A few thoughts on the contemporary role of the OHR in BiH

The Office of the High Representative Building in Sarajevo.

During a recent trip to Sarajevo, I met an MA student doing research on the Office of High Representative (OHR) in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Having written my PhD dissertation on that subject, I was intrigued by the angle the student wanted to pursue: the OHR’s contemporary role in the European integration process. The double-hatting of the OHR as the European Union Special Representative having ended in 2011, instinctively I dismissed the idea of the OHR having any role to play in this area any more. But then the student said to me: “But surely the fact that there still is an OHR in Bosnia has to mean that it has some effect, doesn’t it?”

A rather intriguing question, I must admit. Whenever I am asked about the OHR’s contemporary role at talks or lectures, I usually, first, facetiously say that the institution’s standing has evolved from a political power player with amazingly far-reaching decree powers to being the international hub for “expressing concern” with political developments, as the OHR regularly does in its press statements. Secondly, I then explain that the times of the OHR actively intervening in daily politics so as to resolve or decide political issues by using its decree powers (the so-called Bonn powers) have long been over. In 2015, I wrote in an op-ed that “as a tool for resolving political issues, the Bonn powers have been dead for quite some time”, putting forward three arguments why this is so.

Firstly, there is no more unanimity among the international members of the Steering Board, the overseeing board of the OHR, with regards to a common course of action or strategy. With diverging opinions prevailing, the OHR is incapable of actually formulating and implementing a robust, interventionist policy. Secondly, the OHR lacks significant political and personnel resources to actually implement its decisions, even if it could find unity to take them. And thirdly, I warned that the Bonn power’s continued existence, despite its presumed practical ineffectiveness, may prevent a stronger course of action from international actors, as the powers provide some sense of security that certain events will not occur.

Re-reading my piece today and disregarding its somewhat alarmist tone (I guess I wanted the piece to be a wakeup call for internationals at the time), I think the analysis of the OHR’s position still largely holds true. The Steering Board is nowhere nearer to a unanimous position, or strategy on the OHR’s future. In fact, quite the contrary seems to be true. People involved in the inner workings of these things will tell you that there is no real agreement on whether the institution should continue after Valentin Inzko, the current High Representative, leaves office––let alone on who should succeed him. This might be one of the reasons why Ambassador Inzko is still not retiring, despite persistent chatter among the Sarajevo čaršija that he actually wishes to do so for some time now. The OHR seems to have become one of these institutions caught up in the geopolitical triangle of EU, US, Russian, and Turkish influences on the Western Balkans.

The second point seems even stronger today than it was in 2015. Let us start with the personnel. As Valentin Inzko said in his latest report to the UN Security Council in May 2019: “Since the beginning of my mandate in 2009, the budget of the Office of the High Representative has been reduced by 53 per cent and my staff by over 58 per cent. Resources must follow the mandate and, as there is still work ahead of us, further cuts would take us beyond streamlining. Without the appropriate level of resources, the capacity to fulfil my mandated responsibilities, implement the Dayton Peace Agreement and fulfil the conditions for closure is restricted.” The staff situation seems to have become so dire that, according to some admittedly unconfirmed rumours I have heard, the OHR has started renting out not needed office space in its building to commercial companies. The EU’s EUFOR mission, which succeeded the NATO Implementation Force in 2004 with its Operation Althea, has seen similar staff and budget reductions. Originally a force of some 7,000 troops, troop levels were first decreased to 1,600 in February 2007, and ultimately to some 600 troops following a further restructuring in 2012.

Reminders of another time, when the OHR enjoyed certain privileges (Zenica).

EUFOR is thus not in a position to act as a supporting power should, for example, an OHR decree not be implemented by domestic actors. And the High Representative is not in a real position to effectively discharge the duties of its office. Nobody knows what would actually happen if the OHR were to remove a politician from office or decree a law. The most probable course of action would be that such a decision is ignored or not implemented by this or that side, producing a massive headache for the international community and raising serious questions about the effectiveness and legitimacy of the OHR. As nobody seems to be willing to open that particular can of worms, inaction becomes a dominant strategy, and press releases expressing concern the preferred modus operandi.

However, there are also voices that say that the OHR is still heavily involved in daily politics, not so much with respect to the agenda of the domestic politicians, but with respect to the actions of internationals. Apparently, there are regular consultations and exchanges of views, and not least the reports certainly show that the OHR is closely following the domestic developments. Yet, is this enough? Where’s the value added of such an action that could easily be performed by institutions without the singular distinction of having far-reaching intervention powers?

So, we arrive at the inevitable question that this piece was always bound to end on: should the OHR be closed?

There are those who see the OHR as a kind of safety net––an institution with legal and political legitimacy to intervene that could be invoked if things turn badly. Some say that it’s precisely this role that prevents even more disastrous things from happening, as it curtails destructive domestic action, even if it cannot curtail rhetoric. I do not wish to dismiss the security argument, as it’s really difficult to assess an institution’s impact based on an eventuality that might or might not occur one day without making a lot of assumptions. I just have the feeling that the OHR’s contemporary impediments have made it more of a lame duck than an effective deterrent for destructive action and politics. The political elites don’t give the impression that they see the threat––or benefit––of the OHR, apart from some rather vague notion that it might step in when push comes to shove. It is mostly employed as a rhetorical tool, not a real force.

In addition, if the OHR’s mandate is to ensure the completion of the 5+2 agenda, the trend seems to be going in the wrong direction. BiH seems today far away from being a “peaceful, viable state irreversibly on course for European integration”, as the agenda designates the ultimate goal. NATO accession is more contested than it has ever been in the past ten years and EU integration is far from a given. In fact, the assessment report on BiH’s readiness to join the EU outlines a plethora of necessary structural changes before the country can be considered ready for negotiations, let alone membership. Furthermore, judging by all relevant metrics for measuring the quality of democracy, Bosnia and Herzegovina has deteriorated in recent years.

If the OHR still has a role to perform, it is hard to see what that role actually is. It is hard to see whether any role can be performed effectively. And it is hard to see what results the OHR has to show for in the past ten years. We are thus left with a rather vague notion of an eventual security net, and the fact that the OHR regularly makes BiH a topic at the UN Security Council through its reporting. This has to be weighed against the effects it has as a projection area for hopes or hatreds of the domestic political elites as well as the international community. If one were interested to undertake such an assessment honestly, I am not sure that keeping the OHR open would be a foregone conclusion.

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