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OSCE Tries To Solve Human Rights Problems In Bosnia

  • Roland Eggleston

Vienna, March 19 (RFE/RL) - Every day up to 30 people wait outside the offices in the old part of Sarajevo, near the Market Hall. Many are old; all are victims of some aspect of the Bosnian civil war. They hope that the two women and a man in the offices can help solve their problems.

These are the Sarajevo offices of the "Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe"(OSCE), which is organising elections in Bosnia. and trying to restore a civil society amid the continuing chaos and violence. The two women and the man are Ombudsmen appointed by OSCE as a small but important aspect of this task. They are there to help resolve human rights violations.

In this case, human rights does not mean torture or rape, but such things as trying to recover a home taken over by others, or helping a wounded soldier obtain his release from a reluctant Bosnian army, or assisting a victim of bureaucratic chaos. The Ombudsmen have few tools to help them. They have no formal powers, and cannot compel anyone to follow their recommendations. They can only advise, negotiate, recommend and persuade. As one says: "for this job you need a cool head, a lucid mind and a big, warm heart."

The Ombudsmen represent the three communities in Bosnia. Vera Jovanovic a 49-year-old Serb is a former judge of the supreme court. Brankka Raguz, a 54-year-old Croat was also a senior judge. The man, 63-year-old Esad Muhibic, a Bosnian muslim, is a former deputy justice minister.

An OSCE spokesman (anonymous) in Vienna acknowledged to RFE/RL that the current conditions in Sarajevo are far from ideal for a team trying to encourage respect for human rights and rectify violations. Instead of becoming an ethnically-mixed city as promised in the Dayton accords, Serb citizens are leaving - either voluntarily, or under pressure from gangs of Serb thugs. The experiences of the last few weeks have also led some international officials to express doubts about the commitment of the Bosnian government to a multi-ethnic society. A United Nations spokesman on the scene, Alexander Ivanko, has said publicly that the security council is concerned by the attitude of the authorities toward a multi-ethnic society.

But despite the questions, the OSCE ombudsmen are determined to persevere. "The work has been overwhelming from the start," an OSCE spokesman tells RFE/RL. "The offices opened in January, 1995. Since then, more than 5,000 people have comes to the Ombudsmen with their problems and complaints." The Ombudsmen now have subsidiary offices in Mostar, Tuzla and Zenica, but say there should be more. OSCE believes the human rights situation in Bosnia is probably worse in small towns and villages away from the cities.

The current situation in Sarajevo has brought new problems to the Ombudsmen. But most of the people who line up outside the offices each day are still caught in the type of predicaments that have brought them to the ombudsmen since january, 1995.

One example cited by the OSCE spokesman in Vienna is of an electrical engineer, who joined the Bosnian army in 1992 in the first month of the war. He was badly wounded in the stomach and the knee, and underwent five operations. But despite his injuries, he could not obtain his release from the army. In summer last year, he saw a television program about the Ombudsmen and went to them for help. Half a year later, he was finally released from the army. He gives all the credit to the Ombudsmen.

Housing problems are among the most common and the most difficult, and are expected to grow as refugees return to the city in the coming months. "Much of the Ombudsmen's work is in dealing with the housing authorities," said the OSCE spokesman. "between refugees, returnees and displaced persons there are many opportunities for problems to appear - and they do."

It is difficult to choose an example from among scores of different situations. The Ombudsmen are still struggling to resolve the case of a 76-year-old Jewish woman, who left her home in Sarajevo in April, 1992, and fled to Zagreb. In November, 1992, the city authorities in Sarajevo signed an agreement with the Jewish community that all Sarajevo jews who fled the city would get their homes back when they returned. But when the Jewish woman returned towards the end of last year, she found her home taken over by a Muslim man. The OSCE was unable to retrieve her home, and she had to return to a Jewish old age home in Zagreb. But the OSCE is still pursuing her case.

Reports from Sarajevo over the past few days hint at problems to come. Correspondents in Sarajevo write that, since the suburb of Ildiza passed into Moslem hands last week, people have been occupying the houses of departed Serbs in defiance of the Dayton accords, which commit Bosnia's factions to respect property rights. Few expect the Serb owners to return in the near future, but they may do so eventually.

OSCE also receives requests for help in de-mobilisation from the army, particularly by those who have been severely wounded. Bosnian officials say they are unwilling to reduce the size of the armed forces, because of uncertainty about how the situation will develop, particularly after the international force withdraws in a few months. Other people have problems because of an article in the legal code introduced in 1992. It says, in effect, that all those who found themselves on the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina April 6, 1992 are automatically considered to be Bosnian citizens. The date is significant - April 6, 1992 is considered as the official start of the war. The purpose of the law was to increase the number of men subject to mobilisation.

OSCE says among those affected by the law are around one hundred men from Macedonia. The Ombudsmen have asked Bosnia's Parliament to revoke or change the law, but so far they have been unsuccessful.

OSCE officials believe that the Ombudsmen have won the confidence of ordinary cititzens, despite the ethnic tensions. One factor is said to be the amicable relations among the Bosnian Muslim, Croat and Serb Ombudsmen, and the fact that, despite their own backgrounds, they speak unanimously when it comes to negotiations with the authorities.

According to the OSCE, when the offices first opened, many of the petitioners went to the Ombudsmen representing their own nationality. Now, most visitors go to whomever is available, regardless of nationality. That counts as a success in a city with as many problems as Sarajevo.