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Human Rights Developments

A breakthrough occurred in one of the most serious of Bosnia and Hercegovina human rights issues: the return of refugees and displaced persons. For the first time since the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords (DPA) refugees and displaced persons returned in relatively large numbers to areas where they would be part of an ethnic minority. In other progress in human rights, nine persons were detained who had been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the death penalty was formally abolished in Republika Srpska (R.S.).

The progress was still not self-sustained: it required the strong involvement of the international community to ensure that Bosnia stayed its course to become a democratic state with the full protection of human rights.

The April municipal elections brought significant gains for the moderate Social Democratic Party in Bosniack areas of the federation, at the expense of the nationalist Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA). However, in the Croat areas of the federation, the nationalist Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) managed to maintain its position, while the Serb Democratic Party founded by Radovan Karadzic remained in control of the vast majority of municipalities in the Republika Srpska. Parliamentary elections were scheduled for November 2000.

In July, President Alija Izetbegovic announced that he would resign from the three-person Bosnian presidency in October 2000. Because the Bosnian constitution did not specify the succession procedure, the parliamentary assembly adopted a controversial law to do so. The law gave control over appointment to the appointed members of the House of Peoples, excluding the directly elected members of the House of Representatives from the process. The international community's high representative in Bosnia, Wolfgang Petritsch, imposed an amendment to rectify this.

War Criminals

Several more indictees were transferred to the ICTY's detention unit in The Hague after being detained by the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR). Among them was Momcilo Krajisnik, the wartime president of the Bosnian Serb assembly and a postwar member of the Bosnian presidency, who was the highest ranking politician arrested so far. The Krajisnik detention showed that even high-ranking figures can be detained without widespread retaliation by the civilian population. Others arrested in 2000 included Mitar Vasiljevic, Dragoljub Prcac, Dusko Sikirica, and Dragan Nikolic, the first person indicted by the ICTY. Moreover, the Croatian authorities in March transferred Mladen Naletilic after delaying this for months for medical reasons. In January, indictee and notorious paramilitary leader Zeljko Raznjatovic, also known as "Arkan," was shot and killed in the lobby of a hotel in Belgrade.

Despite the increased willingness of the SFOR to detain indictees, twenty-six publicly indicted persons, including Bosnian Serb wartime leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, remained at large, while an unknown number of others were the subject of sealed indictments. The Bosnian Serb authorities, despite improved cooperation with the ICTY, still had not arrested a single indictee. Therefore, the role of the international SFOR troops remained essential to the accountability process.

Return of Refugees

Members of minority groups returned in significant numbers for the first time since the end of the war. In the first six months of 2000, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) registered 19,751 minority returns, as compared to 7,709 during the same period in 1999. The increased return movement, which started in late 1999, was caused by several factors. The international community had focused much more attention on return; the legislation facilitating return was finally in place, and implementation started; and displaced persons started to realizethat if they did not return soon, they might not return at all. This resulted in many spontaneous returns: rather than waiting for organized return, small groups of displaced persons returned and started to clean or rebuild their homes. Returns, albeit in small numbers, also took place to areas in eastern R.S. that were previously completely closed to returnees.

The increased return was accompanied by an increasing number of return-related abuses throughout Bosnia. One of the worst abuses took place in Bratunac, where a large group of protesters attacked four buses carrying Bosniak returnees, and Janja, where a series of incidents took place in March and again in July.

Despite the increased number of returns, over one million Bosnians remain displaced, the majority of them within Bosnia and Hercegovina. A survey conducted by the UNHCR showed that 61 percent of the displaced still wish to return to their homes. However, the returns process continues to face serious problems. The implementation of the legislation enabling return was extremely slow. There was a lack of political will to enable return, in particular among the Bosnian Croat and the Bosnian Serb authorities.

Just when the returns process was finally picking up speed, many donors were decreasing their funding for reconstruction and return, or pulling out altogether. Rights groups and other observers urged the international community to remain committed to return, arguing that continued assistance could produce speedy, substantial, and sustainable results, while withdrawal could mean that hard-fought gains would be squandered and the nationalists' policy of ethnic cleansing would have succeeded.

Human Rights Institutions

A provision in the R.S. constitution described the R.S. as the "state of the Serb people," whereas the federation constitution had a provision stating that Bosniaks and Croats were the "constituent peoples" in the federation. In July, the Constitutional Court decided that these provisions were discriminatory and contradicted the Bosnian constitution. This decision was strongly criticized by Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat politicians, but Constitutional Court decisions are binding and cannot be appealed. The decision may have an enormous impact, because many Bosnian laws based on the same ethnic principles may have to be revised.

In February, the R.S. National Assembly passed a law establishing an ombudsmen for the R.S. The establishment and composition of this institution had been the subject of protracted negiotiations between the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Hercegovina (OHR), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the R.S. government. Ultimately, it was decided to create a three-person, multi-ethnic institution, which was expected to be able to receive claims by the end of 2000. In July, the federation parliament passed a law harmonizing the laws on the ombudsmen institutions in the federation with that in the R.S., and allowing the federation parliament to appoint new ombudsmen in 2001.

The Human Rights Chamber, which together with the Office of the Ombudsperson for Bosnia and Hercegovina forms the Human Rights Commission, continued to issue decisions on numerous issues including employment discrimination, property rights, and fair trial.

Although the human rights institutions noticed increased compliance by the authorities with its decisions and recommendations, funding for the institutions was still inadequate, and several important decisions remained unimplemented. For instance, the Human Rights Chamber's June 1999 decision ordering the municipality of Banja Luka to issue permits for the reconstruction of seven mosques was still not implemented. R.S. Prime Minister Dodik said that reconstruction might begin after the November elections but that any activities without permits would be stopped immediately.

An important step was made toward the independence of the judiciary by the adoption of laws governing the selection and dismissal of judges and prosecutors. These laws, imposed by the high representative in the federation and adopted but later amended in the R.S., provided for appointment and dismissal based on merit alone. The OHR, in cooperation with the United Nations Mission in Bosnia-Hercegovina (UNMIBH), in July started a comprehensive review program to evaluate all judges and prosecutors.


Harassment of the media was a growing problem, and numerous abuses were recorded throughout the year. The OSCE' s Free Media Helpline received more than one hundred complaints in a period of less than ten months. Zeljko Kopanja, the editor-in-chief of Nezavisne Novine who lost both legs in a car bomb explosion in October 1999, was again threatened several times. The driver of federation Prime Minister Edhem Bicakcic attacked a journalist of the daily Dnevni Avaz. In June, the SDA used a tax audit to harass Dnevni Avaz, a daily that used to be aligned with the SDA but recently had taken a more critical approach.

R.S. Minister of Information Rajko Vasic called for criminal prosecution of a journalist for alleged false reporting, but resigned from his post after being criticized severely by journalists' associations, the OHR, and the OSCE. In August, Marko Asanin, a former Bosnian minister and current director of the R.S.-owned electricity company, beat and kicked journalist Ljubisa Lazic. Many other journalists and media outlets were attacked or received threats.

The federation authorities in December 1999 presented a draft Law on Compensation for Damage Caused by Defamation and Libel, which was severely criticized for the excessive fines it sanctioned. As of this writing, the law had not yet been adopted. The OSCE and the OHR together presented a draft Freedom of Information Act that established the right of access to information held by government and other public bodies. The law, which would significantly enhance media freedom, had not yet been passed by parliament.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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