Hennessey: Council of Europe Office in B&H Works to Promote Shared European Values and Full Benefits of CoE Membership for B&H


Mary Ann Hennessey 1

By: Medina Malagić

Head of the Council of Europe (CoE) office in Sarajevo Mary Ann Hennessey speaks to us about the vast  variety of issues in which the Council of Europe office in Sarajevo is involved. Hennessey noted that  since its establishment, the Council of Europe aims to build a stronger European identity, one that is  based on shared values predicated on diversity. Regarding the Council of Europe’s presence here,  Hennessey said that she hopes to see B&H move forward on the path of further European integration.  While in B&H there does exist the notion of being ‘European’, there are a myriad of layers of problems  and obstacles in this country that are necessary to solve if B&H wishes to be a productive and prosperous  member of the wider European Community.


Can you describe to us the nature of the cooperation between the Council of Europe and the Sarajevo Film Festival? What are the new activities that have been promoted at this year’s festival, and in what ways do you think has it served to further enrich the festival?


Our cooperation with SFF is based on two things: to sponsor the awards for best films and to participate in different activities around the films that highlight Council of Europe issues and films. Every year we work with a theme, and this year we had something different. The focus was on democracy and youth participation in democracy. We also highlighted within the context of youth participation the online campaign against hate speech. In a way, what is nice about it is that the Council of Europe is supporting European cultural cooperation through Eurimages, the European Fund for cinematic co-production, which finances a number of the films that are in competition each year. On the other side, the Festival represents the richness of European culture, and we are able to use that cultural event to emphasize certain aspects of being a Member State. All these things are interconnected.

As an organization, the Council of Europe is about building an ever-deeper shared European identity in a broad sense. This is what the organization has been about since its establishment in the late 1940’s. As Europeans, it is not only about how countries can cooperate to their best advantage (commerce, business, economy, military cooperation, energy), but rather, how can we build a just and good Europe for Europeans through all those other things? We foster intergovernmental cooperation in the cultural sphere, education, social issues, human rights, justice and law enforcement, and all of those things are good in themselves, but they serve a greater purpose to make a better Europe and better Europeans.

This is a logic that is, in some way, a sort of reverse motion compared to some other organizations or institutions, for example, the OSCE aspires to maintain peace and security and the EU is built around trade and economic relations. In order for those aims to be achieved, and to do that successfully and well, requires  also values like democracy, rule of law and human rights.  But the Council of Europe is sort of the other way around. Its goal is the values. And different forms of cooperation aim to make those into something living. The film festival is a good example of all those things-culture for its own sake, cooperation in the region, and also for the real purpose of further building the society of Human rights and democratic values. That is particularly true, and appropriate, to the Sarajevo Film Festival.

I have the impression that more people are aware of cooperation with Sarajevo Film Festival this year than in previous years. In the Open Air cinema this year and last year, a short Council of Europe film clip was shown before each main film. This year, we did an online campaign about hate speech. It was fine, but last year’s clip was much more interesting, more like a little film and it had a strong message. It was about the year of living together in diversity. I’m sure we can do more fun activities to make it more robust. Each year we deal with the theme and we try to do much as possible to get the community involved, for the people who come for the festival and the people who live here.

The EU integration process is currently underway in B&H. The EU integration process necessitates a series of reforms in any aspiring EU country in order to conform to the EU acquis, and the process of Europeanization carries with it a more civic and inclusive ‘identity’ while retaining national sovereignty. Thus, what impact do you think the European integration process has on building a sort of common ‘European’ identity among B&H citizens?

That is the main purpose of the Council of Europe. Of course we do that. The message is: we have a common European heritage made up of a wealth of diversity that belongs to all of us. It is the values and practices of democracy and rights and rule of law that ties us together in this European space. It is a diversity of languages, religions and ethnicities.

For Bosnia, I would like to hope that the whole country becomes firmly anchored in this European path and membership in the Council of Europe and in building a European identity, which I think is strong here. There is a generally shared notion of culture and values in Bosnia that are European. So if you can have such a diversity of identities within that European identity, why couldn’t you do the same within Bosnia? The thing that is missing is a sense of identity as a country, as a citizen of Bosnia. It’s a big challenge. It doesn’t help that in the Constitution the first words state that Bosnia is made up of 3 constituent peoples and others and citizens, as if ‘and citizens’ are people who cant find any other identity to have. This is what exists, instead of the sense of being a citizen of Bosnia with a variety of ethnic identities within that. That takes time, but it has happened nearly everywhere else. So I think that is a side benefit of being part of the Council of Europe and moving towards European integration. For sure, it is easier to have a sense of European identity when you can travel or work anywhere in Europe. People also may have a tendency to better appreciate and value their home country by doing those things. And it’s a great thing to look at your country from a distance and from an outside perspective to see that regardless of all the differences people have in Bosnia, when we look at it from the outside, we see that they have more in common with each other than differences. Sometimes it takes moving around outside of your little comfort zone, where you grew up, to see it more clearly.

