Bosnia: Republika Srpska Vows to Hold Referendum on War Crimes Cooperation; How will the International Community Respond?

by Anes Alic

The parliament of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska decided on Wednesday to call for a referendum on whether Bosnian Serbs should continue to cooperate with the country’s war crimes court, citing the court’s alleged anti-Serb bias.

Out of the 75 lawmakers present, 66 voted for the proposal presented by Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who said the court has tried mainly Serbs.

Dodik went on to accuse the international community of helping Bosniaks to create an Islamic state, claiming that the country’s top war crimes court was an illegal institution that demonizes his people. As proof of this, Dodik said that the Bosnian prosecution had charged and courts indicted ten times more Serbs than Bosnian Croats or Bosniaks.
The State Court and its prominent war-crimes section was established by the international community in 2002 to ease the burden on the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) by taking over lower level cases.

In the last nine years, Bosnia’s ethnic Serbs have been sentenced to a total of 1,067 years of imprisonment by the Bosnian war crimes court, whereas ethnic Croats were sentenced to 137 years and ethnic Bosniaks to 124 years of imprisonment. Out of the convictions handed down by the court, 50 have been against ethnic Serbs, 11 against Croats and eight against Bosniaks.

This largely reflects the breakdown for sentences handed down by the ICTY – and any debate over these ratios would necessarily lead to a wider debate over the nature of the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia.

The ICTY has indicted 102 individuals for crimes committed during the Bosnian war. Of those, 66 are Bosnian Serb s, 27 Bosnian Croats and nine Bosniaks. Combined, those convicted have been sentenced to over 1,000 years in prison. A total of 21 individuals, all Bosnian Serbs, have been indicted for genocide.

A Realistic Referendum?

No date has been set for Dodik’s referendum, but most likely it will not take place – it is widely expected that the international community will react strongly to the move, first by annulling the decision of the Republika Srpska parliament as a violation of the country’s constitution.

The international community’s High Representative Bosnia, Valentin Inzko, who oversees the implementation of the Dayton accords here, is likely to make use of his sweeping “Bonn Powers”, which authorize him to fire obstructive officials and impose and annul the parliamentary decisions.

Furthermore, war crimes are only a surface issue and the referendum itself is about larger issues, all of them fueled by common political opportunism. The majority of those indicted for war crimes were arrested when Dodik was in the opposition in Republika Srpska – arrest he at the time praised as an important step towards reconciliation in the post-Radovan Karadzic atmosphere.

As Dodik’s main political agenda in the past five years has come to be the destabilization of state-level institutions, this move can be interpreted as part and parcel of that long-term strategy. The referendum call is also another thinly veiled attempt to test the boundaries of how much autonomy Dodik can win for Republika Srpska by triggering a new crisis.

The reaction of international community will mark country’s future for the next three years, and whether the country’s officials will spend the remainder of their mandate locked in similar battles. Only five years ago, the international community would not have thought twice about suspending officials for similar actions.

Former international community diplomats in Bosnia have called for sanctions against Bosnian Serb officials, while former High Representative Paddy Ashdown has even called for military actions against Republika Srpska officials. Inzko has not officially responded to these calls. He is likely waiting to see if RS will make the referendum official.

The parliament’s decision is only a resumption of a direct challenge to the international community’s stewardship of Bosnia, while Dodik has for years been sparring with various High Representatives over the legality of their arbitrary decisions.

The Bosnian state has been largely dysfunctional in the more than 15 years since the end of the war, as the population remains heavily divided along contrived ethnic lines. The general elections held last October have still failed to produce a central government.


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