Undermining Democracy in East Timor and Bosnia

In all the UN administrations, the vast network of human rights protections leaves little space for any local accountability. As Seth Mydans noted in the New York Times, one critical problem with the UN protectorate’s nation-building attempts, involving an overhaul of every aspect of East Timorese society, has been that ‘relatively few local people are being given important roles in the planning and running of the reconstruction effort’. While UN bureaucrats took on the roles of district administrators, the leading political group in East Timor, the National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT), was ignored by the UN and refused office space in the capital Dili. There were daily protests at the UN’s high-handed rule over the territory. Jose Ramos Horta, CNRT Vice-President, complained: ‘We saw time going by and no Timorese administration, no civil servants being recruited, no jobs being created.’

The Bosnian example is probably the most revealing, as after six years of international rule the problems of external regulation are becoming clearer. The constantly expanding role of the multitude of international organisations has inevitably restricted the capacity of Bosnian people to discuss, develop and decide on vital questions of concern. At state level, the Bosnian Muslim, Croat and Serb representatives can discuss international policy proposals under the guidance of the [UN] Office of the High Representative, but at the most can make only minor amendments or delay the implementation of externally-prepared rules and regulations. Even this limited accountability has been diminished by the High Representative who has viewed democratic consensus-building in Bosnian state bodies such as the tripartite Presidency, Council of Ministers and State Parliament as an unnecessary delay to imposing international policy. Compared to the swift signature of the chief administrators’ pen, the working out of democratic accountability through the joint institutions was seen as ‘painfully cumbersome and ineffective’. At the end of 1997, the ‘cumbersome’ need for Bosnian representatives to assent to international edicts was removed and the High Representative was empowered both to dismiss elected representatives who obstructed policy and to impose legislation directly. The international community thereby assumed complete legislative and executive power over the formally independent state.

The Dayton settlement for Bosnia, like the Rambouillet proposals for Kosovo, promised the decentralisation of political power and the creation of multi-ethnic administrations in order to cohere state institutions and provide security to ethnic minorities and safeguard their autonomy. However, the experience of Dayton suggests that the outcome of the framework imposed will inevitably belie any good intentions that lie behind it. Minority protections, promised to the three constituent peoples under Dayton, have not been delivered under the international administration. At state, entity, city and municipal levels, a clear pattern has emerged where elected majorities have been given little control over policy-making. However, this power has not been decentralised to give minority groups security and a stake in government but transferred to the international institutions and recentralised in the hands of the High Representative. Today, the international community regulates Bosnian life down to the minutiae of local community service provision, employment practices, school admissions and sports. Multi-ethnic administrations exist on paper, but the fact that the consensus attained in these forums is an imposed one, not one autonomously negotiated, is important. Compliance with international edicts imposed by the threat of dismissals or economic sanctions does little to give either majorities or minorities a stake in the process, nor to encourage the emergence of a negotiated accountable solution that could be viable in the long term.

The institutions of Bosnian government are hollow structures, not designed to operate autonomously. The Bosnian state Council of Ministers with the nominal role of assenting to pre-prepared policy has few staff or resources and is aptly described by the Office of the High Representative as ‘effectively, little more than an extended working group’. Muslim, Croat and Serb representatives have all argued for greater political autonomy in policy-making, and have attempted to uphold the rights protected in the ‘letter’ of the Dayton agreement against the ad hoc reinterpretation of international powers under the ‘spirit of Dayton’. As an adviser to former Bosnian President Alijah Izetbegovic noted, there is a contradiction between the stated aims of the international protectorate and its consequences: ‘A protectorate solution is not good, because the international community would bring all the decisions which would decrease all the functions of Bosnia-Herzegovina institutions. The High Representative’s mandate is actually an opposite one, to strengthen the Bosnia-Herzegovina institutions.’

The frailty of Bosnian institutions has perpetuated the fragmentation of political power and reliance on personal and local networks of support which were prevalent during the Bosnian war. Both Susan Woodward and Katherine Verdery provide useful analyses of the impact on Bosnian society of the external undermining of state and entity centres of power and security. The lack of cohering political structures has meant that Bosnian people are forced to rely on more narrow and parochial survival mechanisms, which has meant that ethnicity has maintained its wartime relevance as a political resource.

It would appear that the removal of mechanisms of political accountability has done little to broaden Bosnian people’s political outlook. The removal of sites of accountable political power has, in fact, reinforced general insecurity and atomisation which has led to the institutionalisation of much narrower political relations in the search for individual links to those with influence and power. The narrowing of the political domain and reliance on individual survival strategies has assumed a generalised pattern across society. The ‘new feudalism’ noted by some commentators and the continued existence of weak para-state structures in Muslim and Croat areas of the Federation are symptomatic of the vacuum of integrative institutional power at state and entity level rather than some disintegrative dynamic.

The Dayton process has institutionalised fears and insecurities through high-handed international rule disempowering Bosnian people and their representatives. With little influence over, or relationship to, the decision-making process there is concern that entity boundaries or rights to land, employment and housing can easily be brought into question. The extended mandates of the international institutions have undermined the power of the main political parties and their elected representatives but have not created the political basis of a unitary Bosnia, except in so far as it is one artificially imposed by, and dependent upon, the international community.

Under the human rights international protectorates there is a high level of external regulation but little democracy and no mechanisms through which the rights administrators can rebuild fragmented societies. While mainstream commentators conflate human rights with empowerment, self-determination and democracy, there are few critics who draw attention to the fact that the human rights discourse of moral and ethical policies is essentially an attack on the public political sphere and democratic practices. The result is a ‘hypertrophied public realm’ with the political arena reduced to a narrow one of international officialdom with extensive powers wielded in isolation from wider society, and an ‘atrophied public realm’ in the sense of a loss of citizenship with collective political society reduced to reliance on personal and parochial networks. In fact, the time scales for external administration have been extended as society becomes increasingly atomised. In Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor external regulation has been highly destructive of the political sphere as increasing levels of civil interaction have come under regulatory control.

SOURCE: From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond: Human Rights and International Intervention, new ed., by David Chandler (Pluto Press, 2002/2006), pp. 204-207 (reference citations removed)

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