“Year after year, we hear that the time has come to fix the rule of law in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This year, the EU Commission’s opinion on BiH’s application for EU membership identified several key rule of law priorities, such as the need to step up the fight against corruption and adopting new legislation on the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council. The EU Commission will present a report next year as part of the 2020 Enlargement package which will assess the implementation of these key priorities by BiH. Progress on rule of law will determine whether BiH can be considered a credible candidate for EU membership,” the US Ambassador to BiH, Eric Nelson, wrote in his new blog
The United States has invested millions of dollars in assistance since the end of the war to help BiH build a stronger justice sector. Citizens in this country know the returns on that investment are not adequate. Recent headlines involving the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council are a manifestation of the larger rule of law problem in BiH – the rules don’t apply equally to everyone. The international community helped create the HJPC with the goal of bringing independence and integrity to the judiciary. It is clear that the HJPC is not achieving those goals. We state that not with prejudice, but based on facts. The OSCE’s annual report on monitoring of corruption trials in BiH confirmed through numbers what citizens already know: the institutions which have the duty to prosecute corruption are failing to do so.
Citizens of BiH bear the weight of corruption on their own backs every day: they struggle when access to good health care, education, and jobs requires connections to the political patronage system. Seeing their personal progress obstructed, many emigrate, choosing countries that have a strong rule of law to secure their future. That shows how badly citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina want to be equal in front of the law. They want strong rule of law that evens the playing field so their hard work and their merit determine their success. BiH suffers economically when investors cannot expect equal treatment under the law. So, they invest elsewhere, making it harder for the people of this country to prosper.
Carved on the front of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. are the words ‘Equal Justice Under Law.’ That is our ideal, driving the highest aspirations of our judicial system –that no one should get better treatment in the courts than anyone else. Citizens of BiH also deserve equal justice under law. Success will require much more than continued efforts of the US or the international community. Success will require members of civil society and members of the legal profession, good and honest judges and prosecutors, to speak up and call for change. Some, but not enough of them, have already done so. It is especially important for members of the media to continue to do their part in covering this important issue. When journalists uncover corruption, they are helping to bring transparency and accountability. That makes them a pillar of democracy and justice, not a threat.
Little will change if citizens of BiH do not demand rule of law reforms. BiH Parliament has rightly pointed out many problems created by the HJPC, giving voice to what many BiH citizens already know. Parliament has a strong oversight role for a reason – not to encroach on the independence of judicial institutions, but to ensure they are accountable to the public. The BiH Ministry of Justice needs to act now to draft amendments to the HJPC law to help strengthen the accountability of BiH’s judiciary. Only those with the highest professional qualification and moral integrity should be able to serve on a council that sets the standards for the rule of law in BiH.
At our Independence Day Celebration, I said: “Bosnia and Herzegovina’s success depends not on what the international community can do. It will depend – in JFK’s words – on ‘what you can do for your country’.” Reforms in a democratic society don’t happen overnight, and they start by citizens speaking up and demanding change. As former attorney general of the United States Robert F. Kennedy said: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” I encourage all of you to become that ripple. Start that change that you want to see to improve rule of law in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The United States is here to support citizens working to build a brighter future for Bosnia and Herzegovina.”