Back in Yugoslavia, the standards of education were very high compared to much of the rest of Europe. If you have that sense of having been a part of a fairly advanced European society, and then everything went wrong, so now other countries that were so far behind are already closer to the EU, you could feel left outside. Visa liberalization means that citizens here are acknowledged as being more or less Europeans. You can travel here because we acknowledge you. That has huge meaning. In Bosnia, people have taken a lot of disappointments as a result of the performance of government and state authorities and the ability to travel without a visa is one benefit that they have linked to the hopes to be a part of the EU.

B&H is a country with an abundance of rich and natural resources that are not being used to their full potential in order to contribute to sustainable economic and social development. What activities has the Council of Europe undertaken in order to help maximize the potential of B&H’s natural resources while simultaneously attempting to help preserve safe environmental standards and practices?

Bosnia can be a signatory state to European treaties and conventions. The ones that Bosnia is a party to are The Convention on Conservation of Wildlife and Natural Habitat and the Landscape Convention, as well as a couple of intergovernmental cooperation networks that the Council of Europe sponsors. One of them is in relation to the prevention and reaction to natural disasters. And then, there is a whole series of European cooperation mechanisms within the Council of Europe related to sustainable development and tourism.

The Council of Europe is not really directly working on cleaning up the environment or developing eco-tourism. But in terms of guiding local authorities, what is often the problem is who gets to control natural resources and which level of authority is in charge of distributing the resources (who can cut the trees, make use of it, etc). On the other hand, there is no clarity in who is responsible to protect and preserve the environment, to prevent illegal harvesting of resources, pollution and destruction. Who is to say what local inhabitants have as a right to those resources? When we talk to local authorities, this is one of the top issues – they want clearer and more direct responsibility to determine the planning and preservation of their local territories and resources. It is symptomatic of many important areas of life. It is usually clearer who can benefit than which level of government is responsible. Then you still have the same issue everywhere-Who enforces any of this? So you spend time on debate over jurisdiction and not on issues, an in the meantime things go to waste, get damaged or destroyed. In terms of environment, this is one of the areas where civil society usually plays a huge role, and certainly in Bosnia, actually filling a gap. In its Member States the Council of Europe pushes authorities to go further. The Council of Europe gives a lot of support and a voice to NGO’s and civil society organizations in general, and environment is one of the crucial areas for their work.

I said earlier that the one of the basic premises of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe is that it is not just your cultural heritage, but rather it is all of ours. One premise, or example, of the Landscape Convention is that you can’t decide to remove one mountain because you want to dig up what is underneath it. It is not just your mountain. You remove that and you change the landscape of all of Europe. I would like to think people see what is in the interest for locals, country and Europe and take it all into account.

In what ways has the Council of Europe to B&H assisted in the attempts to develop a human rights-based approach in resolving the issues that this country currently faces?

The Council of Europe has assisted in two ways. Although I think we still have a long way to go, the Council of Europe, and this office, in the work that we do.

Firstly, all of the monitoring mechanisms we implement here all are trying to emphasize the same basic points, which are definitely missing emphasis from the post-Dayton construct, legally and philosophically: the fact that human rights are individual. So, as long as we continue to see everything from a collective perspective, we will never be able to talk about genuinely respecting human rights.

Human rights pertain to an individual person, and those individuals can be part of collectives. But they are bringing their individual human rights into the collective and not the other way around. This is a problem in Bosnia. So many of the ascribed rights for people are collective rights that belong to collective groups and you cant figure out how a person exercises those rights. It is not about them. It is about a group, which is not anyone really. Then, who represents that group? This is left to political parties because there has never been an election here to represent “a people”, rather there have been elections within a democratic system to represent the voters of a certain district.

To resolve a lot of issues that are about living together in diverse society, you have to recognize the individual person as the person who has human rights and duties and obligations, but who is a citizen and the one who is going to enjoy or not enjoy those human rights. It is very hard to see how to make a human rights approach function otherwise. So that is the initial problem. It requires a change in the way of thinking, as well as concrete constitutional and legislative changes.

So from the second side, Bosnia as a member state took on certain obligations towards citizens here. The Council of Europe just has to remind the authorities, as in the other 46 Member States, of those obligations and by being a part of the 47 states working together, to try to show as much as possible practices and examples on how to do it. By just participating in all of the Council of Europe’s work, the European court of Human Rights always gives out different examples of how things could be or should not be done. All of these are available to take part in and use. That is what we can do. We are intergovernmental, not supranational. We don’t have organizational authority to intervene. But we do try to remind authorities on what their obligations are and to raise awareness with people of what their rights are. The beauty of the European Convention for human rights is that it allows people to send a complaint against a state. It is the only human rights treaty in the world that is enforceable in this way.

How has the Council of Europe drawn upon European and international practices in order to enact reforms in the education sector in B&H?

The Council of Europe can’t enact educational reform in Bosnia. It is about obligations and it is about utilizing being a part of that network to see what is bad and good in practice. We have developed many guidelines and policies and support for all of our member states to use when it comes to education. It is the first area of cooperation that Council of Europe started working on-education and culture are seen as crucial elements not only to developing member states into good member states, but to achieve this idea of European identity, of successful and competitive European space and education and cultural cooperation.

