15 years ago, Dayton Peace Accords: a milestone for NATO and the Balkans

  • Last updated: 14 Dec. 2010 16:29

Fifteen years ago, on 14 December 1995, the Dayton Peace Accords were signed in Paris, France, ending three and half years of violent and bloody war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the most brutal conflict in Europe since the Second World War. The accords led to the deployment of NATO's first peacekeeping force to oversee implementation of the military annexe of the peace agreement. This was an important milestone, not only for security in the Western Balkans, but also for NATO's post-Cold War transformation.

The peace agreement was negotiated under the auspices of the US envoy, Richard Holbrooke, at the Wright-Patterson Air Base in Dayton between 1 and 21 November 1995. Sadly, Mr Holbrooke passed away on the eve of the Dayton anniversary. In a statement released today, the NATO Secretary General paid tribute to his “diplomatic skills, strategic vision and legendary determination”.

Dayton: a complex settlement

The Dayton Accords brought an end to the war,” explains Jamie Shea, who was NATO Spokesman at the time and is currently serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary General for NATO’s new Emerging Security Challenges Division. “The Bosnian Serbs achieved their essential goal which was to have their own autonomous entity, whereas the Bosnian Muslims were able to prevent the partition of Bosnia and to preserve the majority of the territory. In short, neither side achieved its maximum objectives, but they were able to leave Dayton with the minimum that was acceptable to them. If the Dayton Accords had not been signed, the conflict would probably have continued.”

The settlement was complex. Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided into two entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska). The final division of territory did not correspond to the front lines at the end of hostilities. Territory therefore had to be transferred from one to the other. The central government was given limited powers and, at first, had almost no say over defence policy, which was in the hands of the two entities.

Although Dayton was key to stopping the conflict, critics say it left Bosnia and Herzegovina with a somewhat dysfunctional state structure. “This is particularly apparent in the proliferation of government structures and the problems in reform caused by the lack of a centralized authority,” says Shea. “However, changing the constitution to make Bosnia a more efficient country has proved very difficult thus far.

Dayton provided for the deployment of various international organizations to Bosnia and Herzegovina to oversee implementation in specific areas. NATO was tasked with overseeing implementation of the military annex, the first and by far the longest and most detailed annex of the accord.

NATO goes “out of area”

NATO’s support for international efforts to end the war signalled the development of a robust crisis-management role for the Alliance. It marked the end of the debate over whether the Alliance should go “out of area”, that is move beyond NATO borders.

The Alliance first got engaged in the Bosnian conflict in the early 1990s in support of the United Nations, helping enforce an arms embargo and a no-fly zone, and providing close air support for UN peacekeepers. Eventually, at the end of August 1995, as the security situation continued to deteriorate, NATO conducted a two-week air campaign. With the support of international forces on the ground, the air strikes helped lift the siege of Sarajevo and changed the dynamics of the war, paving the way for peace negotiations.

Working with partners

The deployment of NATO’s first peacekeeping force in the Balkans heralded the beginning of the participation of non-member nations in NATO-led operations. In total, 43 different countries, including all NATO Allies, contributed peacekeepers to NATO’s Implementation Force (IFOR) and the smaller follow-on Stabilization Force (SFOR). NATO maintained peace and security in Bosnia and Herzegovina for nine years, from December 1995 until the security mission was handed over to the European Union in December 2004.

NATO’s Bosnian peacekeeping operation also laid the foundations for the development of close cooperation with other international organizations – in particular the United Nations, the European Union, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe – in peace-building and stabilization efforts. Lessons learned in Bosnia and Herzegovina about the need for a comprehensive approach, involving both civilian and military actors, were later applied in Kosovo, and are being further developed in Afghanistan today.

Building lasting peace and security in the Western Balkans

Over the fifteen years since the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed, NATO’s relations with Bosnia and Herzegovina have evolved from peacekeeping to partnership. Over the years, NATO’s support for defence reform helped the country reform and downsize its military, bringing entity forces under centralized control. Support for essential reforms continues today, along with preparing the country for possible membership of the Alliance.

This mirrors the approach NATO has adopted since the 1990s to building lasting peace and security in the wider Western Balkans: active crisis-management and stabilization, followed by partnership and support for defence reform, and promoting the Euro-Atlantic integration of all countries in the region.

Integration of new democracies into NATO has not only made the Alliance stronger. It has also stabilized Europe and contributed to a safe and peaceful development,” says NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. “My dream will come true if one day we could see all countries in the Balkans as members of NATO. They belong to the Euro-Atlantic community.

New video: “From Peacekeeping to Partnership”

NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division has produced a three-part video documentary to mark the Dayton anniversary as well as highlight the remarkable turnaround that Bosnia and Herzegovina has made in the fifteen years since NATO deployed peacekeepers there.

The video focuses on three key aspects of NATO’s evolving relations with the country: