Interview with the Head of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ambassador Fletcher M. Burton
[wzslider]By: Medina Malagić
‘Sarajevo Times’ had the opportunity to speak with the Head of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ambassador Fletcher M. Burton. Ambassador Burton spoke about the wide range of issues in which the OSCE is currently engaged in BIH, such as civil society, problems facing the BIH Court, especially regarding war crimes cases, OSCE’s work at the local level, regional and security issues and media freedom. Ambassador Burton believes in the vast potential of the civil society sector in BIH, and the recent protests regarding the JMBG are testament to the growing vitality of the increase in public awareness on pressing issues. Not only does civil society play an essential role in working to protect the interest of citizens, OSCE’s work at the local level is its ‘hallmark’ because that is where ‘government is closes to citizens’. Ambassador Burton emphasized that the OSCE Mission to BIH provides support at the institutional level and works to facilitate dialogue on pertinent issues in BIH.
In your time at the OSCE, what strides have been made by civil society in terms of holding institutions responsible and accountable? What is the state of civil society in BiH?
Some good steps, and long strides may follow. The potential of civil society remains enormous. Just last month we witnessed what some refer to as a civic awakening. We saw citizens demanding action from the government on issues affecting lives of ordinary people.
This is happening against the backdrop of similar protests around the world. In Bosnia and Herzegovina,it is not only a sign of civil society maturing. In the protests on the Law on the Unique Identification Number (JMBG), citizens from all walks of life, regardless of their politics or ethnicity, joined in the streets across BiH, sending a clear message – they want political elites to start working in the interest of all citizens.
This is a continuation of a trend. We have seen civil society in BiH able to unite, raise its voice and “rise up” on important issues. Let me give you another example: protesting against violence against women and girls. These efforts need to be encouraged in order to expand the room for civil society organisations and other civic actors. They all should engage in dialogue. They all can help shape the country’s future.
It’s probably too early today to announce the end of an era of ethnic politics in BiH. And yet the protests demonstrated a real ability of citizens to express common concerns and aspirations, and to do so with real resonance.How this civic awakening will translate into tangible political and social change is a big question to be answered today.
The OSCE has always been heavily engaged in and has fostered close co-operation with local communities throughout BiH. In your time at the OSCE, in what ways has this level of cooperation fortified, and in what areas have you seen the most improvement? What are the most pressing issues/problems now?
Yes, our local work is some of our best work. At the local level, we cover a broad array of issues. We engage both local governments and citizens. We co-operate with both. We design and implement our projects through close consultation with these local partners. This approach is one of our hallmarks. It has fortified our position within municipalities and cities.
We have paid close attention to the local level – where government is the closest to citizens – and that’s exactly why we do it. We have seen significant improvements when compared to 10-15 years ago.
Much of our work has focused on the development of new mechanisms for interaction between citizens and local officials. We have encouraged local governments to further open their affairs to civic participation, especially when it comes to budget processes and development planning. Citizens should have a say in how public funds are spent and how their municipalities and cities plan to develop. We have encouraged stronger involvement of citizens in the work of local governments through participation in many local working bodies. The sustainability of achievements in local governance requires continuous engagement of both municipal authorities and civil society.
Much still remains to be done regarding reform of the justice system in BiH, which is wrought with innumerable problems. How has the OSCE responded to the recent developments in the BIH Court that have served to limit its transparency? What will be the next steps?
Yes, developments in the BiH Court have presented a serious challenge to the Court’s efforts to keep the public informed of its work. However, the Court is working to resolve this problem, in particular in relation to cases of heightened public interest, such as those involving war crimes. The Mission fully supports the Court’s efforts to find a solution, one that balances the right to free access to information and the right of individuals to the protection of private data. Let’s consider war crimes trials: They can have a positive impact on the process of dealing with the past in BiH and providing justice to victims only when those most affected by the crimes are well-informed of the proceedings.
The OSCE is the world’s largest regional security organization. What is the OSCE Mission to BiH doing to enhance security in BiH and regional cooperation on security issues?
We dedicate a lot of time and resources to issues of arms control. For instance, we support development of institutional capacities and advocate for destruction of the 17,000 tonnes of surplus ammunition in local storage sites. This surplus ammo is very old and poses risks to the population in case of accidental explosion. Recall what happened with explosions in Serbia and Albania. We have also answered an official request for assistance from BiH for improvement of AF BiH weapons and ammunition stockpile management by launching two projects on safety and security. One is implemented jointly with the Ministry of Defence and UNDP. And the other is an OSCE project with the Ministry of Defence.
Besides this, we provide a much needed platform for dialogue on pressing security related issues. We do this through various courses and seminars that we co-organize or support. Topics are wide ranging, such as countering terrorism, border management, preventing corruption in defence and security, and the process of security sector reform.
We also serve as a link between BiH institutions and other OSCE offices. Let me name a few of them: the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Conflict Prevention Center, OSCE Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, the Forum for Security Co-operation, Action Against Terrorism Unit and Strategic Police Matters Unit. The Mission supports BiH participation in OSCE-wide activities and increased regional cooperation in security issues. We work to help the country enhance its compliance with its security-related international obligations, such as those that arise from its UN membership and from being an OSCE participating State.
Media freedom has been the constant focus of the OSCE Mission in BiH. Nearly 20 years after the war and the politicization of the media throughout this country is transparent. What are the different ways and strategies that the OSCE utilizes in order to address the state of the media freedom in BiH? How would you assess the (lack of) development of media freedom during your time here?
Let me cite the Freedom House, which called this trend ‘worrying” and freedom of press deteriorating. BiH media today face both political pressure and legislative obstacles.
The Representative on Freedom of Media, supported by the Mission and EUD/EUSR, commissioned legal reviews of eight relevant laws pertaining to the Public Broadcasting System and Communication Regulatory Agency. The legal reviews were submitted to the Ministry of Communications and Transport, and other relevant bodies. The reviews would help BiH adjust its media legislation in order to meet OSCE commitments as well as international standards on media freedom. That is where we hope to see some progress soon.
What role will the OSCE play in the near future, especially given that Croatia is now an EU member state? What type of impact do you think that will have on OSCE’s role in BiH?
The regional aspect of our work is very important. It encompasses all the neighbouring countries, including Croatia. The Mission supports the country’s regional integration agenda, through activities designed to foster cooperation among countries of the former Yugoslavia. The Regional Housing Programme is one such initiative. In the RHP framework, the Mission works closely with the EU, the UNHCR, the United States government, and other OSCE Missions in the region – a combined effort to support the governments of BiH, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. Our common goal is to develop durable housing solutions for 74,000 of the most vulnerable refugees and internally displaced persons in the region. 14,000 persons from BiH, including refugees currently residing in Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro, will benefit from this Programme.
This year will see the 18th anniversary of the end of the conflict in BiH and 18 years of the Mission’s work in BiH. A great deal has changed during this period. There has also been an important strand of continuity in the Mission’s work, and this is the belief that reconciliation is central to breaking the cycle of violence and to fostering sustainable peace. That is the role we must continue to play.