Post-conflict education in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A challenge to peace

Segregated education Bosnia and Herzegovina. The way of dealing with education in the aftermath of the conflict may either contribute to long-term peace or may fuel those tensions that date back to the conflict. In some cases, insufficient attention to educational reform in the peace process may affect the post-conflict societal development. In Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), the post-conflict education structure shows how the lack of provisions on education in the peace accord played a huge role in perpetuating conflicting narratives and in contributing to tensions among the population. Segregation, ethnically-oriented curricula and mono-ethnic schools have been the feature of the education sector. In the words of a local peacebuilder operating in BiH, “Bosnian youths are the answer, the future. But they are divided”. To better understand the reasons behind this structure and whether this situation could change, it is necessary to analyse how the peace accord shaped the state and, indirectly, the education system.

Between conflict and peace: the state-building operation in BiH

The Bosnian conflict started in 1992, following an escalation of tensions leading to the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Before the conflict, several ethnic groups cohabited in BiH, but when nationalistic feelings got intensified in the region, the three largest ones, the Bosniaks, the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian Croats, claimed for their independence and soon the war broke out. The conflict lasted three years and was characterised by extremely violent episodes that strengthened nationalistic narratives and led to hatred among the warring parties. Despite difficult negotiations, the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) was signed in 1995, under the pressure of the International Community.  

The DPA represents perhaps the most important event in BiH’s recent history. Beside ending the conflict, it also completely reshaped the Bosnian state. The statebuilding approach, operating through the DPA, aimed to create a multi-ethnic democratic state, founded on consociational power sharing. The three groups would share the power and a proportional electoral mechanism based upon ethnic quotas was established. The distribution of parliamentary seats became ethnically-oriented and the presidency rotates among three presidents belonging to the three ethnic groups. Besides, the DPA officialised the Bosnian internal borders, created during the conflict, between the Republika Srspka (RS), in the northeast part of BiH and mainly populated by Bosnian-Serbs, and the rest of BiH, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, creating two entities whose powers are very similar to those of states. Thus, the power  has become highly fragmented. As a result, several international organisations, such as the OSCE or the OHR, whose intervention should slowly have faded, still play a relevant role in the state political administration.

The education system

In this fragmented socio-political environment, a segregated education system has developed. Since the DPA did not give guidelines concerning the actors in charge of reforming education, its administration fell into the hands of the RS and the Federation. This made room for the development of different curricula: while the RS follows the standards developed by the RS Ministry of Education, within the Federation there are at least three different curricula. Curricula are also ethnically-differentiated. The language of teaching differs according to the children’s ethnic belonging. The language differentiation traces back to the DPA, which recognised the existence of three national languages, the Bosnian, the Croatian and the Serbian, which are actually very similar but were politicised as different during the conflict.

The contents of curricula are ethnically-oriented too. The so called ‘national subjects’, such as history or geography, are considered key channels for the transmission of the essential cultural values of an ethnic group. They include topics and interpretations of events that diverge according to the ethnic group they are addressed to. Finally, curricula diversification also influenced schools’ internal organisation. There is a high number of mono-ethnic schools or schools based on the “Two Schools Under One Roof” model. This model provide ìs for two different educational systems within the same building, the Bosniak and the Bosnian-Croat. In these schools, which are present only  in the Federation, Bosnian-Croat children and Bosniak children attend classes in the same building but in different areas and they follow different timetables.

Educational protectionism and future prospects

The presence of ethnicity issues in curricula proves how the education system is highly politicised. Schools in BiH are battlefields where war narratives are perpetuated and even in multi-ethnic schools, children are separated during the teaching of national subjects. This politicisation is considered a form of educational protectionism which aims to strengthen the nationalistic feeling of belonging to different ethnic groups. If the origin of this geopolitical structure and of the educational system traces back to the DPA, its politicisation and fragmentation resulted from the political unwillingness to change it. Several authors state that given the ethnically-based political system, national and sub-national politicians deliberately use segregated education to strengthen divisive narratives and to remain in power. Currently, it does not seem that this system is going to change: for example, in February 2018, the RS announced the willingness to unify the curriculum of the national subjects with the one issued in Serbia. Bosnian recent elections, held on October 7th, confirmed this tendency. The electoral programs of the winning parties, like the Croatian Democratic Union that won the seats of the Bosnian-Croat people, clearly reveal the will to keep the status quo of the education system.

Nevertheless, local efforts move in the opposite direction: in 2016, in the Federation, a group of Bosniak and Bosnian-Croat students attending a multi-ethnic school took to the street to protest the decision of the Canton administration to transform their school from multi-ethnic to mono-ethnic. Eventually, the administration decided to abandon the plan. According to a local peacebuilder, this protest was possible because these students had been attending the same classes for years. In conditions where opportunities to meet are reduced, such as in mono-ethnic schools, these actions are more unlikely to take place. Nevertheless, this episode shows that once the process of integration has started, it is hard to stop it and to go back to segregation. Once a relationship has been established the status quo of war narratives and prejudices start to break and fall apart.

Irene Baraldi

MA in International Relations at the University of Turin, Italy


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