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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bosnia and Hercegovina : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date October 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bosnia and Hercegovina : Overview, October 2011, available at: [accessed 13 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Updated October 2011


Bosnia and Hercegovina lies in the western Balkans. It borders Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. The Bosnia region forms the larger, northern part of the country, and Hercegovina the southern portion, although there is no clear boundary. Bosnia and Hercegovina's largely mountainous terrain and many rivers provide large potential for hydro-electric power production. Mountain ski resorts made famous during the 1984 Winter Olympics are recovering after the war. Bosnia and Hercegovina has a short maritime coastline of about 20 kilometres which is of little commercial or military significance, and for the most part the country relies on the Croatian port of Ploce.


Main languages: Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian, Romany

Main religions: Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism.

Main minority groups: Bosniaks 2.1 million (48%), Serbs 1.7 million (37%), Croats 637,000 (14%), Roma 30,000-50,000

[Note: Data for Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats comes from the CIA World Factbook, 2007, which reports 2000 population estimates. The number for Roma is taken from Advisory Committee's opinion on the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.]

The word 'minority' in Bosnia and Hercegovina is laden with political meaning. The former Yugoslav and current Dayton constitutions reference 'constituent peoples', a concept that consciously divides society into groups who are recognized as having a stake in the country, and minority groups who presumably do not. Fear of becoming a minority, and memories of what happened to minorities during the World Wars fuelled the 1990s war, and that fear is still the driving force in the country's polarizing political system. All peoples in Bosnia and Hercegovina can be considered minorities, as all face marginalization in areas where their ethnicity is not dominant.

Bosnia and Hercegovina is made up of three 'constituent' peoples, Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, along with smaller minority groups, the largest of which are the Roma. Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs are all Slavic. Mainly Muslim Bosniaks speak Bosnian, a language known before the war as Serbo-Croat, the dialects of which did not conform to ethnic categories in the former Yugoslavia. Since the early 1990s regional politicians have prompted the differentiation of the common language into Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, and even Montenegrin 'languages', leading to some conscious linguistic changes along ethnic lines. Croats speak Croatian and are mainly Roman Catholic. Serbs speak Serbian, often written in the Cyrillic script, and are mainly Christian Orthodox. Roma suffer the greatest discrimination.

As stipulated in the 1995 Dayton Agreement, Bosnia and Hercegovina is made up of two entities that largely reflect the front line at the end of the war. Serbs make up a numerical majority in Republika Srpska (RS), from which Bosniaks and Croats were largely 'ethnically cleansed' during the war. Most Croats and Bosniaks now live in the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina. The Federation entity is further divided into ten cantons where usually either Croats or Bosniaks form a numerical majority. The north-eastern town of Brcko, hotly contested during the war, belongs to neither entity and is under separate administration in line with an international arbitration decision.

There are no up-to-date population statistics. The last census was in 1991, when Bosnia and Hercegovina had a population of 4.37 million. The 1992-1995 war saw some 100,000 people killed, more than half of the population displaced (2.2 million) and an influx of refugees from neighbouring countries. In 2006, the population of Bosnia and Hercegovina was estimated at 4.5 million. Lack of reliable data on ethnicity makes it difficult to design policies and programmes to address problems of minority and vulnerable groups.


The population of Bosnia and Hercegovina comprises mainly Slavs who entered the region in the sixth and seventh centuries. In the fifteenth century, Bosnia and the neighbouring duchy of Hercegovina were incorporated in the Ottoman Empire. During the period of Turkish occupation, a part of the population adopted Islam. Following an 1878 rising led in the main by Orthodox Christians, Bosnia and Hercegovina was placed under Austrian Habsburg administration and were later annexed by the Habsburg Empire. After World War I, Bosnia and Hercegovina formed a part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (after 1929, Yugoslavia), and during World War II it was absorbed within the Croatian Ustasa state. After 1945, Bosnia and Hercegovina was established as a republic within the reorganized Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) under Josip Broz Tito. The state structure was organized along ethnic lines. Some minority rights were respected, and Tito attempted to control ethnic divisions and to suppress nationalism by means of the one party state.

