Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report entitled Second Class Citizens: Discrimination Against Roma, Jews, and Other National Minorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This titular discrimination is the result of unresolved tensions between the formerly warring factions of Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups–Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs–and constitutionally mandated separation by ethnicity in political and public life. Referred to as the constituent people, members of the aforementioned groups are the only ones who can “serve as president or in the upper house of the national parliament, and were granted veto power over any legislation that they viewed as threatening their ethnic group’s interests.” Others include Roma, Jews, Ukrainians, and people from other Southeast and Eastern European, all of whom comprise 3-5% of Bosnia’s four million people. While the European Court of Human Rights considers these policies to be unlawful ethnic discrimination, little has been done to effectively address and change the situation. As it stands, the present situation falls within the first category of factors in the analysis framework that the United Nations Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide uses to determine whether there may be a risk of genocide, “Inter-group relations, including record of discrimination and/or other human rights violations committed against a group.”

Roma are Bosnia and Herzegovina’s largest national minority, and are disproportionately discriminated against. According to HRW, “The direct discrimination against Roma inherent in Bosnia’s political structure reinforces the indirect discrimination they often face in the provision of services like housing, health care, education, and employment.” When the country’s constitution was drafted in 1995, the rationale behind the exclusion of minorities from politcs was to maintain the tenuous peace in Bosnia. Today, however, ethnic politics has resulted in Serbs and Croats threatening to secede from Bosnia and “political deadlock that delayed the formation of a national government by more than a year after elections were held… Direct discrimination against Roma, Jews, and other national minorities does not end with politics; it is also entrenched in civil service.” For example, the Ombudsmen for Human Rights, an office which is supposed to protect against this exact type of discrimination, requires the appointment of three representatives from the three main ethnic groups to serve as ombudsmen, thereby leaving no room for any minorities.

One reason why Roma suffer the worst from indirect discrimination is because of “high unemployment rates and poor education levels and living conditions.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that ~10% of Roma in Bosnia and Herzegovina are not listed on any birth registries. Without birth registration and a birth certificate, one cannot access public services, such as schools, employment bureaus, or health care services. Many of the Roma in this region live in unstable, insecure, informal settlements. They are in constant danger of being forcibly evicted and lack basic services like electricity and running water.

In order to end the ethnic discrimination outlined above, which violates Bosnia’s commitments under international and European human rights law, Bosnia must remove it from their national constitution. The country must also implement its commitments under the “Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015,” and ensure that these commitments are continued past 2015, namely guaranteeing that Roma can access basic services. HRW also recommends that Bosnia and Herzegovina conduct an accurate 2013 census, and make special efforts to reach out to minority communities, “including employing Roma and others in conducting the census and allowing individuals to confidentially identify their ethnicity.” Lastly, HRW calls on the United States, European Union, and Council of Europe to lend their support to pressing for constitutional reform and helping minorities gain the aforementioned access. Lastly, the EU must make ending discrimination against minorities in Bosnia, both in law and in practice, a condition for membership.

For more detailed key recommendations, a description of the methodology used to compile the report, and full recommendations for various actors, read the full report here.

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