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 (firstname.lastname@example.org