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Ongoing Election Challenges in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Monday, September 10, 2018

On October 7, 2018, Bosnia and Herzegovina will hold general elections for government offices at the state level, as well as for offices in each of the “entities” into which the country is politically divided (Bosnian Federation and Republika Srpska), and finally within each of the 10 cantons that make up the Federation.  These elections mark a continuing transition to democratic norms, including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as adherence to the rule of law, detailed in OSCE commitments.

Unfortunately, the challenges faced by a country in its transition have been complicated in Bosnia by the lingering effects of the 1992-1995 conflict, where all sides—primarily but not exclusively Serb nationalist forces—targeted civilians in ethnic cleansing campaigns. These atrocities, which included the genocide at Srebrenica in July 1995, resulted in the displacement of about half the country’s population, the deaths of approximately 100,000 individuals, and the torture or mass rape of thousands more. More than 20 years later, it would be a mistake to underestimate the social scars associated with such a traumatic experience in a country of 3 to 4 million people.   

The most visible artifact of the conflict, however, is not those scars but the political system in which the upcoming elections will be held. Peace was restored by a combination of outside intervention and concessions at the negotiating table; the resulting constitutional arrangement contained in Annex IV of the Dayton Peace Agreement remains in place today.

This arrangement includes allowing only those declaring their affiliation with one of the three main ethnic groups or constituent peoples—Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats—to stand for election to a seat on the state-level presidency or in the House of Peoples of the country’s parliament. Even then, citizens are only eligible if they also live in the right place; Bosniaks and Croats must also reside in the Bosnian Federation and Serbs must reside in Republika Srpska.

In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of two Bosnian citizens, Dervo Sejdic and Jacob Finci, who were ineligible to run as presidential candidates because they do not affiliate with one of the three recognized groups; they are Romani and Jewish respectively. In 2016, Ilijaz Pilav won a similar case at the court when he was denied the chance to run because he is a Bosniak who lives in Republika Srpska. Two years earlier, Azra Zornic also won her ECHR case against Bosnia after she was declared ineligible for not declaring her ethnic affiliation. 

Despite these court victories in Strasbourg, discrimination in Bosnia and Herzegovina continues. Between Bosnian citizens who do not belong to any of the three constituent peoples, Bosniaks and Croats residing in in Republika Srpska, Serbs residing in the Bosnian Federation, and an unknown number of those like Zornic who do not wish to identify on the basis of ethnicity, more than 300,000 Bosnian citizens are denied the right to stand for election to the Bosnian Presidency or seek a seat in the state-level House of Peoples.

The October 2018 elections are further complicated by the 2017 decision of Bosnia’s constitutional court that the mechanism for establishing the Bosnian Federation’s own House of Peoples was unconstitutional and by the annulment of relevant portions of the electoral code. In this case, the claim was made that existing practices had disadvantaged ethnic Croat voters. In early 2018, political talks under international auspices failed to produce a solution, largely due to a desire by those seeking to maintain political power to further entrench ethnicity as a defining factor into the system. The result could be a political crisis after the elections if the Bosnian Federation parliament cannot convene, leading to a similar situation at the state level.

In July 2018, a congressional delegation organized by the U.S. Helsinki Commission visited Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nine Members of Congress met with Sejdic, Finci, and Pilav, as well as civil society representatives and others, to learn more about the ethnic barriers to effective exercise by citizens of their human rights and fundamental freedoms.


The nine-member congressional delegation and U.S. Ambassador Maureen Cormack with Dr. Ilijaz Pilav, Ambassador Jacob Finci, and Mr. Dervo Sejdic in Sarajevo. 

At the end of the visit, the head of the delegation and Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) concluded, “The discriminatory ethnic criteria that prevent some Roma, Jewish, Serbs in the Federation, Croats and Bosniaks in the Republika Srpska, and other citizens who do not self-identify with a group from seeking certain public offices is unacceptable and can easily be addressed… We hope for progress on electoral reform, in line with accepted norms for free and fair elections, so that election results can be implemented and a government formed. We are dismayed at the lack of political diversity within some of the main ethnic groups in this country, and take issue with those who argue they are entitled to a monopoly in representing those groups.” 

