Conflict, Peace, and Democracy: Analyzing Bosnia and Lebanon’s Experiences

Nikola Vučić

Published in Association Network for Building Peace

As a visiting scholar in Beirut, Lebanon, in fall 2023, I often found myself enjoying discussions with various actors on the challenges of peacebuilding in this multi-confessional country – particularly in a city that was once known as the Paris of the Middle East. However, these conversations with representatives of different generations did not instill much optimism, as their thinking about the future was dominated by worries. They spoke about many reasons for their discontent, including the ongoing failure to forge an internal consensus in Lebanon – even with the mediation of foreign actors who have invested significant funds over past decades to build institutions, infrastructure, and peace. For someone coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina – a  country with scars still visible from the war in the 1990s – the Lebanese sociopolitical context seemed appropriate to consider certain solutions adapted from Bosnia. Before visiting Lebanon, I could not imagine that Bosnia’s peace framework might serve as an inspiration for changes in Lebanon – changes that are much-needed, particularly to address so-called grey zones in the management of different sectors. As I am writing these lines, uncertainty over whether Hezbollah will drag this unstable country into a new conflict with Israel echoes in the international media. Regardless, let us see what this article can achieve for the better understanding of both post-conflict contexts.


First and foremost, we should not ignore the fact that Bosnia and Herzegovina and Lebanon have been subjects of comparison for decades – by journalists, sociologists, political scientists, and experts in various fields of interest. With the exception of a number of successful comparative studies, many have used a reductionist approach to Bosnian and Lebanese internal dynamics and their historical layers, which sometimes simplified complex processes and challenges that these countries and societies underwent, especially in the periods following the conflicts at the end of the last century. Some simplified analyses find the internal diversity of the two countries as a good basis for comparison of these two cases. But, it is important to keep in mind different factors – historical, political, and cultural, to get a more objective view. Also, geopolitical circumstances could be a decisive factor of differentiation in some analyses. However, despite the specific contextually-ingrained peculiarities of the two countries, the experience of conflict and strong post-conflict animosities are common to both. These animosities based on identity politics serve as a propellant for each country’s tendency to maintain the status quo. This paper will review the two cases of state-building and their attempts to foster peace and democracy with a focus on common elements in order to share experiences.


The hardships of war were experienced in both Lebanon (1975-1990) and Bosnia (1992-1995) at the end of the last century. Contrary to the Bosnian War, the Lebanese Civil War stretched over a lengthy timeframe but, similar to the war in Bosnia, involved several conflicting parties. The war in Lebanon was not only an internal conflict but also involved a number of regional and international actors. It touched on matters that dominated the Middle East’s regional politics for the second half of the 20th century, including the Palestine-Israel conflict, Cold War competition, Arab nationalism, and political Islam. Moreover, the Lebanese Civil War was deeply destructive for the country. In addition to a large number of the casualties, most of Lebanon’s infrastructure was destroyed, in addition to its reputation as an example of coexistence in the Arab Middle East (ibidem). The demographic geography of Lebanon also played a key role at the beginning and throughout the conflict: Sunni Muslims and Christians were a majority in the coastal cities, Shia Muslims primarily inhabited the south and the Beqaa valley in the east, and the Druze and Christians covered the mountainous parts of the country. In 1975, members of the Phalange party’s militia opened fire on a bus carrying Palestinians in the Beirut neighborhood of Ain el-Rammaneh, provoking the start of the war. Slowly, all sects and classes of Lebanon were dragged into the conflict, either as participants or victims, as well as neighbouring countries, including Syria and Israel. As a result of the conflict between different factions in East and West Beirut, a dividing line emerged as a boundary between Christians (East Beirut) and Muslims (West Beirut). This line became known as the Green Line due to the overgrown vegetation covering this uninhabited area. Even today, when the Middle East is in the spotlight because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is a valid fear that Lebanon might be drawn into the war because of Hezbollah, whose power should not be underestimated in the country. The group is considered in Western circles to be a radical paramilitary unit. Fortunately, Bosnia does not have such organised groups on its territory at the moment. Contrary to the aforementioned circumstances of the Lebanese Civil War, the Bosnian War was waged as a part of the fall of Yugoslavia, a socialist federal state within which Bosnia existed as a separate republic. The war was mostly the consequence of the aspirations of Bosnia’s neighbouring states – Serbia and Croatia –  whose political leadership of the 1990s planned the division of Bosnia. They claimed the parts of Bosnia’s territory inhabited by ethnic Croats (Catholics) and Serbs (Orthodox Christians) – autochthonous Bosnians who, along with the Bosniaks (Muslims) make up a dominant part of the population and have shared power ever since the Yugoslav era, when Bosnia was defined as a republic that was “neither Serb, nor Croat nor Muslim (Bosniak)” but is “Serb, Croat and Muslim (Bosniak).” While in Lebanon the majority of the population is identified as Lebanese but is at the same time divided among a number of factions in mutual rivalry, ethnic affiliations in Bosnia were formed on the grounds of religious affiliation – whereby Bosniaks are mostly Muslim, Croats are mostly Catholic, and Serbs are mostly Orthodox Christian. The Bosnian nation can thus be comprehended as an identity that represents the main state identity within the 1995 Dayton constitutional-legal framework and encompasses all members of the three different ethnic groups as well as other citizens.


