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Sarajevo Faces Tolerance Test With First Pride March – OpEd

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The first-ever Pride march in Bosnia and Herzegovina this weekend will be a major step forward for tolerance and human rights – if the local authorities support it and counter-protesters don’t cause violence.

By Tanya Domi*

This week I will fly from New York City to join the LGBTI community in Sarajevo as it prepares to mark its first Pride march on September 8.

Allies and prominent supporters will come to Sarajevo from far beyond the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina and assemble on the streets to march in solidarity with this resilient community.

Many distinguished diplomats posted to Sarajevo will join the march, as well as members of the European Parliament such as Terry Reintke, an openly lesbian member of the Green Party from Germany will participate, and the highest-ranking Bosnian national with diplomatic credentials, Dunja Mijatovic, a Sarajevan, will fittingly represent the Council of Europe as its Commissioner of Human Rights.

Continuing a tradition practiced at other Pride marches in the region, LGBTI advocates and activists from elsewhere in the Balkans will travel to Sarajevo to march with the Bosnian community. They all come to Sarajevo to support a community that has survived the ravages of war – and many who were also born after the war, but have sought to live open, authentic lives and to love after genocide.

Sarajevo, which withstood a bloody siege by Bosnian Serb forces for 1,425 days during the 1992-95 war, has long been viewed as a city of tolerance, a cultural capital and a city that exudes resilience.

Sarajevo’s positive reputation will indeed be tested by a new generation of post-war queer youth who refuse to remain silent or closeted, or to be invisible. They are rightfully demanding to live a life of dignity – one worth living out of the shadows by leading an openly gay life without fear.

LGBTI people were denied two permits to publicly assemble in 2018. First, they were denied a permit by the Sarajevo authorities  to observe the International Day of Transgender Visibility in 2018.

They were also denied a permit by the Sarajevo city government to assemble to bring public attention to discrimination against LGBTI people, based on a new law entitled Temporary Use of Areas on the Territory of Sarajevo Canton, which is specific to NGOS and has been cited as a new barrier that poses a threat to LGBTI people’s rights to publicly assemble, according to the Sarajevo Open Centre’s 2019 Pink Report (‘Annual Report on the State of the Human Rights of  LGBTI  People in Bosnia and Herzegovina’).

Sarajevo, are you up to this challenge to extend universal human rights to a minority group after the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly upheld LGBTI people’s rights to assembly and association? The ECHR has ruled against many countries for violating LGBTI people’s rights to assembly and association, including Belarus, Bulgaria, Moldova, Poland, Romania and Russia.

As recently as August 23, the Sarajevo Cantonal Prime MInister Edin Forto, a member of the progressive Nasa Stranka party, a multi-ethnic party, committed to supporting the Pride march with the full support and cooperation of his office.

We’ll see if Forto maintains his commitment and provide full support to the Pride march, as a number of groups are threatening counter protests and the police have alleged they cannot protect the marchers.

The most prominent naysayers so far belong to the Party of Democratic Action, SDA, dominated by conservative Bosniaks in the Sarajevo Canton, including Samra Cosovic-Hajdarevic, an SDA deputy who issued a statement on Facebook that has since been removed, calling the Pride march a “terrible” idea aimed at destroying the state and its people. She further said that “these people [should be] isolated as far as possible [from] our children and society”.

The SDA branch in the Sarajevo Canton also issued a statement urging Pride organisers and Sarajevo Canton authorities to cancel the parade.

The SDA now stands alone among the establishment political parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina in opposing the pride march. The Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina, HDZBiH, and the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, have so far have remained silent, which is rich in irony given their historical intolerance toward ethnic and religious minorities.

While the threatened counter-protests cause valid concerns, a more important question now confronts the Sarajevo city authorities: will Sarajevo, arguably the most liberal and tolerant city in Bosnia and Herzegovina, muster the political will and effectively leverage its resources to uphold universal human rights by supporting the people’s aspirations, in this case LGBTI citizens’ right to march?

If the Sarajevo Cantonal authorities refuse to support the Pride march, they will surely lose at the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina and at the European Court of Human Rights. The jurisprudence does not bode well for the local authorities who might choose to deny permission to march. They will no doubt be legally repudiated.

While daily life for LGBTI people in Bosnia remains fraught with challenges and few if any protections from discrimination, so much work has been accomplished in the years since attacks in 2008 at the Jewish Museum during the first LGBTI Festival held in Sarajevo.

The community has struggled, but has vastly advanced its policy acumen by briefing the Bosnia and Herzegovina parliament in 201,5 and in 2018 obtained a positive response from the Federation Government when the Sarajevo Open Centre submitted a draft 2018-2020 Action Plan about the Equality of LGBTI Persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Although the action plan has yet to be adopted, it is parallel to the policy plan sent to the Bosnia and Herzegovina Council of Ministers by the Council of Europe, according to the 2019 Pink Report. LGBTI organisations also exist in Tuzla and Mostar. Another organisation used to exist in Banja Luka in Republika Srpska until its leaders emigrated from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Sarajevo Pride march is branded with the resonant motto of “Ima izac”, which roughly translated in English as “I want out”, and will mark a major turning point for the community in Bosnia if it takes place without violence.

Joined by other LGBTI communities from the Western Balkans region, the movement to advance LGBTI human rights across the Balkans remains distinguished among post-war social and political movements for its multi-ethnic approach to movement-building, which is particularly important for the fractured state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Marching on September 8 in Sarajevo is an antidote to the post-war ethnic division that has characterised Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Hosting a successful Pride march would be a major step forward for a country that deserves much more love and a diminishment of hate, now more than ever.

*Tanya Domi was the spokesperson of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1996 to 2000. She is currently an adjunct faculty member at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and at Hunter College’s Roosevelt Public Policy Institute, based in New York City.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (fornerkt the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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