The congressional delegation expressed frustration over the lack of progress with the current state presidency. It also asked the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, meeting in Berlin later that month, to maintain a strong focus on Bosnia and Herzegovina and to send a robust election observation mission to the country in October.

Of course, Bosnia’s woes go beyond this issue. Republika Srpska officials continue to undermine the country’s state-level institutions to justify an agenda that is not only openly separatist but, as evidenced by the recent revocation of a 2004 report acknowledging he massacre at Srebrenica, also highly nationalistic. One political party seeks define ethnic privileges that would essentially allow it alone to represent Bosnia’s Croat population. Bosniak political leaders, while perhaps more flexible regarding non-ethnic political options, nevertheless seem content representing the country’s primary victims from the conflict period as they remain in power and engage, as do the others, in widespread corruption. Malign outside influences, including Russia, thrive on the Bosnia’s political impasse. 

Getting elections right—at this most fundamental level in addition to their overall conduct—is critical and perhaps the best place to start the larger reform effort Bosnia needs. Unless this happens, the country, which is estimated to have the world’s highest youth unemployment rate at well over 50 percent, will see its most talented citizens future vote with their feet, and exercise the right they retain as individuals, regardless of ethnicity, to leave the country behind for a future elsewhere.

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In addition to active engagement in the formal sessions, the United States participated in side events focused on specific countries or issues organized by civil society, OSCE participating States, or international organizations, and held numerous bilateral meetings with other delegations to raise and discuss human rights.  Special Advisor Heumann led a panel highlighting the importance of disability rights for OSCE countries as part of a U.S. side event cosponsored with Finland. Russia: External Aggression and Internal Repression During the HDIM, Russia’s aggression in and against Ukraine was raised in connection with almost every agenda item for the meeting.  The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) also issued a joint report prepared with the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities detailing widespread human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea.  Increasing levels of repression within Russia also were raised throughout the HDIM and served to highlight the relationship between external aggression and internal repression. In early 2015, Boris Nemtsov, an advocate for the rule of law and accountability in Russia and an outspoken Russian critic of the Russian government’s war against Ukraine, was gunned down just outside the Kremlin.  Russia’s increasingly repressive government has eroded the democratic institutions that ensure a government’s accountability to its people. A free and independent media is virtually nonexistent and the remaining state-controlled media is used to propagandize disinformation, fear, bigotry, and aggression. Azerbaijan’s Record Draws Sharp Criticism In 2015 Azerbaijan unilaterally shuttered the OSCE Mission in Baku, effectively blocked the OSCE’s independent election observation in October, and sentenced journalist-heroine Khadija Ismayilova to 7 ½ years in prison for reporting on government corruption.  The government of Azerbaijan has also escalated pressure against the family members of its critics, in a further effort to stifle dissent.  As a consequence, throughout the HDIM, Azerbaijan was the subject of singular attention and criticism. In one particularly sharp exchange with the moderator during the discussion of fundamental freedoms in the digital age, Azerbaijan challenged its critics to name at least 25 of an estimated 100 political prisoners.  A partial list – 25 names – is below. Abilov, Abdul Aliyev, Intigam Aliyev, Nijat Akhundov, Rashadat Guliyev, Araz Hasanov, Nasimi Hashimli, Parviz Hazi, Seymur Ismayilova, Khadija Jabrayilova, Valida Jafarov, Rasul Karimov, Fara Mammadli, Anar Mammadov, Hilal Mammadov, Igar Mammadov, Omar Mirkadirov, Rauf Ramazanov, Rashad Rustamov, Aliabbas Rustamzada, Ilkin Seyidov, Elnur Yagublu, Tofig Yunusov, Arif** Yunus, Leyla** Zakharchenko, Irina **Leyla and Arif Yunus have been released from prison since the HDIM but remain under house arrest.