There have been a few obligations. They are ones that arise from conventions on human rights and the framework convention on national minority protection regarding education. The framework convention published 3 cycles of reports on Bosnia highlighting the same problems over again. I am now talking about the educational rights and duties of states and the rights of people and children, and the first of those is the right to education (first protocol of European Convention on Human Rights) that implies the obligation of the state to provide education. It is the obligation of the state to ensure education for all without discrimination, creating artificial barriers or imposing religious or dogmatic constraints on children, education in accordance to parents’ choice of religious or philosophical beliefs.

So, there are very obvious problems in Bosnia in relation to this very basic right, which is that the education system in Bosnia is much more geared towards serving the needs of ethnic groups and not individual children and pupils or students. Segregation is a severe form of discrimination. We see more examples of two schools under two roofs and using the differences of language as an excuse to keep children separate, so that is a very big issue. I mentioned the Convention. I would also mention Bosnia signed a list of commitments of becoming a member state, and one of those is to end segregation and discrimination in education. 10 years later this is an obligation that has still not been fulfilled.

I talked about European law and standards that have to be met. Bosnia as a member state is participating together with member states to develop common standards in education and also to exchange good practices. So, it is through participating in those committees and working on European standards on language learning, common principles that should be part of civic and human rights education in Europe, history education, developing best practices for how to portray the history of neighbors, how to portray history of conflicts. All these things are relevant as good practices for Bosnia to use. From the Council of Europe, a whole set of educational tools on how to implement education in a plurilingual setting-classroom, school, and community, and how to deal with different languages in the education system without segregation.

The purpose of law and government and international law is to set the red lines. I don’t know who gave the impression that parents have some absolute right over education of children. It is not the case. They don’t have the option of not educating them. Every child has the right to education, meaning an obligation to education. There are limits to what parents can demand in the education of children. Those are limits that are set in our human rights instruments.

Can you speak to us about the nature of the cooperation between the Council of Europe and other international institutions in B&H in the effort to achieve its goals in this country?

In general, the different actors work really well together, communicating and exchanging with each other so that the common aims gain from co-ordination and coherence.  This complements the basic obligations on specific issues that the State has as a member, potential member or partner of each.

You also have to take into account the nature of different organizations. The Council of Europe is a 47 member state intergovernmental organization that, for the most part, carries out its work in its headquarters.   The CoE’s intergovernmental committees and different institutions adopt standards and legal instruments and create policies in different sectors that are common European law or standards. My office is an outreach of that. As an office, we don’t have a special mandate to work on certain areas. We facilitate the work of the Council of Europe in Bosnia. On some projects, we might have a team of people to work on it here or in other places. Our office represents the Council of Europe and facilitates the work of the entire Council of Europe.

Other organisations or institutions may have other functions, for example, the EU office in Bosnia is a Delegation. That also means that it has certain kind of role. And the OSCE office here is a Mission, and has perhaps a deeper scope, because of a direct relationship with the Dayton peace accords to do certain number of things.  As an operational mission here, it may have tasks that are specific to the mission in Bosnia. I have no such mandate for this office. There is nothing we would do in this office that isn’t what the Council of Europe is doing in Strasbourg. Another international mission here could be given a specific job for which, as a mission here they have capacities that their headquarters do not have. That would never be the case with the Council of Europe here, because our operational capacities are an extension of the multilateral co-operation, standard setting and monitoring mechanisms centred in our headquarters. But we can and do facilitate any area of CoE’s work.  So, it is the nature of our presence here that the Council of Europe Office in BiH has a broad scope of things to be involved in, or talk about, but a much narrower capacity in operational terms to implement.

Its not about always avoiding overlap, to be more specific, if we take the Council of Europe’s aim and the obligations of Bosnia as a member state, a lot are similar to other obligations to other organizations, or are very similar to all obligations they will have as an eventual EU member state. As an EU member state, you take on all of the Council of Europe obligations and then some.  With the OSCE for example, there is great collaboration, for us especially in enabling Council of Europe standards, expertise, and legal instruments to be operationally implemented in some wider ways by taking advantage of their capacities and resources for our joint objectives. When you work with other organizations you play to the strength and ability of each one, by nature of an organization and what they are able to do. I don’t see any difficulties or problems with that. It is more than coordination. It is about each organization that is here, working towards the same goal more or less, whether it is political, social, economic, or the human rights development of Bosnia towards greater European integration. Then it is a question of how each organization can best contribute to that.




One Comment

  1. The question again is “why on earth would you want to join the E.U. ?”
    You had the Bosnian Spring because you, the people, were fed up of Fat Cat ,Corrupt and incompetent Politicians so why would you want more of them, at great expense, hiding under the banner of the European Union?
    For example a British MEP gets over 95,000 euros a year pay, 18,000 euros for travel and 252,000 euros for running offices, general expenses and the like! see
    I have seen that your largest trading partner is Germany ,has not being in the E.U. Boys club prevented this? No of course it has not.
    I would have thought that ordinary Citizens in BiH have had enough of organizations such as the OSCE and OHR interfering with the running of your Country and self gratifying , overpaid persons such as Mary Ann Hennessey continually commenting on things of which they have little or no understanding!

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