On 21 November 1995, the EU and US brokered the Dayton peace agreement, putting an end to the three-and-a-half-year bloody war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The agreement failed to tackle the division that the war had wrought, though, instead establishing a loose federation along ethnic lines. The hope was that in time, as wounds healed, and with the political, military and economic support of the US and EU, a country that fully respected equality and other human rights would emerge.
Seventeen years on, while there is no war, the dream of a Bosnia that respects basic human rights remains sadly unrealised. The deep compromises and flaws in Dayton are sharper than ever. That is especially true for the country's minorities, the smaller ethnic groups such as Roma and Jews, who were excluded from the Dayton talks and overlooked in the settlement.
Bosnia's constitution, drafted by American and European experts as part of Dayton, states that only ethnic Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Serbs and Croats can be elected members of the presidency and the House of Peoples, the upper chamber of parliament. Roma, Jews and other so-called ‘national minorities', as well as those unwilling to declare their ethnicity, are barred from standing for those offices. Uniquely in the world, they are labelled “others”.
In 2007, the Jewish leader Jakob Finci and the Romani leader Dervo Sejdic challenged the constitutional bar on national minorities running for high office at the European Court of Human Rights, contending that it discriminated against them. In 2009, the court ruled in Sejdic and Finci's favour, ordering Bosnia and Herzegovina to revise its constitution to enable national minorities to be elected for the Presidency and the House of Peoples.
The EU has made clear that it regards implementing the Sejdic-Finci judgment a pre-condition for closer EU ties. The issue is part of the EU's ‘roadmap' for Bosnia. The US has also called for Bosnia to comply with the judgment. But the Bosnian government has failed to take meaningful action because of deep divisions among its main political parties, largely divided along ethnic lines.
Bosnia's international partners rightly take the view that the country's leaders need to assume responsibility for its future. But as the architects of the Dayton agreement, the EU and Washington have a duty to do everything they can to address its problematic legacy for national minorities.
The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, did call on the Bosnian presidency during their recent Balkans tour to implement the European court ruling.
But beyond big political messages, practical engagement is needed. The country's forthcoming census, funded by the EU, is a case in point. Bosnia has been relying on an outdated pre-war census, which undercounts Roma and does not reflect wartime or post-conflict population movements. The census is used to determine allocations of local government jobs in many parts of the country, as well as political representation. An accurate census is long overdue and vitally important.
There are real concerns among civil-society groups, though, that the census will discriminate against national minorities and prevent people from choosing freely how to define themselves. The census questionnaire has pre-defined categories on language, nationality/ethnicity and religion and respondents may not enter multiple answers. These questions push Bosnians back into the discriminatory Dayton classifications.
A pilot census run in October proposes tackling the problem not by amending the questions but by adding an open answer box to the questionnaire. But the current training manual for enumerators – who will conduct the census – fails to instruct them properly how to record open answers.
In addition to its aim to promote peace and stability in the region, Dayton was meant to build respect for European human rights standards. To achieve both, political parties in Bosnia need to set aside partisan bickering and make it a priority to ensure that constitutional rights are guaranteed and applied equally to everyone regardless of ethnicity. That in turn depends on the willingness of the EU, with US support, keeping up the pressure on Bosnia on the census and constitutional reform.
After 17 years of political turmoil and constitutional mess, the EU, the US and the Bosnian presidency owe it to the citizens of Bosnia to make these amendments a matter of urgency.
Lydia Gall is the Balkans and eastern European researcher at Human Rights Watch.