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The Peace That Is Not: Bosnia and Herzegovina is an Egregious Example of Failures of Neoliberal Peacebuilding

In the media, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is often presented as a country unable to fix itself. Between the return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the image of BiH as a country on the verge of collapse featured strongly in newspaper headlines: from Bosnia being ‘in danger of breaking up’ to warnings of a ‘brewing crisis’ or ‘exploding Balkans.’ In this article, we explore the perception of BiH as a dysfunctional state torn between its aspiration to become a member of the European Union and the self-interested corruption of its ethno-national elites, and dig behind the headlines to find out the reasons behind the failure of the BiH peace process.

Image credit: WILPF
Gorana Mlinarević and Nela Porobić
6 October 2022

Why did peace fail in BiH?

To some extent, it is true that BiH is a country in which the aggressive militaristic and nationalistic strategies of its elites have resulted in a total blockade of the country’s institutions. But the truth of when, how, and why things went wrong with peacebuilding in BiH goes far beyond the sanitised analysis of mainstream media and in the political corridors of London, Brussels, Moscow, Istanbul, or Washington. 

The story of BiH’s failing peace started the day the war ended and a peace agreement between the ethno-nationalist and international elites was agreed upon, with the people of BiH conspicuously absent from those negotiations. Everything that has happened since then—from corruption, militarisation and the strengthening of ethno-nationalist projects to massive post-war emigration—is an outcome of how this so-called peace was built and by whom.

Such an outcome was not inevitable. The failure of the peace process is a product of the international community’s colonial approach to “building peace” according to their needs, and of the feudal and autocratic behaviour of ethno-nationalist elites. A functional state could not have been built on structures that ensure eternal impunity and reign of corrupted elites, both domestic and international, as little as sustainable peace could have been built on an uncontested spread of neoliberal capitalism under the guise of implementation of a peace agreement.

Having lived in this neoliberal “experiment”, wrapped in the language of peacebuilding and recovery, we are very familiar with its insidious workings: reducing democracy to an election day, using reconstruction and recovery as a paravane for privatisation and onslaught on our public sector and commons, using the implementation of the peace agreement as a pretence for transforming our political economy without giving us a say in it, introducing fiscal consolidation and austerity measures and claiming those are socio-economic reforms, consolidating political and economic power in the hands of few and calling it progress, using the international loans under the pretence of investment in sustainable energy and infrastructure while at the same time destroying and polluting our ecosystem and pushing us further into debt. It is crystal clear that the current international peacebuilding efforts are a vehicle for spreading neoliberal capitalism, with an international peacebuilding industry in the driver’s seat.

Understanding this background, unpacking the reasons why neoliberal peacebuilding in BiH is faltering seems to us of utmost importance. No one is off the hook. In our work, we have been warning for some time now that we need to go beyond the mainstream and localised interpretations, narratives, and understandings of the peacebuilding in BiH to see the full consequences on the political, economic and social context in which we are trying to restore our lives, at an individual and collective level. It is essential that we reflect on how the war and the peace have been interpreted, applied, projected, and reproduced within the Bosnian and Herzegovinian society and how a process of peacebuilding, firmly grounded in neoliberal ideology, has generated results contrary to the very essence of peace. 

The global failures of neoliberal peacebuilding

BiH is not the only country that has fallen victim to the neoliberal peacebuilding industry. It is, however, a particularly egregious example of how flawed this approach has been and continues to be. Other feminists have also been warning, in relation to Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and many other places, that the actual consequence of the neoliberal approach to peacebuilding is militarisation, exploitation, deepening of inequalities and depoliticisation. Not peace. And this is a structural problem with global consequences.

As the invasion of Ukraine, along with militarisation of our societies and our everyday lives, is being normalised in the public debate, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Balkans are again popping up as the next potential war zones in the never-ending opening of new fronts. Building peace by and for the people, rather than elites, should be at the top of the global agenda, but it is not.

Unless we start opening up discussions about and addressing the militaristic workings of neoliberalism, and start looking for other solutions, we are approaching the point of no return and risking the future of our planet. The first step is to recognise that peace and neoliberal capitalism are two mutually exclusive concepts and to look for alternatives.  More than 25 years of failed peacebuilding in Bosnia and Herzegovina have made this painfully clear.

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Gorana Mlinarević and Nela Porobić

Gorana Mlinarević and Nela Porobić are feminist researchers and activists from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their critical reflections on peacebuilding in BiH, ‘The Peace That Is Not: 25 Years of Experimenting with Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina,’ can be read here.

Melissa Torres

VICE-PRESIDENT

Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani

VICE-PRESIDENT

Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo

PRESIDENT

Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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Demilitarisation

WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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