Rule of law is a matter of human dignity

By Johann Sattler

It was a real highlight for me to witness the striking interest of BiH citizens during last week’s public debate in BiH as EU Ambassador under the slogan “Pravo na pravdu”, held at the BiH Parliament last Wednesday. I must admit that seeing hundreds of people pouring into the Parliament building from all walks of life, to raise their voice  and concerns regarding the current state of rule of law in BiH, cemented my belief of the dire need to improve the current situation. Rule of law has and will certainly continue to ignite heated and emotionally charged discussions in media, professional circles and amongst citizens.

Representatives of the executive, legislative and judicial authorities, independent judicial experts and academics, solicitors, civil society organisations and citizens decided to dedicate this day to openly discuss their role in strengthening rule of law in BiH. Enthusiasm shown by people coming from all over the country and the time dedicated to preparing concrete recommendations are prime examples of civic activism and courage to face difficult issues marring BiH. Hereby, I wholeheartedly congratulate them!

It is true there were some exasperated tones and the discussion did get very heated at times, but at the end of the day, I am confident to say that all those present showed that Bosnia and Herzegovina has good expertise and determined citizens who are ready to partake in what is the most important task on BiH’s path to the EU – that of strengthening rule of law.

The main messages I took away and which participants agreed on include:

  • There can be no justice without integrity of the judiciary
  • Justice must happen within reasonable time
  • All actors must work towards zero corruption
  • Nobody is above the law

We all know and the European Commission’s Opinion clearly spells out what the main priority reforms that BiH needs to undertake are if it wishes to join the EU. Among the 14 key recommendations strengthening the rule of law is the priority of all priorities.

Rule of law is a cornerstone of all democratic societies and as such part of the EU Acquis and non-negotiable. Bosnia and Herzegovina is no exemption. For Bosnia and Herzegovina strengthening rule of law is a generational task and the EU stands ready to help.

Indeed, rule of law is something for which humanity has strived ever since its very first civilisations. We have all come a long way to have what we now see as rule of law which guarantees that all people are treated equally and with dignity.

It is sad to see many thousands of people leaving this country to pursue happiness in foreign lands. Now we know that it is not only economic need that drives entire families to leave their homes. It is to a huge extent the weak rule of law and the injustices of daily life.

We need to regain citizens’ trust

The rule of law backsliding has been noted even in EU member states with long democratic traditions. The EU is putting a number of measures in place to stop and, hopefully, reverse this trend. Clearly, we need additional efforts to safeguard the rule of law and even in the EU we cannot take it for granted. But, the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina requires rapid and radical action. Indeed, the hundreds of letters my office has received in the past months ahead of the “Pravo na pravdu” debate all point to the same conclusion – it is time for change.

Latest polls compared to 2018 show a drop of BiH citizens’ trust in the judiciary from 41% to 19%. The mistrust that exists in BiH could be linked with deterioration observed over the past period in the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular the unresolved killings, increased violence against journalists, and restrictions imposed on public gatherings.

So, citizens’ perceptions do matter. These concerns have also been acknowledged by the BiH Constitutional Court which noted evident systemic deficiencies related to the organisation of the judiciary, requiring action by all competent authorities.

Time to stop blame games

We too often witness the endless game of shifting responsibility to one another. Prosecution hides behind police, judges behind prosecution, politicians point fingers at the judiciary while some actors even hide behind the EU. This is the typical blame game citizens are disgusted by. Even Mr Priebe was very vocal about how frustrating it was to find out that the state of affairs was almost identical to that from the early 2000s. It is high time to put this to an end.

Yes, I know it will be hard. Change can be scary and it will require some bold steps. As Mr Priebe noted, rule of law is not about ticking off accession boxes. It is about securing a safe space for citizens’ rights, their welfare and a chance to build a future for their families here, at home.

Power to bring about real change can only come from the authorities, judiciary and citizens across this country. This is not a matter of choice but a matter of responsibility.

What next?

The EU wanted to discuss openly the way ahead towards a more impartial and accountable justice system in BiH, independent from political interference, in the presence of independent European Commission expert Reinhard Priebe and his team members. This by no means represents replacement for local ownership.

In that context, declarative political will needs to be translated into concrete actions. The definitive litmus test for the functioning of the judiciary is its track record of resolved cases as clear evidence for the citizens that the judicial system delivers. Moreover, harmonisation of jurisprudence is the ultimate goal so that all citizens are treated equally throughout BiH.

Equality of all before the law is essential.

The “Pravo na pravdu” debate demonstrated clear will for change, while dialogue in a democratic spirit is necessary to move forward.

The European Union will continue supporting BiH in undertaking necessary changes. In the upcoming months we will step up our support to BiH citizens through the “Pravo na pravdu” platform, which will be used for a whole range of initiatives aiming to:

  • Secure follow-up to the relevant priorities of the Opinion and, in this context, on the complementary findings of the Report by Priebe et al. and
  • Ensure transparency and inclusivity of this process.

I said from the day I arrived in BiH that I don’t want to overpromise and I don’t want to paint rosy pictures. I am well aware of the many previous attempts of judicial reforms, many of which were unsuccessful. We all should, by all means, take lessons from the past but as Marshall McLuhan famously noted: we cannot march forward looking through a rear-view mirror.

As a young female activist said at the debate: “People of Bosnia and Herzegovina are brave people.” I could not agree more. Citizens have shown the necessary courage – some of them even at too high a cost. Now it is high time your authorities showed courage too.