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Bosnian Cops, European Feel

Police forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, up-ended by a war that ended in 1995 and scattered by ethnic strife, have been monitored by the United Nations for seven years. Now, the European Union will take on the job.


Bosnia's multi-ethnic police, like these in the predominantly Muslim town of Velika Kladusa, will soon pass from UN to EU control

Policing a place like Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a coveted job. The post-war zone has hardly begun to reconcile its violent past with what leaders hope will be a peaceful future.

Now that the European Union has agreed, as it did Monday, to take over a police task force from the United Nations, it can expect to have its hands full.

What the UN has presented as a successful, gradual transition to normality has shown signs of durable success, but the job is far from complete.

When the EU takes over with a 500-strong mission on January 1 2003, it will be the first EU mission of this kind. The price will not challenge the 15-state bloc, at a forecasted mark of $38 million annually through 2005. But "instituting the rule of law", as Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique confidently described it, likely will.

Post-war mess

To start, the region is divided. One of the EU mission’s top priorities, as for the UN, will be creating "an apolitical, qualified and accountable" police force untainted by ethnic bias. The trouble with this is that the whole state of post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina is defined by ethnic bias.

Carved at the Dayton Accords of 1995 into two nominally co-operative but often distrustful ethnic sub-states – the Croat and Bosniac-led "Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina" and the Bosnian Serb-led "Republika Srpska" – the region is spared further war thanks largely to partition.

But local police play a big role in the peace, too, under the observation of the United Nations (UN). They try to normalise life at least a little by hindering the smuggling of human and commercial cargo. And when refugees return home, as some 100,000 did in 2001, the police provide in theory some security against attacks. It does not always work. In six months last year, there were 152 attacks, mostly committed by neighbours of rival ethnicity.

Banja Luka Bosnia riots

UN-trained police use water cannon against ethnic riots in the town of Banja Luka, May 2001, when Bosnian Serbs rallied against Muslims come to mark the reconstruction of the 16th century Ferhadija mosque.

Most "attacks" were actually only verbal intimidation, according to the UN, but there were also serious crimes, many of them committed with the signature of Bosnian Serb extremism. Take for example the use of explosives against returning Bosniacs (as the region’s indigenous Muslims are called) in the town of Bratunac, or May riots in the town of Banja Luka.

There, Bosnian Serbs rowdily mobbed a group marking the reconstruction of a famous mosque and chased UN mission head Jacques Klein and other top diplomats into the Islamic Community Centre. Klein barred the doors and waited it out until police gained the upper hand. It was tense, and it required force, at the risk of further conflict.

Healthy signs

According to the UN Mission based in Sarajevo, much is improving. The number of police is dropping as planned – from a wartime level of 40,000 toward the peacetime expectation of 16,500 – and some baddies have been weeded from the force.

At least ten officers were fired last year on "grounded suspicion" that they committed crimes against humanity as concentration camp officials during the war.

As important, the character of policing is on the mend. Local forces that divided along ethnic lines during the war, when policing and military duties often blended, are moving back toward more traditional formations and peacetime roles. Bosnian policing, some of it at least, is acquiring a more European feel, thanks to better laws and training.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, reporting to the Security Council in November 2001, noted that funding has been too slow for Bosnia's border guards but that the International Monetary Fund will refocus its efforts to shore them up.

The challenge is not just on the ground, between rival neighbours. It is up way above, in the comfort and detachment of carpeted bureaucratic offices. The police of Bosnia and Herzegovina rely on international organisations, distracted by more pressing hot wars, to act as fast as they promise. It will be the EU's task, taking over from Annan's watch, to make sure it happens.

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