Bosnia and Herzegovina

Last Updated 2 December 2021

Bosnia and Herzegovina pronounced independence in 1992, though the Bosnian War lasted well into 1995. There is a three-member Presidency, and a bicameral legislature in place. Religious, ethnic, and national identity are interconnected in the country, the majority of the population makes no critical distinction between ethnic/confessional/national identities.1 A researcher from Bosnia wrote “It is not easy to say when a religion/religious community uses politics, and when a political party uses religion/religious community. Most likely it is a reciprocal process.”2 p. 107

The population is estimated to be around 3.8 million. According to the 2013 census, the population is composed of 52% Sunni Muslims, 31 % Serbian Orthodox Christians, 15% Roman Catholics, 3% of other belief groups.3

Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has an internal administration that is divided into two entities, the Bosnian Serb–majority Republika Srpska (RS), Brčko District, and the Bosniak-Bosnian Croat–majority Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH). The latter is divided into 10 cantons. The division of competencies between state-, entity-, and canton-level governments tend to obstruct key decision-making and enable the exploitation of various regulations and loopholes.4

Article two of the Constitution5 addresses human rights and fundamental freedoms. It proclaims to “ensure the highest level of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms. To that end, there shall be a Human Rights Commission for Bosnia and Herzegovina”. Section three of article two guarantees the “Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.”

The legal system formally recognizes “churches and religious communities.” Unregistered belief organizations may assemble and practice their beliefs, but don’t enjoy the privileges of recognized religious groups.6

The Ministry of Justice keeps track of all religious communities. Requirements for registration include presenting statutes that define the method of religious practice and a petition for the establishment with the signatures of at least 30 founders. The ministry may deny the application for registration if it concludes the content and manner of worship may be “contrary to legal order, public morale, or is damaging to the life and health or other rights and freedoms of believers and citizens.”7

Registered religious groups have the right to do charity work, raise funds, and establish meeting places,8 this may hinder traditional belief groups to operate freely when the system is structured around faith and worship-based beliefs.

The legal system recognizes the status of four “traditional” religious communities: the Islamic Community (IC), Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), Catholic Church, and the Jewish community.9

The state provides a monopoly of religious authority to the Islamic Community (IC), it recognizes the organization as the sole institutional religious authority for all Muslims in the country, including immigrants.10 A Muslim group requires permission from the Islamic Community  to register or establish a mosque.11 This limits the freedom of groups not aligned with the Islamic Community to organize and operate independently.

Additionally, Article 18 of the “law on freedom of religion and legal position of churches and religious communities in BiH” states that,

“(a) new church or religious community may not be founded bearing the same or similar name as that of an existing church or religious community. No one may use the symbols, insignia or attributes of church or a religious community without the said religious community’s or church’s consent.”12;

The Islamic Community continues efforts to persuade unregistered Islamic groups who operate independently, to cease “unsanctioned” religious practices and merge with the Islamic Community. The number of those groups fell from 64 in 2016, to 21 in 2019, and finally 11 in 2020.13

Such laws mean that groups who want to distinguish themselves either religiously, socially, or politically are not allowed to operate freely. The orthodoxy of each religion has ownership and copyright protection of their religions. This may contribute to hindering reform or diversity within each religious tradition.

Article 145a of the Criminal Code14 reads:

“(1)Whoever publicly incites or inflames national, racial or religious hatred, discord or hostility among the constituent peoples and others who live in Bosnia and Herzegovina shall be punished by imprisonment for a term between three months and three years.”

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted that the article fails to include ethnicity, color, and descent, a very low number of cases of racial discrimination were documented and processed according to the procedures of such cases.15 para. 19; The UN Human Rights Committee noted that it was unclear whether public dissemination of racist propaganda and promotion of ideas of racial superiority had been criminalized, it also expressed concern over the absence of a provision on racist motives as an aggravating circumstance in the Criminal Code.16 para. 21

Political feudalism

The BiH Constitution provides for representation of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – in the government and armed forces. The Constitution makes no explicit mention of representation for religious groups, although the ethnic groups mentioned by the Constitution are each associated with a particular religion.17 The country’s Constitution divides the seats of the House of Peoples – one of two houses of parliament – between the three major ethnic groups, citizens from religious or belief minorities are constitutionally excluded.18 Additionally, certain government offices are reserved for their members according to quotas.19 The presidential office is also occupied by three presidents that rotate periodically, one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb.20

A decision by the European Court of Human Rights in 2009 called for members of minority groups to be allowed to run for president and the House of Peoples. However, change is yet to be implemented.21

Evidence shows that each of the major political parties remains split across ethnic-sectarian lines. The largest ethnic Bosniak parties align with the Islamic Community (IC), the largest ethnic Croat parties with the Catholic Church, and the two largest ethnic Serb parties with the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC).22

Major parties enjoyed dominance over government ministries, public services, and media outlets. Membership is a prerequisite for career advancement.23

Freedom House that gave the country a score of 39/100 in its Democracy Statuses report writes:24

“These three parties—SNSD, SDA, and HDZ BiH—had spent the entirety of 2019 disagreeing on almost all political issues, including state-level government formation, so this surprising display of unity in 2020 only served to demonstrate that they agree on keeping the country in limbo—a position that many argue BiH has been in for a quarter-century, since the signing of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. Personal interests and inter-party politics continue to take precedence, even in the face of clear wrongdoing by government officials.”

