Freedom in the World
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Bosnia and Herzegovina
Freedom in the World Scores
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is a highly decentralized parliamentary republic distinguished by a fragmented constitutional regime embedded within the Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the 1992–95 Bosnian War. Politics are characterized by severe partisan gridlock among nationalist leaders from the country’s Bosniak, Serb, and Croat communities. Corruption remains a serious problem.
Key Developments in 2017:
- Milorad Dodik, president of the Republika Srpska (RS) entity, continued to question the Constitutional Court, and to suggest that the RS could try to secede.
- In November, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladić guilty of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and sentenced him to life in prison. The same month, the ICTY confirmed the sentences of several former Bosnian Croat leaders, and in December it shut down permanently after over two decades of operations.
- In May, Sarajevo Canton authorities failed to issue a permit in time for a planned gathering of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) activists to take place.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 21 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 7 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
The 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) created a loosely knit state composed of two entities—the Federation, whose citizens are mainly Bosniak and Croat, and the largely Serb Republika Srpska—that operate under a weak central government. The role of head of state is fulfilled by a three-member presidency comprising one Bosniak, one Serb, and one Croat; each is elected to a four-year term, which the three presidents serve concurrently.
In 2014 elections deemed generally free and fair, Mladen Ivanić of the Party of Democratic Progress (PDP), Dragan Čović of the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ-BiH), and Bakir Izetbegović of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) were respectively elected to the Bosnian Serb, Bosnian Croat, and Bosniak seats of the tripartite presidency.
October 2016 mayoral polls were marred by violence and irregularities. Due to an ongoing electoral dispute concerning ethnic representation, local elections have not been held in the city of Mostar—the largest urban center in the Herzegovina region—since 2008. No progress was made on the Mostar question in 2017, nor were meaningful steps taken to ensure that scenes like those in 2016 would not be repeated in 2018.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 2 / 4
The Parliamentary Assembly, a state-level body, has two chambers. The 15-seat upper house, the House of Peoples, consists of five members from each of the three main ethnic groups, elected by the Federation and Republika Srpska legislatures for four-year terms. The lower house, the House of Representatives, has 42 popularly elected members serving four-year terms, with 28 seats assigned to representatives from the Federation and 14 to representatives from the Republika Srpska. The House of Representatives elects the head of the Council of Ministers (equivalent to the prime minister), who leads the state-level government.
The SDA, HDZ-BiH, and Serb Democratic Party (SDS) dominated the 2014 general elections, which were deemed generally free and fair. Denis Zvizdić of the SDA was appointed as head of the Council of Ministers.
October 2016 municipal council polls, held concurrently with the mayoral elections, were marred by violence and irregularities. None were held in Mostar due to the ongoing dispute there.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 2 / 4
Within the context of BiH’s deeply segmented and fragmented constitutional regime, the Central Election Commission (CIK) administers elections with the help of municipal election commissions, which are sometimes the source of political party interference. The CIK is a largely ineffectual body, unable to act stridently without political support.
Conflicts over fair ethnic representation continue to surround aspects of the complex Dayton constitution and its implementation. For example, Bosnian citizens who do not identify as members of the country’s Bosniak, Serb, or Croat “constitutive peoples” remain constitutionally barred from the presidency and membership in the House of Peoples, despite 2009 and 2016 rulings by the European Court of Human Rights that the exclusion of members of other ethnic groups violated the European Convention on Human Rights.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 10 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 3 / 4
Political parties typically organize and operate freely, though the political arena in the Federation is generally limited to Bosniaks and Croats, while Serbs dominate politics in the Republika Srpska. While coalitions at all levels of government shift frequently, vast patronage networks controlled by governing parties dominate the country’s politics, and reform-oriented forces have struggled to make meaningful breakthroughs.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3 / 4
There are no legal barriers preventing opposition parties from winning power. However, expansive veto powers granted to the constitutive peoples and their representatives have allowed the dominant nationalist parties to shut out reformist and multiethnic challengers.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 2 / 4
The Office of the High Representative (OHR), which was created by the Dayton Accords, operates under the auspices of the United Nations and has the authority to remove elected officials if they are deemed to be obstructing the peace process. In recent years, the OHR has been reluctant to intervene in the country’s politics.
