Monitoring Children’s Rights in Bosnia-Herzegovina
by Division for Child Rights, Ombudsman Institution and Redd Barna (Save the Children Norway). November 1998

The state of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence in 1991. Following years of war, the Washington Agreement of 1994 led to the establishment of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBH) whose main population consists of Croats and Muslim Bosnians. The Dayton Agreements of 1995 then created the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which comprises the Federation and the mainly Serb Republica Srpska. The peace is still fragile, and very dependent on the presence of 30,000 NATO soldiers.

In the Washington Agreement, the authorities in FBH made a commitment to respect human rights as expressed in several human rights conventions including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. When a Constitution was drafted for the subsequently created Federation, much emphasis was placed on human rights. The Constitution also prescribed the establishment of an Ombudsman Institution for Human Rights (Ombudsman Institution) with the responsibility to “protect human dignity, rights and liberties as provided in the Constitution, in the instruments listed in the Annex thereto, and in the constitutions of the Cantons. In particular, they shall act to reverse the consequence of violations of these rights and liberties and especially of the ethnic cleansing”.

The Ombudsman Institution was established in 1995, with funding provided by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The office is headed, not by one but by three Ombudspersons – “one Bosnian, one Croat and one other”. The head office is located in Sarajevo while sub offices are gradually being established in each of the 9 cantons in FBH.

So far no such institution has been established in the Republica Srpska, but its authorities are strongly encouraged to set one up. It is within this organisational structure that a child rights monitoring body – the Division for Children’s Rights – was established in June 1996 at the Ombudsman Institution office in Sarajevo.

Children’s situation in the FBH

As in all armed conflicts, the children in FBH were very much affected by the 1992-1995 civil war: approximately 17,000 children were killed, more than 34,000 were wounded, out of which close to 2,000 have become disabled and 25,000 children lost one or both parents. In addition, 950,000 people became internally displaced and 600,000 took refuge abroad; many of these are now in the process of returning. Close to half of the displaced and refugee population were children, many deeply traumatised.

A general review of the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina shows that economically, socially and politically there is a lack of administrative bodies both at a state and federal level which can deal with issues related to children’s rights and protection. There is a total absence of systematic programmes for children including the most vulnerable groups like children without one or both parents, children in institutions, children with disabilities, displaced and refugee children, juvenile delinquents and drug addicts. To make the Convention on the Rights of the Child an instrument for protecting children, it is necessary for the relevant authorities to have children as a specific focal point.

Establishment of the Division for Child Rights

In May 1996, Redd Barna visited FBH to establish contacts with the authorities and international organisations which were responsible for monitoring the implementation of the peace process and to address the specific needs for protection of children after the war. Redd Barna made contact with the Ombudsman Institution for Human Rights in Sarajevo and learned that protection of children’s rights was included in their mandate.

The Ombudsman Institution’s work load was enormous. Although the Ombudsman expressed a desire to focus on children’s issues because of concern with the deficiency of child rights protection in FBH, the necessary resources to focus on children were unavailable. Redd Barna offered the Ombudsman Institution support to establish a separate unit to be responsible for aspects related to violations of children’s rights.

This concept was discussed and developed over a 12-month period. The Ombudsman Institution was responsible for developing the concept and establishing the division, while Redd Barna acted as a discussion partner. Norway was the first country in the world to establish an Ombudsperson office for Children, and a visit of the Ombudsperson to that office in Norway was organised as part of the conceptual discussion. The Division of the Rights of the Child, officially opened in June 1997, has a small office with two permanent staff and a group of part-time consultants. It receives financial support from Norwegian NORAD, through Redd Barna.

The main objective of the Division is to monitor the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in light of the Ombudsman Institution’s mandate and to monitor the compliance of the authorities of FBH with the Convention.

So far, the main challenges for the Division have been to ensure that the federal authorities comply with the Convention when processing new laws through the parliamentary system. With the assistance of independent Bosnian experts, the Division has analysed the current legislation and recommended certain changes. For example, different laws on education have been examined with regard to quality; the Division has recommended abolishing military education as an obligatory subject in secondary school curriculum.

Another area of concern has been advocacy and awareness raising among authorities, institutions and professionals working with children. The Division has been initiating and organising conferences and round-table discussions on different issues like children with disabilities and juvenile delinquency. Training seminars for the police and judges on children’s rights have also been conducted.

The main task of the Ombudsman Institution is to deal with individual complaints concerning violations of human rights. The Division deals also with individual cases mainly related to ethnicity and unequal treatment of children with special needs.

The media has been a useful instrument for the Division to raise different issues related to children. In 1997 the Federal Ministry of Education instructed the ministries at canton level to begin implementing two different curriculums in the schools – one for Bosnian children and one for Croat children. Because this would encourage further ethnical separation in the schools, the Division called for a meeting with all relevant government ministries. As a result of these consultations, the instruction was withdrawn.

Challenges for the future

The first challenge will be to find the right balance between advocacy, information and awareness raising in general and the handling of individual complaints. So far, the Division has been recognised both by the authorities and general public as an important player when it comes to children’s rights. The media is interested in its work and it is viewed as some sort of a “watchdog”. It is important that the Division keeps this high profile, focussing on advocacy work as well as issues related to individual cases.

In FBH, a large degree of decision making power has been delegated from the Federation to the cantons. In the future, it will also be an important goal to expand the focus of children’s issues to the different cantons and to establish divisions for children’s rights at all the Ombudsman’s sub-offices to facilitate the monitoring of children’s situation, to address violations and to carry out advocacy work at a local level. The first phase in reaching this goal is to open divisions in three of the cantons by the end of 1999.

An increasing number of countries have established Children’s Ombudsman or similar institutions to monitor children’s rights. To reduce the risk of violation of children rights, the UN General Assembly has been recommended to initiate the establishment of specific Children’s Ombudsman in war and post-war situations. The establishment of the Division for Child Rights within the Ombudsman Institution for Human Rights in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina illustrates a step in this direction and could perhaps serve as inspiration for the establishment of such monitoring bodies, not only in war ridden countries but also at the UN level.