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Jun 11, 2014 | Commentary

Police reform in a post-conflict context is rarely a short-term task, as the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina reminds us all too well. Recent protests in some of Bosnia’s major cities have focused attention on the country’s high unemployment and corruption. Yet, coming almost twenty years after the war, they also show that Bosnia’s police institutions are still unprepared and all too willing to use excessive force. The overzealous police response has thus effectively undermined previous contributions to building an accountable and transparent police service. In addition, leaders of key security and police agencies have further diminished this public perception by engaging in political infighting over the response.

Police reform was always considered a crucial component of Bosnia’s post-1995 security sector reforms. There were two major reasons for this focus. First, members of the police were particularly known for their human rights abuses during the 1992-1995 conflict; they also lacked proper training and had become overtly militarized. The UN estimated that some 70 percent of wartime “human rights violations…could be attributable to the police.” Also, in the immediate post-war period, the police were increasingly seen in various parts of Bosnia as a “protector” of their “own” ethnic group rather than the population at large (see here and here).

This brings us to the second reason for the reforms. The original intention was to create an integrated and representative police service capable of providing security over the whole territory. This task was complicated by the fact that Bosnia’s Constitution (Annex 4 of the Dayton Peace Accords) enshrined the right of the country’s two entities to provide security for their citizens. Bosnia’s decentralized Dayton political structure was mirrored in the country’s police structures as well. Following the Dayton Accords, only a few police functions remained at the state level, among them international and inter-entity criminal law enforcement and immigration.

As such, police reforms were focused on bolstering Bosnia’s state-level institutions and centralizing its police structures. The goal was thus to set state-wide standards for policing and to ensure coordination between different police services. However, the incompatibility between the main objective of security sector reform and the institutional setup of the Dayton Accords was difficult to overcome.

Despite lofty goals, Bosnia’s police reform efforts have been constantly tested in the local context. From the outset, the Bosnian Serb Republic (Republika Srpska), one of two entities codified in the Dayton Accords, resisted any attempts to release competencies to the state level and instead sought to have jurisdiction over its territory. As result, the Bosnian Serb Republic established its own police and Ministry of Interior, with Serb representatives arguing that policing in the entity was efficient and centralized. The situation is more complex in the other entity, the (Bosniak-Croat) Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, given its decentralization into ten territorially organized regions (cantons). Each canton has its own police force and Ministry of the Interior. Moreover, the Federation’s Ministry of Interior is not superior to the cantonal Ministries of Interior. In general, the Bosnian Serb Republic representatives as well as Croat-majority cantons prefer the fragmented structures.

Given the different levels and sheer number of police agencies, there is a general consensus that Bosnia’s police service is inefficient. For example, different police agencies have only recently decided to share an electronic information database with each other. Although some cooperation occurs across entity lines, plenty of cases reveal little to no cooperation. Initial goals of minority representation also remain underdeveloped. Given the demographic changes arising from past ethnic cleansing and unwillingness of returnees to go back to their original homes, police forces are often easily identified with majority single ethnic group in some areas. Civil society involvement and oversight of policing is in its infancy despite some projects on community policing. As such, the question of overall legitimacy of the police remains open.

But any assessment of Bosnian police reforms also needs to include the role of international actors. Since the 2012 closure of the European Union’s (EU) police mission in Bosnia, the issue of police reform has been put on hold. The EU’s inability to move police reform forward in Bosnia has had an impact on Bosnia’s development in more than one way. Francisco de Borja Lasheras aptly summarizes that the “botched” police reform in Bosnia has both undermined EU leverage with political elites but also, crucially, with Bosnian citizens as well. Bosnians who recently took to the streets even organized plenums or citizens’ forums to address governance issues in the country. Conspicuous by their absence at the protests have been EU flags and calls for EU involvement. Instead, protestors held up signs stating, “Europe, our kids are hungry.” These sentiments point to disconnect between the EU strategies and the daily reality faced by the population on the receiving end of elite-oriented policies. Hence, many citizens perceive international actors, rightly or not, as supporting the corrupt and inefficient political system.

Still, international representatives have been highly critical of the political elites in Bosnia. The current High Representative Valentin Inzko in the 44th Report to the UN Secretary-General, presented in October 2013, noted that political interference in operation policing remains a great challenge. Inzko specified that “[T]he primary challenge has come in the form of delayed appointments of independent boards, parliamentary bodies responsible for conducting the selection processes for police commanders, as well as the delayed appointments of police commanders themselves.” The latest evidence is visible in the fact that Bosnia was left without effective leadership of the Border Police and the Directorate for Coordination of Police Bodies, as of February 10, 2014, owing to the Council of Ministers’ failure to elect new heads of these two institutions. Both police organizations have been supported by the international actors and are seen as crucial to the security of the country, as well as the wider region in the case of the Border Police.

Undoubtedly, Bosnian police inefficiencies have important consequences for the region. The EU has recently pointed to weapons smuggling from Bosnia to European countries as a continuing concern. European Police Office’s Serious Threat Assessment for 2013 highlighted illicit firearms trafficking as a serious security concern in the Western Balkans. Police from the Bosnian Serb Republic cooperated with Swedish colleagues in arresting more than a dozen suspected smugglers. As such, an effective police service also benefits the wider region and EU security. Perhaps the greatest challenge remains the high level of fragmentation among different police services, particularly in the (Bosniak-Croat) Federation, which when coupled with the lack of coordination and cooperation leads to an unsustainable policing environment. At the moment, cooperation between different services remains ad hoc and dependent on individual police officers.

In the end, as a result of Bosnia’s political stalemate, the international community has pulled back on calling for more reforms. It is ironic that after the EU police mission closed its offices in 2012, EU policy makers went so far as to describe the mission as a success. Many regional and international analysts would beg to differ. As an international officer in Bosnia told us, “The full transformation of police did not happen. Bosnia’s policing is stuck in the early 2000s despite the significant international involvement.” Thus, the key question on Bosnian police reform is whether the international actors (in particular, the EU) can do anything to ensure that previous gains made in the security sector are not eroded beyond repair.


Branka Marijan is a PhD candidate in Global Governance at Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo. Dejan Guzina is associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and Senior Fellow of the Centre for Security Governance in Kitchener, Ontario. This post is an abridged version of their CIGI paper on Bosnian police reform.