Bosnia and Herzegovina: How can parity be more proportional?


● Member of International Institute IFIMES

The International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses events in the Middle East and the Balkans. Dr. Zlatko Hadžidedić, Member of International Institute IFIMESpresents his article entitled “Bosnia and Herzegovina: How can parity be more proportional?” He writes about the distortion of the principle of sovereignty in the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the attempts to undermine it further through proposed changes of electoral law at the level of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The article is published in its entirety.

Bosnia and Herzegovina:

How can parity be more proportional?


International diplomats located in Bosnia-Herzegovina have recently launched an initiative requesting  the Parliament of one of Bosnia-Herzegovina's two entities, the Federation, to reconstitute its upper chamber, the House of Peoples, in line with „more proportional representation“. Yet, how can representation in the House of Peoples be more proportional, when already based on the principle of parity? Sounds absurd, doesn't it? Representation can be based either on the principle of proportionality or on the principle of parity. When based on the principle of parity, it cannot possibly be more proportional. Moreover, such an initiative encroaches on the sovereign right of that very Parliament to constitute and reconstitute itself, without external interference.    


Indeed, what does sovereignty mean in the present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina? In the rest of Europe it has been adopted, almost axiomatically, in the traditions of both Locke and Rousseau, that sovereignty is indivisible and inalienable. For, the will of the people, as the expression of sovereignty, can not be divided; otherwise, it ceases to be the will of the people and becomes a collection of individual wills and then the people can only be a collection of individuals. Also, sovereignty can not be alienated from its bearer: power may be transferred, but not will; it is impossible for any organ to exercise the sovereign will save the sovereign body itself. The state, as a state, can no more alienate its sovereignty than a man can alienate his will and remain a man. There is but one possible bearer of sovereignty, the people.


In Bosnia-Herzegovina, it has been accepted, no less axiomatically, in the tradition of its long-negotiated partition sponsored by international envoys, that this country's sovereignty can easily be divided, alienated from its people as a whole and transferred to its constituent ethnic elements and then consumed by its three ethnic oligarchies in the form of unrestrained political power over the pieces of territory assigned to them in the process of partition. Actually, such a divided sovereignty is treated as transferred to these oligarchies and consumed in the form of their private property over the resources found on the given pieces of territory.


Thus, whereas sovereignty is elsewhere treated as generated by a contract signed by free individuals, who thereby constitute themselves as the people and sovereignty as their general free will, in Bosnia-Herzegovina sovereignty is treated as dissolved by a contract signed, under the auspices of international envoys, by its three major ethnic groups, renamed for that purpose as 'constituent peoples', who thereby construct only a provisional state structure with no declared or acting bearer of sovereignty. 'Constituent peoples' are perceived as the contractors who should presumably be represented on the basis of the principle of parity in the parliamentary institutions, on the levels of both state and its two 'entities' (Federation of BiH and Republika Srpska), and it is only their three wills that are taken into account, although even they are not treated as sovereign, either, but only as dependent on each other's acquiescence.


Moreover, yet another part of the country's divided sovereignty has been transferred to the so-called High Representative (a diplomat appointed by major international powers), whose will may reign supreme over particular wills of the oligarchies claiming to represent their respective 'constituent peoples'. In this sense, as a part of the country's Constitution, the High Representative comes closest to the notion of the sovereign, although in practice this person rarely exercises his will and imposes his decisions on the three oligarchies in question. Still, the position in the Constitution makes the High Representative irremovable from the country's legal structure, in spite of the permanent efforts of the three ethnic oligarchies to eliminate this potential threat to their unrestrained power. 


Yet, is such a multiple division and transfer of sovereignty truly a part of the Bosnian Constitution, or it is rather an arbitrary interpretation of the country's constitutional structure by both foreign diplomats and local politicians? In the preamble of the country's Constitution one can really find its sovereignty divided among several different categories, positioned as sovereignty's bearers:

Bosniacs, Croats, and Serbs, as constituent peoples (along with Others), and citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina hereby determine that the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina is as follows.  (The Dayton Peace Agreement, Annex 4, The Constitution of Bosnia-Herzegovina).


A similar formula can be found in the Washington Agreement (1994), which preceded the Dayton Peace Agreement (1995) and served as the basis for creation of the Federation of BiH, as one of Bosnia's two entities:

Bosniacs and Croats, as constituent peoples (along with Others) and citizens of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the exercise of their sovereign rights, transform the internal structure of the territories with a majority of Bosniac and Croat population in the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina into a Federation, which is composed of federal units with equal rights and responsibilities.


Here sovereignty is divided between Bosniacs, Croats and others – whatever their ethnic identity or a lack of identity – and they are all treated as possessing a double identity, first as constituent peoples and then as citizens of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. For, the form 'constituent peoples (along with others)' presupposes that 'others' – whatever their ethnic identity or a lack of identity – are also to be treated as 'constituent peoples', along with Bosniacs and Croats. By analogy, Bosniacs, Croats, and Serbs, along with Others, are to be treated as both 'constituent peoples' and 'citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina' in the Dayton Peace Agreement's Annex 4. But who can actually be proclaimed the bearer of sovereignty on the basis of these two constitutional acts?


Following the modern theories of sovereignty mentioned above, if sovereignty is to be regarded as indivisible and if, accordingly, there can be only one bearer, then the bearer must be the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, acting as a whole. Then the 'constituent peoples' (Bosniacs, Croats, and Serbs, along with Others) are to be understood simply as the constituent elements of the whole, which cannot be treated as multiple bearers of sovereignty. And then the citizens may be represented in a unicameral parliament, founded on the principle of proportionality.


