Human Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Updated 9 June 2015

It has been more than twenty years since the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country has been described as the state that has made the least progress when it comes to EU integration of all of the Western Balkans countries. In spite of widespread workers protests in February 2014,political deadlock is continuing to hamper human rights organisations in their capacities as watchdog. Inter-ethnic violence, hate speech, and poor implementation of human rights standards is still part of everyday life in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Government has failed to initiate reforms of the judiciary, whilst media independence and self-censorship remain key impediments to the implementation of freedom of expression standards. New laws that are seriously damaging human rights and freedoms are being introduced on a daily basis.

The situation for ethnic minorities remains precarious, whilst the number of inter-ethnic hate crimes has also increased. War crime trials before domestic courts are being processed at a very slow pace and impunity is high. Civilian victims of war still lack access to justice and reparations. The failure to implement the Sejdic-Finci[1] ruling stands in the way of any further institutional progress in the country. In spite of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, the Roma community still faces immense problems with housing, education, employment, and also lack possession of personal documents to claim their rights. Even though the numbers of LGBT activists in smaller local communities has been growing, violence against LGBT people increased in 2014. Such cases of violence and discrimination have failed to attract appropriate reactions from the police and judiciary.

The situation for human rights defenders in the country
Human rights activists in Bosnia and Herzegovina are often threatened by individual groups and experience pressure from the authorities in terms of financial penalties that limit their ability to make their voices heard. The situation is most severe for LGBT activist and journalists, whose fundamental security is threatened by violent individuals. The institutional weaknesses and new censorship instruments in legislation makes any kind of activism difficult to initiate.

Ten rights in focus

The right to life and physical integrity

Accurate information about what occurred during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina is still not fully accessible. Although the secrecy of court documents has now been suspended, there have been on-going attempts to censor video material emanating from the trials.

The process of transitional justice is further hindered by repeated interruptions in the trials of war criminals and acquittals of serious war criminals before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. Prosecution of crimes in The War Crimes Chamber of the State Court of Bosnia Herzegovina is slow, and its work is constantly undermined by local politicians.

In spite of the fact that the Bosnian authorities have achieved some success by finding and identifying two-thirds of the 30,000 people who disappeared during the 1992-95 war, there are still 7.800 people missing. There is no access to reparations for the families of the missing, as the Law on Missing Persons has not yet been implemented.

The right to liberty and security of person

When massive workers’ protests broke out in February 2014 in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, protesters were exposed to unprecedented police brutality, harassment and intimidation during their incarceration in detention centres in Sarajevo and Tuzla. Ill-treatment and the detention of over 12 detainees, mostly minors, was reported in the media and by international organisations. More than 40 protesters were accused of breaching various public peace and order Acts.

The right to a fair trial and an effective remedy

Access to justice is not up to International standards in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nearly two million civil cases remain unresolved, while resolved court orders are not effectively implemented. The lack of equal access to justice for all citizens remains a problem, and free legal aid is mainly provided by non-governmental organisations.

The number of war-crime prosecutions peaked in 2014, however more than half of the 100 resolved cases were sent back to lower courts or acquitted due to legal flaws in the judicial system. The number of persons charged for wartime sexual violence is low (less than a 100 out of estimated 20,000 – 50,000) due to the fear of stigmatisation leading to a low tally of reporting.

The harmonisation of entity laws aimed at regulating the rights of civilian victims of war has not been completed. Legislation that would enable reparations to be paid to the victims and/or their families, including a comprehensive programme for victims of crimes under international law, and free legal aid services to victims of torture and civilian victims of war, as well as harmonisation of international standards for the prosecution of war crimes of sexual violence is currently not yet in place. The absence of adequate definitions of crimes against humanity, command responsibility, and crimes of sexual violence in the laws at entity level as mentioned above reinforce impunity.

The right to respect for private and family life

The most glaring breaches of this right can be seen through lens of forced evictions based on the idea of ethnic cleansing that took place during the 1992-1995 war. The number of refugees and displaced persons returning to their pre-war homes decreased in 2014. The implementation of the 2010 return strategy is impeded by the high cost levels associated with those who wish to return, for renovating their property while they were absent. Often those returning have to deal with illegal tenants.

Throughout the implementation of the Decade of Roma Inclusion in Bosnia and Herzegovina Roma housing has been made a priority. However, only two thirds (about 7000) of the required houses to facilitate this goal have been constructed. The biggest criticism of the programme is that the newly constructed houses are wholly inadequate for the Roma inhabitants with the houses in question lacking even basic facilities such as a functioning toilet or kitchen.

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion

Bosnian segregation of religious and ethnic minorities stems out from its Constitution, which revolves around the security of the three largest ethno-religious groups – Bosniaks (Muslims), Croats (Catholics) and Serbs (Orthodox). Abuses and discrimination based on religious lines are a daily occurrence, both between the three groups specified in the constitution and other minorities. During 2014 alone, 350 cases of hate crimes, physical violence, hate speech, offensive graffiti and the desecration of religious sites were targeted at those who did succeed in repatriating to their former homes. Only 77 of these cases were processed through the courts. In many case the returnees have become minorities themselves when they move back to their previous homesteads.

