Another school year has started, and once again Bosniak children in the country’s Serb-majority part will not be attending Bosnian language classes but will learn “the language of the Bosniak people” - which their parents and Bosniak officials say represents systemic discrimination.
Students in the country belonging to the three major ethnic groups, the ‘constituent peoples’, are taught under different curriculums. Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs have different ‘groups of subjects’ and the languages are among them.
The Bosniak Vice President of the semi-autonomous Republika Srpska (RS) entity, Ramiz Salkic, said that his demand toward the RS Education Ministry to stop the practice and let Bosniak children learn Bosnian has not yielded any results.
Salkic said he called upon the RS Education Ministry to respect the Constitution, RS laws, statements by Bosnia’s Constitutional Court, by the Office of the High Representative which oversees the civilian implementation of the agreement which ended the war and by the OSCE.
According to a note by the OSCE, preventing children from learning ‘Bosnian language’ in schools represents a breach of international law.
“Bosnia’s Constitutional Court has clearly stated that the Government of the entity doesn’t have the right to determine the name of the language for Bosniaks and that Bosniaks and other peoples have the right to call their language any way they want,” Salkic told the Anadolu Agency.
He called upon international organisations and local institutions to finally resolve the issue.
“Both local institutions and the international community must find new mechanisms to convince or even coerce and pressure the government of the entity to respect this right,” he said.
He said the ministry told him that it does not plan to change the practice.
“Surely, while this government is in power, we cannot easily expect that this problem will be solved. In fact, there is no serious initiative coming from the international community for it to be solved,” he said.
The practice produces serious consequences, he said, naming the case of two families he visited recently in the villages around the eastern town of Srebrenica. He said they are leaving their homes because they do not have access to adequate education.
“I think that the lack of adequate education is an obstruction in the lives of many Bosniaks on the territory of the entity and surely this wave of emigration is caused by the systemic discrimination and uncertainty which is spreading,” he said.
Bosniak parents in the northwestern village of Vrbanjci in the RS have six years ago found a temporary solution for the issue, hoping that they will eventually reach an agreement with the entity government.
According to Nedzad Smajlovic, who lives near the village, some 60 children have enrolled in first grade on the local primary school in Jelah, across the entity border in the Federation (FBiH), the part of the country mostly populated by Bosniaks and Croats.
He said he wished the children would come back to their own school in Vrbanjci and “have equal rights as all other children.”
Smajlovic said that when the mayor ran for reelection he told them he will solve the problem if the local Bosniak parents vote for him and that they did so. The mayor was reelected, but did not keep his end of the bargain, he said.
Smajlovic explained that when the parents realised that nothing will change, they began boycotting the local school and organising classes in the village of Hanifici.
At the end of the school year, the children must pass special exams to enroll in high schools.
“The most important thing is that the children know who they are, what they are, their history, that a genocide took place in Srebrenica and all other things, that they have a good foundation and achieve good results when enrolling in highschools and universities,” Smajlovic said.
He said his two children have finished their primary education in this way and two others are still attending the classes, adding that he does not think any of the Bosniak parents who decided to do the same regretted it.
“I would be happy if the children across the country had the same rights," he said.
According to an aid to Bosnia’s Ombudsman's office and the head of its department tasked with eliminating discrimination, Predrag Raosavljevic, language and script are one of the key characteristics of the three constituent peoples in the country which confirm their identity, but the state Constitution does not define the names of those languages.
Raosavljevic said his institution has determined that there is an “unequal practice” regarding naming languages in schools in the entities and the cantons across the country and that it undertook “several measures and forwarded proposals to ensure the equal treatment of children.”
He noted that a problem emerges for Bosniak children when the name of their language is being written into their report cards and when, for example, they finish a school in one entity and want to continue their education in the other.
He reminded of a decision by the state Constitutional Court from 2016 which said that the name “the language of the Bosniak people” which is being used in the RS is not unconstitutional.
“There is a certain practice which may seem discriminatory in the sense that the languages of one of the peoples is defined descriptively by connecting it to the group, while for other peoples it is determined by giving the language a name," he explained adding that "in that sense, we could talk about unequal treatment."
He said his office has stated that such practice is unacceptable and not in accordance with international human rights conventions.
RS Minister of Education and Culture Natalija Trivic noted that this year again the issue has been raised at the beginning of the school year, as every other year.
“The only thing I can say is that it is in accordance with Bosnia’s Constitution and the RS Constitution - that languages are defined very clearly and that we have languages of the peoples which are constituent in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and those are the languages of the Serb, Croat and Bosniak peoples,” she said.