Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnian Court Rules Against Segregated Schools

Decision seen as landmark for breaking down ethnic divisions, but it only applies to two towns and is likely to face resistance.
By Tina Jelin
  • Mostar's famous bridge symbolised wartime divisions between Bosniaks and Croats. (Photo: Ramirez/Wikipedia)
    Mostar's famous bridge symbolised wartime divisions between Bosniaks and Croats. (Photo: Ramirez/Wikipedia)

The municipal court in the southern Bosnian city of Mostar has ruled that schools in two towns should no longer segregate Croat and Bosniak children.

The court ruled on April 27 that it would be discriminatory for the towns of Stolac and Capljina to continue with the “two schools under one roof” system, where children of different ethnicity – mostly Bosniak and Croat – attend the same institution but are taught separately.

According to the ruling, the first of its kind on segregated schools in Bosnia and Hercegovina, BiH, the system is in breach of legislation banning discrimination.

The court ordered schools in Stolac and Capljina to merge their classes by the time the new academic year begins on September 1.

However, analysts warn that it will not be easy to do away with the system, and predict resistance from local authorities who have been encouraging segregation in education for years.

Dozens of schools in BiH operate under the “two schools under one roof” system, which the international community introduced a decade ago to encourage children to attend school in areas where their ethnic group is in the minority.

What was meant to be temporary solution has become permanent, and has grown into a form of segregation because the schools that operate the system often have separate entrances and lesson times for the different ethnicities, so that children do not mix. The institutions also have separate sets of administrative staff and school boards which rarely communicate with one another.

Most schools of this type are located in southeast and central Bosnia, and they exist only in one of the country’s two entities, the mainly Bosniak and Croat Federation. Schools in the other entity, Republika Srpska, make no provision for minority-ethnicity pupils. (See also Segregated Bosnian Schools Reinforce Ethnic Division.)

Gabrijela and Tea, both 16, attend the same school in Stolac, but they rarely see each other because they go in through different doors. Once inside, they go to different lessons with their own curricula – one taught in the Bosnian language, the other in Croatian.

The two girls said they would welcome a move to unify the school.

“I have a lot of friends from different ethnic backgrounds. and I get along very well with them,” Gabrijela said, while Tea said “politicians are to blame” for segregating classes.

The Mostar court’s ruling was in reference to a lawsuit which human rights group Vasa Prava BiH brought against the local authorities in the Hercegovina-Neretva canton.

“We hope the cantonal court will uphold the municipal court’s decision,” Ahmet Salcin, a legal representative of Vasa Prava, said. “We are not going to stop here. Our association has filed suits at the municipal court in Travnik as well.”

Research carried out among pupils at segregated schools, cited in a 2011 report by Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights until April 2012, found that one in eight of them frequently avoided joint activities with students of other ethnicities. One in six did not want to sit in the same classroom as members of other groups.

“The policy of separating children according to their ethnic origin can only reinforce the prejudices and intolerance towards others and perpetuate ethnic isolation,” Hammarberg warned in the report.

Some segregated schools in the Federation have been gradually moving towards a more inclusive approach.

For example, the Mostar Grammar School operates the “two schools under one roof” system, but it has partially merged classes since 2004, and it has a single administrative body, school board, and parent-pupil council.

“Children at Mostar Grammar School are integrated and attend some courses together, such as biology, chemistry, physics and IT,” Bakir Krpo, the school’s director, said.

Krpo said the reason Bosniak and Croat pupils continued to have certain classes separately was that there were two curricula in force.

“We all know who makes the curricula – it’s the cantonal ministries and academic institutions who are responsible for education. They haven’t yet come up with a single curriculum for all children,” he said.

Nerin Dizar, a rights activist from Stolac, said the court ruling in Mostar was a significant victory, but he was not optimistic that it would be acted on because local officials were likely to oppose it.

“What we need now is active engagement by the international community and by civil society in BiH, which must help implement this decision,” Dizar said.

Tina Jelin is an RFE and IWPR reporter in Mostar.

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