Bosnia and Herzegovina

Fifty-ninth report of the High Representative for Implementation of the Peace Agreement on Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Secretary-General of the United Nations (S/2021/409)

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The present report covers the period from 16 October 2020 to 15 April 2021. After more than one year since the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Bosnia and Herzegovina is in the midst of the latest wave of infection, with daily new cases and deaths from the virus at an all-time high, especially in the region of Sarajevo. Restrictive measures, including curfews, have been reintroduced in most areas. Vaccines have only been trickling in, largely through donations, and a coordinated immunization effort is still in the very early stages. As at 15 April 2021, since the first outbreak in 2020, the reported total of confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection stood at approximately 182,000, and deaths from the virus in Bosnia and Herzegovina stood at approximately 7,250.

Although Bosnia and Herzegovina is not alone in the world in terms of experiencing difficulties in procuring vaccines and rolling out a vaccination programme, the pandemic nonetheless continues to reveal serious dysfunctionality in the country, whereby political leaders and authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina too frequently sacrifice a unified and coordinated approach to combating the pandemic and easing its impact on the population and the economy, in favour of scoring political points against one another. This has led to a situation in which, in the absence of measures pursued by the relevant State-level authorities, the entities have taken unilateral and uncoordinated measures, resulting in different solutions being undertaken in different parts of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Frustration among citizens has led to protests calling for an urgent effort by the authorities in the procurement of vaccines and other measures to stem the pandemic, or otherwise to resign.

Of concern are the recent challenges by the Republika Srpska authorities – under the de facto leadership of Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidency member and leader of the main Serb party, the Independent Union of Social Democrats (SNSD), Milorad Dodik – to the fundamentals of the General Framework Agreement for Peace, including my office, the decisions of my predecessors and the appointment of my successor, as well as to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as part of their long-standing policy aiming to roll back reforms and reclaim competences from the State, as I have enumerated in my reports, including my special report in 2016. In March, the National Assembly of the Republika Srpska adopted several conclusions in that regard, including a call for an end to the military component of the international mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina under annex 1 -A to the General Framework Agreement for Peace. Most troubling, the National Assembly of the Republika Srpska called upon local political actors to engage in discussions on the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina and warned that, if the issue is not tabled on the agenda soon, “talks on peaceful dissolution should be launched”.

The mention of “peaceful dissolution”, while also calling for the withdrawal of the international military presence in the country, can only be interpreted as a threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina and thus to the peace and stability of the country, which is assuredly how a great many of its citizens understood it. I must reiterate that the Peace Implementation Council Steering Board has consistently reaffirmed its unequivocal commitment to the territorial integrity and fundamental structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a single, sovereign State comprising two entities. There will be no redrawing of the map of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

While the leaders of the Republika Srpska focused their attacks against the General Framework Agreement for Peace and the State of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Federation remained barely functional. A new Federation Government has still not been appointed, two and half years since the October 2018 general elections, which is inconceivable in a democratic State based on the rule of law, under free and fair elections.

The sitting Government from the previous mandate is missing two ministers, and their replacements cannot be appointed because the main Croat party, the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ Bosnia and Herzegovina), and the main Bosniak Party, the Party for Democratic Action (SDA), remain mired in a stalemate over electoral reforms, and the former has vowed not to support any new appointments in the Federation until an agreement is reached. I deplore the fact that one of those elements has become a precondition to discuss the other. The formation of authorities should be an absolute priority for all political parties in democratic societies. Bosnia and Herzegovina should be no exception. Meanwhile, the Federation Prime Minister (SDA) and Deputy Prime Minister (HDZ Bosnia and Herzegovina) are embroiled in a corruption scandal and are on trial for the dubious procurement of 100 ventilators at the start of the pandemic, the suitability of which for critical COVID-19 cases has frequently been disputed and is being investigated by the competent authorities.

At the State level, there is complete stagnation, evidenced by the poor legislative output of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Council of Ministers and the Bosnia and Herzegovina Parliamentary Assembly. During the current mandate, apart from budget acts, only one new law has been fully adopted. This is part of a general decline in legislative output over the past several mandates but is nonetheless a new low.

In such an environment, it should come as no surprise that the Bosnia and Herzegovina authorities have made no progress in implementing the “5 plus 2” agenda, with the exception of the continued positive trend in Brčko District. Not only has there been no progress on the other objectives, there are also frequent attempts to roll back existing reforms in crucial areas.

Incredibly enough, against this bleak backdrop, there were some positive developments.

In November, citizens voted in the 2020 local elections for mayoral candidates and local assemblies in cities and municipalities in the Federation and the Republika Srpska, and for the Assembly in Brčko District. A month later, citizens of the Mostar voted in the first elections for the Mostar City Council since 2008. The work of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Central Election Commission in successfully organizing two consecutive elections during a pandemic, and in the face of continued political attacks against the institution, taking appropriate safety measures into account and organizing mobile polling teams for quarantined voters, while also reacting promptly to reports of fraud and malfeasance, is commendable. I continue to oppose any attempt to undermine the professionalism and legitimacy of this crucial Bosnia and Herzegovina institution.

These recent elections have shown that goodwill in the institutions charged with conducting elections is not enough to make up for flaws in the system. 2021 constitutes a window of opportunity for electoral reform, which must result in the implementation of the technical recommendations by the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights following the 2018 general elections, as well as the earlier recommendations of the Group of States against Corruption and the Council of Europe Venice Commission. The adoption of amendments to the Constitution and Election Law of Bosnia and Herzegovina are also required to implement decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in the Sejdić and Finci group of cases and bring an end to ethnic-based and residence-based discrimination in the electoral process. All of those changes are crucial and must be implemented in a manner that makes the electoral system more transparent and more open. I have made clear that changes cannot result in further ethnic or territorial divisions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There is no legal reason that would justify such divisions, and I strongly believe that the implementation of the Sejdić and Finci group of cases gives us an historic opportunity to move the Bosnia and Herzegovina institutions away from discrimination and closer to openness.

In October, the members of the frequently-divided tripartite Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidency marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the initialling of the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Dayton, Ohio, United Stat es of America, with a rare joint statement expressing their commitment to respecting the provisions of the Agreement and the Bosnia and Herzegovina Constitution and to creating a society in Bosnia and Herzegovina tailored to all its peoples and citizens.

In December, after several public calls by me – including in my address to the Security Council in November – for the Republika Srpska authorities to remove the plaque bearing the name of convicted war criminal Radovan Karadžić from the student dormitory in the town of Pale, the plaque was finally and formally removed.

December also marked the fifteenth anniversary of the establishment of the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the most meaningful and successful post-Dayton reforms. Members of the Armed Forces serve with distinction in peacekeeping missions around the world.

In March, Brčko District authorities demonstrated their commitment to reforms by adopting the Law on the Prevention of Conflict of Interest, which establishes clear guidelines, reporting requirements and sanctions to ensure that public office holders carry out their activities in line with the public’s interest and not their personal interests. The enactment of the Law will accelerate other good governance reforms in Brčko District, ensure the responsible expenditure of public funds and establish a welcoming environment for private sector investment, all of which are good examples of what is possible in Bosnia and Herzegovina.