Ensuring Right to Justice is Key to the EU Path of Bosnia and Herzegovina

How to safeguard human rights for citizens and what the relevant sectors and society need to do to create a forward-looking environment more conducive to the rule of law reforms on the country’s path towards the EU were some of the key topics for discussion at the fourth debate “Right to Justice” organised by the European Union in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the European Commission’s Directorate General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement (DG NEAR) in Sarajevo.

The debate was held in hybrid form, bringing together in the BiH Parliamentary Assembly in Sarajevo as well as online a significant number of representatives of the judiciary, public institutions, local authorities, the media and civil society from across the country. Panellists and audience members raised topics that are fundamental for strengthening the rule of law and progress on the EU path, including trust in the judiciary, perceptions of corruption, freedom of assembly and media freedoms.

Olivér Várhelyi, Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR) welcomed the participants through a video message in which he emphasised the need for rule of law reforms for prosperity and growth, as well as the EU path.

“The event comes at a crucial time for Bosnia and Herzegovina and, as I stated after the high-level political forum in Sarajevo, the need to deliver on the rule of law is critical. Let me underline that these reforms are not made “for Brussels”. They will substantially improve the justice sector of Bosnia and Herzegovina and should deliver increased public trust in the judiciary, which is currently one of the lowest in Europe. This should allow its citizens to exercise their rights better and this should create a more predictable climate for businesses as well. A society built on the rule of law is a precondition for a wealthy economy attracting investments, promoting economic prosperity and growth. It creates prosperity for its citizens,” said Várhelyi.

Johann Sattler, the Head of EU Delegation to BiH and EU Special Representative in BiH underlined the importance of credible rule of law reforms in the wake of the granting of candidate status.

 “What progress has been achieved with the reform of the rule of law since 2019? I have to be fair; not that much. And citizens are right not to be satisfied about the slow pace of progress. However, we now need to look forward constructively and efficiently, by refocusing on the rule of law and the enhancement of the protection of fundamental freedoms through the ambitious reform agenda put ahead of the BiH authorities on their path to join the EU. Candidate status is now an unquestionable reality, which is expected to stimulate the adoption of a number of agreed rule of law reforms. This country cannot afford more years of stagnation,” stressed Sattler.

An important element of this year’s public debate concerned worrying developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina that risk seriously undermining human rights and fundamental freedoms in the country.

The Ambassador of Sweden to BiH, Johanna Strömquist, emphasised that The EU is a union of shared values. Adopting legislation and establishing institutions to promote and protect democracy, human rights and minorities are clear criteria in the EU accession process. Unfortunately, we have not seen much progress over the last years. Instead, we see concerning developments in the wrong direction that risks shrinking civic space. Candidate status is a tremendous opportunity for the new governments on all levels to do more and to do better. This is not the time to go backwards on fundamental human right. This is the time to go forwards towards the EU.”

The centrality of rule of law to the EU path was noted by a large number of speakers, with clear messages that candidate status for Bosnia and Herzegovina requires a stronger commitment to strenghtening the rule of law, democratic processes that will result in reforms and building public trust in the judiciary.

In the first panel ‘Integrity of the justice system, the key to effectively fight corruption and restore public trust’ the panellists presented their views on the integrity of the criminal justice system and the fight against corruption with a view to achieving a functional rule of law in BiH. The second panel Promoting and protecting fundamental freedoms – an obligation for authorities, a necessity for democratic society focused on fundamental freedoms in light of recent negative developments and the risk of backsliding in respect to freedom of expression and association.

In his concluding remarks to the event, Vassilis Maragos, Head of Unit D.4 (BiH and Kosovo) at the Directorate General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR) welcomed the lively and engaging debate, stating that Bosnia and Herzegovina needed to use the window of opportunity to advance on the EU path by acting on judiciary reform and anti-corruption, and by upholding fundamental freedoms.