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Constitution condemned

December 22, 2009

The European Court of Human Rights has condemned Bosnia for barring minorities from running for the highest offices in government.

european court of human rights
The court was established in 1959 to rule on alleged violations of human rightsImage: DW/ Daphne Grathwohl

Two prominent public figures had filed complaints against the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dervo Sejdic, who is of Roma origin, and Bosnian Jew Jakob Finci claimed that the country's constitution discriminated against them and breached their human rights.

According to the court ruling handed down in Strasbourg on Tuesday, Finci had inquired about running for parliament or the presidency.

"On 3 January 2007, he received a written confirmation from the Central Election Commission that he was ineligible to stand in such elections because of his Jewish origin," the court said.

The court found that the exclusion of Jews and Roma could not be justified.

"Authorities must use all available means to combat racism, thereby reinforcing democracy's vision of a society in which diversity is not perceived as a threat but as a source of enrichment," the court said.

Two types of citizens

The Bosnian constitution is part of the Dayton Agreement that ended the country's conflict fought from 1992 to 1995. It split Bosnia into two entities: the Bosnian Serb-led Republika Srpska and the Muslim and Croat-led Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The entities operate with a good deal of autonomy under a weak central government.

map of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina has two entitiesImage: DW

The constitution makes a distinction between two categories of citizens. The "constituent peoples" are Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, while "others" include Jews, Roma and other minorities. Posts in the Bosnian parliament and its three-man presidency are reserved to the former under the rules, which were intended to prevent further ethnic strife.

But the court upheld both plaintiffs' complaints, ruling that Bosnia had violated provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibiting discrimination and upholding the right to free elections. Bosnia was ordered to pay 20,000 euros ($28,500) to Finci and 1,000 euros ($1,425) to Sejdic in costs and expenses.

Ethnicity not a part of democracy

Finci, currently the Bosnian ambassador to Switzerland, welcomed the ruling.

jakob finci
Finci is a prominent member of Bosnia's Jewish communityImage: Cornelia Kästner/DW

"I am delighted that the European Court has recognized the wrong that was done in the constitution 14 years ago," he said. "The Bosnian politicians need to right the wrongs in the constitution quickly."

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Bosnia should act quickly to remove all discriminatory provisions from its constitution.

"The European Court has made it clear that race-based exclusion from political office has no place in Europe," said Clive Baldwin, senior legal advisor at HRW. "The US, EU and the other states who still play a major role in Bosnia should ensure the ruling is put into immediate effect by backing a change in the constitution."

Bosnia's next presidential and parliamentary elections are due in October 2010. Constitutional reform has been under discussion in Bosnia since 2005, but so far has not produced any change.

The court said in its ruling that the constitution had pursued "the legitimate aim of restoring peace" and that the time was "perhaps still not ripe" for Bosnia to move from power-sharing to majority rule. But it also said that Bosnia had committed under an association agreement signed with the European Union in 2008 to bring its electoral rules into line with the European convention on rights.

Editor: Chuck Penfold