For the Locals Unwanted, for the International Community a “Necessary Evil”

Text is published by  Heinrich Böll Fondation

Saša Gavrić, Sarajevo Open Centre, Sarajevo

Compared to relations several years ago, one must admit that the behaviour of European Union (EU)representatives has changed. While several years ago it was unthinkable that an EU representative would even meet with representatives of civil society and listen to them, today things look a little bit different.

Even high level protagonists like High Representative Federica Mogherini and Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn hold regular meetings with civil society organisations during their visits, having a dialogue even with those who should critically present the everyday life and thus the political reality of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). A different relation toward civil society was also seen during the structural dialogue for the justice sector, a special mechanism which was established to appease the President of the BiH entity Republika Srpska (RS), Mr. Milorad Dodik. In 2014 civil society members were invited to actively take part in one of the meetings of this forum. However, these moments of opening and dialogue still remain an exception. The negotiations and the process of adoption of the so-called Reform Agenda have also shown this. During this process there were no representatives of civil society in the wider sense at all. No trade unions, human rights organizations and professional associations were included, although it was announced they would be. Not only civil society was excluded from this process, but also the state and entity parliaments as the final decision makers. The exclusion of civil society is also visible in the process of development and adoption of some key laws for the citizens of BiH.

This relation of EU stakeholders towards civil society arises from the specific
relations which institutions and EU officials maintain with BiH political leaders. The EU and its member states play an active role in BiH; this is why they have often resorted to “Special Arrangements” to solve problems in BiH. The Structural Dialogue for the justice sector or the Butmir process are only some of them. All these special arrangements which we would never see in case of some other potential EU membership candidates, and which are focused on incapable, corrupt and manipulative political leaders in BiH, have two main characteristics: besides the fact that all these attempts to solve the “Bosnian problem” resulted in a collapse and total failure, they were all organized in almost complete secrecy and without the participation of civil society.
Civil society can impose itself as a stakeholder and partner, only by extraordinary and special effort and participation in the political arena, and not because its participation is of interest to Bosnian institutions or EU protagonists.
Considering the fact that the process of EU integration of BiH has been developing in an atypical way, the position of civil society itself within this process is unusual and different in comparison to other states. It will be interesting to see which position the civil society will take once BiH gains a candidate status and if the EU at least then would consider it a partner and not an “unconstructive” stakeholder, as an employee of the Delegation of the EU
to BiH in Sarajevo once in a private conversation called human rights organisations.

Political Parties and Institutions do not Want a
Strong and Developed Civil Society

For civil society to be able to act, at least two basic assumptions need to be fulfilled.
The first one regards the relation the domestic government has towards civil society organisations. Political parties, institutions and individuals within governing structures must start to look at civil society as a social capital and potential, as a partner and not as a foreign agent or “necessary evil” imposed by the European Union and other international protagonists, as it is still the case. The second assumption is of systematic nature. Civil society organisations are not able to act if they lack a supportive environment for their activities. The state and its entities must a) define a mid-term and long-term vision of (e.g. by adopting and implementing a national civil society development strategy) what kind of civil society they want to have, b) appoint personnel (e.g. by establishing a Civil Society
Office on state and entity level) whose responsibility would be to deal with these issues, and c) provide real and not only declarative support to civil society organisations’ work (e.g. by establishing national foundations for the development of civil society).
(Political) Will for this kind of changes in BiH still does not exist. This has been confirmed by the fact that, in spring 2017, it will be ten years since Nikola Špirić, at the time Chairman of the Council of Ministers of BiH and a representative of a civil society organisations coalition, led by the Centre for Civil Society Promotion from Sarajevo, signed a Cooperation Agreement
between the Council of Ministers of BiH and the NGO sector in BiH. Despite the persistence of civil society organizations and their coalitions, this agreement hasn’t been implemented to this day. The authorities do not want an active, critical and independent civil society. With
their passivity, administrative inactivity and silence, they contribute to the status quo. Furthermore, instead of developing a framework that would foster civil society to act, in the past few years, there have been activities aiming at hindering civil society’s work. Whilst in the entity of the RS, organisations which were critical towards the corruptive and non-transparent government, were put on a “traitor list”, in the entity Federation of BiH in 2013 and 2014, there were attempts to change the law which regulates the process of the
establishment and work of associations and foundations, as two basic legal forms of registering a civil society organisation. Through these changes, executive powers
would have the right to abolish an association or foundation without appeal. The worst attempt of disciplining civil society organisations was the Draft Law developed by the RS government, which was in parliamentary procedure in 2015, with the aim to “enable the transparency of not-for-profit oriented organisations”.
Modelled on “foreign agent” laws from the Russian Federation, this law anticipated a
rigid control and targeting of all those who receive donor funds outside the RS, whilst
organisations which receive funds from RS would be spared. This law was withdrawn merely due to civil society organisations’ efforts.

