Bosnia and Herzegovina: New laws in Republika Srpska threaten freedom of expression and association

Aboodi Vesakaran via Unsplash

9 May 2023. Human rights organisations, including World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) and FIDH in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, alert in an open letter on the new laws imposed by the government of Republika Srpska, an entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which stigmatise and criminalise human rights defenders, independent media and NGOs.

We, the undersigned organisations dedicated to the promotion of universal human rights, write to voice our strong support for the non-profit organisations and media from Republika Srpska, entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to condemn efforts of authorities in Republika Srpska which want to restricts human rights, especially freedoms of expression and association of human rights defenders, media and those who openly criticise corruption and violation of law by the government.

The government in Republika Srpska wants to impose new laws in its jurisdiction: the Amendments to the Criminal Code of Republika Srpska by which slander and insult are criminalised under Articles 208a and 208b, along with the disclosure of personal and family circumstances under Article 208v and the Draft Law on the Special Register and Transparency of Operation of Non-Profit Organisations in Republika Srpska that institutes a special register of NGOs (non-profit organisations) established in Republika Srpska who receive donations from outside the country, designates them as “agents of foreign influence” and additionally bureaucratises and complicates their work.

Both pieces of legislation are deliberately vague and can be interpreted in excessively broad ways to greatly limit the freedom of expression and association of human rights defenders, media, journalists, activists, NGOs and all other citizens. According to legal analysis from leading legal experts, these laws cannot be considered “necessary in a democratic society”. Moreover, changes in the laws of Republika Srpska will not stifle freedom only within Republika Srpska, but have a potential chilling effect across Bosnia and Herzegovina. They constitute a direct legislative attack on civil society, media, and the open expression of any kind of criticism or dissent. The international human rights standards on freedom of expression and freedom of association, as well as the international obligations of Bosnia and Herzegovina under its membership of the Council of Europe, OSCE and the United Nations were not taken into account at all in the preparation and discussion regarding these laws. The framework for obtaining the candidate status of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the European Union clearly states that Bosnia and Herzegovina must meet certain requirements, among which it must guarantee the freedom of expression and freedom of media, as well as the rule of law and other basic rights. The legal initiatives taking place in Republika Srpska are the absolute opposite of that.

We urge all competent authorities to honour their obligations under international human rights standards by doing everything in their power to prevent these laws from being adopted. If these laws are passed, many non-profit organisations will be prevented from conducting their work and many media outlets and journalists will have to engage in self-censorship. These laws would be immensely detrimental to civic space in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and directly impact civil society and media in Republika Srpska.

Promotion and protection of equal and inalienable rights form the basis of the rule of law, peace and security. This is especially important in a context like Bosnia and Herzegovina to ensure that human rights and freedoms are not rolled back, and that authorities act in accordance with democratic principles and human rights standards. If this does not happen, the fragile democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina can very easily be shattered into pieces.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.

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  • Co-signatories

    Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ)
    Centre for Peace Studies
    Civic Initiatives Belgrade
    Civil Rights Defenders
    Front Line Defenders
    Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia
    Human Rights Centre ZMINA
    Human Rights House Belgrade
    Human Rights House Foundation
    Human Rights House Tbilisi
    Human Rights House Zagreb
    International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
    Media Institute Georgia
    PEN Belarus
    Protection International
    Rights Georgi
    The Secretariat of the Shelter Movement in Norway
    World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) , within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

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