  • It's Time to Hold the Azerbaijan Regime Accountable

    Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's habit of brutally silencing dissent may be finally catching up with him. A new bill introduced in Congress last month would require the U.S. State Department to deny visas to senior members of Aliyev's government until the country can prove it has ceased harassment of independent media and NGOs and made significant progress toward freeing its political prisoners. Despite facing long odds, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 marks a major turning point. For years, the United States has struggled to muster any real condemnation of Azerbaijan's government, one of the most corrupt and repressive in the world. U.S. officials and lawmakers still routinely refer to their Azerbaijani counterparts as "friends" despite the fact that the former Soviet country's latest crackdown has been accompanied by a general turn away from the West. Or should we say partial turn. Azerbaijan wants to be at the table with Western nations when money is up for grabs, but it hasn't acquired the same taste for values about human rights and dignity. This juxtaposition was perhaps most apparent earlier this year when the country hosted the inaugural European Games, a 17-day competition featuring 6,000 athletes from 50 countries. The capital city of Baku spared no expense to project a modern, glamorous image during the event--even flying in Lady Gaga for a surprise performance. For many people, it was a first glimpse of Azerbaijan. But that glimpse was carefully choreographed. Foreign reporters who agreed to play by the government's rules were rewarded with access to the games; others,including Guardian sports correspondent Owen Gibson, were banned from attending after calling out human rights abuses in the country. What the cameras did not capture that night was the escape of Emin Huseynov, the founder of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, who fled Azerbaijan for Switzerland on the private plane of the Swiss foreign minister. Huseynov first sought refuge at the Swiss embassy ten months earlier after Azerbaijani authorities raided his office. Other human rights advocates and journalists have not been as fortunate. Within a 10-day period in August 2014, Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, and Leyla and Arif Yunus all were arrested. They were later subjected to speedy show trials resulting in lengthy prison sentences for crimes they did not commit. Leyla and Arif, both seriously ill, have recently been released to serve suspended sentences but still face charges of treason. Employees of Meydan TV, whose founder reported receiving a high-level threat during the European Games, have been barred from leaving Azerbaijan, repeatedly questioned at the prosecutor's office, and detained without cause. Their families have also faced pressure. Two brothers of editor Gunel Movlud are currently being held on bogus drug charges. Most tragically, in August, Rasim Aliyev, a journalist and chairman of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, died after he was severely beaten by attackers. Although the assault was reportedly connected to a criticism Aliyev made of a soccer player on Facebook, Aliyev had previously experienced threats against his life. The attack was one of hundreds against Azerbaijan's journalists in the past decade, including at least two other murders. Quiet diplomacy from the United States and the European Union has failed to reverse Azerbaijan's relentless pursuit of critics and civil society groups. The State Department called Leyla Yunus' release earlier this month a "welcome" development and a "positive step." Meanwhile, the deputy chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party, was arrested the day before, and the treason trial of dissident journalist Rauf Mirqadirov is still underway. But perhaps President Aliyev's luck is running out. In November, in an unprecedented step, the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, its Parliamentary Assembly, and the European Parliament all canceled monitoring missions to Azerbaijan to protest the irregularity of the country's parliamentary elections. Last month, Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, made a bold move of his own, announcing an inquiry into Azerbaijan's implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights. And on the same day, U.S. Congressman Chris Smith, chairman of the Helsinki Commission, introduced the Azerbaijan Democracy Act and held a hearing on the case of Khadija Ismayilova, one of the few journalists in Azerbaijan who dared to report on corruption among the country's ruling elite. Ismayilova was arrested last year and is now serving a seven and a half-year prison sentence. Ismayilova has kept up the pressure on her country even from behind bars. On the eve of the European Games, with the help of Sport for Rights, a coalition of international press freedom groups that recently published a report on Azerbaijan's human rights record, she managed to get a letter out of jail to The New York Times. "The truth is that Azerbaijan is in the midst of a human rights crisis. Things have never been worse," she wrote, urging the international community: "Do not let the government of Azerbaijan distract your attention from its record of corruption and abuse." Maybe now the world is ready to listen.

