English-Only Constitution Draws Fire

The translation of Bosnia’s constitution into the local languages is at last underway, nearly a decade after it was signed.

English-Only Constitution Draws Fire

The translation of Bosnia’s constitution into the local languages is at last underway, nearly a decade after it was signed.

Ten years after the end of the war and the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord, anger is growing that the constitution of Bosnia and Hercegovina, BiH, has still not been officially translated into local languages.


That the charter remains available only in English is described by some as “tragic-comic” and is seen by others as proof that BiH’s leaders have no clear idea about what their country actually stands for.


“If I didn’t know our politicians I would say they are pragmatic and thrifty, waiting to complete the reforms of the army and police which also entail changes to the constitution,” said Zdravko Grebo a Sarajevo University Law School professor.


“Unfortunately this is not so. The fact there is no official translation ... is yet more proof of what sort of irresponsible and even arrogant politicians are representing our interests.”


In practical terms, the lack of an official translation means bodies like the BiH Constitutional Court must rely on English-speaking members to interpret the document. The Constitutional Court of the Republika Srpska, RS, however, is forced to rely on translations commissioned by the Office of High Representative, OHR, and some NGOs.


"These ... contain many factual mistakes and that is unacceptable given the sensitivity of the subject matter," said Kasim Trnka, a constitutional law professor at Sarajevo University and a member of the Federation team during the peace talks in October and November 1995. The constitution was drafted during those talks and signed in Paris on December 14, 1995.


Trnka told Balkan Crisis Report, BCR, that it was agreed in Paris that the French ministry of foreign affairs would collaborate with the accord’s signatories on translating the document into the Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian languages.


"Only the translation of the General Framework Agreement [the Dayton accord] has been completed, while all the annexes, including the constitution, have no official translations," he said.


Subsequent amendments to the charter, however, have been written in the local languages.


Grebo described the lack of official translations into Bosnia as "yet another piece of evidence that BiH is indeed a sensational exception on this planet.


"The very fact that the official text of the constitution is in English simply shows what sort of country we live in. Any normal person would not be astounded but horrified by it. In addition to all the humiliations which this country is experiencing as the international protectorate, having the constitution without an official translation is the biggest of them all."


He said the apparent lack of interest among the ruling elite in translating the country’s most important piece of legislation implies they are unsure what BiH actually is and what it stands for.


"I cannot but conclude that our politicians are not exactly sure if Bosnia and Hercegovina is a state at all," he said.


Attempts by BCR to get answers from official institutions of the state on why the constitution hadn’t yet been translated elicited contradictory responses.


The BiH presidency insisted it had asked the Council of Ministers, the executive branch of government, to hire experts to translate the document in 2003.


The council, however, said it had received the translation request only recently but not from the presidency, the collective head of state comprising representatives of the Bosniak, Croat and Serb peoples.


"This was an initiative of the High Representative Paddy Ashdown, transmitted to us orally, and not the written request submitted by the BiH presidency," said the council in a statement.


Rade Badnjar, an adviser to BiH minister of justice Slobodan Kovac, told BCR that an expert team has now been hired to translate the constitution. He expects the work will be completed by the tenth anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accord in less than two months.


Others are less certain it will be ready in time, pointing out the translated text in the Serbian, Croat and Bosnian languages will then have to be submitted to the Council of Ministers and the presidency for approval.


Badnjar declined to identify the members of the expert team nor would he clarify how they were selected, a source of great dissatisfaction among BiH intellectuals and constitutional experts.


"To do the translation of the constitution is a complex undertaking requiring the engagement of excellent legal experts and linguists since a full stop or a comma in the wrong place might give a totally different meaning to a sentence,” said Trnka.


“Even bigger is the problem with the use of similar words for certain terms and expressions. Without particular political sensibility and sophisticated sense of the language, it is difficult to get a good-quality translation."


Grebo added, "It is unacceptable that university professors have not been acquainted with the fact that a team for the translation of the constitution has been formed. We don't even know who its members are."


Gordana Katana is a regular BCR contributor in Banja Luka.


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