Finish my father's work for peace in Bosnia

Life of diplomat Richard Holbrooke chronicled in new film
Life of diplomat Richard Holbrooke chronicled in new film

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Story highlights

  • David Holbrooke: 20 years after Richard Holbrooke negotiated Bosnia peace accord at Dayton, a new agreement is needed
  • Peace has held for two decades but Bosnia is stagnating economically and politically, he says

David Holbrooke is a documentary filmmaker whose latest film is "The Diplomat," about his father, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, which premieres on HBO Monday, November 2, at 8 p.m. He is also the festival director of Telluride Mountainfilm, a documentary film festival that takes place every Memorial Day weekend. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Twenty years ago today, on November 1, 1995, American diplomats welcomed the presidents of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia to Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio. It was an unlikely place to try to end the horrific war in the Balkans, but that was the task before the American team, led by my father, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

Just getting those leaders there after more than three years of killing was already an achievement, but now he had to seek to create a lasting peace.
Traveling throughout the region for a new documentary I directed about my father called "The Diplomat," I interviewed dozens of people, including Camil Durakovic, the Muslim mayor of Srebrenica.
    Age 16 in 1995, he narrowly survived the Serbian killing of more than 8,000 Muslims by hiking through the woods for weeks to safety. He told me "to be a mayor of this town and to deal with such group of people that has emotional and old psychological effects from everything that happened is a really sensitive job. You deal with mothers that lost two sons and a husband, you deal with mothers that lost five sons, you deal with fathers that lost sons, twin brothers."

    A hard won peace

    Dayton was intended to stop the killing and start the peace and has achieved that for two decades. Not another shot was fired in anger after the unlikely peace agreement was reached over 20 days of intense, often bitter, negotiation. But today Bosnia is struggling with the aftereffects of Dayton, and I believe the time has come to dismantle this landmark agreement.
    At Srebrenica, there is a large and beautiful memorial to the dead (which was my father's idea) and the mayor showed me the list of people with his family name who were killed over the four-day slaughter. It went on and on and on. Yet polls show that 80% of Bosnian Serbs believe that the damning accounts of the war and Serbian aggression are overblown.
    This past summer when the U.N. Security Council sensibly attempted to label the atrocities of Srebrenica a war crime, the Serbs got the Russians to veto that proclamation. The measure receded from view, a staggering outrage to the families of those who were systematically murdered.
    As I walked around the Srebrenica memorial, I saw families sobbing as they buried the newly found remains of loved ones that had been unearthed in the past year. I saw a coffin 3 feet long, and thought that this was the saddest place I'd ever been. At some point, I came across two young men who were wearing bright blue T-shirts with the giant words "Anti-Dayton" printed on them.
    Slightly startled, I asked them about this message and one of them told me, "As the time passed by, Dayton became like chains for people."
    David and Richard Holbrooke

    Holbrooke knew it was flawed

    My father understood that diplomacy was inherently imperfect so he knew that Dayton was a flawed agreement. However, it was infinitely better than the ongoing slaughter. Alija Izetbegovic, the founding father and president of Bosnia, said before agreeing to the terms of the accord that, "it is an unjust peace, but my people need peace." My father hoped that once the intensity and pressure of the negotiations abated, the agreement would be updated, but sadly, he was wrong and the Dayton Peace Accords, an enormous part of his legacy, persist.
    The problem is that Dayton handed a large chunk of Bosnia to the Serbs and created an unwieldy structure of governance that was intended to be transitional yet is now a de facto constitution. As a result, it no longer functions in the dynamic way this still young country needs to grow.
    Politicians of all sides use Dayton as an excuse for Bosnia's economic and political stagnation, and unless it is updated, old enmities could very well emerge again. If that happens, the hostilities could have even higher stakes. In 1995, Russia was in disarray and too focused on its own internal problems to care about the Balkans. The Russia of today would likely take a keen and bellicose interest.

    America's role?

    American diplomats should now lead the way in getting ahead of this situation before it becomes even more perilous. Despite the flaws of Dayton, they should take what works and keep it, while moving toward a new agreement that reflects today's political realities.
    They would have to deal with the ongoing intransigence of the Serbs, who see no advantage to a reboot of Dayton, but it's a challenge that can certainly be overcome as negotiations on Serbian membership of the European Union continue. As Durakovic told me, "America has this different approach to Srebrenica and this country in general. So they're the only ones that we can depend on."
    For the documentary, I sat down with a wide mix of people from Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Serbia and the United States, with generals, journalists and artists. I interviewed a hopeful American diplomat who was working to bring foreign investment into Bosnia to buoy the sagging economy as well as a cynical Bosnian Serb politician who excused his side's rampant aggression with equivocation about the victims.
    I spoke with a Sarajevan fruit seller who survived the heinous shelling on August 28,1995, of the vibrant market where he worked that killed 43 people and wounded another 75.
    Perhaps most memorably, I had a beer with two young men in their twenties who were sitting in their third grade classroom when a Serbian shell hit it, killing two students and the teacher. They told me that her scalp ended up on the chalkboard.
    Despite this hellish experience, the men have grown up to have good jobs in a tough economy. However they are deeply cynical about the direction of their country. When I asked them what they thought of my father, one of them told me: "We don't hate him like all the other politicians."
    The war took 200,000 lives and displaced 2 million people over four years. A war that my father called "the greatest collective security failure of the West since the 1930s" was ended at Dayton and the best measure of that achievement is how many people are living today who otherwise would not have been. It was a tremendous victory for U.S. diplomacy, which my father believed at its best used American power to save and improve lives around the world.
    Wounds remain open and peace is still tenuous in Bosnia. To see American diplomatic leadership on this issue would be a fitting tribute to my father, who died five years ago.
    In the final passage of his book, "To End a War," he wrote, "The world's richest nation, one that presumes to great moral authority, cannot simply make worthy appeals to conscience and call on others to carry the burden. The world will look to Washington for more than rhetoric the next time we face a challenge to peace."