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Notes from… Sarajevo

1 July 2006

Interview: Cynthia Morel, MRG Legal Cases Officer

Can you imagine living in a democracy where you are forced to deny your identity in order to stand for election? Sounds like a contradiction in terms does it not? Unfortunately, this is the reality facing many citizens of Bosnia who are categorized as ‘others’. Actually, they are Jews, Roma and a dozen more communities with their own languages and religious backgrounds.

The Dayton Accord, signed 10 years ago to end the conflict in Bosnia, gave the three Constituent Peoples, Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, shared power according to the Constitution. But this power sharing has allowed whole communities to be marginalized and ignored. It comes down to a simple form that asks people to state their ethnicity. Are they Bosniak, Serb, Croat or ‘other’? What if you feel you are simply Bosnian? Not an option. And what are the consequences if you tick ‘other’? You automatically lose the right to vote or stand for election for the House of Peoples, or run for President. And that’s the law.

This affects not only those from ethnic minorities, but the children of mixed marriages as well. Even if your mother and father are from one of the recognized constituent groups, if they are from different groups to each other, you have a problem. Children of mixed marriages are forced to choose between their parent’s identities, or again, to choose ‘other’.

I went to Sarajevo to find a local lawyer to take up the case of this discrimination; a discrimination that forces people to either exclude themselves from public decision making or to lie about who they are. And while no one is making you tell the truth on the form, how likely is it that once you have survived ethnic cleansing you will choose to deny your identity and lie?

It is not sustainable to paralyze a system along ethnic lines in this way. It creates division that threatens long-term peace in society. The 10-year old bullet holes that adorn the period buildings are a testimony to the fact that Sarajevo, a beautiful city, still bears the scars of war.

Perhaps the way the Constitution was structured was necessary 10 years ago, to begin to form peace. But it is impossible to justify the political disenfranchisement of significant portions of the population on racial grounds – doing this runs counter to the most basic principle of human rights in civic society: equality before the law.

Interview by Preti Taneja