SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Representative Eliot L. Engel, the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today delivered the following remarks at the American University in Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of a conference marking the twentieth anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords:
You know, when someone gives me such a wonderful introduction like that, I wish that two of the women in my life could be here to hear it. One is my wife, and the other is my late mother. My mother would have believed every wonderful thing you said about me. My wife would have wondered who the heck you were talking about.
And the other bad thing I think about this gorgeous introduction is he builds up everybody’s expectations. And then when they finish they say, ‘You know what, he wasn’t really that good.
Jim Harff has been a friend of mine for many years, probably the entire time since I’ve been in Congress. And we met—actually we were doing work in the Balkans with Kosova—and here as well. And I was just a new Member of Congress. I joined the Foreign Affairs Committee because I really care about foreign affairs. And now I’m the Ranking Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which is the lead Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee. So the Democrats—we’re in the Minority in the Congress. So if we were to take the Majority, I would be the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
But I work very well with the current Chairman, who is a Republican, whose name is Ed Royce from California. And in the years gone by, we’ve worked together in the Balkans with Jim. Worked with another good Republican friend, Susan Molinari.
So I think that foreign policy needs to be bipartisan. It’s true of any country. We need to find common ground with people in other parties in our country. And I think when we do that—as hard as it may be—everyone sort of moves together in the country.
But, and I’m really happy to be here. It’s great to be with young people. I hope that all of you continue to get involved. And I hope that—you know—you will be the leaders of this wonderful country. Sometimes it takes a while.
I want to acknowledge Patty Ashdown… it was great to finally meet you, Patty, in person. And it’s really wonderful when you read about all these good people. And you get to meet them. And you realize how important it is and how privileged we are to have people of goodwill trying to help out.
I have been very involved with the Balkans. I come from New York City, in New York. I was born in New York City. My grandparents were refugees from Eastern Europe a hundred years ago. They came to America a hundred years ago.
And so when I watch all the problems with Syria and refugees and all the other problems, I think about how important it is and how the United States really needs to get involved and really needs to. We can’t solve everything ourselves, but I think that we need to be engaged and involved.
So it’s an honor for me to help mark the 20th anniversary of the Dayton Accords. It’s a pleasure to visit Sarajevo once again. And I hope, positively, to add to the conversation about the future of this country and this region.
I’ve been very focused on the Balkans for many, many years. I remember when I was a very junior member of the U.S. Congress, watching as this region descended into violence after the breakup of Yugoslavia. I remember the panic I felt as ethnic contours began to define this conflict. And bit-by-bit, Bosnian Serb forces embraced humanity’s darkest crime, committing genocide against the Bosniak population.
And I thought, how could this be? Less than half a century after the end of the Holocaust in Europe. How could another genocide occur here in Europe? Less than half a century after the world said with one voice, ‘never again.’ How could this be the reality on the eve of the 21st century?
But it was the reality—as you know so well—even if some of you may not have been born or had been little children. And I’m sure you’ve heard from your families. The lives lost. The women and children raped and killed. The men marched for miles, tortured, lined up, and mowed down into shallow graves. The war raged for nearly four years. And then it was over.
In that small Ohio city of Dayton, leaders hammered out a complicated compromise arrangement that brought peace. It provided stability. It silenced the guns.
I’ve visited this beautiful country a number of times in the last twenty years. I’ve seen a society that has pulled itself out of the depths of a brutal war. That has begun to establish democracy. That has taken the first steps toward integration into a Europe whole and free. And there is no doubt that the peace that followed from the Dayton Accords set the stage for that progress.
But—and there’s always a but—the absence of war—even the presence of peace—is not the same as the progress and prosperity of a country. A peace treaty is not a charter for freedom, justice, and democracy. So, while acknowledging what it accomplished, we also need to be clear-eyed about Dayton. While you all know the Agreement’s limitations, it’s past time in my opinion to take a hard look at what comes next. And to set a course toward a brighter future.
So, I’d like to share my observations about where Bosnia stands today as a result of Dayton. About the choices Bosnia is facing that will determine its future. And about the course that, in my view, will move this country, its people, and the whole region in the right direction.
Looking back, we can say with confidence that Dayton accomplished its goal. Was it perfect? Absolutely not. The plan’s architect, the great Richard Holbrooke who was a friend of mine, knew that Dayton was a compromise among warring parties. Not a panacea or a long-term plan for a troubled country. But it did end the war. And that it was a great accomplishment.
