As yet another year draws to a close, it is again time to sum up human rights developments in Serbia. If you were to ask anyone in the government, things are quite straightforward – ‘in Serbia, human rights are respected’. This simple untruth comes as no surprise in view of other interesting remarks made by Serbian government officials. If you were to pose the same question to the independent media, you would get an answer that is only partially accurate and clear: its ‘real’ human rights content will be leavened by views of consumer protection, the environment, or the failure of the Business Registry to delete an insolvent company from its records. Watchdogs have repeatedly failed to react to scandalous law-making initiatives (such as the latest draft of the Law on Civilian Casualties of War) or the lack of important legislation (for instance, the Law on Free Legal Aid), but have been quick, on the other hand, to praise cosmetic changes to how human rights are upheld (for example, some minor improvements to detention procedures after a visit from the Ombudsman). In doing so they have managed to avoid annoying either the authorities or the ‘people’. For their part, the population at large are ready to support the exercise of rights only of some members of the public and only in certain situations, but nearly always just in the abstract sense. The ‘people’ are not inclined to support any effort to face up to the past; ban torture outright; prohibit discrimination against anyone at all times; ensure true freedom of religion; make certain there is equal freedom of assembly for all; or allow freedom of expression that does not entail hate speech. Attempts made by independent watchdogs to find favour with the ‘people’ and avoid antagonising the government are doomed to fail from the outset.
Anyone able to read or listen was bound to find interesting the following dialogue. This pretence at Prime Minister’s Question Time took place in Parliament on 22 December between Vladimir Djukanovic (Progressive Party MP) and Aleksandar Vucic (Prime Minister and head of the Progressive Party).
Vladimir Djukanovic: I have got to ask you, Mr Vucic, you had said something I did not like, for instance about this fourth pillar of government that seems about to be created… then there are the Ombudsman and the Information of Public Importance Commissioner… and you had said that if anyone just so much as mentions how much they earn, these Europeans will waste no time in coming to their aid. Excuse me, but are they more powerful than the state? What is all this about? We MPs can be dragged through the mud in the media, they can say how we eat at expensive restaurants and do I do not know what else, but when you mention the Ombudsman, it is a disaster, suddenly we are in a dictatorship. He seems to be beyond any criticism. The question here is whether this man is more powerful than the state, and whether this fourth pillar of government that seems to be on the verge of being formed, and that may even find its way into the Constitution, whether they are more powerful than the state?
Aleksandar Vucic: Perhaps I could agree with you, at the emotional level, about some of these bodies and institutions, but it is much more likely that both of us are wrong and that we should change our views about both the Ombudsman and the Information Commissioner, although I nearly always disagree with the Commissioner’s political comments. This is important for the functioning of our country’s system of governance and we all need to change our perceptions of them.
This pretend dialogue not only served to remind independent bodies not to cross the line and watch what they do, it also referred to ‘emotions’ (of the Prime Minister) and ‘perceptions’ (of watchdogs). There is no mention of the Constitution or legislation, in which emotions and personal opinions have no place. The Prime Minister also mentions ‘political comments’, in an apparent echo of phrases employed by Putin and Lukashenko when referring to human rights organisations in their respective countries.
As for the public at large, they could not have been expected to make much progress in understanding human rights. Following the closure of the last refuges for debate about key issues facing our society (strictly controlled though it may have been), the Internet has become (or, perhaps, has remained) possibly the sole decent source of information. This lack of opportunities for information means that the public at large hold some rather incongruous views. For instance, according to a recent survey, the Serbian public does recognise the LGBT community as one of the six groups most discriminated against (alongside the poor, the elderly, the women, the disabled, and the Roma), whereas a second study (dating form 2013) revealed that more than 85 percent of Serbians would not accept an LGBT person as a family member. Although the vast majority rightly see the Roma as the community most at risk from discrimination, this perception remains ineffective, since large numbers of those polled do not wish to see the Roma occupy positions in government (reported by 28 percent) or teach their children (27 percent). One-half of all Serbians believe that ethnic minorities should not always be able to communicate with institutions in their native languages, whilst 23 percent would strip LGBT people of their citizenship.