The crucial document that brought peace to Bosnia was signed in 1995 – the Dayton Peace Accords – while in Lebanon it was the 1989 Taif Agreement, which promised the rebuilding of Lebanon’s political and administrative institutions, the reform of its political system, and the restoration of its independence. The Taif Agreement legitimised a previously informal division of positions among the three primary sects – the president would be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. It also increased the number of seats in the parliament, equally divided among Christians and Muslims. The deal restricted the power of the Maronite president in favour of both the Sunni prime minister and the Shia speaker of parliament. The Taif Agreement also called for the gradual abolition of confessionalism and the establishment of social and economic freedom but with the ethnic-religious divisions remaining strong. Many attribute this reinforcement of sectarianism to the lack of trust between communities (Ghosn and Khoury, 2011:384). The agreement, signed over three decades ago, attempted to correct the imbalance in power-sharing by establishing parity between Muslims and Christians and transferring executive power from the president to the prime minister. Today, many actors within civil society demand the end of the ‘political sectarianism’ practice. Constitutional law expert Lara Saade argues that the Taif Agreement managed to put an end to the Lebanese war but did not achieve a sustainable peace or political stability. There are similar views in Bosnia, with political and legal debates about the relevancy of the constitutional-legal foundations of modern Bosnia simmering for a while now. Advocates of constitutional reform argue that the Dayton Peace Agreement contributed to peace and the end of the war in Bosnia but that today – by defining Bosnia as a country of three constituent peoples and “others” – it is outdated and discriminatory. Indeed, its discriminatory provisions were confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights, which explicitly ordered amendments that would enable all citizens to run in elections and be elected, which existing legal mechanisms still block due to Bosnia’s constitutional architecture based on three constituent groups. Although we can say with certainty that both the Dayton and Taif agreements ended the respective wars, one can also observe within the agreements the elements that continue to foster discontent among the citizens of these two countries today. In the case of Lebanon, the discontent is larger due to the fact that the country is institutionally paralysed and unstable in terms of security. Previous challenges stemming from constitutional debates in Bosnia have mostly led to political crises, which were overcome thanks to the active involvement of the Office of the High Representative – the institution representing the will of the Peace Implementation Council, which oversees the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement. In the modern context, this is seen as a unique example. Moreover, the role of the international community and its treatment of Bosnia is often met with harsh criticism in academic debates, in which Bosnia is sometimes discussed as a protectorate. Research and analyses in Bosnia show that the majority of reform processes that the country managed to conduct over the past three decades were unimaginable without the mediation of the international community represented through the institution of the High Representative. Given the Bosnian example, the lack of an international peace envoy is one possible reason why the implementation of the Taif Agreement in Lebanon inhibited further reforms, thus blocking all options for infrastructural and economic development. Despite all the objections to the role and efficiency of the High Representative in Bosnia, its role in the adoption of relevant legislation, including the Criminal Code provisions on banning denial of genocide and other war crimes, was crucial. This minimised practices of genocide denial in Bosnia as well as the suffering of the victims, especially the Bosniaks who were victims of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, and, as a result, provocative and politically-motivated discussions about war crimes were replaced by other subjects.