Education and children’s rights

More than 50 schools are segregated by ethnicity and religion.25 The “two schools under one roof” system is when children are segregated from each other based on ethnicity.26 Many schools are divided in two by entrance, classroom, teacher, and curricula.27 para. 50  Students, parents, and teachers who resist segregation are frequently met with political indifference and sometimes intimidation, which further damages the quality of education children received.28

The political parties control schools through 13 ministries of education and enforce education policies based upon patronage and ethnic exclusion. The laws across the country’s different jurisdictions affirm the right to religious education. The different religious authorities, Islamic Community (IC), Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), and Catholic Church develop and approve the religious curricula. Students can choose between religious education or a course in ethics.29 Reports show that parents often send their children to religious education classes to avoid social stigma and peer pressure. In August 2020, according to a survey, 11.5% of parents favored removing religious education from schools.30

According to the US State Department:31

“In the Federation’s five Bosniak-majority cantons, primary and secondary schools offer Islamic religious instruction as a twice-weekly course, or students may take a course in ethics. In cantons with Croat majorities, Croat students in primary and secondary schools may attend an elective Catholic religion course twice a week or take a course in ethics. In the five primary and 10 secondary Catholic schools spread throughout the Federation and the RS that do not have Croat majorities, parents may choose either an elective Catholic religion course or a course in ethics. The Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Education offers Orthodox and Protestant religious education in addition to classes offered to the Muslim and Catholic communities. The RS Ministry of Education offers elective religious education in secondary schools.”

Representatives from officially registered religious communities teach religious studies in all schools. A minimum of 18 children from the same minority religious group in one class is needed for a course to be offered specifically to them.32 The teachers are employed by the school, despite being selected and trained by their respective communities.33 Teachers receive accreditation from the religious body governing the curriculum.34

The universities in BiH are also segregated along ethnic lines. The eight public universities in BiH, according to reports, contribute to reinforcing prejudice and discrimination in their curricula, diplomas, and school activities.35

Family, community and society

The Interreligious Council (IRC) leader stated that local authorities discriminate in providing police protection and investigating threats of violence, harassment, and vandalism. Law enforcement officials treat cases as theft or vandalism, without taking into consideration that acts occurred at religious sites without investigating the motives or the possibility of it being a hate crime.36 Belief communities hesitate to report incidents to the police or media, in fear of retaliation.37

LGBTI+ Community

Reports show that the police force does not investigate attacks against LGBTI+ individuals, especially during public assemblies.38 para. 17 Reports document racially motivated hate speech against ethnic, religious, and national minorities, also in the media.39 para. 20;, p. 4
None of the administrative units in Bosnia and Herzegovina recognize same-sex unions. Few LGBTI+ people are open about their gender identity or sexual orientation to a wider circle of people; one in three members of the LGBTI+ community reports having experienced discrimination.40, para. 20 Hate speech and violence against LGBTI+ individuals are also widespread.41 An anti-discrimination plan to protect persons who are persecuted based on their sexual orientation failed to move forward due to a lack of political will and consensus between the political actors at state levels, mainly due to opposition by the Republika Srpska.42, para. 21

Discrimination against minorities

Members of minority groups also face discrimination in employment and education in both the government and private sectors. Despite laws prohibiting some forms of discrimination, human rights activists complain that authorities do not adequately enforce the law.43 In 2019, 130 hate crimes were recorded but only one resulted in convictions.44

Reproductive health and women’s rights

There is no adequate healthcare and sex education accessible to young people. Sex education and contraception are surrounded by taboo.45, para. 36-39; Female contraception is fairly expensive, only 12% of women of reproductive age use modern contraception with the highest rate in the richest quintile and educated women.46, para. 36-39 Prejudices, misconceptions, and poor knowledge about significance as well as the high price of modern contraception are key factors for such a low use.47, para. 36-39 Comprehensive sex education is not offered.48, para. 36-39 Access to abortion faces significant barriers associated with the costs.49, para. 47 From 2010 to 2017, 4% of all girls were married before the age of 18 years old.50, para. 52

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Bosnia and Herzegovina are ranked 58th out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Evidenced by a polarised political climate and nationalist rhetoric where editorial policies are formulated based on ethnic divisions, and hate speech is evident.51 Journalists are targets of attacks because of their ethnic origins or reprisals for their coverage.52 Authorities and state institutions directly obstruct journalists and even accuse journalists of “inaccurate and malicious reporting”.53

Reports show an increase in intimidation, harassment, and attacks against media professionals.54, para. 38 Investigative journalism plays a major role in the country,55 and those journalists who conduct critical investigations on political or economic interests are especially targeted.56, para. 38 Journalists operate in a hostile environment where self-censorship and security concerns are present.57, para. 38 Politicians use defamation to intimidate journalists and deter them from pursuing their work.58;

The media is subjected to excessive influence from governments, political parties, and private interest groups.59, para. 38 Both the public broadcast media and privately-owned media are politically manipulated.60;[/ref

Tuzla and Sarajevo have laws that allow elected municipal authorities to restrict the independence and academic freedom of universities by giving the officials the power to hire or dismiss academics.[ref]


2 p. 107
3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 17, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37
4, 24
15 para. 19;
16 para. 21
25, 26, 41, 43, 44
27 para. 50
38 para. 17
39 para. 20;, p. 4
40, para. 20
42, para. 21
45, para. 36-39;
46, 47, 48, para. 36-39
49, para. 47
50, para. 52
51, 52, 53, 55
54, 56, 57, 59, para. 38

Tuzla and Sarajevo have laws that allow elected municipal authorities to restrict the independence and academic freedom of universities by giving the officials the power to hire or dismiss academics.[ref]

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