The international community has contributed to the poor human rights environment: in 2014, it was much less insistent on the gravity of the situation, which was in some respects worse than ever. The only area that the EU and other international organisations seem interested in is media freedom, but even here the reactions are nevertheless faint and infrequent.
Two events could be considered successes for human rights. Belgrade Pride did go ahead, which was a favourable development in spite of the huge police presence, ambiguous statements made by government officials, and objectionable expressions of gratitude to hooligan groups made by Prime Minister Vucic. Although he had personally banned the 2013 Pride, he was also the first politician to clearly and publicly stand by such a ban. However, he is also the first figure of authority to allow a Pride Parade to take placepretend-dialogue peacefully (albeit after his own fashion). The problem is that such an event should not be subject to the whims of anyone in government: the Pride must be a regular fixture and must not depend on the opinion of any senior government official. Unfortunately, this does not look likely to happen any time soon; and neither has the public heard the Prime Minster clearly say as much. If there is desire to effect change in Serbia and ensure human rights are respected (as enshrined in the Constitution, rather than based on the Prime Minister’s own personal dispensation), this is an excellent opportunity for Mr Vucic himself to go public and announce that the 2015 Belgrade Pride, scheduled for 20 September, is beyond question, as well as that the state is resolved to support the right to assembly of all of its citizens, regardless of what hooligans may think.
A second change for the better is the enactment of a set of media laws, which, for all their shortcomings, can be considered a major step towards the establishment of rule of law and a system where government bodies are ready to fully respect the freedom of expression. The implementation of these laws over the course of 2015 will reveal the true extent of rule of law in Serbia.
There are many pieces of legislation that the civil sector has drafted in recent months in an endeavour to do the state’s job for it. In other cases, non-governmental organisations have repeatedly been calling for the adoption of laws crucial for certain groups. The Law on Free Legal Aid, which has been in the pipeline for over ten years now, is a case in point: each government has established a new drafting group, but the law was never adopted because no administration was willing to stand up to the Bar Association, which claims monopoly on the provision of legal aid. There are numerous other pieces of legislation that have shared the fate of this law, including the Law Restricting Certain Rights and Liberties; Law on the Use of Deaf Sign Language; Law on the Use of Guide Dogs for the Visually Impaired; Law on Registered Partnerships; Law on Legal Consequences of Sex Change; Law on the Recognition of Legal Subjectivity of Persons without Identification Documents; Law Prohibiting Forced Evictions of Persons Residing in Informal Settlements; and the Public Initiative Law. The list goes on, but there is no particular reason why none of these laws was ever adopted. No political option stands to lose or gain from their enactment, yet they would strengthen the human rights framework in Serbia.
On the other hand, laws and international conventions implementation remains abysmally poor. The disappointing application of regulations that are crucial to respecting human rights (such as the 2006 Law on the Prohibition of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities and the 2003 Law on Accountability for Human Rights Violations, better known as the ‘Lustration Law’) speaks volumes about the disregard that successive governments have shown for much-needed improvements in this area. The 5000 petitions filed by Serbian people with the European Court for Human Rights are further proof of this, if any more were needed.
Even less improvement is evident in the field of transitional justice. There is no fund that could serve to indemnify victims of war crimes and serious human rights abuses, whilst the Witness Protection Unit does exactly the opposite of what its name implies. War crimes trials are yet to contribute fully to the achievement of justice, whilst any mention of command accountability or the responsibility of the state of Serbia remains conspicuously absent from the verdicts. The last in a long line of scandalous legal initiatives is the proposed Law on civilian victims of war (formally the Draft Law on the Rights of Ex-Servicemen, Casualties of War, Civilian Casualties of War, and Members of their Families), which is deeply discriminatory and does not provide protection for numerous groups, including families of missing persons; victims of sexual abuse; victims suffering from mental issues as a consequence of their wartime experiences; those physically injured but disabled to a degree of less than 50 percent; persons killed by members of the Serbian armed forces; and persons killed in an another country’s territory.