Examples from Everyday

Without wanting to shift responsibility for the current situation over to civil society
organisations themselves arguing that they have to be more persistent and capable
– an argument that we often hear as an excuse from the authorities – we want to emphasise some good examples from everyday work that show that changes and
partnership with the authorities is possible:

Initiative for Monitoring
the European Integration of

Understanding the importance and potential of the EU integration process for the
development of human rights in BiH, a coalition of civil society organisations was established in 2012 with the aim to include civil society in the EU integration process and influence policy development. From that moment until today, a small coalition developed into a network of 30 organisations which actively monitor changes in terms of the so-called political criteria for integration. Since 2013, an alternative progress report is being published which represents the view and perception of the civil society on the rule of law and human and minority rights in BiH. We are convinced that many questions wouldn’t have been even mentioned in official progress reports had they not been opened and argued in the alternative progress report of this Initiative. Initiative members have imposed themselves as a critical stakeholder during legislation development. The best example is the development of the new Law on Ombudsman for Human Rights in BiH and changes and amendments to the Law on Prohibition of Discrimination in BiH. Through the development and promotion of the amendments and the whole model of the Law on Ombudsman for Human Rights and regular communication with the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees, representatives of the Initiative are involved in the development process and further consultations. Coalition activities accompanied by expertise can be the right way to approach self-contained institutions.

Involvement of LGBT
Persons in Operational Plans
of Entity Governments

Although the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons are institutionally ignored by authorities on state and entity level, some substantial changes occurred in 2015.
The Sarajevo Open Centre (SOC), as an organisation with substantial coverage of LGBTI themes in its work, has succeeded to impose itself as partner to the Gender Centres on entity level and to the Agency of Gender Equality of BiH. Through a holistic approach, data gathering, and documenting cases of violation of human rights of LGBTI persons, research, report development and public policy, as well as legal recommendation development,
the organisation has successfully made a mark as partner and is, as such, accepted by institutional mechanisms for gender equality. As a result of this cooperation, Annual Action Plans of the RS and Federation of BiH governments for gender equality improvement in 2016 contain measures proposed by SOC. These measures will be implemented in partnership between this organisation and government institutions for gender equality. We emphasise these measures because this happens for the first time in the history of BiH that the country
has LGBTI-inclusive public policies. This is important particularly because LGBTI rights were completely excluded from BiH authorities’ activities, due to social distance and institutional ignorance.

Civil Society Organisations in
Ministries’ Working Groups

With the appointment of Semiha Borovac for Minister of Human Rights and Refugees of BiH, we finally got a person who is interested in making changes. Due to good cooperation with civil society organisations during 2015, this Ministry decided to expand the cooperation. In addition to periodical invitations to intersectoral working group meetings and consultations,
this time, the Ministry decided to involve civil society representatives into working groups for the development of the Human Rights Strategy and Anti-Discrimination Strategy. SOC has been invited to participate in three working groups due to its expertise in the area of public policy, discrimination and combating hate crimes. SOC will have a chance to directly affect strategies’ and laws’ contents, but also to have regular consultations with other civil society organisations. This example shows that cooperation with civil society organisations is possible and, in particular with specialised organisations, if the authorities see their interest in that cooperation.


If we want to create change, we have to act on two levels:
The first one is the institutional level which demands long-term action, but can also result in long-term changes. BiH and its different levels of government have to create a framework for civil society development. In addition to adopting a Strategy for Civil Society Development, which would define all measures which have to be taken, it is necessary to establish office(s) for civil society cooperation and allocate funds for their work. More precisely, one must admit that at this moment, there is a significant imbalance in financing civil society organisations. Whilst religious communities, sports associations and war
veteran organisations, as research indicates20, get more than 100 million BAM per year, organisations dealing with democratisation, government transparency and human and minority rights barely exist for the state. This problem can be solved by e.g. establishing a National Foundation for Civil Society Development.
The second level of action is of shortterm nature and is more in the hands of civil society organisations themselves. As long as there is no institutional framework, civil society organisations have to show more interest and commitment and they have to use the EU integration process to work on concrete issues that are of interest for the citizens of BiH. Civil society organisations have to focus their work primarily on the relevant governments and parliaments. With this approach, these bodies will become our natural allies and interlocutors. Despite rejection, we cannot give up. Change will not come by itself, but  rather by active involvement and action.

The entire publication is available HERE.