Commentary

The High-Handed High Representative

By Gary Dempsey
February 17, 1998

High Representative Carlos Westendorp, the U.N. official in charge of implementing the Dayton Peace Accords in Bosnia, is increasingly assuming autocratic powers. So far, he has dictated Bosnia’s citizenship and passport laws and decided what the country’s first national currency will look like. On Wednesday, he imposed a national flag when Bosnian officials failed to come to an agreement themselves.

Westendorp’s authority to take such high-handed actions grows out of a meeting last December in Bonn of the nations implementing the peace plan. That group granted him a broad mandate to settle political disputes if Bosnian officials missed a series of deadlines. It also gave him the power to dismiss elected officials who resist his efforts to build a common government.

But to hear Westendorp tell it, he doesn’t need the Bonn committee’s approval to take action. In a November 1997 interview with Slobodna Bosna he explained: “You see, if you read Dayton carefully … Annex 10 gives me the possibility to interpret my own authorities and powers. Therefore I do not need anything new, in the legal sense… . If they want to give this to me in writing at the Bonn conference it would be the best, and if not, I am going to do it anyway.”

In describing his authority, Westendorp went on to assert: If Bosnia’s elected officials can’t “agree about some decision, for example the passports, the license plates, the flag … I will stop this process of infinite discussions. In the future, it will look like this: I will give them … a term to bring a certain decision, that is to agree about some decision. If they do not, I will tell them not to worry, that I will decide for them.”

And when asked how Bosnia’s elected officials might react to his decisions, Westendorp responded: if they “show resistance towards the implementation of these decisions, and if they block Dayton systematically, I will ask for the resignation of those who are not cooperative.” More bluntly, in a December interview with Nasa Borba, he told Bosnian officials: “So, if you do not agree, do not worry: I will do it for you. If you don’t agree systematically, worry not again: I will liberate you from this duty.”

Westendorp’s imperious attitude should come as no surprise. It is consistent with his patronizing treatment of the Bosnian people. As he explained to them in his New Year’s Eve speech: “We are here to help you overcome that very human instinct of exaggerating the differences that separate us from our neighbors.” Thus, he informed them: “I have to take decisions now and in the future with your best interests in mind, should your leaders fail to take them.”
His attitude is also consistent with his simplistic interpretation of the Bosnian conflict. According to Westendorp, Bosnians do not kill Bosnians, politicians kill Bosnians. “The divisions are created by power elites to preserve their power,” he explains. Change the politicians and their separate institutions, and you change the culture of fear and intolerance that makes it impossible for Serbs, Muslims and Croats to get along.

By imposing a flag, a national currency and citizenship and passport laws, Westendorp is attempting to forcibly create common institutions and build a nation from the top down.

But can Westendorp build a nation by decree? Probably not. There are still deep divisions between rival Bosnian factions that even his edicts can’t eliminate. The currency he has imposed, for example, will be printed in two different versions. The version issued in the Muslim-Croat half of the country will emphasize the Latin alphabet and feature famous Muslims and Croats. The Serb version will emphasize the Cyrillic alphabet and feature historical and cultural figures who are Serb. No one knows for sure if one group’s money will be accepted by the other.

Moreover, Westendorp’s decrees are not likely to lead to a lasting peace in Bosnia. Instead, they reflect a fundamental error in his thinking. The institutions he is imposing are based, not on Bosnians’ common interest in cooperating, but on their common desire to avoid the penalties of not cooperating — two very different things.

More important, his decrees expose the fundamental hypocrisy of the U.S.-led Dayton Peace Accords. That is, in attempting to impose democracy and western-style liberalism in Bosnia, the United States has allowed an unelected foreign official to behave like a despot.

Westendorp says he wants U.S. troops to stay in Bosnia for another “three, four, five years maximum.” But U.S. taxpayers have already spent $8 billion on reconstruction efforts. Perhaps it is time for Americans to seriously question whether a five-year commitment to Westendorp’s arrogant experiment in nation building is a wise foreign policy decision.

Mr. Dempsey is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.