The population of Bosnia and Hercegovina has always been diverse. There was considerable interaction between different religious and ethnic communities, with very high proportion of interfaith marriages in the cities. However, the countryside remained divided with predominately mono-ethnic and mono-religious villages. In 1971 the Muslims in the ethnic sense were recognised as a nation by the former Yugoslavia; today most of these people identify as Bosniak.

The SFRY was not democratic, and following Tito's death in 1980, it was governed weakly from Belgrade under an eight-person presidency, the chair of which rotated yearly among the constituent republics and Serbia's autonomous provinces. In this atmosphere, Serbian politicians began playing to popular grievances about perceived Serbian under-representation in Yugoslavia. Slobodan Milosevic rose to power in Serbia in the late 1980s, and manoeuvred to seize half of the federal presidency by wresting control over three further votes in the rotating council: those of Montenegro and the autonomous Serbian provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina. Belgrade's grasp for the levers of power in the SFRY accelerated the break-up of the Communist Party in other republics, including Croatia. Milosevic played into the hands of nationalist Croatian politicians, whose rhetoric and action in turn rallied Serbs around Milosevic. Not only the Communist Party was crumbling; Milosevic's moves to consolidate Serb control over the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) weakened another central pillar of Yugoslav unity. When Croatia and Slovenia declared independence in June 1991, Bosnia and Hercegovina (as well as Macedonia) faced an uncomfortable choice: they could remain in a Yugoslavia dominated by Serbia, which now controlled two-thirds of the federal presidency and the army, or they could also choose independence and risk war.

Multiparty elections held in Bosnia and Hercegovina in 1990 indicated the strong influence of ethnicity on political affiliation. Each of the three main ethnic groups formed its own political party and the votes received by each corresponded closely to the ethnic division of the population; pro-Yugoslav parties fared poorly. The declaration of Bosnian independence in April 1992 was followed immediately by the assertion of sovereignty by the self-declared 'Republika Srpska' (RS) and by the start of civil war. With substantial backing and direction from Belgrade, Bosnian Serb forces 'ethnically cleansed' broad swathes of Bosnia, especially in the east, of Bosniaks and Croats. In July 1992, the Croat party declared the autonomy of 'Herceg-Bosna' in the mainly Croat-populated western Hercegovina and central Bosnia. The brutality culminated in July 1995, when Bosnian Serb forces over-ran the so-called 'UN safe area' in Srebrenica. As has subsequently emerged in detail through trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Serb forces carried out a detailed plan to execute over 7,000 men and boys in the largest European massacre since World War II. The killings at Srebrenica and other brutality led to the NATO bombing of Bosnian Serb military positions, co-ordinated with a joint offensive by the armies of Bosnia and Croatia. Serb political leaders quickly sued for peace, leading to US-led negotiations in Dayton, Ohio at which Slobodan Milosevic represented the Bosnian Serb faction because Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic had already been indicted for war crimes.

The 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement -- the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Hercegovina -- ended the three-year war in Bosnia and Hercegovina that claimed 100,000 lives and left 2.3 million people displaced, including 1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). The agreement provided the basis for the deployment of NATO troops to secure the peace. NATO peacekeepers proved effective at preventing renewed hostilities, but were unwilling to arrest top-tier war crimes fugitives. In December 2004, NATO handed the mission to a European Union force (EUFOR).


The Dayton Peace Agreement reorganized the state of Bosnia and Hercegovina, providing it with a new constitution (Annex Four). The constitution states that Bosnia and Hercegovina is made up of two entities, the Republika Srpska (RS) and the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina. The country is a parliamentary democracy, with a House of Peoples, House of Representatives, and a three-person rotating presidency at the central level of government. Each entity has its own constitution and government. Power in the RS is centralized whilst the Federation is divided into ten cantons that have considerable powers; both entities also have municipal-level government. International officials have long criticized this system for providing too much government for the small country; at state, entity and cantonal levels, Bosnia and Hercegovina has five presidents, five chambers of parliament, and 13 prime ministers.