  • U.S. Bill Seeks Sanctions On Azerbaijani Officials For 'Appalling' Rights Record

    A U.S. lawmaker has introduced legislation that would deny U.S. visas to senior Azerbaijani officials due to what he calls Baku's "appalling human rights violations." U.S. Representative Chris Smith (Republican-New Jersey) introduced the bill, titled the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015, in the House of Representatives on December 16. "The human rights situation has seriously deteriorated in Azerbaijan, causing damage to its relations with the United States and other countries, and has damaged its own society by imprisoning or exiling some of its best and brightest citizens," Smith told a hearing of Congress's Helsinki Commission held in conjunction with the announcement of the legislation.

  • Human Rights Violations in Russian-Occupied Crimea

    The briefing reviewed the current condition of life in Crimea under Russian rule. Panelists highlighted the illegal nature of Russian rule over the peninsula and described the human rights abuses commited by the new authorities. Several of the panelists described the propaganda campaign and censorship that the Russian government has been carrying out to tighten its grip on the peninsula. Participants also outlined possible responses by the international community -- particularly sanctions -- to address the situation in Crimea.

  • Chairman Smith Underscores Plight of Political Prisoners in OSCE Region on International Human Rights Day

    WASHINGTON–To mark International Human Rights Day on December 10, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “The number of political prisoners is growing in several OSCE countries. For example, Russian human rights organization Memorial estimates that there are currently 50 political prisoners in Russia – a spike in recent years. Their so-called ‘criminal’ activities include protesting Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, blogging on police misbehavior, or exchanging open source information with a foreign research partner. “The government of Azerbaijan has in recent years imprisoned scores of people—including human rights activists and journalists. The recent release of Leyla and Arif Yunus is a positive first step. President Aliyev now must insist that the spurious charges against not only the Yunuses, but also against Khadija Ismayilova, Intigam Aliyev, and many other political prisoners, be dropped. “The number of political prisoners in central Asia has been high for years and it is not declining. In Turkmenistan, former Foreign Ministers Batyr Berdiev and Boris Shikmuradov are just two of the more than 100 people who have disappeared into Turkmenistan’s prison system, which is known for shockingly terrible conditions. In Tajikistan, members of the opposition Islamic Renewal Party of Tajikistan have been arrested, alongside the lawyers who tried to defend them. Uzbekistan has jailed human rights activists, members of certain religious groups, and journalists – including Muhammad Bekjanov, who has been held since 1999 – after poorly conducted trials and despite allegations of torture and abuse.” “On International Human Rights Day, I call on the OSCE to place the release of political prisoners at the top of the organization’s agenda.” Smith also issued a statement calling on the administration to sanction the Chinese government egregious human rights violations. December 10, International Human Rights Day, commemorates the Universal Declaration on Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Probe Human Rights Violations in Occupied Crimea

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “Human Rights Violations in Russian-Occupied Crimea” Friday, December 11 2:00 PM Rayburn House Office Building Room B-318 Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory of Crimea in March 2014 – which flagrantly violated numerous international agreements, including core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act – resulted in a deplorable human rights situation that continues today.   Changes in government and the legal framework in Crimea following Russia’s annexation have had a toxic impact on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Violations of civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights are widespread, especially against those who openly oppose the Russian occupation, including Crimean Tatars and other ethnic, political, and religious groups. The Helsinki Commission briefing will present key findings of the recent report, “Human Rights on Occupied Territory: Case of Crimea,” prepared by an international team of lawyers led by Ivanna Bilych.  Panelists from Ukraine will provide valuable insights about the situation on the ground. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Ivanna Bilych, Co-founder and President of VOLYA Institute, board member of the Ukrainian American Bar Association Andriy Klymenko, Chief Editor of Black Sea News; prominent economist, originally from Crimea Bohdan Yaremenko, Chairman of the board of the Ukrainian non-governmental organization, Maidan of Foreign Affairs, former Ukrainian diplomat Yuriy Yatsenko, Activist of the Maidan Revolution of Dignity who was illegally imprisoned in Russia on political grounds and recently released after a year of imprisonment

