“At the beginning of this month, I began a job as Head of the Council of Europe Office in Sarajevo. Travelling by car from Strasbourg, France to my new duty station in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I passed through Germany, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia. The five international borders I crossed were evidenced by their natural features, like the Rhine and the Sava rivers; for the most part, a dividing line between the countries was hardly noticeable. It was the 1st of March – just over three weeks ago – that I arrived in Sarajevo, but our world has been massively transformed since, as Europe has become the epicentre of the novel coronavirus pandemic and restrictions have been introduced that would render the journey I’ve described impossible,” was stated for Oslobodenje newspapers by Bojana Urumova, head of Council of Europe Office in Sarajevo.
As we all try to cope with rigourous social distancing practices, I count myself very lucky to have had two weeks where I could meet in person certain officials from the different levels of government in Bosnia and Herzegovina, ambassadors and heads of international organisations, as well as the fine team of colleagues from the Council of Europe Office in Sarajevo. Before we decided to postpone any interactive events other than those online, I took part in two meetings related to Council of Europe projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The first concerned the introduction of inclusive, quality education policies throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina. The second related to structured sentence management for violent and extremist prisoners, aimed at providing a safe and secure custody environment that supports the rehabilitation of such prisoners – many of whom are returning from battlefields in the Middle East – and steering them away from radicalism and violence.
Since last week, with my colleagues and partners we’ve started teleconferencing, and my introductory meetings have morphed into “courtesy phone calls”; as one ambassador put it, “it’s the smart thing to do now”. On Monday I attended a very useful video conference aimed at coordinating the response to COVID-19 with diplomatic missions and other international organisations, at the kind invitation of the State Minister of Security, Mr Fahrudin Radončić, and with the participation of Chairman of the Council of Ministers Mr Zoran Tegeltija.
The Council of Europe headquarters in Strasbourg is adapting to this difficult situation by continuing to work from home and applying new working methods; at present, the vast majority of colleagues are teleworking. Under the leadership and timely decisions of our Secretary General, Ms Marija Pejčinović Burić, we are striving to fully maintain our operational capacities, and be present for our member states, concentrating on our core mission: protection of human rights, democracy and rule of law throughout the continent. While the European Court of Human Rights hearings in March and April and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Spring plenary session in April have been cancelled, procedures remain for the examination of urgent cases under Rule 39 of the rules of the Court, i.e. only in those cases where there is an imminent risk of irreversible harm.
The pandemic and its consequences are shedding a stark light on some of our societies’ failings and vulnerabilities, notably when it comes to the right to health and the broader range of social and economic rights. These themes have been highlighted in the past few days by Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Dunja Mijatović, herself from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and with whom I’ve had the privilege to work prior to coming to Sarajevo. In these trying times of isolation, it is more important than ever to keep a sense of solidarity and not to abandon one another, as one European leader said last week. For her part, Commissioner Mijatović emphasised in particular the imperative not to aggravate the existing social isolation of older persons, saying that we need to “find novel ways of boosting inter-generational solidarity and social contact of older persons without putting them at the risk of infection”.
Although business cannot fully continue as usual for the time being, my colleagues and I are determined to remain connected with the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, other domestic and international partners, and to continue our work on a wide range of issues, including prison and judicial reform, quality education, the rights of minorities, anti-trafficking, and support to Roma communities. Those activities are largely part of the Horizontal Facility for the Western Balkans and Turkey, a joint programme of the European Union and the Council of Europe, in which Bosnia and Herzegovina has taken an active part since 2016.
We are all going through an exceptional period now due to the coronavirus outbreak. However, despite the major disruptions our world is experiencing, I have no doubt that the European human rights architecture – based on the European Convention of Human Rights which was forged 70 years ago, after the turmoil of World War II – will remain resilient. One day, the pandemic will be behind us, and borders will once again be easy to cross.