SERBIA: Towards the Rule of Law
SERBIA: Towards the Rule of Law

Ana Nikodijevic, visiting scholar from the School of Organizational Sciences, University of Belgrade, comments on the ongoing development of human rights law in Serbia…


Although the ethnic conflicts of the 1990s are a distant memory for much of the world, they had massive consequences for Serbia. After a decade of Milosevic's unscrupulous regime and ideology, the country was left with a ravaged economy and culture.

Serbia and its citizens will require a long time to heal from the numerous scars and wounds caused by wars, unemployment, low wages, international isolation and unprecedented hyperinflation. It has been almost 15 years since the end of the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, and 10 years since the conflict in Kosovo, but Serbia has not yet provided shelter for all its refugees. According to data from various non-governmental organizations (NGOs), there are still 6,000 people living in collective centers without access to housing or employment. I am among the lucky people who did not actually experience the war, but I have family members who did. One of my uncles came from Croatia and had to start over from scratch. He found a job, got married, bought a house and had a son. Thanks to his parents' efforts, my nephew started taking English and tennis lessons when he was only 3 years old. This gives me hope for all the other people who are not doing well or could not reconnect with their former lives again.

Serbian rule of law must continue to develop so that it can adeptly address the vital human rights issues facing refugees and other minorities. The 2006 Constitution defines Serbia as a country made up of the Serbian people and all of the citizens who live in it. It is founded on the rule of law and social justice principles of civil democracy, human and minority rights and freedoms and based on European principles and values. Furthermore, it says the government's role is to respect ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious differences among its citizens. However, it is not unusual to find discrepancies between words on paper and real-life practices. The rule of law is still developing and the government continues to make improvements to it. Throughout the previous decade, I also saw several NGOs develop and become active in this field by calling on the new role of civil society in order to solve existing problems.

Although we have seen improvements in Serbian law, I and other citizens living in Serbia today continue to encounter numerous human rights issues on a daily basis including hate speech, discrimination (against refugees, Roma, women, and people with disabilities) and domestic violence. Many of us in Serbia are greatly concerned with the increase in the number of individuals, groups and organizations promoting intolerance, racial hatred and attacks on minorities. There is intolerance towards a number of marginalized social groups based on race, ethnicity, gender or age. The number of neo-Nazi movements and incidents has increased during the last couple of years and some organizations hide their true identities behind the idea of "Serbian Nationalism." Despite the fact that The Ministry for Human and Minority Rights was re-established in 2008, formally increasing the protection afforded disadvantaged social groups, there is little deterrence to discontinue neo-Nazi movements or hate crimes, since legal prosecution is only rarely applied in cases of anti-Semitism.

When discussing discrimination in Serbia, it is unavoidable to discuss the plight of the Roma, 110,000 of whom live in the country. An ethnic minority, Roma are so marginalized and discriminated against that it seems that they can only be seen on the street begging for food in old, torn clothes and usually barefoot, or on public transportation singing and playing musical instruments for money. Most Roma (80%) live in isolated and segregated settlements, and most children (75%) are not enrolled in elementary school.

Without permanent addresses, the Roma people lack the possibility to obtain identity cards and, subsequently, to access health care and social services. In an attempt to solve this problem, Serbia has joined the regional program "Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015" with the objectives of improving the status and social inclusion of the Roma people into Central and Southeastern Europe. The project has thus far succeeded in drafting strategies and action plans in those spheres where Roma are most in jeopardy: education, housing, health care and employment. Hopefully, the implementation of these strategies and plans in Serbia will bring benefits to communities and incite further improvements.

Women, too, continue to face discrimination in Serbia. Although an increasing number of women in our society contribute financially to the family income, their central role is still to run the household and raise children. In most families in Serbia, especially in rural areas, men rarely share domestic responsibilities. Balancing between work and home can be difficult, especially if a woman is a victim of domestic violence. Unfortunately, cases of domestic violence are widespread in the country. Most cases are not reported to the authorities for several reasons: fear of retaliation, distrust of the legal system and inadequate protection for victims. In order for the rule of law to reach its full potential, citizen awareness and demand for equal protection must increase.

Additionally, women are frequently discriminated against in the labor market. Certain jobs are still perceived as men's jobs, and there is an almost visible glass ceiling that keeps women from rising above certain levels in organizations. The Serbian parliament made a positive step towards gender equality with the adoption of a gender quota that at minimum 30% of its members must be female. The quota increased women's participation in Parliament, but Serbian women will still have to wait for a gender discrimination act or implementation of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Furthermore, if a woman has a disability, she easily becomes the victim of double discrimination. Despite passage of the Preventing Discrimination of Persons with Disabilities Act, which went into effect in 2006, individuals with disabilities still have a hard time in Serbia due to poor enforcement of the Act. While studying and then teaching at the School of Organizational Sciences, I noticed that students with disabilities had difficulties when trying to access school premises. Although the school has front access for the disabled, students are very often accompanied by their parents who help them reach inaccessible floors and classrooms to attend lectures and take exams. As a public institution, the school is also obliged by law to employ at least one person with a disability. It has not, however, done so thus far.

Although Serbia still has a lot of work to do in order to fully establish the rule of law, the country has come a long way in th
e past several years. Even though enforcement must be strengthened, all new acts in the field meet European standards and requirements. Looking at the country today gives me hope that the gap between people's expectations and reality will lessen over time. I also hope that we will succeed in building an unshakable multi-ethnic and multicultural society in which every citizen receives equal treatment and opportunities for achievement.

Sources:

1.Constitution of the Republic of Serbia of 2006: http://www.parlament.sr.gov.yu/content/lat/akta/akta_detalji.asp?Id=382&t=Z#
2.Report of the Republic of Serbia for the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Council for Human Rights, the Ministry for Human and Minority Rights, Belgrade, 2008: http://www.humanrights.gov.yu/dokumenti/sektor_ljudska/Izvestaj_univerzalni_pregled.pdf
3.Report on the implementation of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the Ministry for Human and Minority Rights, Belgrade, 2008: http://www.humanrights.gov.yu/dokumenti/Izvestaj-Evropska_povelja%20_3_.pdf

Photo credits: Catherine Picquet

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