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The status of constituent peoples and minorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina

1 April 2003

In October 1995, the Dayton Peace Agreement put an end to the four and a half years of war in the former Yugoslavia, and, in particular, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It established the demarcation lines of a new state with a constitutional framework and set of laws. In its new form, the independent Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) became a single state comprised of two Entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the Federation) and Republika Srpska (RS).Considerable progress has been made in restoring normal life since the fighting stopped. Nevertheless, Bosnia and Herzegovina does not have a genuinely stable and permanent population for a number of reasons: the ethnic composition of the war-struck areas has changed dramatically; relatively few refugees who left their homes during the fighting have returned and it is highly unlikely that the pre-war ethnic composition of the population can be restored through repatriation. The pre-war population, according to 1991 census figures, was 4,377,000; up to 60 per cent became refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) and between 258,000 and 269,800 people were killed or went missing during the war.In today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are essentially three ethnically based political orders in place, and the viability of the state is still in question. Many political leaders capitalize on the lack of trust between the ethnic communities, thus deepening existing ethnic and political divisions and challenging the integrity of the state. In social and economic terms, Bosnia and Herzegovina has some of the lowest human development indicators in Europe.Besides these problems, the legal system in Bosnia and Herzegovina is complex and difficult to implement. The supreme law is the Dayton Constitution, which is based on the principles of equality and non-discrimination, and on the international system for human rights protection, as well as on the system of constituent peoples inherited from former Yugoslavia. The state Constitution delegates most powers to the two Entities, each of which has its own Constitution. Republika Srpska, where the majority of Serbs live, has a centralized state administration, while the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the majority of Bosniacs and Croats live, is decentralized along ethnic lines, and comprises ten cantons, each with its own Constitution, legislature, government and bureaucracy. The international community has had substantial political, military and judicial powers in Bosnia and Herzegovina since its inception. The highest authority in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the High Representative, appointed by the United Nations (UN) Security Council, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has a presence through its numerous field missions.Many citizens are excluded from participation in economic and political life, and from receiving social protection, because they do not belong to an ethnic group which is dominant in the area where they live or wish to return to, regardless of whether the group they belong to has constituent status or not. Some think that progress towards reconciliation and democratic consolidation has been disappointingly slow. The time factor is a key element in securing peace and strengthening the rule of law in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many believe that the longer displaced people are unable to return to their homes, the less likely they are to return at all; the longer the economic system inherited from former Yugoslavia is in place, the more difficult it is to make the transition to a market economy; and the longer there is no trust between communities, and in institutions and politicians, the more this will become the norm, making it harder to change.Much analysis and action in today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina – by both international and domestic actors – rests on the implicit assumption that the status quo before 1991 ought somehow to be restored in ethnic relations, and that, in terms of economics and the legal system, the old Yugoslav dispensation should be replaced by a market economy and the rule of law. The sociological realities of Bosnia and Herzegovina must be analysed in relation to these assumptions, otherwise policies built on them are likely to fail. It is important to be realistic about what can be regarded as solutions, and what the different actors, particularly the influential ‘international community’,3 are prepared to do around such central issues as the return of refugees and internally displaced. Effective solutions cannot be imposed from outside and must rely on the existing norms and aspirations of the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina.All actors in Bosnia and Herzegovina, both local and international, need to act quickly. They should implement the Dayton Constitution in a coordinated way, change and frame lower-level legislation, and put in place an efficient institutional framework, as well as implementing economic and social reforms. The ending of nationalistic regimes in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Croatia in the last couple years is important, and opens up possibilities for action both within Bosnia and Herzegovina and at the regional level.In 2000, the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina made progress towards establishing a multiethnic and democratic Bosnia and Herzegovina by issuing a key decision on the constituent status of peoples. This helped to interpret the Dayton Constitution and was a move towards effective equality in law of the three main ethnic groups across the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Bosniacs, Croats and Serbs. Effective equality with regard to the three major ethnic groups, and minorities and their framework for protection emerge as key topics in the process of state-construction and democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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