SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — A top European court ruled in an opinion published Tuesday that Bosnia’s political system, set up under a U.S.-brokered peace deal in 1995, amplifies ethnic divisions and undermines the Balkan country’s democratic elections.
The European Court of Human Rights, ECHR, sided with Slaven Kovacevic, a Sarajevo-born political scientist, who sued Bosnia last year arguing that it prevents people who refuse to affiliate with one of Bosnia’s three dominant ethnic groups from voting for candidates of their choosing.
Tuesday’s verdict is the latest in a stream of the ECHR rulings ordering Bosnia to make its constitution less discriminatory. The country’s failure to comply with those verdicts by amending its constitution is a stumbling block on Bosnia’s path towards its stated goal of joining the European Union.
In the summary of its verdict, the court ruled that Bosnia’s power-sharing arrangements have turned the country into an “ethnocracy” in which ethnicity, and not citizenship, is the key to securing power and resources.
Bosnia’s dominant ethnic groups — Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats — “control the state institutions to further their interest.” Meanwhile, the court ruled, the country’s nationals who belong to the minority groups or reject ethnic nationalism are “akin to second-class citizens.”
The 1995 Dayton peace agreement was aimed at ending the war in Bosnia that killed 100,000 people and drove some 2 million from their homes. Under its terms, the country was divided into two semi-autonomous governing entities — Republika Srpska and the Federation dominated by Bosniaks and Croats. Each has its own government, parliament and police, but the two are linked by shared, state-wide institutions, including the three-person presidency and the bicameral national parliament.
The constitution states that the candidates for the national presidency and the shared parliament’s upper chamber, which has to approve all legislation, must identify as ethnic Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks and that the two must be divided equally among the three groups. All others are excluded.
Additionally, only the residents of Bosnia’s Serb-run part are entitled to vote for the candidates for the two top offices who declare affiliation with Serbs and only the residents of the Federation for those who affiliate with Croats and Bosniaks.
The sectarian system of governance perpetuates a venomous political climate that allows the long-entrenched nationalist leaders to enrich their allies and leaves reform-minded Bosnians without the right to run for top offices and with little incentive to vote.
Human Rights Watch, the global rights group, estimated in 2019 that 400,000 Bosnian nationals — or 12% of the country’s population — has been barred from running for their country’s presidency or the upper chamber of its national parliament because of their religion, ethnicity, or where they live.