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Bosnia-Herzegovina: Experts Doubt Police Force Capabilities

  • Andrew Tully

The police force being set up in Kosovo has a good reputation, and the force in Bosnia has a mixed reputation. It has been suggested that the Kosovo force be replicated in Bosnia. But officials involved in recruiting and training both forces told the U.S. Helsinki Commission in Washington on 5 September that that would be impossible.

Washington, 6 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Witnesses told the U.S. Helsinki Commission that the civil police force being set up in Kosovo sets a good example. But they insisted that a similar police structure cannot be arbitrarily imposed to improve the force in Bosnia.

The witnesses -- three experts on civil police organizations -- gave this assessment on 5 September in Washington during a hearing of the panel, formally known as the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).

The force in Kosovo is considered a model organization. It is being recruited and trained under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The Bosnian force, which has had trouble with inefficiency and corruption, is run by the United Nations.

The co-chairman of the commission, Congressman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey), told the hearing that General Joseph Ralston, the supreme allied commander in Europe for the NATO, once said that the police force in Kosovo operates so professionally that he would like to see it replicated in Bosnia. Smith asked the three witnesses how they viewed Ralston's comment.

The first to reply was Steve Bennett, in charge of recruiting and training police in Kosovo for the International Criminal Investigations Training Assistance Program, or ICITAP. He told the commission that Kosovo and Bosnia are areas so dissimilar that it is erroneous to assume that a single method of establishing a police force would work in both.

In particular, Bennett noted that his team has more control over recruiting and training officers in Kosovo. In Bosnia, he said, the UN is working under a mandate that gives it less control over the process.

The second witness was Robert Perito of the United States Institute of Peace, an independent, government-funded agency that promotes peaceful conflict resolution. He noted that the OSCE has had more control over recruiting and training because it has been creating a police force.

Perito said the UN's task has been more difficult because it has had to try to reform an existing police force. He said it was actually easier for the OSCE to set up a better-functioning force in Kosovo because it started from what he called "a clean slate."

The third witness gave a less diplomatic answer. He is J. Michael Stiers, who served as the deputy commissioner for the UN's International Police Task Force, or IPTF, in Bosnia. He said flatly that the supreme NATO commander was wrong.

"I would tell you, from my personal experience, that this statement that the general made, in my opinion, is absolutely false."

Stiers said the two police academies in Bosnia, including one in Republika Srpska, are functioning well, and ensuring that 80 percent of the new recruits are not ethnic Serbs.

But he added that in any police force in any country, including the U.S., a very small percentage of police officers will be what he called "renegades." Stiers said it is impossible to anticipate which officers will end up becoming corrupt.

Another member of the Helsinki Commission, Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), asked the witnesses about the poor reputation of the Bosnian police. In particular, Hoyer said, the Bosnian force appears to be more of an observer than an intervener.

Perito responded that this police force's problems lie in its mandate, drawn up the Dayton peace agreement that ended the Bosnian war. He said that during the Dayton negotiations, European countries insisted on what he called "a more restrictive mandate" for the post-war Bosnian police.

According to Perito, America's former ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, now concedes that such a restrictive mandate for the Bosnian police was, as he put it, "a tragic mistake."

"I think most observers [now] believe it was a tragic mistake. In fact, I've just finished [writing] a book that says it was a tragic mistake. But given the fact that the mandate was established in the negotiations, the mandate was then just simply picked up by the United Nations, and that was the mandate that was sent forward, and that was the mandate that Mike [Stiers] and the IPTF had to implement. I think with hindsight and retrospect, the international community would have probably done it differently."

In addition, Stiers told the commission that he believes the Bosnian police force operates professionally, for the most part.

"Many times, though, they are restricted from doing what should be done and what they believe should be done because of the political atmosphere. Basically, that boils down to the fear of losing their jobs if in fact they are to intervene on a given situation or allow their people to intervene. There's still a political stranglehold -- umbrella -- over the local police forces."

On a more positive note, Bennett spoke highly of the police force in Kosovo. He said that when the current class of police cadets graduates on 15 September, the force will grow to more than 4,100 officers, and 1,500 more will have graduated by December 2002.

Bennett said the force also is ethnically diverse, and that it includes many women. He said 17 percent of the police academy graduates are Kosovo minorities, and 19 percent are women.

A co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado), asked Bennett about this mix of men and women of different ethnic backgrounds. Bennett replied that they get along well in the academy and in police stations. But they socialize little after hours.

Campbell asked if this was due to "cultural resistance," as he put it. Bennett said it was. The police official said deep emotional scars remain from the ethnic warfare of the 1990s. As a result, he said, even police officers who once trained and now work closely together cannot be expected to establish trust quickly.

But Bennett said that trust is being established -- very slowly, but steadily. And he said he is encouraged by the progress.