SARAJEVO (25 September 2012) – United Nations expert on minority issues, Rita Izsák, said today that damaging political, ethnic and religious divisions continue to exist in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that “it is the clear responsibility of all levels of Government in all regions of the country to protect and promote minority rights, build unity in diversity and to take concrete steps towards more positive relations between population groups.”
“Minority rights do not relate only to the category of “others”, including the 17 recognized national minority groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Ms. Izsák said at the end of her nine-day visit to the country, “but they must be applied fully including for those constituent peoples – Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs – who are minorities in the regions in which they live and who continue to face significant challenges and discrimination.”
Education remains an issue of concern and a high degree of ethnic segregation persists in the education system, exemplified by mono-ethnic schools and the Two Schools Under One Roof phenomenon initiated after the war and recently found to be illegal by the courts. According to the UN Expert, “efforts to achieve integrated education should be intensified at all levels in consultation with communities and young people themselves.” While acknowledging that challenges remain with regard to some issues such as language and curriculum content, the Independent Expert noted that progress towards greater integration has been made in some places including Brèko District which should be replicated elsewhere.
“I met with young people from different ethnic groups including in Srebrenica and other localities who clearly told me that they wanted more integrated education and who are themselves taking initiatives such as festivals, youth centres and summer camps to bring young people together and build a better future. People often forget to ask what the young people want which can be something quite different to their parents and the politicians.” According to the expert, “integrated education does not mean giving up elements of language, culture and religion, but finding effective solutions that allow children to learn together in an education environment that fosters understanding and friendship. What is essential is that they are not infected by the divisions and hatred of the past.”
In the area of political participation, Ms. Izsák recognized that much attention has focused on the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Sejdiæ and Finci who, as national minorities (Roma and Jewish respectively – who are categorized as “others” under the Constitution), claim their right to stand for election for the positions of State President and Members of the House of Peoples. The Court found that the current exclusion of “others” from such posts is discriminatory. The Independent Expert urged the speedy implementation of the decision in practice through dialogue between all parties.
She noted however that “attention to the political participation of national minorities and constituent peoples who are in minority situations in the Entities must go beyond this high profile case. Additional measures and efforts are required to promote their meaningful participation at all levels including the municipal and Entity levels.” The Expert said that “for some communities I found that there is a sense of deep frustration and a desire for a stronger voice in local as well as national political life and decision making that would allow them a greater role in issues affecting them.”
Roma communities constitute the largest recognized national minority and face particular challenges. Community representatives and non-governmental organizations noted challenges in housing, employment, education, health and social security despite ongoing National Action Plans in such areas led by the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees. Among Roma concerns are extremely high levels of unemployment. However community representatives also stressed that progress had been made for example in the provision of housing units and encouraging trends in school enrolment in some regions. The Expert stated that the appointment of Roma coordinators is a good practice, helping to build communication between Roma and local, Entity and national authorities.
The Independent Expert visited a number of returnee communities including those in Kotor Varos (Bosniak), Derventa (Croat) and Mostar (Serb). She expressed concern over the sustainability of some returnee communities.
“While residents I consulted reported improving ethnic relations generally in the regions where they live, numerous concerns were also expressed to me, including relating to the level of support provided to such communities by municipal and Entity level authorities, their economic viability, reconstruction of property, education and language issues, and young people leaving these communities,” she said. “Proactive support including in the form of financial resources are required to ensure the sustainability of many returnee communities to allow them to grow and thrive.”
The UN Expert stressed the importance of the forthcoming census due to be held in 2013. This will be the first census to be conducted since 1991, prior to the war which had a dramatic impact on all population groups and their distribution throughout the country. “Accurate data is essential to reveal the current picture of national, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups in the country and each Entity, and to provide a basis for policy and programme initiatives where necessary”, stated Ms. Izsák. “Outreach and strong community engagement with different communities including the Roma is essential to build confidence and to encourage them to register according to their ethnic or religious group. Positive practices such as the recruitment of Roma census officials should be employed in the lead up to the census.”
In her view, Bosnia and Herzegovina and its Entities should be commended for the legal framework for the protection of national minorities, non-discrimination and religious freedom. Nevertheless, according to many of those whom she consulted, implementation of these laws remains poor in practice. She welcomed the work of the Ombudsman’s Office which has an important role to play in promoting and monitoring human rights, including minority rights. However she felt that this body should be strengthened and its capacity enhanced in order for it to fulfill its potential and that the possibility of appointing an Ombudsman from the category of “others” should be investigated.
Ms. Izsák, who visited Bosnia and Herzegovina at the invitation of the Government, travelled to Sarajevo and different regions with diverse minority populations, including the Banja Luka area, Brèko District and Mostar. She met with senior Government officials at state, entity and municipal level, representatives of non-governmental organizations, community members, academics, and others working in the field of minority issues, social inclusion and promotion of equality and non-discrimination. She met with Councils of national minorities at the State and Entity level and noted that such consultative and advisory bodies constitute a positive practice.
The human rights expert thanked the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina for extending an invitation to visit the country, and expressed her appreciation for the full cooperation given by the authorities during her official mission.
The Independent Expert will present a report on Bosnia and Herzegovina to the UN Human Rights Council, containing her findings and recommendations.
Rita Izsák was appointed as Independent Expert on minority issues by the Human Rights Council in June 2011 and took up her functions on 01 August 2011. As Independent Expert, she is independent from any government or organization and serves in her individual capacity. Under her UN mandate, the Independent Expert is required to promote implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, which marks its 20th anniversary in 2012. Learn more: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Minorities/IExpert/Pages/IEminorityissuesIndex.aspx
UN Human Rights, Country Page – Bosnia and Herzegovina: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/ENACARegion/Pages/BAIndex.aspx
Check the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/minorities.htm
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