The constitution states that Bosnia and Hercegovina is a state of three constituent peoples -- Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs -- as well as 'Others' which includes anyone who does not identify with one of the three ethnic groups, including all minorities, people of mixed ethnicity, those who do not wish to identify with one group over the others, and those who simply identify as Bosnian citizens. The term 'Others' is problematic, as it implies exclusion. Important rights, such as the right to stand and vote for certain offices, including the House of Peoples and the three-person central presidency, are granted on the basis of ethnic belonging and not on the basis of citizenship. The entity governments have far-reaching powers, whilst the power of the state government is very limited, although under international pressure the central government has gradually accrued additional powers. Such an arrangement was probably necessary to end the war; however, it sets up a society where all citizens are not equal, and people are discriminated against solely on the basis of their ethnicity. A July 2000 decision of the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Hercegovina states that Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs have the status of constituent peoples across the whole state, not just in the entity in which they form a numerical majority, i.e. Serbs in the RS and Bosniaks and Croats in the Federation. Bosnians are routinely required to state their ethnicity during elections and often when applying for certain jobs, which clearly undermines their right to choose not to identify with a particular ethnic group.

Although stronger than immediately after the war, the state government still has relatively few powers compared with entity and cantonal governments. Yet, it is the state government that is ultimately responsible for human rights implementation. Such a devolved system also makes coordination difficult in such fields as education, where nationalized curricula and textbooks remain an obstacle to reconciliation and sustainable refugee return.

The political structures crafted at Dayton were the result of negotiations between three nationalist factions. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that the political system systematically rewards nationalist parties. Because most candidates for office are elected from largely mono-ethnic constituencies, there is no incentive for them to appeal across ethnic lines. To the contrary, every election cycle since Dayton has seen nationalist candidates reacting to the nationalists of different ethnicity, and staking out a hard-line position in order to 'protect' their own people. Although opinion polling consistently shows that Bosnians of all ethnicity rate as their highest concerns employment and other non-national issues, every election has devolved in a cycle of fear resulting in the dominance of nationalist issues and overwhelming success for nationalist candidates. Not only has this clear trend prevented reconciliation, it has also served nationalists as a diversion from their frequent involvement in corruption, and reduced scrutiny of their records on economic issues.

The Dayton Peace Agreement established the Office of High Representative (OHR) as the interim highest power in BiH. A Peace Implementation Council (PIC)-an ad-hoc group of 55 interested states, supra-national and international institutions, including the European Union, United States, Russia, and the United Nations-oversees the work of the High Representative. With Bosnian politics remaining largely dysfunctional, the international High Representative has proved a central player in the country's political development. After a difficult start under the first High Representative, in late 1997 the PIC granted the High Representative the so-called 'Bonn Powers', entailing the authority to impose, amend, or abolish laws, and remove officials deemed in violation of the Dayton Accord. Different office-holders have taken different approaches to this controversial authority. High Representative Paddy Ashdown made broad use of the powers from mid-2002 through 2005 to strengthen central institutions, particularly in the areas of criminal justice and the economy. During his tenure, organized crime and war crimes trials before the new State Court for Bosnia and Hercegovina got underway, a state-level intelligence service was established, the country's previously entity-based armies and border services were unified at state level, and problematic local sales taxes that fuelled corruption were abolished and replaced by a single value-added tax.

The Dayton Agreement spelled out state and entity obligations to facilitate the return of refugees and internally displaced. The constitution places the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and its Protocols as binding over all other law, and prohibits discrimination on grounds including race, language, religion, and association with a national minority. The ECHR and major UN treaties can be used before domestic courts. There is no comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, and further legislation is needed to prohibit discrimination in spheres of housing, employment, health care, social security (including pensions), education, and public accommodations. In 2003, a Law on the Protection of Rights of Persons Belonging to National Minorities was adopted. A Council of National Minorities and corresponding bodies at the entity level have been proposed but have not been set up, despite concrete legal obligations to do so.

