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Jakob Finci, the leader of Sarajevo's small Jewish community, has asked the European Court of Human Rights to lift the prohibition on Jews and other minorities running for the Bosnian presidency.
Under the country's post-war constitution, only Bosnian Serbs and Croats, who are overwhelmingly Catholic and Christian Orthodox, respectively, and Bosniaks, who are Muslim, are allowed to run for presidency. Bosnia has three presidents, each representing one of Bosnia's principal constituent groups.
"We understand that Mr. Finci wants the equal right to vote and be voted for, but unfortunately this is not the case," Bosnia's ambassador to Israel, Nedeljko Maslesa, told The Jerusalem Post on Friday. "The Bosnian government is aware of the case, but has no official position on it."
The Minority Rights Group International in London and Sheri Rosenberg, director of the program in Holocaust and Human Rights Studies at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cordozo Law school in New York, are supporting Finci's application.
"As far as [we] are aware, there is no other case in Europe where Jews are actually prevented from contesting the presidency" an official from the Minority Rights Group said in a statement. "Ironically, the Bosnian constitution is a modern day creation, but de facto reinforces centuries-old discrimination." There are about 500 Jews living in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
"On the basis of the Dayton Accords, our constitution acknowledges the rights of the designated Bosnian peoples," a senior Bosnian official told the Post. "The Dayton Accords have placed difficult obstacles in front of the government that can seem impractical, but the point remains that changing the constitution would prove very difficult. All three groups would have to agree on it."
Finci's lawyer, Clive Baldwin, who heads the Minority Rights Groups' international advocacy efforts, believes the Bosnian constitution violates the Geneva Convention as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"The upper house as well as the presidency ban minority groups, and only recognize the legitimacy of the 'designated peoples of Bosnia,' which grants them superior status," Baldwin told the Post from London.
"Jews are classified by the state as 'others.' The labelling of any minority group as 'other' is discriminatory by itself," he said.
The US and the EU have not shown any interest in changing the constitution that they, along with the Russians, French and British, drew up 12 years ago at the Dayton Accords negotiations.
Baldwin said the accords succeeded in ending the fighting in the former Yugoslavia, but did so by concentrating on the large groups while ignoring minority interests.
Finci told the Post that basic human rights that are protected by the UN are being ignored in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Bosnian constitution stipulates that UN human rights agencies must have full access to information about the human rights situation in Bosnia, a clause which Finci is trying to use to his advantage.
Finci's concerns have been expressed within Bosnian circles as well. Suljeman Tihic, a former Bosniak president, has called for constitutional changes, especially with regard to human rights.
"The government of Bosnia-Herzegovina plans to take on the issue of constitutional changes," Maslesa said. "The reason that the changes have not been adopted as of yet is due to the fact that national issues and religious issues are very sensitive and require an absolute consensus."
According to Bosnian officials, "The Bosnian government is working hard to get closer to European Union membership, and therefore all documents and laws will be reconciled to the standards required by the EU."
"However, the case of Mr. Finci is special," one official continued. "Mr. Finci is the director of the state agency for employees in Sarajevo, and is using the issue for gain. You must keep in mind that Jews still have a lot of power in Bosnia-Herzegovina and that there are other positions besides the presidency."