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Bosnia-Herzegovina: Ombudsmen Honored By EU and U.S.

London, 22 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Three of the hardest working people in former Yugoslavia are the three ombudsmen of Bosnia-Herzegovina whose job is to protect the human rights of all peoples, regardless of origin.

Their contribution was honored this week with a $20,000 award presented by the U.S. and the EU for their work in working for democracy and civil society in a country that has been torn apart by ethnic conflict, losing over 250,000 people in a hopeless war.

A briefing paper from the EU's Democracy Program says the two women and one man, a Serbian, Croatian and a Muslim, are working outside ethnic divisions towards the same goal: establishing the rule of law, and a respect for human rights, freedoms and dignity. The three: Vera Javanovic, Branka Raguz and Esad Muhibic were all senior judges before their appointment as ombudsmen.

The three ombudsmen, who are supported by the EU's Phare Democracy Program, operate out of Sarajevo but are developing a network of offices throughout the federation.

Statistics speak volumes about the need for the ombudsmen's work. In 1995, when the posts were created, they heard some 9,200 complaints, and investigated 1,700 cases. By 1997, this had risen to 44,000 complaints and 5,500 cases investigated.

Of these, the vast majority are concerned with the return of refugees to war-torn areas and associated property rights.

Their work springs from the Dayton, Ohio, peace agreement's stipulation that refugees and displaced persons have the right to return to their homes, and the obligation of authorities to ensure their safe return. In most cases, these rights are not observed.

The ombudsmen are operating in a theoretically strong ethical framework given the Dayton undertakings, and the Federation's acceptance of the European Convention of Human Rights. Yet they have only a handful of staff, limited resources, and operate in "an arbitrary and politicized judicial system."

Esad Muhibic says: "We cannot be politicians, we can only be their conscience." His colleague, Branka Raguz, adds: "We can be stubborn, we can be annoying, we are like an irritating dog barking at the behinds of the authorities."

Using the press and television, and letters to the authorities, they have achieved results while raising their profile in the public mind.

The EU paper says the ombudsmen are developing a reputation for having abandoned the concept of ethnicity. They defend people from all origins and backgrounds. Romany property is defended against Croatian occupiers; a Serbian policeman who refused to participate in a smuggling ring was reinstated; a Bosnian war veteran is defended against a "corrupt" municipal authority. The ombudsmen intervened on behalf of deaf mute children who had been deprived of their special schooling needs because of their ethnicity.

The EU briefing paper says the three ombudsmen have operated with regard only for the rule of law, unique in a country where "every decision is taken according to politics, creed or blood."

It quotes Javanovic: "Our institutions and offices are the places where we do not deal with the Serbs, Bosnians, Croats or others, but with human beings looking for help because their human rights and freedoms are endangered, their dignity humiliated."