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(Sarajevo) – Roma, Jews, and other national minorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina remain excluded from participation in national politics 20 years after war began, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Bosnia needs to remove ethnic discrimination against national minorities from its constitution, laws, and public institutions, Human Rights Watch said.

The 62-page report, “Second Class Citizens: Discrimination Against Roma, Jews, and Other National Minorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” highlights discrimination against Roma, Jews, and other national minorities in politics and government. Much of this discrimination stems from Bosnia’s 1995 Constitution, which mandates a system of government based on ethnicity and excludes these groups from high political office. The report also shows the wider impact of discrimination on the daily lives of Roma in accessing housing, education, healthcare, and employment.

“Bosnia’s constitution was designed to help end the war” said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But political discrimination against minorities has no place in a modern European country. It’s high time for reform.”

In December 2009, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Sejdic and Finci v. Bosnia and Herzegovina that the country’s constitution discriminates against Roma and Jews, in violation of human rights law. The constitution bars anyone who is not one of the country’s three main ethnic groups – Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs – from running for the tripartite national presidency or national house of peoples, one of two parliamentary chambers.

More than two years after the European Court’s decision, Bosnia has yet to revise the constitution or end discrimination against national minorities in the political system, Human Rights Watch said. National elections were held in October 2010 under the old system, and ethnic deadlock prevented formation of a new government for more than a year. The newly formed government has yet to take action.

Similar discrimination exists in local government, with jobs in Bosnia’s two “entities,” Republika Srpska, and the Federation, allocated under their constitutions by ethnicity using the 1991 census. The 1991 census counted fewer than 9,000 Roma, as many Roma at the time identified as “Yugoslav,” although current estimates put the number as high as 100,000. The 1991 census counted approximately 30,000 other national minorities, including 500 Jews.

The European Union and the United States, which helped develop the constitution in 1995 at the end of the wars in the region, have a special obligation to press Bosnia for constitutional changes, Human Rights Watch said. The EU made amending the constitution a condition for EU membership negotiations, but following failed attempts at constitutional reform in 2006 and 2009, the EU and US are no longer actively involved in the reform process.

Human Rights Watch also examined the everyday discrimination faced by Roma in accessing housing, education, healthcare, and employment, due to complicated rules and financial barriers, and the link to discrimination in politics and government. These problems include:

  • Housing: Many Roma in Bosnia live in informal settlements that lack stability and security for their families. Forced evictions are an ever-present danger, and the government has made no provisions for adequate alternative housing for those who are evicted. Forced evictions have been a particular problem in Mostar, with some Roma families evicted twice in the past two years. Most recently, in October 2011, 100 Roma were left without adequate housing after an eviction to make space for housing for other Roma. None of these evicted were offered alternative accommodation.
  • Education: Roma families across Bosnia face financial barriers to school enrollment, including meals, textbooks, clothes, and transportation, which the government generally does not provide. As a result Roma children have low rates of attendance at school in many parts of the country, with only a third of Roma children attending primary school nationwide, compared with 93 percent of the country’s children as a whole.
  • Employment: The main source of income for most Roma families is recycling scrap metals and begging on the streets. Although the government has established an employment program for Roma, very few Roma or employers have participated, because few Roma are officially registered as unemployed. Access to civil service jobs in the Federation and Republika Srpska is hampered by constitutional requirements to fill the jobs based on ethnic affiliations in the 1991 census.
  • Healthcare: In the Federation, Roma must register with unemployment offices within 30 days of losing a job to receive healthcare coverage, a rule that many learn about only after the deadline has passed. For much of 2011, the Herzegovina-Neretva canton, which includes Mostar, violated Federation law by not funding healthcare for young children, pregnant women, and older people, a situation that particularly impacted Roma.

Fika Ahmetovic, 31, and her four children were evicted from their makeshift home, which lacked stable structures, electricity, or water, in an informal settlement in the city of Mostar, in October 2011. When Human Rights Watch spoke with Ahmetovic before the eviction, she reported that it would not only mean finding a new piece of land on which to build a new makeshift home. Eviction also would mean disruptions in school attendance for her two oldest children. For her youngest, who has severe health problems, it would also likely mean disruption in medical care, which the family would no longer be able to afford on its small income from recycling scrap metals.

Bosnia has made high-level commitments to resolve the human rights problems experienced by Roma, through a Europe-wide program called the Decade of Roma Inclusion. But little has been achieved in practice, Human Rights Watch found, in part because of the low priority the political leadership has given to improving their situation.

Some officials in Bosnia have said that the needs of the three main ethnic groups – referred to in the constitution as “constituent people” – should take priority over those of national minorities.

“This country does not have the capacity to help even the constituent people, let alone the Roma,” Damir Dizdarevic, the assistant minister for work and employment at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, told  Human Rights Watch in an interview.

“Roma experience discrimination and abuse across Europe,” Ward said. “The difference in Bosnia is that their exclusion from national politics and local government prevents their plight from even being recognized.” 

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