Both Serbia and Croatia wield outsized influence in the Bosnian political sphere through their respective proxies; the Dodik government, in the case of Serbia, and the HDZ-BiH, in the case of Croatia. Two other foreign governments, Russia, and Turkey, have offered support to preferred candidates. Religious leaders are influential in all three ethnic communities.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 2 / 4
Political rights in BiH are in large part contingent on one’s ethnic background and place of residence. Ethnic minorities including Jewish and Roma Bosnians are constitutionally barred from the presidency and from membership in the House of Peoples, despite the European Court of Human Rights rulings against those provisions. Serbs who live in the Federation and Croats and Bosniaks who live in the RS are also excluded from the presidency. Bosnian Croats argue that their rights to representation are violated by electoral laws allowing non-Croats a significant voice in the selection of the Croat member of the presidency and Croat members of the House of Peoples. Women are underrepresented in politics and government.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 4 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 2 / 4
Elected leaders are promptly seated, but their ability to implement legislation is limited by a number of factors.
Under the Dayton Accords, representatives from each of the three major ethnic groups, at both state and entity levels, may exercise a veto on legislation deemed harmful to their interests, which hampers policymaking.
The federal government is undercut by movements within each of BiH’s entities for greater autonomy. In the Republika Srpska, hard-line president, Milorad Dodik continued agitating for greater autonomy in the wake of a 2016 political crisis that saw his government defy a Constitutional Court ruling in order to hold an unlawful plebiscite concerning a holiday commemorating the entity’s founding in 1992. He additionally suggested in 2017 that the entity might rewrite its constitution in a manner he explained as allowing it to “break away” from BiH, but which also would not contain “secessionist tendencies.” Separately, Bosnian Croats continued their drive to modify electoral laws in order to achieve greater autonomy from Bosniaks in the Federation, but have been unsuccessful.
Croatia and Serbia have influence over policymaking through their allies in the HDZ-BiH and Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD).
The influence of religious leaders can extend to policymaking.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4
Corruption remains widespread and systemic, and enforcement of legislation designed to combat corruption is weak. When corruption probes are actually opened, they rarely result in convictions. In June 2017, Transparency International BiH said it had noted a significant decline in the efficiency of corruption jurisprudence in the country over the last eight years, and particularly in 2015 and 2016. Amir Zukić, the general secretary of the Bosniak nationalist SDA, was arrested in February 2017 on suspicion of a number of corruption-related offenses. In July, he was released from detention for the remainder of his trial, over the objections of the prosecutor.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4
Government remains largely inaccessible to the public. Procurement awards are often made in secret and, according to a March 2017 report published by Mediacentar Sarajevo, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), most public institutions do not comply with BiH’s legal requirements related to freedom of information. Candidates for major offices are required to make financial disclosures, but the relevant laws do not meet international standards and the resulting disclosures are considered unreliable. Debate and decisions on matters of great public interest, including legislation and matters pertaining to EU accession, routinely occur during interparty negotiations that take place behind closed doors, outside of government institutions.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 34 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 10 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4
Freedom of expression is legally guaranteed but limited in practice. Journalists face harassment and threats as well as political pressure. In August 2017, the Institution of Human Rights Ombudsman of Bosnia and Herzegovina issued a report recommending that the country build a stronger legal infrastructure for punishing attacks on journalists. In September, police officers reportedly threatened members of a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) crew while preventing them from filming a protest in front of the parliament building in Sarajevo; the treatment of the journalists prompted a protest by media workers in the city.