The question may sound provocative, but one could say almost certainly that Bosnia would still be far from EU candidate status without the institution of the High Representative. Furthermore, Bosnia would have still been without a legal ban on genocide denial if it was not for former High Representative Valentin Inzko. His historic decision infuriated most Bosnian Serb political representatives, who actively denied that genocide was committed against Bosniaks despite the international court rulings that said so. Inzko’s decision made genocide denial punishable by law, even stipulating prison sentences. There is a long list of other decisions that were imposed and not reached in consensus – again in the interest of Bosnia’s development. This leads us to a difficult question: Has the role of the High Representative deteriorated democratic processes that should have been established through consensus, or did the High Representative’s decisions come as a relief for Bosnian citizens at crucial moments and as a boost for the country’s development? This raises a secondary question: Does Lebanon need a reform that would introduce the institution of a high representative? Some may say that a high representative represents the modern version of a colonial administrator, while others would see a solution in this idea for the most difficult issues of Lebanon’s internal political complexity. Moreover, the circumstances that would lead to such an institution should also be taken in consideration; this would certainly require an international conference. But, again, with whom? Bosnia, contrary to Lebanon, is a European country, and its European integration path is based on internal consensus. On the other hand, Lebanon is a Middle Eastern country with a history and geopolitical interests that confront each other, which adds more complexity to its internal search for peace. Lebanon has seen competition for influence between both Western centres of power and countries such as Iran – a country that is not likely to be a part of a solution together with the West under the current circumstances. This brings us to the question: Where might we find international consensus on peace in Lebanon? This also poses a challenge for Lebanese people. Although not impossible, the idea is not without complications. For instance, the Russian Federation has won significant influence through Bosnian Serb politicians – often in a way where it competes with Western countries at the expense of Bosnian citizens. This has often provoked tensions and insecurity and has sometimes even caused problems to international peace envoys. However, due to Bosnia’s geopolitical position in the heart of Europe, Western influences have always had greater impact in Bosnia than those of Russia. Despite all the injustices done in both the war and the post-war period to the people of Bosnia, EU membership seems to serve as a motivational speech that keeps everyone’s attention.


Lebanon is known as a country with an impressive cultural and historic heritage, lovely people, and greater diversity than even Bosnia, but the stagnation in its functioning as a state is obvious. Infrastructural deterioration accompanied with economic crises and the lack of motivation among its population is a cause for alarm and calls for domestic and international solutions for this Middle Eastern pearl situated between Israel and Syria. For over a hundred years, Lebanon has not conducted a population census because, no doubt, its result would damage the ‘Taif balance,’ given the change in the Muslim population relative to Christians, which currently guarantees some peace. Upon my return, I have been thinking more about the remarkable resistance demonstrated by the Lebanese people, and, once I put it in the context of the Bosnian life experience, the Lebanese have increasingly won my sympathies. Under the dire circumstances and with the country’s internal complexity, they manage to survive their own powerlessness and that of the world to establish a sustainable peace or a functioning state. For a Bosnian observer, Lebanon stands today as a warning – about how deep a decline can go while life, nevertheless, goes on.


This article is a result of the author’s research visit to Beirut, Lebanon, in the fall of 2023. The author uses as reference articles by Joseph Bahout (The Unraveling of Lebanon’s Taif Agreement: Limits of Sect-Based Power Sharing, 2016), Haugbolle Sune (Historiography and memory of the Lebanese Civil War 1975-1990, 2011), Alasdair Soussi (Thirty years after Taif, Lebanese seek end to sectarian politics, 2019), and Faten Ghosn and Amal Khoury (Lebanon after Civil War: Peace or the Illusion of Peace, 2011).

Nikola Vučić is a TV journalist, producer and cultural researcher based in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is an associate of the Forum Ziviler Friedensdienst (Forum ZDF) and an editor at N1 TV BiH. Topics of his interest include culture, human rights, ideology, and politics. Nikolas’s engagement in reporting and public speaking on gender-based discrimination in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Balkans has so far been recognized by two journalistic awards.