01/31/2013 02:30 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

Human Rights in Serbia

One of the major problems plaguing the Balkans in particular is impunity. People commit crimes, and they get away with it. These are usually powerful people, like Iliya Pavlov, the head of Multigroup and Bulgaria's wealthiest individual until a sniper took him out in 2003. If successful people break the law without paying any penalty, lots of people want to get in on the act.

In the Belgrade office of the Lawyers' Committee on Human Rights (YUCOM) I found a pamphlet from an organization called Impunity Watch. The Netherlands-based organization has run programs on impunity with local partners in Guatemala, Sri Lanka and Burundi. And it has partnered with YUCOM and other organizations in Serbia to address the culture of impunity that has made it difficult to establish the rule of law in the post-Milosevic era. In that brief period after the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, the liberal standard bearer who briefly served as Serbian prime minister, the Serbian government cracked down on organized crime. But it was a short-lived commitment.

I talked with Milan Antonijevic, the director of YUCOM, about the continuing human rights problems in Serbia, including the issue of impunity. "For example, let's talk about a trial that is lasting for six years and they have all the evidence," he told me. "I'm not talking about war crime trials. I'm talking about the burning of a mosque in Belgrade. You have police cameras on the ground; you have all the evidence. But the judiciary is the weakest link in the whole chain of protection, and that's where the impunity is coming from."

He continued, "On the other side, you don't have the political will. I don't know why we're still speaking about political will to punish those who committed war crimes or other crimes, but unfortunately this is still happening in Serbia. We didn't have the climate for arresting Mladic for 10 years, or Karadzic. And it's something that's really blocking all the trials, it's blocking all the evidence collection, it's blocking the prosecutor's office. And it's something that is unfortunately on the political side."

Antonijevic agrees that civil society organizations have managed to achieve some successes in improving the human rights situation in Serbia. But major problems continue for Roma, sexual minorities and others. There is still a strong link between political power and organized crime. And judges are still responding to political pressures.

With Belgrade eager to meet the benchmarks established by the European Union, Serbia will soon have to address these human rights problems more seriously. But the pressure is not only coming from Brussels. Watchdog organizations are applying pressure much closer to home. Civil society organizations like YUCOM and its partners are fighting on behalf of the powerless and the disenfranchised. The status of these social groups will ultimately determine the strength of Serbian democracy and whether, substantively rather than formally, it has fully joined Europe or not.

The Interview

In terms of negotiating with the EU, where do you think the greatest difficulty will be to meet the EU standards on minority questions?

Discrimination will be a major issue. The Bulgarian minority is asking for a different set of rights, and nobody is reacting to that yet. For example, doing research on some of the courts in southern Serbia close to Bulgaria, we spoke about using the Bulgarian national language in court. The head of the court told us, "But nobody is using the Bulgarian language in the court. Why should we give this service?" So, they don't see the need, even though it's written in the law. They obey it in a certain sense. They put up signs in the court in the language of the national minority, but they don't understand why it is needed. They don't see the need to have translators, to have all the different mechanisms to support the identity of a national minority, so something is wrong within the system.

A lot of things have to be changed. At the level of the laws, some things have changed and there is progress, but at the level implementation, that's what we are all pushing for. Implementation is really lacking. From that point of view, Serbia will first have to prove that all the mechanisms are in place for the protection of the rights of national minorities: on the ground and not just on paper.

Also, the Constitution should be once again checked to see whether some of the solutions can be improved and not only related to minorities. And to remind you, this is the Constitution from 2006 and yet today, only six years from its enactment, we are thinking about all the gaps in it,.

Let me ask specifically about Roma, because that often is the most challenging situation in countries in this region. Has there been any improvement? When I was here before, the discrimination against Roma was pretty severe, but that was a while ago. Has there been any improvement on the economic side, such as access to healthcare or access to housing, or on the political-legal side?

The only improvement happening now is the possibility to be registered. In Serbia, we had a large number of Roma that were out of the system. Without an ID, they have no possibility to access healthcare and other services. Where Roma do get health care, the level of quality is not as high as others are receiving. So, there is still a high level of discrimination in the healthcare system.
In the educational system, measures have been taken to make it more inclusive, to make sure that Roma are going to regular schools. We had a situation two years ago where Roma were mostly going to special schools for people with disabilities. This was being done systematically. They gave these tests to young kids who didn't know the Serbian language, and when they failed the tests, they ended up in special schools. The law was changed. In practice, though, the Roma kids are enrolled in regular schools -- because this is what the ministry of education measures -- but then at some point they're either transferred or not given substantive knowledge in order to go further in their education. There is a big dropout rate for Roma. And it's hard to collect the data on transfers from regular schools to special schools because the ministry is not interested in doing that. They're only interested in the numbers of Roma enrolled in first grade. There are supportive measures, such as the placement of personal assistants in the schools specially to deal with Roma. But there's not enough money in the Serbian budget to meet the need.

Housing rights are at a really poor level. Evictions are happening. There are a large number of NGOs really trying to support people who are being evicted from different parts of Serbia -- especially in Belgrade where these big highway and bridge projects are causing a large number of evictions. There is some improvement on this, but the quality of the settlements offered to Roma is very poor if they're in Belgrade. There are also Roma who don't have IDs registered in Belgrade. So if they are registered, for example, in Nis and they are evicted from a home in Belgrade, they will be transferred to Nis directly. Nobody is thinking about freedom of movement. Nobody is thinking about the acceptance of Roma families in other parts of Serbia. For example, after the evictions from the Belville section of Belgrade, where I think 700 families were evicted, the majority of them sent to other parts of Serbia. There was no normal housing offered to them in some of the cities. They were just transferred to cities without any further support.

In Belgrade, the last eviction was a little bit more organized. The Roma were given these so-called container settlements. The conditions there are really terrible. The containers don't have normal heating or anything like that. It's really not something for decent lives. The city said it wasn't permanent, that they would offer social housing to the Roma. But the percentage of Roma receiving such housing is very low, below 1 percent. So, this program is not meant to solve the issue of Roma and housing.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.