The right to the freedom of expression

The right to freedom of expression is continuously challenged in Bosnia Herzegovina. Over recent years media freedom has sharply declined, and is ranked the lowest of all the Western Balkans countries.

As a result of declining revenues and low journalist salaries, politicians have gained influence over the media. Those media outlets that have managed to remain independent often experience harassment by the authorities, as evident by the police raids against the web portal in December 2015. At least one journalist was beaten up by police officers while recording the February 2014 protests in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In January 2015, the Republika Srpska defined social media as a public sphere where peace and order needs to be upheld. According to the law, individuals expressing critical opinions are subject to sanctions. This law is seen as a big step towards possible censorship and self-censorship, and is in conflict with freedom of expression.

The right to freedom of assembly and association

Attacks against LGBT people rose in 2014, while the response of the executive government and institutions remained slow and inadequate. In 2014 two separate attacks took place; one during the LGBT film festival in Sarajevo and the other against an LGBT human rights defenders in Banja Luka. The police failed to provide security for the events despite previous agreements.

The right to association has also been breached; in the process of attempting to register a «queer association» the process was constantly impeded by local and state authorities who objected to the use of the word “queer” in their title.

There have been several attempts to increase control over the work of human rights defenders in order to prevent mass mobilisation, including control over social media, control over the work of watchdog organisations, and restrictions in public gatherings.

For further information on the right to freedom of assembly please click here to view report entitled Freedom of Assembly in Bosnia and Herzegovina co-written by Civil Rights Defenders.

The rights to protection against hate speech and war propaganda

The level of hate speech in the media is high, and significantly increased right before the elections held in October 2014. Most of the complaints emanate from web based materials (594 out of 875 complaints in 2014) and often reflects the level of nationalism within the hate speech discussion forae as well as weak editorial policies of the media in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Only Republika Srpska has hate crime provisions included in their criminal code, but there is no specific legislation prohibiting hate speech. This combined with a lack of laws prohibiting right wing organisations and symbols are contributing to the feeling of an on-going conflict and unease in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The right to political rights

The Sejdić-Finci case drew attention to the discrimination of ethnic groups other than Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs exemplified by the lack of representation of minorities, namely Jews and Roma, at the presidency office and the House of Peoples. Even though the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled in favour of Sejdić and Finci in 2009, Bosnia and Herzegovina has not reformed its legislation in accordance to the violations of the European Convention on Human Rights. Constitutional reform, which had begun to proceed, has now stagnated. The recent EU decision to proceed with agreements towards EU membership despite this lack of progress makes reforms even less likely.

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s first census was held in October 2013, but official results have not yet been published. There are doubts to the reliability of the collected data, as census takers have reported bribes and inappropriate storage of the census materials.

The problems of corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina are acute; international ratings have seen the country drop down even further in the list and in 2013 alone there were 1149 reports of corruption.[2] In May 2014, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina adopted a new Anti-Corruption Law, which aimed to establish specific law-enforcement bodies to assist in the fight against corruption. Later the same year, politicians accused of major tax frauds were released on bail and shortly returned to their jobs. In the health sector 10 % of patients bribe staff with money or gifts so as to get access to better services. However, only one doctor has been charged with corruption in the past five years.

The right to protection against discrimination

Overall, little has been done to implement the 2009 Anti-Discrimination Law in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  There have been only two verdicts of discrimination since its introduction and the Anti-Discrimination Law has been judged to be unaligned with EU anti-discrimination directives, and as such is unable to provide full equality to the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, based on sex, race, gender identity and religious beliefs.

The education system in Bosnia Herzegovina is characterised by ethnic divisions. In the Republika Srpska, only a Serbian curriculum is taught, discriminating pupils of other ethnic backgrounds. In November 2014, the Supreme Court of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina ruled that ethnically divided schools constituted discrimination and ordered schools to integrate their education facilities. However concertive, efforts to integrate schools have not yet been made. More than 50 schools in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina alone still separate Bosniak and Croat children today.

The Roma community continues to be the most discriminated ethnic minority in the country. Members of this group are subjected to widespread, systematic discrimination in accessing basic rights such as housing, healthcare, employment and education. Due to lack of information, complicated and financially demanding procedures, including registering in the National Public Registry, many Roma are unable to obtain the aforementioned rights.

The role of Civil Rights Defenders in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Civil Rights Defenders’ work in Bosnia and Herzegovina started right after the 1992-1995 war. We take pride in assisting human rights defenders and human rights organisations in this country for over twenty years. Being present in Bosnia and Herzegovina has given Civil Rights Defenders an acute awareness of the current issues within the overall socio-political context. In the twenty years we have given crucial support to the organisations that actively advocate for human rights by confronting ethnic divisions in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Our support over the years has, among other things, strengthened the capacity and credibility of human rights defenders; contributed to the survival of independent media and professionalism among journalists; and improved access to justice for citizens. We are currently the only international human rights NGO with a field presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which makes us an important actor in reacting to human rights violations.

Read more about our partner organisations in Bosnia and Herzegovina.



Categories: Country Reports.
Tags: Human rights.
Regions: Bosnia and Herzegovina and Western Balkans.