Because most citizens of Bosnia and Hercegovina, across ethnic lines, share the goal of eventual EU membership, the EU is the external actor with the most political leverage, and since 2002 the High Representative -- always an EU citizen -- also has served as EU envoy. In 2006, negotiations on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement were underway, but nationalist Serb politicians' obstruction of police reform has stalled these.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Discrimination against minorities in the field of public participation remains enshrined in Bosnian law, which allows only members of constituent peoples who are in the numerical majority in a given Entity to apply for certain jobs or be elected for certain public offices.

In 2009, Jakob Finci, a prominent Jew, and Dervo Sejdic, of Roma ethnicity brought a case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that successfully challenged discriminatory provisions within Bosnia's Constitution and electoral laws. They argued that the country's Constitution and election law were discriminatory in preventing them from running for or being elected to the presidency or the upper house of the parliament solely on the grounds of their ethnicity and, in the case of Finci, his religion. MRG represented and advised Mr Finci throughout.

This was the first case in which the Court applied the far-reaching general prohibition of discrimination in Protocol Number 12 to the European Convention.. But despite the successful challenge mounted at the ECtHR, election issues concerning the Constitution remained unaddressed after the 2010 October general elections.

Bosnians still experience difficulty in returning to areas where they would be in a numerical minority. This is for a range of reasons, including obstructions caused by nationalist politicians, isolated incidents of violence, negative attitudes and hostility of many from the dominant ethnic group, discriminatory education systems, poor prospects for employment, and some problems with property restitution. Where return has succeeded, it has been more prevalent among older generations, with younger displaced persons promptly offering for sale what property is reclaimed.

The economic situation in Bosnia and Hercegovina as a whole is difficult, and unemployment is high. However, members of the dominant ethnic group are usually hired over anyone else and there is favouritism towards war veterans and families of those killed during the war.

Access to health care is based on pre-war residency which means that people displaced from the Federation do not have access to health care in RS and vice versa. At times, minorities and non-dominant constituent peoples are refused service. People are also entitled to pensions based on their pre-war residency.

Pupils in minority areas frequently face a hostile environment in schools that do not provide an ethnically neutral setting. Obstruction by nationalist politicians and government officials has slowed efforts to remove discriminatory material from textbooks, abolish school segregation and enact other needed reforms. The Inter-Entity Textbook Review Commission, reviewing textbooks from the so-called national group of subjects that were in use in all primary and secondary schools in the country in order to remove any discriminatory or objectionable material, has found that there are textbooks in use not subject to the review process containing material that is inappropriate.

Many Roma, in particular, are disadvantaged through a lack of personal documents. Many live in informal settlements and therefore cannot register with a municipality. This means that they cannot obtain documents necessary to access education, health care and other services.Amid all of these ongoing problems, Paddy Ashdown's successor as High Representative, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, took office in January 2006 pursuing a theory that a vigorous High Representative (as Ashdown had been) would prevent Bosnians from 'taking ownership' of their country. His hands-off approach, however, rather than building a basis for greater accountability, appeared to remove the inhibitions of nationalist leaders. The reform process stalled, and the campaign ahead of national elections in the fall of 2006 again featured escalating nationalist rhetoric, reaching a pitch that reminded many observers of the 1990 campaign preceding the war. The main protagonists were RS Prime Minister Milorad Dodik and candidate for the Bosniak seat on the federal presidency, Haris Silajdzic. As Silajdzic railed on about how the RS was founded on genocide and should be abolished, Dodik threatened with a referendum on secession. Dodik, Silajdzic, and other nationalists won their respective races handily. In early 2007 an alarmed PIC extended the OHR mandate, which had been set to expire mid-year, and chose a successor to Schwarz-Schilling, Slovak diplomat Miroslav Lajcak, who has displayed a greater willingness to exercise the Bonn Powers since taking office in July 2007. Lajcak is led another attempt at police reform to transfer more authority from the entities to the central government, signalled a desire to open talks on constitutional reform. However, meaningful police reform stalled and Lajcak encountered resistance in Brussels to the use of the Bonn Powers. By mid-2008 it appeared that the formal end of OHR was again in sight, and its practical end already met.

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