Serbia: more efforts needed to face the past, increase safety of journalists and human rights defenders, and protect women from violence

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Source/Author: Press service of the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

Strasbourg, 17 March 2023 – “It is high time for Serbia to face the legacy of the past, to protect media freedom and freedom of assembly, and to fulfil its commitments on women’s rights and gender equality” said today Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, at the end of a visit to the country carried out from 13 to 17 March 2023.

Stressing the important role which Serbia has in this regard, the Commissioner notes stagnation in the resolution of the pending cases of missing persons in the region, already addressed during her visits and recently published statements. “There is a need for renewed commitment by political leaders, including in Serbia, to establishing the fate of missing persons, including by opening of police and military archives that may hold important information about missing persons. The families and relatives of those who remain missing are suffering tremendous pain and uncertainty, and they have the right to adequate reparations and assistance, but above all to know the truth about their loved ones.”

While noting some positive steps taken by the Serbian authorities to address the impunity for serious human rights violations committed during the conflicts of the 1990s, including a new war crimes strategy and the strengthening of the capacity of the War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office, the Commissioner is concerned about the reported slow progress in this area. The lack of extradition of convicted war criminals and war crimes suspects to other countries in the region remains yet another obstacle in the fight against impunity. “Only when perpetrators of war crimes are brought to justice can societies in the region begin to heal, come to terms with their violent past, and build a future based on respect for human rights and the rule of law”, the Commissioner said. The Commissioner finds that, by giving convicted war criminals a public platform in Serbia to promote their views and deny the crimes for which they were convicted, the authorities are failing in their duty to ensure accountability, preserve the victims’ right to truth and prevent the spread of intolerant and hateful speech. The authorities’ toleration of murals honouring war criminals is another unfortunate illustration of this. Civil society organisations have mapped more than 300 such murals across Serbia and recently called on the authorities to remove them.

While welcoming the authorities’ commitment to ensuring respect for freedom of expression and assembly, and a solid legal and institutional framework in this area, the Commissioner notes that the safety of journalists and human rights defenders remains an issue of serious concern. Past cases of killings of journalists, including the case of Slavko Ćuruvija, must be solved and the perpetrators, and those who ordered these crimes, must be brought to justice.

Noting the prevalence of smear campaigns, threats and intimidation and the growing problem of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) targeting journalists, human rights defenders and civil society organisations, the Commissioner urges the authorities to spare no effort to create a safe and conducive environment for the work of the media and civil society. The adoption of the Strategy for Creating a Stimulating Environment for the Development of Civil Society in the Republic of Serbia in 2022 is a step in the right direction. “Human rights defenders, such as the Women in Black (Žene u Crnom), whom I visited in Belgrade, play a pivotal role in raising awareness about human rights, even in the face of threats and violence. They, and many other courageous and dedicated civil society organisations and activists in Serbia, must receive recognition, protection and support.”

The Commissioner is pleased to note the strengthening of the legal framework for the advancement of gender equality and the reported progress in women’s participation in political life in Serbia. However, she is concerned about the misogynistic and discriminatory discourse used by some politicians and public figures, and promoted by certain media, which undermines government policies and actions aimed at achieving gender equality. “The authorities should ensure systematic awareness-raising and education on gender equality to counter stereotypes and patriarchal views on women’s role in society, which undermine women’s rights and lead to violence against women. The specific challenges and discrimination faced by women in rural areas, women with lower socio-economic status, Roma and migrant women and women with disabilities, need to be addressed by the authorities, in close cooperation with the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality, whose important and dedicated work in promoting equality and countering discrimination should continue to be supported.”

As concerns violence against women and domestic violence, the Commissioner regrets that, 10 years after Serbia ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (the Istanbul Convention), and despite a good legislative and policy framework, these types of violence, remain widespread, including in the digital space. The Commissioner observed the need for a co-ordinated institutional response to effectively protect women from violence and to provide immediate and longer-term support to victims.  A reported low rate of prosecution compared to the total number of reported cases of violence, and inadequate, mostly conditional sentences, call for reflection and a better approach to the prosecution and trial of cases, as well as strengthening the professional capacities of legal professionals in this field.  “Impunity for violence against women may lead to recurring violence and even killings. Effective prosecution and dissuasive penalties are therefore needed to show that there is no tolerance for violence against women in Serbian society. Public campaigns aimed at encouraging women to report violence are important, but they cannot serve their purpose if there is no adequate system of protection and support for the victims of violence and their children, and while the perpetrators enjoy impunity.”

During her visit to Serbia, the Commissioner met with the Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić; the First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dačić; the Minister of Justice Maja Popović; the Minister for Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue Tomislav Žigmanov; and the Minister of Culture and Chair of the Coordination Body for Gender Equality Maja Gojković. In addition, the Commissioner met with, the Ombudsman Zoran Pašalić, the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality Brankica Janković and the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection Milan Marinović.

Furthermore, the Commissioner met with a wide range of civil society organisations whose work pertains to the topics covered in the visit. She also visited the premises of the NGO ‘Women in Black’ (Žene u Crnom) and paid her respects at the memorial dedicated to the murdered journalist Slavko Ćuruvija. Finally, the Commissioner participated in and delivered a speech at the conference “Why women do not report domestic violence?”, organised by the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality.

The Commissioner’s report on the visit is forthcoming.