Take Yugoslavia, for instance. Did international law really support the claims to statehood of each of the six official Yugoslav “nations” (Croats, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Muslims, Serbs and Slovenes)—or perhaps those of the ten recognised “nationalities”? In the former (more likely) case, did it have something to say about the position of the large (mainly Serbian) minorities in the territories inhabited by those nations (in particular, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina)? Or could the Serbian right of self-determination justify the uniting of the scattered Serbian populations under a homogeneous (but very large) Serbian State?

And further:

The Yugoslavian situation is an exemplary case of what could be called the “onion problem” of nationalism: the problem that one’s definition of the “nation” depends on the perspective (the distance) from which one’s vision is formed. What appear as “minorities” from an extensive gaze (focusing on “Yugoslavia”) will turn themselves into majority populations once one’s focus is closer (on “Croatia”, say). The distance is not something that can be chosen independently of one’s preferred solution but intrinsically a part of it. Hence the difficulty of achieving a “consistent” application of the right of self-determination and the conflict-prone character of an attempt to attain it.

The pragmatism demonstrated by the international community, plus the economic and political interests of contemporary ethnic elites in the former Yugoslavia, denies at least six centuries of history of co-existence, which was maintained in some form even under the Ottoman Empire; as Prof. Asim Mujkic of the University of Sarajevo has extensively addressed. Koskenniemi points to international legal ambiguities in the approach taken to the Yugoslav case. This raises important questions about why such violence erupted in the nineties; who were the leaders of nationalist parties and how did they come to power; how did this affect average citizens of the former Yugoslavia (as those who could leave did so); and whose interests were best served by war?

I do not share Mujanović’s confidence in the existence of political will amongst the broader populace, or governing structures of BiH, to form a multicultural, mutually-respectful and reconciled society. New-found states emerging from the Yugoslav federation all suffer from the mythology that is so well described in Benedict Anderson’s thesis of ‘Imagined Communities’. Scars run very deep, too many have experienced violence and many have fled the region altogether. A glaring reminder of current divisions is the existence of separate school systems for Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs.

Nevertheless, my issue with Crawford’s response still stands. The stance that peoples of the former Yugoslavia are incapable of multicultural and multinational co-existence is rooted in Orientalist and ‘othering’ approaches to statehood and citizenship. The reference to a ‘Commie’ who denied him an explanation of Alija Izetbegovic’s imprisonment is hardly an argument.

Throughout the history of international law, some communities were not recognized as sovereign. Their members could not enter the international realm with the same level of recognition as citizens of recognized sovereigns. For instance, the literature that emerged out of Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) indicated that the recognition of a ‘subject’ – and any rights held by said subject – depended on geography, society, culture, and religion. Sixteenth century European theologians and jurists imagined and theorized the international community, and the criteria for belonging to that community, which ultimately was rooted in the Christian concept of the Divine. The precepts of Francisco de Vitoria’s natural law came from the medieval scholastic theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Thomist natural law was applicable to all rational beings, and could be ascertained through the observation of people’s practices. Non-European peoples were included as the violators of the law among nations, and excluded as equal actors and participants in the making of its norms.

As in the sixteenth century, it appears that contemporary diplomats can also identify the incapacities of certain peoples to form democratic governments and state citizenship. The former Yugoslavia is regularly defined as a space incapable of forming ‘civil society,’ ‘citizenship,’ or ‘individuality’; the sociological and anthropological properties that members of international community are assumed to possess. International diplomacy continuously refers to various “essences” of existence to be found among those peoples who remain outside of the international community. Their rights and citizenship are thus tied to those (cultural, ethnic, religious, etc.) essences, rather than being recognized as universal citizens. This approach is relevant to the Bosnian case, as it it appears that peoples of former Yugoslavia can only exist as ethnic citizens. This, as Mr. Crawford seems to argue, is what they all want, and this is their reality. The international community could do no better but support this desire.

Furthermore, the type of argument propagated by Mr. Crawford sends the following message to all those who had a Yugoslav identity, lived in ethnically and religiously mixed families, and cared little for or held views countering ethnic nationalism – “you do not exist”. This is a dangerous argument; one which gives support to the ‘ethnic hatred as the root of war’ thesis. It denies the existence of many displaced individuals and communities; many now living as second class citizens in ethnic enclaves within the former Yugoslavia, or abroad. In contrast, Mr. Mujanovic writes, “if you and your partners in the international community are not going to help build a BiH which is home to all its peoples, equally, freely then you have no business commenting, advising or analyzing developments in the country whatsoever.” The ECHR did not rule Sejdić-Finci; instead, the court supported the claim of Jews and Roma to equal citizenship. It did not deny it in the name of ethnic segregation, which Mr. Crawford seems to think is necessary.