The attainment of fair trial standards seems further away than before. Fresh reforms of the judiciary were initiated on multiple occasions, but always with unfortunate results. The justice system has not gained its independence; in consequence, trials take shockingly long to complete; all manner of scarcely credible occurrences take place at hearings; and penal policy encourages those ready to break the law. Trial transcripts, as dictated by judges to court reporters, are frequently at odds with what was actually said; in courtrooms, victims (for instance, of violence and torture) often sit side by side with perpetrators and are thus exposed to repeated victimisation, which judges as a rule ignore or even aggravate. In this context, the on-going lawyers’ strike can be seen as nothing more than ‘icing on the cake’; even if it is successfully resolved, this will not mean the system will run smoothly thereafter.
Although in 2014 the government sang its own praises when it came to detention facilities and prisons, little has actually changed. Whilst the authorities have boasted that the amnesty grant and introduction of alternative sanctions constitute major changes, everything has in practice remained the same. The situation in prisons is still out of keeping with international standards; detention facilities fare even worse, as borne out by accounts of NGO monitors and the Ombudsman’s post-visit reports. Respect for human rights of the Roma, LGBT people, and people with disabilities is a particularly pressing issue. In a society where the public at large is not terribly opposed to torture, it is difficult to explain practices considered ‘other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ (and that are deemed equal to torture) even to those who should apply the standards on a daily basis and without exception.
Respect for the freedom of expression (and in particular media freedoms) remained an issue throughout 2014. Early in the year it became apparent that major setbacks could be expected in this area, but the nearly complete closure of the media to dissenting views seems to have taken the international community by surprise. Nearly 30 assaults on journalists, and trials that leave members of the profession in no doubt that the state will not protect them, serve as a renewed reminder that we have not progressed much beyond the excesses of the 1990s. There is so much financial influence on the media, editors, and journalists, that critical reporting about senior government figures (particularly the Prime Minister) is now an exception rather than the rule. A total of 877 front pages featured Mr Vucic in 2014; of these, as few as six were critically worded. The extent to which people in power take offence at any sort of criticism is further borne out by hacking attacks on web sites (such as Pescanik) that remain among the few safe havens for serious journalism.
The new government has not contributed to any positive changes when it comes to respect for the human rights of the Roma community. The National Council of the Roma Ethnic Minority may have been established late in the year, but everything else has remained almost the same. Forced evictions have continued; many Roma still have no identification documents; and discrimination in education, housing, employment, and access to public services is still a reality for most members of the community. Although the authorities have for the most part been honest in recognising the problem, the lack of a systemic response to it testifies to their lack of interest in the human rights of the Roma.
The LGBT community did see the Pride take place in September 2014, but nothing else has changed: this remains the only group whose members are threatened with physical extermination for revealing their identity. Each year, the Belgrade Pride makes public a list of its demands to the government and ‘expectations’ of the authorities. Although most of these requests would take only a little good will to achieve, few things ever change in the interval between any two Prides, even if verbal support has been on the increase. In general, views of the LGBT population shared by the authorities and the public can best be summed up in this sentence: ‘they face no trouble as long as they don’t ask for that parade of theirs’.
In 2015, the human rights situation will be similar to that seen last year. Some positive steps will be made (most probably in the form of enactment of several laws) to simulate progress (and attempt to seek EU approval for the opening of Chapter 23 in accession negotiations), whilst the stance of the authorities towards independent watchdog institutions will remain the same. In all likelihood, the government’s outlook on the freedom of expression and human rights defenders will deteriorate. A foretaste of this approach has been provided by the Socialist Movement, a member of the governing coalition, in their reactions to the scandalous allocation of funds to phantom NGOs following a call for proposals issued by the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Policy.
Translated by Uros Vasiljevic