  • Marking 20 Years Since the Signing of the Dayton Peace Accords

    Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, November 21 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Dayton Agreement, which ended the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995.  As a member and later Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I remember those events vividly—many Bosnians and Serbs testified before the Helsinki Commission in the 1990s (including victims of human rights abuses and human rights defenders) and some have since played leading roles as elected officials. In 1991, Frank Wolf and I visited Vukovar in neighboring Croatia while it was still under siege. With a group of other Helsinki Commissioners and Members of Congress, I urged a decisive international response under U.S. leadership from the very beginning of the war. In 1995 we spearheaded a movement to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia, so that it would not present such an inviting target to Serb militias. Sadly the embargo was lifted too late for the Bosniaks in Srebrenica.  Just last month I met with a group of young Bosniaks belonging to Voices of the Bosnian Genocide. It was so moving to meet with these young people—many of them were from Srebrenica—and to learn how many of them had taken up work or study that sought to bring some good out of the horrors of 1995. Many studied human rights law, or conflict resolution, or medicine.  Their lives were shaped not only by Srebrenica but also by Dayton, which brought an end to the killing. Yet as public officials we have a responsibility to remember that robust action earlier in the conflict could have saved many more lives and produced better prospects for the future.  Twenty years later, this Dayton anniversary offers the opportunity to assess what has been achieved in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The agreement should rightly be remembered for restoring a peace that has held to this day, and for ensuring the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Dayton gave the country time to begin to heal from a horrific conflict infamous for ethnic cleansing and atrocities against innocent civilians, including the genocide at Srebrenica— which we remembered with the unanimous passage of House Resolution 310 this past July—as well as the shelling of Sarajevo and other urban centers, and the rape and death camps established by Serb militant forces at the beginning of their aggression. In this small country, over two million were displaced by the conflict, more than 100,000 were killed, and tens of thousands were raped or tortured. Scars made by crimes of this scale still remain.  Dayton was a central part of an effort that helped the international community transition from a world divided between East and West in order to meeting post-Cold War challenges, including the extreme and violent nationalism and its inherent hatred for others which manifested itself elsewhere in the Balkans and Europe. For the first time since World War II, an international tribunal was established to hold persons accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Determining the fate of missing persons, using new technology such as satellite photography to locate mass graves and DNA testing to identify remains, became a priority. The NATO Alliance, previously confined to the borders of its member states, expanded its security role to operate ‘‘out of area,’’ first to restore peace and then to keep it. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also evolved to include significant field operations and new mandates ranging from election observation to police training. These developments remain relevant today.  As we commemorate the accomplishments of Dayton, Mr. Speaker, we also must remember that the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina must live in its wake. It is my hope that, at the 30th anniversary of the end of the conflict, Bosnia will have made more progress and we will have more to celebrate.

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Honored by Voices of the Bosnian Genocide

    WASHINGTON—Voices of the Bosnian Genocide honored Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) on Thursday with an award recognizing his efforts to ensure that the genocide at Srebrenica is acknowledged. “It is moving to receive this award from young people, many of whom are survivors of the genocide or lost relatives at Srebrenica and are now working to promote human rights,” said Rep. Smith. “Today the international community is nearly unanimous when it proclaims that the Srebrenica massacre was a genocide, although shockingly, there are those who continue to deny that the policies of aggression and ethnic cleansing implemented by Serb forces meet that criteria.” For more than 20 years, Rep. Smith has worked tirelessly to see that the perpetrators of the horrific acts at Srebrenica and elsewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina are punished and that closure is provided to survivors and victims’ families. In July 2015, Rep. Smith authored H. Res. 310 defining the Srebrenica massacre as a genocide, which was passed unanimously by the U.S. House of Representatives.   Voices of the Bosnian Genocide is a Seattle-based nonprofit organization devoted to raising awareness and educating the public about the genocide that took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s and the ongoing effects that the genocide is having on Bosnia and the world. The group is made up of individuals who are passionate about genocide education and prevention and human rights.

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