On a cold day in Paris twenty-four years ago today, world leaders gathered to sign and witness the Dayton Agreement, bringing to an end the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina which had torn the country apart for nearly 4 years. Some would argue that the war had raged on and off since 1389, when the Serb and Bosnian armies were defeated by the Ottomans on Kosovo Field in an event which remains at the fore of public consciousness even today.
It is tempting to see agreements like Dayton as synonymous with peace. After all, that is what the ‘Dayton Peace Agreement’ calls itself. During my work in Sudan and South Sudan over the last 16 years I have been privileged (and at times frustrated) to play a very small part in negotiations which led to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and subsequent ‘peace agreements’ for Darfur and Eastern Sudan, and we could devote several pages to the ways in which these were neither comprehensive nor about peace. The events that have rocked Sudan in recent months and continue to blight South Sudan are evidence of unfinished business.
Some elements are common to such agreements: maintaining a ceasefire; deciding which groups may seek independence and which will need to integrate themselves into existing states; agreeing territorial boundaries; ratifying new constitutions; policing the new arrangements. There may be provision for how to honour shared or distinct national memories, how to share power and wealth, or the timeframe for agreeing the things which in the violence of a bloody conflict are simply too raw to address immediately.
Twenty-four years on, the Dayton Agreement has not been an unmitigated success. Bosnia-Herzegovina remains deeply divided. Its constitutional labels entrench these divisions, and exclude minorities. The agreement stopped the killing, and a ceasefire is of course a very good thing. But justice and peace were de-prioritised in negotiations to end a genocide, and have yet to be put in place.
Dayton did include, as many such deals do, a mutual commitment to respect human rights. At the time this may be seen by negotiating parties as simply a means to hold war criminals to account, or at best to avoid further bloodshed. But understood more broadly, the respect for human rights comes close to what the Bible means by peace. In this week’s passage from Isaiah 11 which foretells Jesus’ ministry, we read of judging with righteousness, of standing up for the poor and needy, of predator and prey lying down together as a symbol of an earth which is “filled with the knowledge of the Lord”.
The real measure of peace is not whether or not we are at war, or how we carve up our countries into zones of control and influence by the powerful, though this may be an important precursor to peace. We demonstrate peace by how we fairly we treat each other, how we look after and speak up for the poor and those who are in need, and how we enable perpetrator and victim to seek and find a shared space of healing.
Dean’s Advisor for Reconciliation Ministry
UK Chair, Community of the Cross of Nails