And as we see twenty years on, though the peace has held, this was an arrangement. An agreement that caused all sides to lay down their weapons. But not one designed to build the inclusive, modern society that the people of this country deserve. In fact, bringing all the parties onboard in Dayton required provisions that cut against some of the most basic ideas that underpin a free, democratic society.
Democracies don’t place collective rights ahead of individual rights. Individual rights are the cornerstone of any democracy. Yet some parties to Dayton had just witnessed their friends and families wiped out in a genocide. Peace for them had to be predicated on an acknowledgement that they had the right to exist and govern themselves inside a new Bosnia.
On the other hand, those driving nationalist conflict wanted to keep other groups sidelined in regional political decisions. So democracies don’t exclude their people from full political participation because of their nationality, and cast others off as second-class citizens.
Dayton, as you know, created three presidencies in Bosnia: one for a Bosniak, one for a Serb, one for a Croat. Other public offices are limited in the same way, depending on where you live.
If you’re Roma, or Albanian, or Jewish, you’re out of luck. But the parties to Dayton, fresh from conflict, wanted to build governing structures free from the influence of their recent adversaries. These were the unpleasant compromises needed to end the war. They were not designed to permanently govern a large, diverse country as the law of the land.
Now, some reform-minded leaders saw this problem straightaway and pushed for progress. They started to push Bosnia toward a more stable democracy and toward integration with the EU, the European Community. They were supported by friends in the United States, the UK, and Europe, who also saw this as the best path forward.
But entrenched and corrupt elites in the country, in my opinion, exploited Dayton’s framework. They stoked all old ethnic divisions, consolidating their power among their own groups, and pushing back against efforts to integrate the country and move it forward. Constitutional reforms were drafted, but languished for years until they were finally abandoned altogether.
So twenty years on, Dayton’s divisive, undemocratic provisions unfortunately remain the status quo in Bosnia. Nationalist sentiment keeps many citizens disenfranchised and keeps the country from embarking on a future of democracy and prosperity.
As a result, progress toward NATO and EU membership is stalled. Foreign investment is minimal. The economy is stagnant. Unemployment has staggered. And a growing young population—unfortunately—is departing in huge numbers, seeking opportunity elsewhere. And a country without a younger generation, in my opinion, is a country without a future.
Yet rather than doing the hard work needed to build democracy, some in this country have chosen to cling to the ethnic-based governance stemming from an agreement rooted in the past and designed for a radically different purpose.
So where does Bosnia go from here? I can envision a few possible scenarios. The first—frankly—is to go nowhere. To adhere to the status quo and keep leaning on the Dayton Accords as a creaky underpinning for this country. After all, there is peace in Bosnia. That’s a good thing. And I can understand why some in power prefer their current situation to the stringent demands for accountability and transparency that are required of EU members. But I’m equally certain that the students at this university—the majority of you here today—and many, many others—disagree. You want a country that promises opportunity and prosperity. And you deserve it.
And let’s not be naïve: peace today doesn’t guarantee peace tomorrow. History has shown us again and again, here and around the world, that divisive rhetoric leads to divisive policies. Easy precursors to violence. It’s like carrying an open flame through dry brush. It’s only a matter of time before the fire catches, and very likely burns out of control.
The second path, in my view, is the most dangerous for Bosnia, the Balkans, and the rest of Europe. If the status quo represents a potential disaster, the second scenario is dousing the fire with gasoline.
I’m referring specifically to the divisive actions threatened by Republika Srpska’s President Milorad Dodik—actions inconsistent with Dayton’s minimum standards. President Dodik has been pushing an agenda to peel off the judiciary of Republika Srpska from the national government as a precursor to a separatist referendum. Though he claims legitimacy under the guise of a ballot referendum, we know there’s no true legal path for this action.
Some in the EU dismiss Dodik’s rhetoric as a lot of bluster. A lot of talk. But I wouldn’t take that risk. I would caution you to pay close attention. He has been steering Republica Srpska away from the federal Republic for many years, making national reconciliation ever more difficult. And if Dodik does press forward with this effort, the international community, in my opinion, must respond. The High Representative retains the authority to revoke the referendum. And the United States can sanction any player who undermines the peace that Dayton achieved.
