Bosnia and Herzegovina’s (BiH) new census law is sparking fears over what new statistics might mean for the country’s minorities. This particular sensitivity to census-taking has kept BiH behind other countries of the Western Balkans, many of which conducted censuses in 2011.
The law, passed in February under mounting international pressure, set the stage for BiH to hold a national census in April 2013 — the country’s first census since 1991.
The census is crucial to BiH’s EU integration aspirations and the signing of a Stabilisation and Association Act (SAA), which is the first step towards EU membership. It was this incentive that prompted the country’s six-party ruling coalition to make the census law a reality.
However, according to local NGOs and human rights groups, the census will help to entrench ethnic politics and legitimise discrimination against the country’s minorities.
NGOs in BiH are very concerned. In informal talks, NGO representatives addressed their concerns over the nature of the new census law to EU officials, but told SETimes that there has been only a muted response, and that the international community appears hesitant to force the issue and delay proceedings.
Andy McGuffie, spokesman for the EU delegation to BiH, said the monitoring mission will make its second visit this month.
“Census data — hence the holding of a census — is of crucial importance to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s future prosperity and EU integration. Public services can only be properly planned with a sound statistical basis. Foreign investors require such information when deciding whether to invest in the country. And data on population will be needed to formulate answers when Bosnia and Herzegovina receives a questionnaire from the European Commission pursuant to a membership application,” he said
“I am afraid that the flaws [in the census law] are not of a technical nature, but are a purposeful continuation of constitutional discrimination against ethnic minorities, and there is not political will to amend it,” Lidija Pisker, representative of the NGO coalition Initiative for Free Declaration, told SETimes.
According to Pisker, the questionnaires have major flaws in the sections where the religion, nationality and language are addressed.
“From the start, there was no period for public comment, and no public consultation process before the law was adopted in parliament. Civil groups, minority groups, human rights and monitoring bodies did not have the opportunity to contribute to or comment on the law in order to ensure transparency,” Pisker said.
Dervo Sejdic, a representative of the Roma Information Centre Kali Sara, told SETimes that not only will the census provide a distorted picture of the Bosnian population, it will also encourage the ongoing division of BiH into three main groups, plus “others”.
“It is vital for this census to respect the rights of everyone to either freely declare or decline to declare themselves as members of ethnic or religious groups. Ideally, the term ‘other’ should not be used at all,” Sejdic said.
Out of the 45 questions in the questionnaire, three are devoted to ethnic characteristics. Citizens will be asked to declare their nationality, religious beliefs and their mother tongue — questions strongly opposed by human rights and minority groups.Maja Sahadzic, representative of the Association for International Law in BiH, told SETimes that because of the sensitive ethnic and political situation in the country, disputed questions should be excluded from the questionnaire just as they are excluded in many EU countries.
“For instance, Belgium, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg and others do not ask about religion or mother tongue. As optional questions, those on ethnicity and religion should be excluded from the census or addressed properly to avoid discrimination,” Sahadzic said.
Pisker said that the NGO sector will launch a campaign to spur the international community into action over the ongoing discrimination of minorities and the politicalisation of the population count.
“As human rights and non-discrimination are basic principles of the EU, we expect [them] to adopt a more active role in the Bosnian census. We are going to demand that the EU takes an official stand on this by November, when Bosnia’s annual progress report is to be presented,” Pisker said.
This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.