In Box

Dayton Discord

How the international community failed Bosnia.

Major diplomatic achievements are usually the result of years of toil, bitter negotiations, and the successful balancing of diametrically opposed interests. But often, in the search for the big breakthrough, the little guys get left behind.

Consider Jakob Finci, a client of mine who challenged the systematic discrimination he suffered as a member of Bosnia's small Jewish community. During the 1990s civil war in the former Yugoslav republic, smaller groups, like the Jews, tried to remain neutral -- and many individuals, like Finci himself, took on dangerous work crossing the front lines to bring relief. Then, in 1995, famous diplomats such as U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke used their expertise to design a constitution to ensure such a war never took place again.

But one result of dividing political power among Yugoslavia's three main groups was that others, including the Jews and Roma, were relegated to second-class status and actually prevented from standing for the presidency or the parliament's upper house. You might have thought such blatant discrimination could not last long, especially as the international community was still overseeing the governing of Bosnia. You would be wrong. After 15 years, the Jews and Roma are still labeled "others" and excluded from the heights of power. Reform of this absurd system depended on the Bosnian politicians elected under the existing rules, who unsurprisingly have been in no hurry to change.

So Finci turned to the European Court of Human Rights in what became a most surreal case. Finci, a prominent public figure in Bosnia, was appointed ambassador to Switzerland, even as he was suing the country he represented. One of Bosnia's three presidents gave a speech in 2008 denouncing the very discrimination his government was defending in the case. Finally, the three-year-old case culminated last June before the Grand Chamber of the European Court in Strasbourg, France.

In its decision, the court had to grapple with the complexities of human rights after conflict. Ours was the first case at the European Court to take on the question of whether a state's constitution can violate the European Convention on Human Rights, and also the first to use a new provision of the convention that prohibits all forms of discrimination.

For such a historic case, it was a remarkably short hearing -- just three hours. The verdict, however, took months. Finally, on Dec. 22, it came: Excluding Jews, Roma, and other minorities from the presidency and upper house was declared to be discrimination. A no-brainer, perhaps. But such a system had existed for all these years in a country supposedly under international tutelage. The one judge who dissented warned that messing with the postwar settlement could spark new conflict. But the Dayton Accords were hardly a recipe for long-term stability and peace. Cyprus and Lebanon have similar political systems that exclude some minorities, and neither country can be described as peaceful or stable. Now, Bosnia will have to prove that equality works.

Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

In Box

The U.N.'s Dictator Envoy

Meet Ibrahim Gambari, diplomat to the autocrats.

Early this year, the United Nations sent its favorite dictator-whisperer, Nigerian diplomat Ibrahim Agboola Gambari, to Sudan, hoping to nudge the country's leader and alleged war criminal, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, toward peace. Gambari, a veteran of U.N. missions from Zimbabwe to Myanmar, has developed his knack for counseling autocrats on the job -- by working for one, Sani Abacha, the notorious late strongman president of Nigeria, whom Gambari served as U.N. ambassador from 1990 to 1999.

Anywhere else, Gambari's Abacha connection might be a career breaker. But since joining the United Nations in 1999, Gambari has thrived, managing crises from Angola to Cyprus and raising money for Iraq's reconstruction. According to U.N. staffers, his old-school capabilities as a diplomat, coupled with his Muslim faith and eminent standing in Africa, make him a formidable mediator. The Sudan assignment provides an opportunity to test whether Gambari's experience and easy rapport with unsavory political players can translate into concrete progress on the main challenges of the day: a settlement in Darfur and resolution of the standoff over the South's quest for independence.

Dictators are Gambari's specialty. Over the last decade, he has become the United Nations' go-to guy to coax despotic rulers out of isolation. In 2006, as Zimbabwe's economic crisis became a dire calamity, then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent Gambari to push Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe into ending a crackdown on poor urban settlers and permitting foreign aid workers into the country. Gambari's diplomatic initiative was intended to culminate the following year in a visit by Annan to Zimbabwe. But Mugabe nixed the plan. "Mugabe just told Kofi Annan to his face, 'Don't come,'" recalls Gambari, who blames Western countries for failing to arm him with sufficient incentives. "'You are coming empty-handed, the West is giving you nothing, and all you are going to do is to lecture me about what I'm doing wrong in Zimbabwe.'"

As U.N. ambassador, Gambari vigorously defended the Abacha regime's execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, calling his group of activists "common criminals." But he also pushed a progressive foreign policy that included sending Nigerian peacekeepers to Sierra Leone to restore democratic rule and pressing for action to halt the Rwandan genocide, even as his boss violently repressed political opponents at home. "If you didn't know about Abacha, you'd think Gambari represented an enlightened African country," says New Zealand's former U.N. ambassador, Colin Keating, who sat next to the Nigerian on the Security Council during the Rwandan genocide.

Today, Gambari is more than willing to use his past as a dictator's envoy as a selling point when talking to military rulers, such as Burmese junta chief Than Shwe. "To get a foot in, to get a hearing, I felt that background, my background, helped me tremendously. And they listened," he says.

Despite Gambari's lobbying, however, Myanmar has shown little sign of bowing to international pressure to embrace democratic reforms or release the country's jailed political leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, ahead of this year's national elections. And Than Shwe refused to meet with Gambari during his last mission to the country. But Gambari argues his persistent efforts to engage Myanmar have been vindicated and that U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is now following his lead: "The language the Americans are using now is almost verbatim from what we said."

In his new job, Gambari will head a joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission for Darfur that, when fully deployed with 26,000 blue helmets, will be the largest U.N. peacekeeping operation in the world, with a nearly $1.8 billion budget. He will also be the most senior U.N. official with direct access to Bashir.

But Gambari's past is again surfacing as an issue. Some U.N. staffers think his standing as the top U.N. envoy from Africa will give him clout in Sudan, but they are concerned that a former advocate for an outlaw regime won't be sufficiently tough on Khartoum. Already, Gambari has aligned himself with the Sudanese leader on the most critical issue the country faces, an upcoming referendum on whether to allow South Sudan to break away into a separate country. "Personally as a Nigerian, as an African, obviously I would prefer the unity of Sudan," he told me.

Gambari's early concession to Khartoum could be pragmatism, or it could reflect a habit of meeting the demands of powerful rulers. "Gambari is a very wily operator. He has been able to move effortlessly between these two worlds of authoritarianism and liberal democracy," says John Prendergast, co-founder of the Darfur advocacy group the Enough Project. "He's a very intelligent and insightful guy, but it's still to be seen whether he will be able to have any impact or whether he will simply be another placeholder in a long line of people who have had almost no impact on the situation in Sudan."

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