In general, the media situation is worse in the Republika Srpska entity than it is in the Federation. In January, Dodik blocked reporters from the CNN affiliate N1 from attending a press conference, and struck the network from the president’s mailing list; the incident occurred just days after Dodik had publicly lashed out at an N1 journalist and criticized the network's coverage. In July, opinion writer Dragan Bursać was forced to flee Banja Luka and go into hiding after receiving death threats following his criticism of a planned rally in support of former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladić. Mladić later in the year was convicted of war crimes and genocide at the ICTY.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4
Religious freedom is not subject to formal restrictions, but in practice the ability to express religious belief openly can be contingent on remaining in areas where one’s own religious group dominates.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 2 / 4
Like most public sectors, the education system is wracked by corruption and clientelism, and curriculum is politicized at all levels of education. At some schools in the Federation, Bosniak and Croat students are divided into classes on the basis of their ethnicity, meeting in segregated classrooms despite attending school in the same building. Some Bosniak returnees in the Republika Srpska have sent their children to temporary alternative schools in protest of curricula they call discriminatory, and some Serb families have described discriminatory educational environments in the Federation.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4
Free speech in BiH is generally protected from overt government interference. However, public reaction and peer pressure remain significant curbs on the discussion of sensitive topics. Media often report on “controversial” social viral media posts by members of the public.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 7 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 3 / 4
Freedom of assembly is generally respected in BiH, and peaceful protests are frequent. However, police at times have overreacted to public demonstrations. In August, police violently dispersed a peaceful protest against the building of a dam in the village of Kruščica. Separately, in May, Sarajevo Canton authorities failed to issue a permit in time for a planned gathering of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) activists to take place. In the Republika Srpska, people are not allowed to assemble in front of public institutions.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 2 / 4
The NGO sector in BiH remains robust but is sometimes exposed to government pressure and interference. There have been reports of prolonged tax investigations by the Republika Srpska government into NGOs. Many organizations rely on government funding, posing a potential conflict if they seek to criticize the government.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4
Labor unions operate freely in the whole of BiH, although the general position of working people is vulnerable. The right to strike is legally protected, but labor law in the Federation erects significant barriers to the right. Enforcement measures of labor laws and their protections for workers are weak. The leading political blocs in the country have significant sway over unions.
F. RULE OF LAW: 7 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 1 / 4
The judiciary is formally independent, but very weak in practice, and the Constitutional Court continues to face challenges from Dodik in the Republika Srpska, and the HDZ-BiH in the Federation. The high-profile 2016 decision by Dodik to hold the Republika Srpska holiday referendum in defiance of the Constitutional Court marked a significant deterioration of constitutional governance in BiH, though it was one of dozens of disregarded Constitutional Court decisions. In August 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled that all military installations in the RS were BiH state property. Dodik criticized the ruling as politicized and other figures in the RS entity government indicated that they would ignore it. In January, the president of the HDZ-BiH joined Dodik in questioning the inclusion of foreign judges on the Constitutional Court.
The lack of a single, supreme judicial body and the existence of four separate court systems—for the central state, the Republika Srpska, the Federation, and the self-governing Brčko district—contributes to overall inefficiency.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2 / 4
Guarantees of due process are inconsistently upheld. Access to adequate legal counsel can be contingent on one’s financial standing. Police corruption is a problem, sometimes in connection with organized crime.
The process of prosecuting war crimes in domestic courts has been slow, with political interference and courts’ lack of resources and capacity contributing to a backlog of several hundred cases. A push to reinvigorate the process was ongoing at year’s end, but impunity for war crimes including killings and sexual violence continues.
In November, the ICTY issued a major ruling, finding Mladić guilty of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and sentencing him to life in prison. The same month, the ICTY confirmed the sentences of several former Bosnian Croat leaders, and in December it shut down permanently after over two decades of operations.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4
Harassment by police remains routine for vulnerable groups. Many prisons are run down or overcrowded, and detainees risk abuse by prison authorities. The thousands of active mine fields still in place following the war continue to pose a danger. Two civilians were killed and one was injured in mine accidents between January and September 2017.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4
Discrimination against minorities is illegal but nevertheless widespread, particularly against member of the Romany minority. Bosniaks and Croats in the RS experience difficulties accessing social services. Members of the LGBT community face discrimination, harassment, and occasional physical attacks, and authorities fail to investigate and prosecute crimes against LGBT individuals adequately. People displaced during the war but who later returned to their homes, face discrimination in employment and housing in regions that are not dominated by their own ethnic group. Women are legally entitled to full equality with men but face discrimination in the workplace.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 10 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4
The law protects freedom of movement and this right is generally upheld in practice. However, land mines threaten movement in some areas. Corruption can hamper people’s ability to freely choose their place of employment.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4
Widespread corruption and patronage remain major barriers to free enterprise in BiH.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4
Sexual harassment is common. Domestic violence remains a serious concern but the government has launched several initiatives to combat gender-based violence. Individuals are largely free to marry and dress as they please.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4
According to the U.S. State Department’s 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report, men, women, and children are subject to trafficking for the purposes of prostitution and forced labor, with Romani children particularly vulnerable to forced begging, and forced marriages that amount to sexual servitude. According to the report, the government was making efforts towards prosecuting perpetrators, protecting victims, and preventing trafficking, though its efforts in the first two areas decreased somewhat in 2017.
Patronage and clientelism continue to adversely affect hiring practices and contribute to de facto restrictions on labor markets in BiH.