Second-class citizenship in Bosnia

Joined: 9 May 2011

 In January 2012, more than a year after the October 2010 elections, a national government was finally formed in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). However, Parliament has yet to adopt the necessary amendments to its constitution or electoral law for the elimination of second-class citizen status of ethnic minorities in the country. Bosnia’s Constituent Peoples — comprised of Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks — thus continue to enjoy the exclusive right to run for the Presidency and the upper house, while members of other ethnic minorities are disenfranched from effective political and public participation.

The current political structure, initially designed to maintain a power-balance between the three Constituent Peoples, formed part of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995. At the time, the arrangement was considered as one of the only means of securing lasting stability between the warring parties. However, in December 2009, the European Court of Human Rights held that while the current ethnic-based political structure was perhaps necessary immediately after the war, it could no longer be justified. It further stipulated that while ‘the time may still not be ripe for a political system which would be a simple reflection of majority rule’, other methods of power-sharing exist which do not automatically lead to the total exclusion of representatives of the other communities.
The European Court’s judgment is legally binding upon Bosnia. In addition, its successful implementation constitutes a vital condition for EU accession in the future. Yet, the political gridlock remains. A Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Resolution in April 2010, reiterating the duty to uphold the European Court ruling, was also met with inaction. The effects of strong diplomatic language, issued by way of an interim resolution by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers in December 2011, remain to be seen.
Curiously, much greater debate and urgency seemed to have been generated when the Bosnia and Herzegovina Football Federation (NFSBiH) was suspended by FIFA and UEFA in April 2011 (football’s governing bodies in world and Europe respectively). The suspension was specifically precipitated by the country’s failure to guarantee equality in access to public participation — an offense that clashed with the league’s zero-tolerance position towards non-discrimination. So perhaps football will end up leading the way in raising the issue of minorities.
Whatever the case, what has become increasingly evident in recent years is that with every local or national election, political discourse has become more polarized, radicalized and ‘ethnicized’ between Constituent Peoples. The degree of urgency in addressing the issue is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that one of the applicants (in the aforementioned case before the European Court) was unsure as to whether BiH would still exist as one country by the time the judgment would be released.
Opening political space for all minorities as full and equal citizens alongside the country’s Constituent Peoples is not only ‘the right thing to do’ on the basis of pure democratic principles. It has arguably become a matter of survival of the state. Pluralism allows for the emergence of parties and policies that enable political and public participation in the pursuit of justice and prosperity by all and for all. Bosnia’s ability to shed its legacy of war will determine its prospects for lasting peace. In this regard, the importance of addressing the political stalemate cannot be overstated.

Sejdic and Finci v. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Application Nos 27996/06 and 34836/06, judgment dated 22 December 2009, at para. 45.
Ibid., at para. 48.
*Cynthia Morel served as co-counsel in the case of Sejdic and Finci v Bosnia and Herzegovina in her capacity as founding legal officer, and later senior legal advisor, at Minority Rights Group International. She now works on rule of law issues with Access to Justice Asia (
Joined: 2 May 2012


“Orciny’s the third city. It’s between the other two. It’s in the dissensi, disputed zones, places that Besźel thinks are Ul Qoma’s and Ul Qoma Besźel’s. When the old commune split, it did not split into two, it split into three.”

The above excerpt comes from China Miéville’s novel The City and the City, an allegorical piece of fiction about divided spaces and communities that are conditioned into ‘unseeing’ their minutely different co-denizens. It could describe nearly any divided locality in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Unlike the third city that neither of the communities claims, villages, towns and entire regions in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) were, and still are, averred to exclusively belong to of one of the dominant ethnonational qua confessional groups in the country - Bosniaks, Croats or Serbs. Brčko, a city on the river Sava in the country’s North East, witnessed some of the heaviest fighting and ethnically motivated violence during the Bosnian war, and is still one of the most disputed zones in the country. During the 1995 Dayton peace talks which ended the war, the parties could not reach an agreement on whether the strategically located city belonged to the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS) or to the Bosniak-and-Croat-dominated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), the two ‘entities’ of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The issue had to be resolved by international arbitration a few years after the end of hostilities. Faced with the unrewarding task, the intransigence of the ethnic elites and possible violent reactions, the arbitration tribunal decided that the city of Brčko and its surroundings, matching the pre-war Brčko municipal boundaries, would henceforth belong both to the FBiH and the RS simultaneously. This quasi-condominium or district officially named Brčko distrikt BiH, a designation ill at ease with the local language(s), was placed under international supervision. In December 2011 the government of the RS finally decided to recognise that the RS entity line does not run through the District of Brčko, as was the case during the war. The decision makes the international supervision obsolete, since the borders of the Brčko District are now formally recognised by both entities. This particular development might take politics of Brčko and BiH in new and unknown directions...

* To read the full blog by Dejan Stjepanovic on 'Bosnia’s third citizens: a story of Brčko’s exception', please visit the project website of CITSEE: Citizenship in Southeast Europe, University of Edinburgh.

Joined: 2 May 2012


Since Bosnia and Herzegovina’s creation as a consociational state in 1995, the parallels between it and Belgium have been striking. After the peace agreement framed Bosnia’s constitution in terms of ethnically based semi-autonomous sub-state units (entities), scholars and analysts alike have been describing the country using elements from European historical experience, drawing not only on the Belgian case, but also that of Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands. The recent political crises in Belgium and Bosnia and Herzegovina have made this comparison particularly apposite. Both countries have broken the existing records for the time it took their political elites to form a government after the general elections. The Belgian elections took place in June 2010; the government was formed in early December 2011. The Bosnian elections took place in October 2010; the government was formed only in late December 2011. If there were a contest for the duration of post-election negotiations, Belgium would be the winner, with 541 days of post-election vacuum without a government. However, both countries have gone through a serious political crisis that at times threatened the stability of their respective political systems. Scenarios of dissolution for both countries became more than hypothetical models.

In both cases, the root of the crisis goes deeper than the immediate political level, into the intricacies of institutional design, the power relations between the main political players, and the various proxies for constituent ethnic/linguistic groups...

* To read the full blog by Eldar Sarajlic on 'The Art of Political Crisis: Can we Compare Belgium and Bosnia?', please visit the project website of CITSEE: Citizenship in Southeast Europe, University of Edinburgh.

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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