Human rights issues still plague the Balkans

Human rights - Auschwitz sculpture

Human Rights Watch released their 2016 report earlier this week, a 600+ page tome examining human rights issues from around the globe. Around half the world’s countries are given their own chapter in the report. In the Balkans, Bosnia and Serbia/Kosovo were singled out, while Croatia received condemnation for its treatment of refugees.

Even simply skimming the report makes it clear that Balkan countries face many of the same human rights issues: Failing to treat the”other” – whether that’s a refugee or a minority – with full respect. Difficulties providing the proper resources for an independent judiciary. The inability to fully relinquish power over the media. If other states from the region had been given more attention, similar problems would likely have been highlighted.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

On the same day Human Rights Watch released their report, Bosnia announced its intention to apply for membership to the European Union – in February. Trouble is, Bosnia is nowhere near ready to join the union.

One of the major obstacles to ascension is that the country has yet to reform its constitution, drafted in 1995 as part of the Dayton Peace Agreement. The document is rife with problems, but one of the most significant is that only persons identifying as belonging to one of the three “constituent peoples” – i.e. Bosniaks, Croats or Serbs – may run for the presidency. Others, including Jews, Roma and 15 other nationally recognized minorities, are ineligible.

In addition to not granting equal rights to its minority citizens, Bosnia remains unable to tackle its other human rights issues, likely in part to due to the fact that its government, and the country itself, remain divided. While trials of those considered most responsible for crimes committed during the wars still continue at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Bosnia itself has made little progress in prosecuting war crimes domestically. A lack of funds to process the more than 1,200 cases doesn’t help, nor do the repeated challenges to Bosnia’s War Crimes Chamber made by Republika Srpska, the country’s primarily Serb political entity.

There’s also the problem of media freedom – or perhaps we should say, the lack thereof. Bosnia was ranked #66 out of 180 countries on the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, a ranking that could slip this year due to political interference, intimidation, and even death threats. Freedom of expression is also a concern, with 75 documented instances of hate speech and 15 documented cases of hate crimes based on sexual orientation.


The majority of current criticism on Croatia stems from its treatment of refugees over the past year. Nearly half a million had entered the country by the end of November, and despite their intention to move quickly to another country, Croatia still had difficulty meeting their basic needs while the refugees were within its borders. Croatia also periodically shut its borders, at one point leaving 10,000 stranded in unprepared Serbia. And now that the new government is in place, data on the migrant crisis has been erased from the Ministry of the Interior website.

Developments in early 2016 are not included in the report, of course, but do prompt concern. One of the country’s deputy premiers and head of its ruling HDZ party, Tomislav Karamarko, was the former head of Croatia’s intelligence service. During the recent electoral campaign, he advocated criminal charges for those who criticize how Croatia behaved during the Yugoslav wars. Karamarko supported Croatia’s Minister of Veterans Affairs, Mijo Crnoj, in his idea to create a “Register of Traitors,” composed of any and all who had worked against the country’s interests. Crnoj has now resigned, after registering a shack has his home to avoid taxes.


Kosovo has its own challenges, of course, particularly that of complete recognition from the international community. Talks with Serbia, a condition of that country’s EU membership, resumed this week, but this dialog has been in progress since 2011. An EU-brokered deal to create greater autonomy for Serbs in Kosovo prompted multiple protests earlier this year, leading to outbreaks of violence both within the parliament building and on the streets outside. Interethnic tensions persist, particularly in northern Kosovo, where the population remains divided.

Minorities — particularly Roma, Egyptians and Ashkali — face their own difficulties in Kosovo, including trouble obtaining the personal documents required to obtain health care, social assistance, and education. Many try to leave only to experience deportation at another country’s borders, particularly Germany. Returnees often receive little assistance.

Kosovo has moved slowly on prosecuting criminal cases connected to the 1999 war, and judicial processes there are often subject to political interference. However, legal changes were made last year to create a special war crimes court to try members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Kosovo signed an agreement in January for the Netherlands to host the court, although it will operate under Kosovo law.  What’s essential now is that the two work together to protect witnesses, something Kosovo itself has found nearly impossible. Those testifying have been intimidated, threatened, and even killed.


Like Kosovo and Bosnia, Serbia is struggling to prosecute war crimes. In fact, Serbia often looks the least accountable when it comes to pursuing justice, with, as the report notes, prosecutions “hampered by a lack of support from authorities and weak witness protection mechanisms.” Only one trial of the first instance reached a judgment in 2015, while 14 are ongoing and 7 are on appeal.

Perhaps most worrisome however is the lack of media freedom in Serbia. Journalists in the country “face attacks, threats, harassment, intimidation, lawsuits, and political and other interference.” Independent media can find themselves victims of smear campaigns, intended to discredit the information they present. Recent protests by local journalists, triggered by a sexist comment uttered by Serbia’s defense minister in December, call not only for his resignation but for the investigation into illegal surveillance of those in the media.