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21 long days – the path to the Dayton Peace Agreement

14.12.2013 - Article

14 December 1995: The Dayton Peace Agreement was signed. In our series 'On the frontlines of history', our colleague Christian Clages remembers the arduous negotiations.

When the war in the former Yugoslavia came to an end in autumn 1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina was a war-torn and devastated country. The Dayton Peace Agreement, signed on 14 December in Paris, formally ended the war and our colleague Christian Clages, who is now the Ambassador in Beirut, was at the negotiations.

The former Presidents of the warring sides before they initialled the Agreement
The former Presidents of the warring sides before they initialled the Agreement© dpa/picture-alliance

“We were expecting to spend a few days in seclusion and were then surprised to find that after three weeks we had still not reached a conclusion”, German diplomat Christian Clages remembers when thinking of the Dayton negotiations. During the war he had been posted to Croatia and Bosnia, shortly before returning to Bonn he travelled to the peace negotiations in the US as a member of the German delegation. They finally began on 1 November 1995 at an US air base in Dayton, Ohio. This time there was real hope that a diplomatic solution to the war would at last be reached, Clages said:

The crucial difference between this and the previous attempts that had been made in the last three and a half years was that the parties were war weary and had become convinced that a military solution to the civil war would not be possible. For the first time a ceasefire held, following a massive intervention by NATO late in the summer of 1995, which saw air strikes on Bosnian Serb positions. All around Sarajevo, NATO Response Forces used artillery to ensure that the Serbs’ heavy weaponry was no longer deployed. This was a demonstration on the part of the West that they were no longer going to let the warring parties to lead them by the nose.

Failure out of the question?

Christian Clages
Christian Clages© AA

No one had wanted to imagine leaving Dayton without an agreement, according to Clages. “At the start, the atmosphere was good. All sides wanted to achieve peace and the fundamental parameters – maintaining the State of Bosnia and Herzegovina whilst establishing two Entities which would enjoy extensive self-administration – had already been agreed in Geneva and New York.” Nonetheless, at the opening session on 1 November the pressure to succeed weighed heavily on both mediators and warring parties as they sat at the round table. US negotiator Richard Holbrooke sat at the table as host, next to him sat the Presidents Milosevic (Serbia), Izetbegovic (Bosnia) and Tudman (Croatia) as well as the EU’s representative for Bosnia, Carl Bildt. Representatives from Russia and from the EU Contact Group comprising Germany, France and the United Kingdom were also present. Christian Clages remembers:

Everyone who was there had – for very different reasons – an interest in achieving peace. Milosevic wanted the sanctions imposed on Serbia to be lifted. Tudman from Zagreb hoped that a solution to the issue of Eastern Slavonia would be reached in Dayton, which turned out to be the case. Izetbegovic was well aware that if the war were to continue it would become ever harder to reconcile his people and country and to heal its wounds.

After the opening plenary in Dayton, all meetings were held in small groups, said Clages, from then on 'proximity talks' in the true sense of the word were held. Negotiators shuttled back and forth between the parties. There were no more plenary sessions, the crucial discussions took place bilaterally.

First step – agreement on the Federation

Dayton’s local newspaper reports on the agreement on the Federation (11 November 1995)
Dayton’s local newspaper reports on the agreement on the Federation (11 November 1995)© AA

Under the leadership of Wolfgang Ischinger, a former Ambassador, and Michael Steiner, the current Ambassador in New Delhi, the German delegation spent the first few days in Dayton working on the special topic of a federation agreement between Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks). This related to how the Bosnian-Croat Federation would be organised, as well as to the status of the town of Mostar. We then managed to persuade the parties to agree on a text which was over ten pages long.

In the moment when it was finished, Clages describes, Holbrooke looked at the paper and said “wow, that’s real stuff!”. He then said that the representatives of the Federation had already agreed on the distribution of competencies between the Central Government and the Federation and had thus outlined a significant part of the constitution. On 10 November, the agreement on the Federation was signed in Dayton.

Dramatic negotiations

Alongside factual information, the telegrams sent to Bonn by the German delegation also conveyed a sense of the increasingly arduous nature of the talks. On 14 November they read: “There will be no agreement in Dayton on Wednesday or Thursday... we are now reckoning with the event ending – with or without success – on Saturday.”

Sarajevo with a view over the cemetery
Sarajevo with a view over the cemetery© dpa/picture-alliance

On 17 November: “Unfortunately the deadlock in Dayton has yet to end... a last minute failure is not out of the question.”

On 20 November: “At the very last minute, early on Monday morning, the US and the whole Contact Group were confronted with completely unexpected and potentially catastrophic developments in the negotiations...”

Christian Clages remembers that last differences over the map, namely over apportioning 51 percent to the Federation and 49 percent to the Serbian Republic (Republic of Srpska), nearly put paid to the negotiation process.

On Monday we had all packed our bags and given up hope that we would achieve a positive outcome. There was a real danger of leaving with nothing to show for it.

The talks finally got back on track and German diplomats mediated in individual discussions. The US were on the brink of declaring the meeting over. However, on 21 November, at 13.35 local time the message could be sent to Bonn that: “as informed by telephone, after dramatic final negotiations on the map in which only the question of Brcko remained unresolved and many wanted to give up, the breakthrough did indeed come early this morning.” Christian Clages on this:

I don’t remember feeling any kind of euphoria, only relief that, after three weeks, we were not leaving Dayton empty-handed. However the future promised to be difficult and, in light of the challenge of implementing the Peace Agreement, uncertain.

Carl Bildt, first High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina (1995)
Carl Bildt, first High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina (1995)© dpa/picture-alliance

Two weeks after the signing of the Peace Agreement on 14 December in Paris, Christian Clages returned to Sarajevo to work in the Office of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Carl Bildt.

“I arrived on 28 December and was, alongside Carl Bildt’s British military advisor, the first to get there. We moved into our offices, there were no window panes, we had plastic sheeting on the windows – it was extremely cold, but I was back in Sarajevo! I was really happy to be back amongst my friends – and now as a first, in times of peace.”

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