A Challenge to ‘Separate but Equal’ in Bosnia | Freedom House

A Challenge to ‘Separate but Equal’ in Bosnia

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By: S. Adam Cardais, Guest Blogger

After months of debate, a group of 20 politicians, scholars, journalists, and civic leaders gathered in Sarajevo last month to present its thoughts on where Bosnia and Herzegovina will be in 2025. The group, backed by Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation, offered five scenarios to pique policymakers—not, it emphasized, to predict the future.

The fifth scenario envisions an internationally brokered dissolution in 2022 after years of escalating tensions between Bosnia’s three dominant ethnic groups: the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Croats, and Serbs. In a related report, the group highlights divisive forces that, if left unchecked, could ultimately tear apart the current democratic, multiethnic Bosnian state. These include economic stagnation, segregationist rhetoric in public discourse, and ethnicity-based school segregation.

Alarmingly, each of these elements exists in Bosnia today, 20 years after the outbreak of the 1992–95 conflict. But arguably the most destructive force, school segregation, is the least appreciated internationally, and it is only now facing serious legal opposition within Bosnia after 13 years of implementation.

In late April, a municipal court in the southern city of Mostar ruled that ethnic segregation in the schools of Stolac and Čapljina, two nearby towns, is discriminatory. It ordered officials to abolish the practice and integrate classrooms by September.

Stemming from a lawsuit by the human rights group Vaša Prava (Your Rights), the ruling is the first against the so-called “two schools under one roof” policy of de jure segregation. Under this system, in some Bosnian schools, children of different ethnicities study in the same building but are segregated into separate classrooms, where they use different texts. Such schools often have separate entrances, and students are even bused separately.

Implemented with international backing in 1999, the “two schools” system exists only in the Bosniak and Croat Federation, one of the two semi-independent political entities created in Bosnia by the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. (The Serb Republic is the other.) By encouraging children to attend schools in areas where their ethnicity was a minority, the policy aimed to facilitate refugee returns and partly reverse wartime ethnic cleansing, which had left some 100,000 people dead and over one million displaced. Integrated classrooms were supposed to follow, but 34 schools remain divided.

The April court ruling is also an oblique challenge to widespread de facto segregation. For example, in “integrated” Federation schools, the so-called “national subjects”—everything but math and science, essentially—are taught separately, often with different curriculums. Many other Federation schools are monoethnic, as are most in the Serb Republic. This is due to the lasting effects of ethnic cleansing and the Dayton Accords, which brokered peace but generally froze conditions on the ground. Large sections of Bosnia are still ethnically homogeneous, especially in the Serb Republic, where ethnic-minority students are not accommodated.

The current educational segregation in Bosnia evokes the Jim Crow era of the American South, with its flawed doctrine of “separate but equal.” But in Bosnia’s case the situation represents a regression, rather than a strict enforcement of long-standing rules. Schools in the country were integrated before the conflict. While many Bosniak, Croat, and Serb children study separately today, their parents did not.

In a 2011 report, Thomas Hammarberg, then the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, laments the attendant consequences. He cites a 2008 study’s finding that one in six Bosnian children does not want to be in mixed classes. One in eight frequently avoids interacting with students of other ethnicities.

The commissioner’s office, an independent Council of Europe institution, has urged reform for years. But political will is weak. In the Federation, for instance, the education system is decentralized, and municipal leaders have dragged their feet on calls from the Federation parliament—as recently as 2010—to end the “two schools under one roof” system.

In an illuminating January reportage, the Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon argues persuasively that many citizens want integration, but that Bosnia’s increasingly nationalist political leaders oppose it. Many of these leaders never believed in a multiethnic state, Hemon says, and now openly work to undermine it. (Infighting has seized Bosnian politics for years, and the Croat and Serb leaderships have segregationist and secessionist strains.) They see the education system as a political tool for reinforcing ethnic identity, and thus division.

“They want children to come out of the rickety educational machine equipped to think of themselves exclusively within the framework of their ethnicity,” Hemon writes. “There is little space for ‘I,’ only for ‘we.’ What we expect from education is the unquestionable, unimpeachable, self-evident ‘we’ and, consequently, ‘they.’”

The goal is an ethnically disaggregated electorate for the nationalists of each group to carve up, along with Bosnia itself.

What impact will the Mostar ruling have? Symbolically, it is a significant human rights victory, one that could spur education reform. But it only applies to two Federation towns, and local leaders will probably oppose it. A higher court in Bosnia’s notoriously complex judicial system will review the decision. The Serb Republic, whose leaders frequently threaten secession, will ignore it.

Even if the ruling is implemented, there are practical questions as to how integration would work. For the answers, as Hammarberg points out, one can turn to the Brčko District, a neutral multi-ethnic territory within Bosnia that is under international supervision. In the late 1990s, Brčko had a segregated educational system. But thanks to a decade of reform, today children study in their own languages in the same classrooms. The common core curriculum is also superior to those used elsewhere in Bosnia.

It is high time, Hammarberg says, for Bosnia to have a unified education system. “The policy of separating children according to their ethnic origin,” he writes, “can only reinforce the prejudices and intolerance towards others and perpetuate ethnic isolation.”

He’s right, of course. But intolerance is exactly what some Bosnian leaders are after.

* S. Adam Cardais is a contributing editor at Transitions Online.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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