[wzslider]The Sarajevo Times had the opportunity to speak with the Head of the Parliamentary Section at the OSCE Mission to BiH, Aleksandra Kuratko-Pani. She spoke to us about the OSCE’s work to improve the efficiency, transparency and accountability of the parliaments in our country; the development of the BiH Parliamentary Assembly and inter-parliamentary co-operation throughout the years; areas for improvement; and the ways in which the OSCE has strived to foster greater citizen awareness of the decision-making process. Ms. Kuratko-Pani emphasized that the OSCE acts as a partner to BiH to achieve goals and contribute to the progress of the country as it comes closer to its stated goal of EU integration.
By: Medina Malagić
Can you provide us with a general overview of the development and co-operation of the Parliamentary Assembly of BiH with the OSCE’s involvement?
The OSCE Mission to BiH began working with the BiH Parliamentary Assembly in 2001. At that time, the parliament lacked some basic capacities and only had approximately 30 members of service staff. The OSCE was invited to help develop and modernize this service and improve the functioning of the BiH PA. More than a decade later, the parliamentary secretariat has appropriately grown to almost 200 employees working in 9 defined sectors, delivering high–quality assistance to both MPs and the general public. We’ve also worked on areas such as amending and harmonizing parliamentary Rules of Procedures for both Houses, increasing civic engagement in parliamentary affairs, strengthening regional co-operation and providing direct technical assistance on topics ranging from strengthening women’s participation and budgeting to increasing transparency and human resource management.
What is the role and scope of responsibility of the BiH Parliamentary Assembly? Are responsibilities clearly defined? What are the areas that have to be further developed and how does the OSCE lend its assistance?
The Parliamentary Assembly of BiH has significant responsibilities and is the highest-level legislative body in the country. That said, as we all know, BiH has a very complex government structure with various levels of government. From the local level to the State level, there are legislative structures and all have different competencies and responsibilities. The BiH State Parliament therefore does not have the power to bring all types of legislation and decisions. In fact, most legislation in this country is enacted at the entity level.
Two specific areas that the Mission would like to see improved are the oversight function and the representative function. The oversight function refers to the role that the BiH PA has in overseeing the work of certain institutions and the executive branch of government – the Council of Ministers, while the representative function refers to the BiH PA’s responsibility to represent the interests of their constituents and to actively seek citizens’ views and opinions via outreach. Although there are some positive examples, such as the Joint Committee on Defence and Security, which exercises the oversight function thoroughly, the majority of committees lack this capacity. On the representative function side, parliamentarians’ public accountability to the citizens they represent is rather limited. Interestingly, the representative function is not mentioned in the Constitution or the Rules of Procedure and this should be addressed. In terms of parliamentary efficiency and potential areas for further developing the BiH State Parliament, I think a serious discussion on the number of MPs should take place in the upcoming years. BiH’s State Parliament is the smallest legislature in Europe with only 57 MPs – 42 in the House of Representatives and 15 in the House of Peoples.
Due to the small number, there is a massive workload for the MPs and some sit on more than five committees. Unsurprisingly, this results in sub-par work at the committee level and needed legislation is therefore often tardy or simply not adopted. This brings a rather negative image to the entire BiH PA without recognizing the professionalism of the parliamentary Secretariat. In the last four-year mandate, only 40 laws were adopted and the majority of these laws were not initiated by MPs. An increase to the number of MPs might reduce the heavy workload of State MPs, but greater action and commitment of current MPs to adopting legislation is surely needed.
It has been reiterated repeatedly by international actors that genuine political reform has to come from the bottom-up in BiH. How does the OSCE tread the fine line between fostering inter-communal consensus without directly asserting its direct influence?
The OSCE is in a unique position compared to other organizations working in this country. The OSCE functions in such a way that each year all 57 participating States, including BiH, have to agree on programmes and budgets. This means that BiH can take an active role in designing and shaping what the Mission does on the ground. We as the OSCE treat this fact with full respect and this is why we plan our activities together with local authorities. It’s important for us to act as partners in assisting this country in building credible, efficient and responsive institutions.
How has the level of inter-parliamentary co-operation improved with the OSCE’s involvement in this area?
The Mission conducted assessments of entity parliaments and the Brčko District Assembly from 2010 to 2012. One of our main findings was that the parliaments in BiH at that time did not co-operate and there was practically no communication between MPs, as well as between the secretariats. After our assessment and discussions with the parliaments, we initiated regular meetings of parliamentarians and the parliamentary services on a monthly basis to discuss topics of mutual interest and to exchange best practices. We are satisfied with the current level of co-operation and I firmly believe the parliaments – and the citizens of BiH more importantly – will be the main beneficiaries. As the country progresses towards its stated goal of EU integration, increased co-operation is particularly important. Nearly all major decisions on the EU – as it stands now – will have to be made with the co-operation of all four of these bodies. Additionally, the Mission is also supporting a number of exchanges with parliaments in South-East Europe in order to further foster the exchange of practices and experiences.
