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Preliminary conclusions and observations by the Special Rapporteur in the filed of cultural rights at the end of her visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, 13 – 24 May 2013

Sarajevo, 24 May 2013

Members of the press, ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to be here with you today to share my preliminary observations at the end of the 12-day official visit I carried out in my capacity of UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights.

The purpose of my visit was to assess, in a spirit of co-operation and constructive dialogue, both the achievements of Bosnia and Herzegovina in implementing cultural rights and the remaining challenges. I have addressed a number of key-issues, in particular the right of all people to access and enjoy their cultural heritage as well as that of others, without discrimination. I focused in particular on history teaching, monuments and memorials, and conditions to ensure the free interaction of people, regardless of their background and status, through education, culture and the arts, sports and science. By cultural rights, I mean the rights of all persons to express their identities and to access, participate in, and contribute to cultural life in all its aspects, without hindrances or fears.

Today, I will confine myself to a few preliminary remarks and considerations. I will develop my assessment in a written report, in which I will also formulate recommendations. I will present this report at the 25th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2014 in Geneva.

Let me begin by thanking the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina for inviting me to conduct this official visit, and for their extensive work in facilitating a comprehensive and interesting programme of meetings. I visited Sarajevo, Mostar, Stolac, Jajce, Banja Luka, Brcko and Srebrenica. I had the opportunity to hold meetings with a number of senior Government officials from all levels of the executive branch, at the level of the State, the two entities and Brcko District, a number of cantons as well as several municipalities, responsible in the areas of culture, science and education, and for youth. I also met with artists, directors of cultural and educational institutions, academics, representatives of civil society, United Nations agencies and other international organizations. I would like to thank all the persons and institutions I met for their time, warm hospitality, and, above all, the wealth of information they shared with me. I also extend my thanks to the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office for their efforts, which ensured a smooth mission.

I wish to clarify that I am an independent expert who reports to, and advises, the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly. Although appointed by the Human Rights Council, I am not employed by the United Nations and the position I hold is honorary. My independent status is crucial and enables me to fulfil my functions impartially.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I recognise that almost 20 years after the end of the war, differing perspectives exist across the country, but I am fully convinced that the actual divisions are much greater at the political level than on the ground. In many of the meetings I have held throughout this country, people, in particular in the cultural, educational and academic spheres, including teachers and students, consistently expressed a desire to overcome divisions that they see as imposed on them on a daily basis. Many feel they are being put into absurd situations. There are, in fact, numerous grassroots initiatives aiming to build bridges between groups and to promote a vibrant forward looking environment through cultural activities and linkages.

While contrasting perspectives do exist on the future of this country and on how its political and administrative structures should be organised, I do not believe that such perspectives are irreconcilable. I believe that building a common future for all constituent peoples and national minorities can be achieved while also addressing the concerns of those who fear they might be the subject of assimilation policies. My concern, as Special Rapporteur, is that too often culture and education are hijacked by the rhetoric of differences, with an immense detrimental impact on the artistic, cultural, scientific and academic life in the country, and on the right of all persons, without discrimination, to enjoy their cultural rights and to access their cultural heritage.

One telling example of the detrimental impact of political agendas on cultural rights is evident in the current uncertainty surrounding the fate of seven crucial cultural institutions for Bosnia and Herzegovina, including the National Museum which closed its doors last year. These institutions are striving to keep their collections protected and their doors open, despite staff no longer receiving salaries. I am also concerned about the situation of the Olympic Museum.

Irrespective of what the structure of the country is or will be in the future, from a cultural rights perspective, what is essential is that people be free to access their cultural heritage as well as that of others and to freely engage in cultural cooperation with others, both across localities and entities within borders and across borders. It is the responsibility of the authorities, at all levels, to ensure and respect cultural diversity within each community as well as between communities.

I am concerned by the extent to which political bodies have expanded their influence over cultural institutions, whose independence should be guaranteed in law as well as in practice. Institutions in the field of science and culture should be free to conduct their activities unencumbered by any political agenda. I have received many allegations indicating that nominations and appointments in cultural and educational institutions, including schools and universities, too often are motivated by political considerations. These institutions also suffer from a lack of administrative independence and financial autonomy.

In this respect, I would like to stress the necessity of ensuring academic freedoms across the whole territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. These include the freedoms to choose subjects of research, to access information including archives without discrimination, to collaborate and exchange views with others, to disseminate results and to travel for such purposes. It is equally important to ensure a better economic status for researchers.

One worrying trend lies in the over-emphasizing of cultural differences, including linguistic differences, to justify practices amounting to segregating people, especially students and educational institutions based on their ethno-national affiliation. I am troubled by the testimonies I have received indicating that such policies, together with de facto impediments to freedom of movement between in particular the two entities, restrict the natural interaction of people across the various communities. During my visit, frustration has been expressed across the board that positive efforts are being blocked at the level of senior decision makers and politicians.