The work of women’s organizations in the region demonstrates the complexity of the Bosnian situation, the negative influence of international reporting and attempts to resist the destruction of previously heterogeneous communities. A variety of women’s organizations in BiH have their roots in the feminist movements that emerged in the seventies. The pre-war generation of Yugoslavian feminists was accused of “importing decadent bourgeois ideology”; whereas nationalist leaderships of the nineties labelled them as “witches” and national traitors for not being “patriotic enough” (cf. Verna Kesic). A number of women’s safe houses and anti-domestic violence initiatives which began in the nineties – and which were also very critical of the war – continue to operate in the region, but without funding.

The feminist movement in the former Yugoslavia was one of the few to maintain transnational cooperation and activities throughout the nineties, providing the foundations for rebuilding co-operation at the grassroots level in the 2000s. These organizations, however, have not been able to overcome increasing segregation – nor to replace the state as a source of social services – and alleviate the detrimental impact on women stemming from privatization and the elimination of social rights.

In 1993, American feminist academic, Catherine MacKinnon, published her theory that pornography was one of the main conceptual and factual causes of mass rape in the Balkan war. Croatian feminist scholar, Vesna Kesic, criticized the sensationalist, graphic and even pornographic reporting on rapes in BiH, as well as its focus on ethnic divisions, which objectified the female victims purely as ethnic beings. As Kesic wrote, Prof. MacKinnnon’s work, “has become a part of the war propaganda which stirs ethnic hatred and promotes revenge, both of which often find expression in violence perpetrated by men against women.” The type of knowledge production, as exemplified by Prof. MacKinnon, has been profoundly detrimental to local attempts at reconciliation, as it simplified the historic, social, cultural, and political characteristics of this region. Additionally, it helped reinforce the image of the Balkans as the location of ancient ethnic hatreds, impenetrable divisions and hyper-masculinity.

The fascination with cases of rape in the Bosnian conflict expresses the complex relationship between the Balkans and Europe. Depictions of savage rape in the Balkans, also creates the difference with the Western world – where presumably such instances of brutality cannot be found?

Beyond the simplistic “myth of ethnic war” perceptions lie very complex sets of relations and ties which have been broken, or others which remained intact. I do not disagree that ethnically-driven hatreds and interests never existed. Mr. Crawford’s argument, however, is selective, as it serves to support his subjective stance on the region.

As is his quoting of Ivo Andrić. When Andrić wrote ‘Bridge Over The Drina’ he was living in Berlin as a Yugoslav ambassador. His position was redundant because Hitler had already invaded the Balkans. The central character of the book is the bridge built by the Ottomans and blown-up by the retreating Austrian forces at the beginning of the First World War.

My attention is on the character of the Muslim shopkeeper, Alihodja. He symbolically enters the story arguing with a fanatical Muslim man, who wants to kill himself while defending the bridge against the Austrians. The man leaves him nailed by one ear to the bridge to greet the enemy. Alihodja is then freed by an Austrian wearing the red Crusader cross on his armband. In the end, when the Austrians dynamite the bridge, Alihodja is hit by falling masonry.

Here Andric speaks through Alihodja as he greets modernity:

For so many years he had seen how they had always been concerning themselves with the bridge; they had cleaned it, embellished it, repaired it down to its foundations, taken the water supply across it, lit it with electricity and then one day blown it all into the skies as if it had been some stone in a mountain quarry and not a thing of beauty and value, a bequest. Now one could see what they were and what they wanted. He had always known that but now, now even the most stupid of fools could see it for himself. They had begun to attack even the strongest and most lasting of things, to take things away even from God. And who knew where it would stop! Even the Vezir’s bridge had begun to crumble away like a necklace…

So be it, thought the Hodja. If they destroy here, then somewhere else someone is building. Surely there are still peaceful countries and men of good sense…But who knows?… Perhaps this impure infidel faith that put everything in order, cleans everything up, repairs and embellishes everything only in order suddenly and violently to demolish and destroy, might spread throughout the world; it might make all of God’s world an empty field for its senseless building and criminal destruction, a pasturage for its insatiable hunger and incomprehensible demands? Anything might happen. But one thing could not happen; it could not be that great and wise men of exalted soul who would raise lasting buildings for the love of God, so that the world should be more beautiful and man live it better and more easily, should everywhere and for all time vanish from this earth. Should they too vanish, it would mean that the love of God was extinguished and had disappeared from the world. That could not be. (own emphasis added)

Elena Cirkovic has a Ph.D. from Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, Toronto, Canada and is a Sessional Lecturer at Simon Fraser University.


TransConflict was established in response to the challenges facing intra- and inter-ethnic relations in the Western Balkans. It is TransConflict’s assertion that the successful transformation of conflict requires a multi-dimensional approach that engages with and aims at transforming the very interests, relationships, discourses and structures that underpin and fuel outbreaks of low- and high-intensity violence.

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