How do you assess the success or lack of success in improving inter-parliamentary mechanisms?
Unfortunately, there is no special formula for assessing the success of co-operation and communication in this parliamentary project or in other OSCE initiatives. It is clear now though that we are getting active participation from the BiH PA, the RSNA, the FBiH Parliaments and the Brčko District Assembly when we organize joint events and I am satisfied with the direction in which the co-operation is heading. I am glad that the parliaments – especially speakers and deputy speakers – have recognized the importance of this type of co-operation and have committed themselves to improving their work.
The OSCE project to modernize entity parliaments and the Brčko District Assembly is deemed crucial to paving the way for BiH’s eventual EU integration. What are the specific goals that the OSCE wishes to see accomplished in bringing parliamentary assemblies closer together to improve efficiency and functionality?
After conducting the assessments of the entity parliaments and the Brčko District Assembly, the Mission quickly recognized that there were significant shortcomings related to not only co-operation, but to the functioning of these legislatures. With financial support from the UK Government, the Mission then launched a new project specifically designed to assist these parliaments in executing their legislative, representative and oversight roles in a more efficient manner. Our experience working with the State parliament has been beneficial as the entity parliaments and the Brcko District Assembly face many of the same issues that the BiH PA has addressed over the past decade. Within the project, strategic plans for the development of their services and ICT strategies will be developed and the staffing of the parliaments will be examined and hopefully adjusted to meet the actual needs of the parliaments. The Mission is also organizing capacity building trainings for working bodies, committees and service staff and onsite shadowing visits and training with the BiH PA.
What is the exact role of working bodies and what has been their effect on the functionality and efficiency of parliamentary bodies?
In 2006, the Mission assisted the State Parliament to form joint working bodies, which greatly increased the parliament’s efficiency, particularly bearing in mind the relatively small number of MPs. These working bodies perform their functions as prescribed and they have a rather important role in the legislative process. The majority of very important debates take place at the committee level, which is actually not visible to the general public as only plenary sessions are broadcast live on the parliament’s website. In entity parliaments and the Brčko District Assembly, parliamentary committees or working bodies in general play a much weaker role in the legislative process because their opinions and conclusions are not obligatory for the plenary sessions. This shortcoming is something that we have recommended both entity parliaments and the Brčko District look into addressing because it undermines scrutiny of the legislative process in general and the oversight function in particular. The Mission has recommended that they amend the Rules of Procedure to give working bodies a more prominent role in the legislative process.
How has transparency in Parliament improved?
Since the start of our work with the State Parliament, we have always strived to increase its transparency through excellent co-operation with the BiH PA’s PR sector. One of our initiatives, the Open Parliament Project, has been handed over to the BiH PA and continues to break down the barriers between citizens and MPs. During this project we first supported hundreds of student visits to the BiH PA and numerous TV debates between students and MPs. Today, the BiH PA continues with the study visits and more than 3,000 students visit the BiH PA annually. This not only shows parliamentary commitment towards transparency, but also increased citizen interest.
Besides this project, the Mission also supported the development of the new parliamentary website (www.parlament.ba) in the official languages of BiH and in English which is updated daily. The website is also available for visually impaired people. An additional important step in increasing parliamentary transparency is the publishing of all parliamentary documentation for sessions (plenary and committee) on the website.
For the upcoming period, we are working with the BiH PA to increase online information by including details on parliamentary expenditures. This is of utmost importance to the public and citizens have every right to know how public money has been spent. As part of a recent study visit to the Slovenian Parliament, we learned that at the beginning of each month, they publish on their website every piece of information that could be of potential interest to citizens. Not only are MP salaries made available, but also telephone bills, travel costs, information on international travel and activities, amongst other things. This is what we would like to see in all BiH Parliaments, not only at the State level.
What efforts for transparency are there in the decision-making process in which BiH citizens could be engaged?
At the entity parliaments and the Brčko District Assembly, citizens can bring initiatives to propose certain laws. Citizens actually very rarely use the so-called citizens’ initiative mechanism, but it exists as a democratic standard and also within their Rules of Procedure. Unfortunately, when it comes to the State Parliament, this mechanism does not exist in the Rules of Procedure, which seriously disadvantages citizens’ involvement in the decision-making process. The Mission would like to see this amended in the upcoming changes to the Rules of Procedure as this is one of the very few, if not the only, European parliament that does not give its citizens such an opportunity.
How long will the Mission remain engaged with parliaments in BiH?
After more than a decade of engagement, the Mission is planning to gradually withdraw from providing direct support to the State Parliament over the next few years. It is true that there is still significant room for improvement within the BiH PA, but we are confident that this institution will no longer require our direct support in the near future. The OSCE’s human and financial resources might be better used at lower level parliaments across the country, especially since progress towards BiH’s stated goal of EU integration will require parliaments not only at the State level, but at various levels, to be more operational, transparent and efficient.