On the other hand, if we take sovereignty as divisible, the 'constituent peoples' may well be regarded as its multiple bearers. Then, however, these 'constituent peoples' are not to be reduced only to Bosniacs, Croats and Serbs: the preambles used in both of these constitutional documents suggest that the category of Others is to be regarded as equal to the categories of Bosniacs, Croats and Serbs.


Constitution makers, obviously, had no clear answer to the question of sovereignty's (in)divisibility in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina: instead of a formulation that would follow the principle of sovereignty's indivisibility (for example, „Bosniacs, Croats, and Serbs (along with Others) as citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina“), they introduced the 'constituent peoples' as parallel to the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina and thus proposed a form of shared sovereignty between the citizens and the 'constituent peoples'. This shared sovereignty is reflected in the structure of the parliamentary institutions of Bosnia-Herzegovina and both of its entities: all the parliaments are bicameral, the lower chambers representing the citizens on the basis of election results in accordance with the principle of proportionality, and the upper chambers representing the 'constituent peoples' on the basis of the principle of parity.


Yet, even such relative consistency has ceased to exist in the practical implementation of these two principles. In the the upper chamber of the Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the House of Peoples, the principle of parity is applied only to representatives of Bosniacs, Croats and Serbs (each represented with 5 seats), while Others are totally absent, as if they do not exist in the Constitution's preamble among 'constituent peoples', along with Bosniacs, Croats and Serbs. In the upper chamber of the Parliament of the Federation of BiH, the House of Peoples, the principle of parity is again applied only to representatives of Bosniacs, Croats and Serbs (each represented with 17 seats), while the number of representatives of Others is arbitrarily reduced to only 7 seats, as if Others are not to be found among 'constituent peoples' in the Constitution's preamble, along with Bosniacs, Croats and Serbs, and as if the principle of parity can be applied selectively or in some reduced manner. Similarly, in the upper chamber of the Parliament of Republika Srpska, the Council of Peoples, parity is applied again only to Serbs, Bosniacs and Croats (each represented with 8 seats), while Others are represented with only 4 seats, as if they have not been put into the category of 'constituent peoples', along with Serbs, Bosniacs and Croats. In other words, even if we theoreticaly accept the possibility that sovereignty may be divided between the 'constituent peoples' and the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, such shared sovereignty is in its constitutional implementation distorted to such an extent that only Bosniacs, Croats and Serbs are recognized as 'constituent', whereas Others are sometimes treated as partially constituent, with a reduced number of seats, and sometimes as non-constituent, that is, practically non-existent!


Obviously, when the principle of parity is applied in such a selective manner, it ceases to function as parity. Otherwise, Others would be represented in all these parliamentary institutions on the basis of parity, along with Bosniacs, Croats and Serbs. And then, it only means that Others have been permanently discriminated in the political reality of Bosnia-Herzegovina and that such a constitutional discrimination must be removed if the model of shared sovereignty is to be applied at all. If not, then full sovereignty must be given back to the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, regardless of whether they link their identity to any of its ethnic groups or not. And that has to be reflected in the structure of all its parliamentary institutions: the Houses of Peoples should be abolished and the parliaments should then become unicameral, so that only the citizens would be represented in the Houses of Representatives, based on the principle of proportionality and the principle one person/one vote. Of course, for that purpose the country should get a new constitution, adopted by its own Constitutional Assembly, instead of the one tailored in such an inconsistent (and theoretically problematic) manner by foreign diplomats as a part of the international peace treaty.

However, the international diplomats calling for „more proportional representation“  obviously do not distinguish between, and directly mix up, the principle of proportionality and the principle of parity. They assume that the House of Peoples in the Parliament of the Federation of BiH is based on the principle of proportionality, and ask for more proportionality, although it is clear that parity is its sole founding principle. For, political representation can either be proportional, reflecting the proportion of actual votes for actual political parties and candidates, or it can be based on parity, reflecting the parity between the constituent elements of the entire constituency (presumably, of the country's population as a whole). As already noted above, it is the principle of parity in the House of Peoples that has been violated by under-representation of Others: while Croats, Bosniacs and Serbs are all represented with 17 seats in this House, Others are represented with only 7 seats. Yet, the diplomats do not pay any attention to this violation of the constitutional principle of parity. Instead, they suggest the Parliament to adopt even „more proportional representation“ in its upper chamber (which, in practice, can only be over-representation of one of the groups already represented in line with the principle of parity), so as to even further undermine its founding principle of parity, already violated by the existing under-representation of Others!


Such a legal absurdity is certainly unsustainable and can only lead to the total dissolution of the existing constitutional order in Bosnia-Herzegovina, already distorted by the abandonment of the principle of indivisibility of sovereignty and further undermined by the selective implementation of the principle of parity in the parliaments' upper chambers. This brings us to a crucial point: either the parliamentary structures in Bosnia-Herzegovina will follow the logic of this request, abolish the existing provisional constitutional order and leave the country without any constitutional order whatsoever, or they will abolish this constitutional order and establish a non-provisional one, based on the principle of sovereignty's indivisibility, reflected in a unicameral parliament, representing only the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a whole, regardless of their ethnic identity or a lack of it.


It is up to the parliamentarians. They may follow the principle of sovereignty as applied in the rest of the European countries, or obey the diplomats' request, whatever the price for the country's constitutional order. As for the diplomats, whoever they are, one should finally ask whether they would ever apply in their own countries any of the models they advocate for Bosnia.     


Ljubljana/Sarajevo, 10 April 2018                                                                   

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