Belgrade, 18 June 2013
Good afternoon, and thank you for coming.
This is my first visit as High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Republic of Serbia. It comes at an important transformative moment in the country’s history, when, after more than two decades during which the various wars in the Balkans cast a long shadow over the country’s development and reputation, a succession of advances on the political front is arousing optimism, not just about the future of Serbia itself, but also of the wider region. It is a positive sign that the authorities are addressing some tough human rights issues in a calm and pragmatic manner.
Human rights are, of course, a fundamental element in any country’s political, social and economic development, and it is for that reason I am here.
During my visit, I have held meetings with President Tomislav Nikolic and Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, Ministers of Justice and Public Administration, of Labour, Employment and Social Policy, and Health. I have also held discussions with the Speaker of Parliament, the President of the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights and Gender Equality, the acting President of High Court of Cassation, the Director of the Government’s Office for Human and Minority Rights, the Ombudsman, the Commissioner for Protection of Equality, and civil society.
Serbia’s progress on the human rights front was recognized during its recent Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the UN Human Rights Council in January – the second such review of Serbia’s human rights situation since the UPR system began in 2008. In all, States made 144 recommendations to Serbia and 139 were accepted.
The country has adopted a strong and fundamentally sound body of laws and standards relating to human rights, including, the Law on the Ombudsman, the Law on Prohibition of Discrimination, the Law on Gender Equality and amendments to the Criminal Code, such as the decriminalization of defamation and introduction of hate crime. It is encouraging that for the first time one third of the members of Parliament are women, as guaranteed by law.
I welcome the progress being made in drafting the anti-discrimination strategy and the judicial reform, which I hope will take into account all relevant recommendations of the UN human rights mechanisms.
Two key institutions, which among other things monitor implementation of human rights standards, namely the Ombudsman and the Commissioner for Protection of Equality, are effective and respected, with the Ombudsman having been awarded the coveted ‘A’ status under the international peer review mechanism for National Human Rights Institutions.
As I see it, effective implementation remains a serious challenge, for a variety of reasons, including a lack of senior level interdepartmental coordination on human rights, insufficient resources and the fact that local services are underdeveloped.
One issue that was raised most often was the lack of access to justice in terms of efficiency and timeliness. Even judges acknowledge serious problems such as lengthy pre-trial detention and court proceedings, the backlog of cases and lack of enforcement of court decisions. The Constitution provides that the ratified international treaties “shall be an integral part of the legal system…and applied directly.” I have offered to cooperate with the Judicial Academy and to provide OHCHR Manuals on human rights in the administration of justice in order to enrich its curriculum.
I urge the Government to clearly define its human rights agenda and priorities, and suggested it bases these on the prioritized recommendations, not just of the UPR, but also of the various UN human rights mechanisms, which periodically examine Serbia’s progress in a tangible way on key human rights issues. An agenda developed along these lines will most probably receive support not just from the United Nations, but also from important regional organizations such as the European Union and Council of Europe.
With regard to discrimination against various minorities, including Serbs where they are in minority, the answer is the full respect of international human rights standards. Specifically, the situation of Roma featured prominently in my discussions. I was made aware of the huge discrepancies between the official and non-official statistics relating to Roma in Serbia, which is a problem in itself. What is clear is that there remain four crucial areas regarding Roma that need to be better addressed, namely health, housing, education and employment. My Office is engaged actively on issues related to the housing of Roma in Serbia, and we are pleased to see some progress in that area, although it is not yet sufficient.
The situations relating to LGBT, violence against women and children, and the human rights of persons with disabilities were also highlighted in various meetings. I particularly welcome the understanding shown by President Nikolic towards allowing the Pride Parade and his readiness to exercise his leadership and be an advocate for an end to domestic violence.
Serbia ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009, and this is one example of a situation where implementation should be given higher priority. Yesterday, I visited the ‘Dr. Laza Lazarevic’ psychiatric hospital in Padinska Skela, in order to get some first-hand experience of concerns linked to such institutions in Serbia together with the Deputy Ombudsman in charge of operating the National Preventive Mechanism. I raised the importance of community-based care and full implementation of the Convention. Furthermore, I welcome the significant progress in the deinstitutionalization of children in recent years. I note the Government’s plans to proceed from institutionalisation to community-based care in accordance with relevant European Guidelines. However, Serbia will need to receive greater assistance and resources for this much-needed shift in focus to materialize.
Finally, I understand that there are well recognized challenges and issues facing this country, many of which require considerable efforts and resources – for example those related to the rights of thousands of internally displaced people and refugees, as well as the social and economic rights of 800,000 unemployed, and the rights of numerous minorities.
But there are also areas where lack of resources is not the obstacle, but where the crucial missing ingredient is a major concerted effort by all those in charge. I am referring here to the overall human rights culture, and the need to show leadership and to educate people on all aspects of human rights. Those in responsible positions can and should make the difference by promoting human rights for all people, irrespective of their nationality, origin, gender identity, or social status. Civil society organisations and human rights defenders should be supported, protected and respected, and should be systematically included in all discussions of legislation, projects, and strategies on human rights.
My Office stands ready to support Serbia’s future efforts through my Human Rights Adviser in close partnership with the UN Country Team, Regional Organizations and other bilateral donors.
Country page: Serbia
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