If we have a medieval understanding of democracy, then we can always justify the predicament of the minorities by saying that the majority decided things should be done this way, and that the majority can do whatever it wants with the minority, whether this minority is a political minority, sexual minority, or whether we are talking about disabled people. People should be reminded that every person is a minority, in a way, and that we could all become minorities on account of this or that trait. This trait could be our education, our social status, our illness or someone’s temporary disability because he or she was in a car crash. Therefore, we all need to think of the equality principle, we need to strive for a democratic social system in which minorities are able to protect their interests.
This was the idea we had in mind as we worked on the anti-discrimination bill, and because of which we, as a non-governmental sector, pushed for the passing of this law. It took us eight years to reach the point when the National Assembly passed that law. We expected that after the law was passed we would be able to focus on dealing with the specific cases of discrimination, based on the fact that the victims of discrimination now had law on their side. Remember that last spring there was a monstrous bulldozer attack on a Romani settlement, without prior warning. It’s a miracle that no one was killed. After that there was the Pride Parade scandal. If we consider these two events, we can see that time and again those in power do not take human rights seriously. They don’t take this law seriously, they think of it as some sort of legal ornament.
If we are to advance the fight against discrimination, we thought we should have an independent body that would protect equality, that is to say – serve as protection from discrimination. This is what the anti-discrimination commissioner should do. That person would be able to make decisions in a particular case, they could even press charges in the case of drastic discrimination, but at the same time they could raise awareness about the need to respect equality and that this is a standard which this society must achieve. We expected – because this is a standard minority question – that the administration will be aware of the need for a dialogue with the minority organizations. By that I mean the nongovernmental organizations which deal with the protection of human rights. Unfortunately, it turned out that they are not ready to cooperate.
When the labor bill was being prepared, the labor unions were consulted, when the media law was written, the team that worked on the bill was made up mainly of journalists. When the Law on Churches and Religious Communities was drafted, people from the churches and religious communities had their say.
Such a good practice should have been followed with the minorities.
Now we are getting to the conditional reflex against the civil society. This political animosity toward the civil society, which existed during Milosevic’s reign, is still alive. And now we have a situation where 211 civil organizations are supporting one candidate, which never happened before. The civil society was never this united about a particular issue, let alone a particular candidate. If we compare this case with the case of withdrawing the anti-discrimination bill from the parliamentary procedure, then there is an obvious difference between the government’s attitude toward the civil sector on the one hand, and their attitude toward other organizations – in this case the churches and religious communities – on the other. We should be specific and say that the anti-discrimination law was withdrawn from the parliamentary procedure after one high-ranking cleric placed a phone call. So there was no need for 200 of them to call – one phone call was enough to prevent the adoption of this bill. On the other hand, 211 organizations were not enough to convince the government that we should talk about who should be a candidate for the commissioner post. The question is – how many organizations are needed for the government to say – all right, maybe a conversation with the civil sector would be in order. This demonstrates a primitive perspective of those who see the civil sector as an adversary in a political fight about some political goals.
We can still wonder whether there really are some serious political interests in the realm of the prohibition of discrimination. It seems as though the political elite still cannot manage to convince itself that discrimination should be prohibited, that is – that everyone is equal. It is as though this political animosity is reflected in each segment of organized society. This accounts for the everyday beatings of Roma people or the attacks on gays. It seems that the society could not reach this standard. The question is – are we even ready to face the problem of discrimination? I think that we as a society are not ready. Last September, regarding the Pride Parade, Brice Taton was murdered by being thrown 10 meters on a concrete sidewalk, but this was covered up. The politics that doesn’t strive for equality distances those that we should take care of, like we take care of ourselves.
Here you have an undetermined number of Roma people, certainly tens of thousands, which we are calling legally invisible. They live among us, but they do not have the opportunity to exercise their rights, just because there is no political will to issue them with birth certificates.