Three official languages and two scripts are officially recognized in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This must not be considered as a reason for separation but as an asset that facilitates communication and openness to others. I have visited a number of schools where, unfortunately, linguistic differences are over-emphasized to justify a strict separation of children. I am concerned by the one roof – two schools system, where institutional arrangements make it virtually impossible for pupils to interact even on the playground. I am equally concerned that schools catering exclusively for one of the constituent peoples remain prevalent. Although some children are able to benefit from a multi-cultural educational environment without problems, the majority remains deprived of access to such an education. I wish to state clearly here that the right to be taught in one’s mother tongue cannot justify segregation; and that no one may invoke cultural diversity to infringe upon human rights guaranteed by international law, nor to limit their scope. The solution, as one teacher said, is to separate the blackboards and not the students.

I recognize that an impressive amount of efforts has been invested to establish a common core curriculum and new pedagogical methodologies. These efforts must be pursued, the number of subjects in which pupils from all constituent peoples and national minorities learn together increased, and more integrated schools established. At the same time, the right of all pupils and students to learn in their mother tongue and to access the cultural heritage of their particular community as well as those of all others must be guaranteed. Various experiences, such in Brcko district, demonstrate that this is possible. If Bosnia and Herzegovina wishes a better future for its children, it is imperative that the voice of the country’s youth be heard and heeded. This includes students articulating their concerns and claiming their rights through their democratically elected councils, as well as through cultural and sports initiatives.

One of the main issues still to be addressed in Bosnia and Herzegovina is how to teach history around sensitive issues, including World War II, the breakup of Yugoslavia and the last war. It is crucial that efforts be pursued to ensure a multi-perspective approach in history teaching, to develop a multi-voice narrative that acknowledges the different points of views, and to promote critical thinking amongst students. Neither history nor literature should be manipulated to indoctrinate students into believing in mutually exclusive and antagonistic identities.

I am convinced that what might not yet be achieved in the classrooms can most certainly be achieved outside the classrooms, through the promotion of cultural events and systematized exchanges across communities. People, especially the youth, need spaces in which to meet and interact. Creating neutral spaces where politics and issues relating to ethno-national or religious affiliations do not interfere should be a priority. I strongly believe that there is an urgent need to maximize the opportunities for people to engage in activities in the field of culture, sports, science and arts, through for example the rehabilitation of cultural and youth centers. A dynamic, pluralistic and inclusive culture is central to reconciliation; it is most certainly the way forward, both in terms of peace and economic development.

Interaction and cooperation is necessary between professionals and institutions in the field of culture and education, including between the two entities and the district. I am happy to note the willingness of professionals, institutions and some civil servants to cooperate. I am encouraged by the numerous and imaginative projects developed by civil society organizations and cultural institutions to overcome what they consider to be artificial divisions in the country. One example lies in the good cooperation developed by the National Gallery and the Museum for Contemporary Art of the Republika Srpska, which has made possible the participation of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Venice Biennale this year.

However, as long as cooperation remains informal, with no mechanisms and official policies to institutionalize this, people will feel restrained. I am worried, for example, by testimonies alleging that political control over educational and cultural institutions in the Republika Srpska lead to people being afraid to engage in cooperation and to lose their jobs or career opportunities. This clearly is not a climate conducive to the implementation of cultural rights.

During my visit, I met with the Commission to preserve national monuments, established under Annex 8 of the Dayton Agreement, as well as with the two Institutes for the protection of monuments that exist at the level of the entities. I have also discussed issues relating to the role and impact of these institutions with various stakeholders. I note that there is a widespread discontent about the current level of cooperation between the Commission and the two Institutes as well as the delimitation of their respective competencies. There are differences in approaches and objectives between these institutions. While the Commission aims at fostering national reconciliation after the war, during which there was a massive destruction of cultural heritage, the Institutes have a more technical and professional approach, focusing on the need to preserve and protect cultural heritage of high value. It is necessary today to clarify the competencies of these institutions and their relationships. I also recommend that the independence of the Institutes, which today are mere departments of ministries, be guaranteed. It is equally important that the Commission keeps its independence within the original mandate set by Annex 8.

During my visit, I have also held a number of meetings on the issue of memorials, tangible and intangible, and visited a number of them, including the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide.

I am grateful to the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina for inviting me to visit, enabling me to deepen my understanding of the issues related to my mandate. In concluding, let me say that I am encouraged by the incredible commitment of people I have met in the country who are promoting cultural rights for all across communities and disciplines, through innovative approaches. Such initiatives must be recognized as valuable assets that show the way forward and can be built upon. They deserve greater support and visibility, and need facilitation by, and firm engagement on the part of the authorities at all levels. The issue of cultural rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina is crucial and seems to lie at the heart of actions needed to ensure peace and economic development.