The third course is the one I think that all of us would like to see for this country and its people: get back on the path toward the constitutional reform needed for democratic progress and for European integration. Move toward a system that guarantees individual rights, allows full political participation, and opens the shutters to shine a bright light on corruption and lack of accountability in government. And corruption is a very real problem. We have to acknowledge it and correct it. Because you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.
Now, it’s easy obviously to lay out that vision. But as the last two decades have shown, it’s much harder to take action. So we need to ask: how do we break this logjam? How do we move past the impediments that have stymied reform for so long?
Well, as an American visiting this country, the first thing I’d say is that Bosnia needs true friends and real partners to do all we can to help Bosnia get back on track. After all, it’s in the interest of the United States and the EU to see more strong partners on the global stage who support universal values of human rights and human dignity, both for the welfare of individuals and because those values lead to stability and security. It’s in everyone’s interest to see Bosnia advance as a stable democracy.
For the United States and the EU, that should start by refocusing on the region. Quite frankly, we aren’t paying enough attention. We’ve taken our eye off the ball when it comes to the Balkans, in my opinion. Right now in our State Department, Bosnia-Herzegovina is one of more than a dozen countries overseen by a single Deputy Assistant Secretary.
I know our diplomats here are doing great work—and there are a lot of hot spots, and our Ambassador is wonderful—but we must do better and think bigger. There are a lot of hot spots around the world, but we need to be more focused on the Balkans.
We shouldn’t be satisfied with the low bar of relative peace and stability. There’s relative peace and stability. That’s very good. But Bosnia, in my opinion, could do so much better. Its people could do so much better. All of you could do so much better. You are the future of Bosnia. And I’m sure you want a better future.
Because the countries that are just getting by may be the places where threats linger just below the surface. So again, we shouldn’t be satisfied with the low bar of relative peace and stability. Bosnia deserves better.
For example—in Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans—we see economies stagnating. We see ethnic division deepen every day as youth are educated in their own language, are taught their own historical narrative, and rarely interact with other ethnic communities. Those are among the factors that create fertile ground not only for deeper rifts in this divided nation, but for violent extremism to grow.
This is a region that should grab the attention of the West and not let go. The United States and our allies want to see more countries integrated into Europe. We want to see inclusive, pluralistic, and productive societies. And so—whether using carrots or sticks—we need to urge Bosnia to move beyond the status quo.
But the changes that will carry Bosnia forward won’t be driven from Brussels, or London, or Washington. They’ll start right here. They’ll start with forward-looking citizens and leaders demanding that the debate over this country’s future take place out in the open. Not behind closed doors as in the past. Demanding that civil society, activists, and journalists be part of the conversation. Not pushing their concerns off to the side. Demanding that changes be far-reaching and comprehensive. Not piecemeal efforts that allow entrenched powers to dig their heels in on the biggest issues.
This week, we’ve seen flashes of this type of leadership. Leaders from this country and Serbia met for the first time in a generation—with an aim toward starting reconciliation, looking for ways to cooperate, and spreading greater stability throughout the region. This should give us hope.
With any luck it will lend strength to the political will needed to shake loose Dayton’s status quo. To stand up to an outdated ethnically-division driven oligarchic system. To confront those who keep this country divided so that they can to solidify their control over their own constituencies. That’s not good for this country. You know it and I know it.
Building democracy isn’t easy. The United States knows this from our own experience over the centuries. We’re still trying. And if anyone is paying attention to American politics, you’ll know that even after all those centuries, democracy is never perfect. But it is possible.
Democracy’s greatest success stories in the 20th century are those of countries that rose from the depths of destruction and conflict to build some of the freest, strongest, most prosperous nations in the world today. Look at Japan and German. In those cases, they were defeated in war in World War II. It took leaders coming to grips with the dark chapters of their past and committing to a brighter future.
So, in conclusion, that success can happen again and it can happen right here. But it demands that courageous people rise to the challenge. Twenty years ago, peace was achieved only after so much had been lost. Today, what was gained in that peace is at risk.
And so the people of Bosnia, again, must rise to meet a challenge. To unleash this country’s potential. And to chart a course towards a future of peace with prosperity. You will all be a part of that.
I look forward to that future. I will continue to do my part, pushing for American leadership and support here and across the region. And I am confident that the future holds many more years of friendship and partnership. Thank you all very much.