This is a case of incredibly brutal politics. By not registering them, these people are placed outside the law. They do not exist in this country’s legal order. The constitution does not apply to them, neither do the laws. They cannot exercise their rights. Why? Because they don’t exist. Why don’t they exist? Because there is a man heading one ministry who doesn’t allow this problem to be solved by registering them and issuing them their birth certificates. For ten years all the international institutions have been warning us of this problem. If three parliamentary committees organize a joint session and invite the civil sector, the international institutions and lawyers to try and solve this problem, and the minister in charge doesn’t show up and doesn’t send his representative – than you can tell this is a scandalous case of political irresponsibility. And this is the shocking thing – this indecency.
You can see abuse of law in normal, democratic countries too, but you won’t see this sort of indecency. You will not see anarchists sitting locked up in jail for five months and being tortured, and that there is no one to help these people. You won’t see a case like this one with the judges, where 800 judges who lost their jobs are looking to get justice. So it is a question of decency.
Just like with the commissioner, where you have 211 organizations supporting one candidate. You can ignore 10 of them, but how can you ignore 211 organizations? Then we as a society are getting into a fight with the government. You are wasting time and energy, but no one is winning. There is no gain, but there is a huge loss, because time, energy and mutual trust are lost. Instead of working together on trying to find a solution, we are fighting among ourselves and we are gaining nothing. As much as this situation is difficult to get out of, it was also difficult to get into in the first place. It wasn’t easy to set this up.
The other side imposed a candidate who doesn’t even meet the legal requirements. This is what was so shocking, because they didn’t choose someone exquisite as an opponent to our candidate, someone that a person might look and say – “Well what do you know! This one might also make a fine commissioner.” No, they appointed someone who doesn’t meet the requirements and then they even claimed that he was great because he used to be a Constitutional Court judge. He was a judge in a time when the Constitutional Court didn’t even operate. Could this man be such a terrific candidate? Let alone the fact that he never worked on human rights or discrimination. So they didn’t try to find a better candidate.
Maybe the true reason is that they thought it might be best to just suffocate the whole field of discrimination prohibition, so we could say – well, it’s not that bad, it’s getting better. True, the gays can’t go out on the street and the Roma are not in such a good position. True, there are a couple of thousands of people in this country without any ID, but this will improve in time. I think that might have been the idea of some people who think the best way of dealing with a problem is by pretending it doesn’t exist.
Pointing out some positive examples elsewhere is often perceived as some sort of weirdness – like you’re pointing out something that is not really normal. All right, those things exist in America, England, Germany, but hey, they are a bit odd and this stuff is normal there, but because we are healthier and more righteous – this will not stand here. For example, you’ve got a situation with inclusion in education where you can say – well all right, disabled children or even Roma children, being disabled by default – send them to a special needs school. And now you have an interesting situation, because a law was adopted regulating the basics of education system and it has an excellent approach to inclusive education, but at the same time you’ve got an interdepartmental group of experts from the ministry of education, ministry of health, the labor ministry – who are not able to find a way for a deaf-mute child to really attend classes with other children.
The trouble is that human rights don’t grow on trees, but that you have to work very hard for them to come into existence. If you want disabled children and Roma children to attend regular schools, they can’t do that by themselves. For example, take disabled people, you will see that just now after a whole set of regulations were adopted and after a big campaign of promoting their rights took place, those people started coming out on the streets. They were also legally and physically invisible. You take away their ability to work, you reduce them to objects and then you lock them away somewhere never to come out – this was the basic strategy. In every society 10% of the people have some disability, the only question is whether you see them or not. If you don’t see them, that’s a good indication that they are denied their rights.
This is the beginning of the tedious work on protecting and exercising human rights. It pays to work hard, to keep trying. I remember when we were working on the Freedom of Information Act, there was the so called culture of secrecy in government institutions. You couldn’t ask them anything – and if you did ask, they would reply – “none of your business.” Now there is not one government institution that would say that. Why? Well, because they know that the law postulates that it is your business what they do and that they are required to provide you with the information you need. Of course there are obstructions, but the basic approach has changed. And for as long as this approach is not applied to thousands of other issues and problems, we will stay an isolated island in a 21st century Europe.
Peščanik, Radio B92, 26.02.2010.
Translated by Ivica Pavlovic