A citizens' assembly on Human Rights

03. March 2022
European Council

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, a citizens' assembly on 27 February 2022 adopted its recommendations to eliminate discrimination in the country's political and electoral system.

Over two weekends in February, 57 randomly selected citizens in Sarajevo and Teslic had the opportunity to learn about these issues, discuss them with people with different opinions and find common ground. The discussion was coordinated by independent facilitators and experts in the field of human rights, electoral law and constitutional law.

Constitution, ethnicity and institutions

A number of stakeholders, including representatives of political parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina, had been invited to provide the assembly participants with different perspectives. Armed with this information, the assembly members discussed in depth issues of the constitution, ethnicity and how all this relates to the functioning of institutions. The citizens drafted 17 recommendations on the following topics:

  •     Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina
  •     House of Peoples
  •     Combating corruption and fraud in the electoral process

The citizens' assembly demands the elimination of discrimination from the Constitution and Election Law, to allow everyone to elect and be elected to all positions at all levels of authority, as well as measures to empower women’s participation. Also, in relation to the Presidency, the indirect election of 4 Presidency members from amongst BiH House of Representatives MPs is recommended, with rotation so that each shall act as a President for one year. The Presidency is recommended to have a protocol role only, and its competences should be transferred to the Council of Ministers.

Proposals to eliminate election fraud

In addition, the abolition of the BiH House of Peoples, the RS Council of Peoples and the Federation House of Peoples. Vital National Interest mechanism should be transferred to the BiH House of Representatives, RS National Assembly and the Federation House of Representatives respectively. Finally, it includes a set of measures to eliminate election fraud and strengthen the integrity of the electoral process.

The independent moderators, who have experience with such citizens' assemblies all over Europe, were deeply impressed by the assembly members. According to facilitator Christiane Amici-Raboud, “participants embodied the spirit of the Citizens’ Assembly - openness, fairness, equality of voice, efficiency, respect and collegiality. Their level of engagement and commitment and their proactive and constructive approach was simply outstanding, once again showing what can be achieved by giving people who are not involved in politics the time and space to consider important issues.”

Citizens' Assembly initiated bei the EU

The Citizens' Assembly process had been initiated and monitored throughout by the European Union with the support of the United States Embassy and the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina. These institutions urge the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina to include the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly in its deliberations.

For the Citizens' Assembly, citizens of the country were randomly selected as a representative sample of the population. A letter signed by the EU, US and OSCE ambassadors to Bosnia and Herzegovina invited 4,000 randomly selected households to express their interest in participating in the Citizens' Assembly.

Citizen participation important in democracy reform

The second round of random selection of citizens took place in Sarajevo on 4 November 2021. Among those who applied to participate in the Citizens' Assembly, the final group of 57 members in total was randomly selected. In order to ensure the impartiality and transparency of the process, registration codes were used instead of the names that citizens had given when applying to participate. In compiling the Citizens' Assembly, the demographic characteristics of the group that were taken into account were gender, age, place of residence and ethnic or national affiliation.

At the event, the EU Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Johann Sattler, the US Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Eric Nelson, and the Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dmitry Iordanidi, stressed the importance of involving citizens in the constitutional and electoral reform process.

Nationalist politicians do not implement court rulings

The EU is supporting a citizens' assembly in Bosnia and Herzegovina to change the constitution, because nationalist politicians are simply not implementing the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. Some Bosnians and Herzegovinians have been given privileges by the country's post-war constitution and therefore have the power to shape the laws according to their wishes. These nationalists, who have been elected by the majority for decades, prevent equality for all and see the state as a composition of three ethnocamps in which Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats are to be ruled according to the herd principle.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, anyone who is Albanian, Roman or Jewish is not allowed to be elected to the state presidency or the House of Peoples at all. Only those who call themselves Bosniak, Serb or Croat belong to the privileged. Since 2009, the European Court of Human Rights has been calling for an end to this discrimination and injustice in the constitution.

Goal: Constitutional change before the next election

In terms of content, the aim of the citizens' assembly is to end discrimination in the election of the State Presidency and the House of Peoples. The constitution is then to be amended so that all citizens can be treated equally in the 2022 elections.

There are already five rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), but they have not yet been implemented because of the resistance of the nationalists. For example, those Bosnians and Herzegovinians who do not follow the prevailing ethnic concept and do not define themselves ethnically, but who simply want to be Bosnians and Herzegovinians - and not Bosniaks, Serbs or Croats - have so far been excluded.

For a system without discrimination

That precisely these people are discriminated against is shown by the case of Azra Zornić, who sees herself as a citizen of the state and does not define herself ethnically. She, too, is not allowed to run for office only because she refuses to think in such categories. In a 2014 ruling on her case, the Court concludes that "the time has come for a political system that grants every citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina the right to stand in elections for President and the House of Peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina" without discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and without special rights for members of the constituent peoples - i.e. Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.

Minorities discriminated against

Minorities such as Jews, Albanians or Roma and those who do not define themselves ethnically are called "the others" - in Bosnian: ostali. These "ostali" are not allowed to run for office in the State Presidency or the House of Peoples, neither in the Republika Srpska nor in the Federation part of the country.

However, Serbs living in the Federation part of the country are also discriminated against, as the case "Svetozar Pudarić v. Bosnia and Herzegovina" from 2020 shows. Mr. Pudarić, who has since died and lived in Sarajevo, could not run for office in the state presidency because only those Serbs living in the Republika Srpska part of the country have this right. In this case, too, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the plaintiff and called on the legislators to amend the constitution. For the Pudarić case once again reveals the country's racist and discriminatory constitution.

Racism in the Republika Srpska and the Federation

Conversely, no Bosniaks or Croats living in Republika Srpska are allowed to run for office in the state presidency or the House of Peoples there. This is because, according to the constitution, only the Serb member of the State Presidency may come from Republika Srpska. The European Court of Human Rights therefore also came to the conclusion in the case of the Muslim Ilijaz Pilav from Srebrenica in 2016 that his exclusion from the presidential election was based on a combination of ethnic origin and place of residence, which amounted to discriminatory treatment. The EU has been demanding the alignment of the constitution with European values for many years.

Two-thirds majority needed

The citizens' assembly recommendations were discussed in parliament in March 2022, but did not find a majority. A constitutional amendment would require a two-thirds majority in parliament. However, the nationalist parties do not want a citizen-oriented state at all.  Some of their representatives even want to divide the country even more, such as the leader of the largest nationalist Croatian party HDZ, Dragan Čović, who is calling for a separate electoral district for Croats in the Federation part of the country. Čović has even been threatening to veto the budget so that the 2022 elections cannot be held if the electoral law is not changed according to his wishes beforehand. However, in that case, the High Representative of the International Community, Christian Schmidt, could also decide on a budget.

In any case, it would be important not only to change the constitution, but also to modify the election procedure in such a way that forgery and manipulation can be better prevented. For example, the election assessors should no longer be able to be replaced by the parties on the day before the election, as is currently still possible. In addition, the election results should be forwarded to the central office directly after the election, for example by scanning them in, in order to leave no time for manipulation. In addition, if voters were registered electronically, it would be possible to prevent people from going to the polls more than once with the same ID card.

Read more: Skupština građana BiH