Bosnian Constitutional Court ‘Under Pressure’, New Chief Says

20. June 2018.10:13
Bosnia’s state-level Constitutional Court faces everyday pressure from political forces that don’t want to accept rulings that go against their ethnic base, its newly-appointed president Zlatko Knezevic told BIRN.

This post is also available in: Bosnian

In his first interview since his appointment as president of the state-level Constitutional Court, Zlatko Knezevic told BIRN that its judges are exposed to some form of pressure on an everyday basis.

He cited media reports of politicians’ criticism of various decisions made by the Constitutional Court, such as the rulings against the Bosnian Serbs annual Day of Republika Srpska and the country’s Electoral Law, both of which it deemed unconstitutional and discriminatory.

“If you think justice has triumphed, ask the losing party,” Knezevic said, quoting a Latin proverb to highlight how in ethnically- and politically-divided Bosnia and Herzegovina, one side always applauds the court’s decisions while the other side cries foul.

He said that there have even been attempts to “undermine the integrity of individual judges in an ugly manner and at a personal level”.

“It is not classic political pressure when ‘a certain politician calls one of the judges’, but it is rather the pressure of the [general level of] politicisation in a country in which elections are due to be held in four months,” he explained.

The Constitutional Court has come under fire after politicians failed to come up with a solution to address its ruling on elections to the Federation entity’s upper chamber, the House of Peoples. If the country’s squabbling political parties fail to agree on new electoral legislation, it could mean that October’s polls will be partly invalid, sparking an institutional crisis in the country.

Knezevic, a Serb born in Bosanski Novi, rejected the allegation that Constitutional Court judges sometimes act politically because the court’s six Bosnian members have voted differently on cases according to ther ethnic backgrounds.

He argued that the discrepancy could be explained by the fact that “some of them have a milder interpretation of the existing construction of Bosnia and Herzegovina, while the others have a stronger one”.

Bosnia’s Serbs favour a weaker central state and more power for the country’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska – or even outright secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina – while Bosniaks generally want stronger central institutions.

But Knezevic insisted that the differences between the judges’ stances led to higher-quality rulings.

“Some are inclined towards a more functional or stronger role for the state, while others prefer a more functional role for the entities [Republika Srpska and the Bosniak- and Croat-dominated Federation entity] and the Brcko District,” he explained.

“Therefore it is not about ethnic division. It is a slight difference between various perceptions of the constitutional structure. And that is a positive thing. My predecessor, judge Mirsad Ceman, used to say: ‘Where everyone thinks alike, no one thinks.’”

Knezevic said that more than 99 per cent of cases at the Constitutional Court are handled by the six domestic judges, while the two foreign judges at the court are only involved in a very small number of cases.

Officials from Republika Srpska have often called for the foreign judges to be removed from the Constitutional Court, alleging that they work in Bosniaks’ interests and against those of the country’s Serbs.

However, Knezevic did not want to comment on whether it is time for the foreign judges to leave the Constitutional Court.

“It is simply not for us to decide,” he said.

Before being appointed to the Constitutional Court, Knezevic was a member of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council, the country’s judicial overseer, and of the Republika Srpska Bar Association.

He argued that failures to execute the Constitutional Court’s decisions represent “a direct attack on the constitutional order of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as on its entities [Republika Srpska and the Federation”.

For instance, a court ruling that Mostar’s electoral statute was unconstitutional has led to the town repeatedly failing to hold municipal elections.

“I would rather be attacked due to Constitutional Court’s decisions every day if those decisions are being executed than be praised for non-executed ones,” Knezevic said.

He explained that the court faces problems with resources and manpower because it receives between 620 and 660 appeals a month and has to solve them within specific deadlines, but its budget has remained the same for years.

“If we continue at the same pace, the Constitutional Court will be put under far greater pressure to complete cases, not to have a lot of unsolved cases, and to do all that within the set deadlines,” he warned.

He argued that more resources are necessary because Bosnians have “huge confidence” in the Constitutional Court to do its job properly and deal with their cases efficiently.

“Whether they are right or wrong, they expect a lot from us,” he said.

Haris Rovčanin

This post is also available in: Bosnian