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Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities considers report of Serbia

GENEVA (6 April 2016) - The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities this morning concluded its consideration of the initial report of Serbia on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 
 
Presenting the report, Suzana Paunovic, Director of the Office for Human and Minority Rights of Serbia, said that persons with disabilities represented 7.96 per cent of the population of Serbia.  The 2006 Law on the Prevention of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities regulated the general regime for the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability, while the 2007 Strategy for the improvement of the position of persons with disabilities defined measures, goals and activities to improve the situation of persons with disabilities.  Serbia had made significant steps towards deinstitutionalization, and had undertaken the creation of community-based services.  Significant shifts in the area of employment had been made with the adoption in 2009 of the Law on Occupational Rehabilitation and Employment of Persons with Disabilities, which guaranteed the principle of inclusiveness and introduced quotas. 
 
Vladana Jovic, Deputy Ombudsman of Serbia, said that access to education was difficult for persons with disabilities, which also hindered the right to employment, and largely prevented persons with disabilities from being independent and autonomous.  Persons with intellectual disabilities placed in residential social security institutions were particularly vulnerable.    
 
Milos Jankovic, Deputy Ombudsman of Serbia and Member of the United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture, said that conditions in detention facilities and mental health institutions were poor.  Persons with disabilities, particularly those with mental impairment, were in isolation and often dislocated from their communities.  There had been no major progress with regards to deinstitutionalization. 
 
During the ensuing dialogue, Experts welcomed legislation adopted by Serbia, including the Law on the Prevention of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities.  Experts were in general disturbed by the situation of children in institutions.  Serbia had made little efforts towards deinstitutionalization, Experts noted, referring to the recent opening of new facilities.  Committee Members also expressed concern with regards to the forced administration of contraceptives in institutions for persons with mental disabilities, and with regards to discrimination against women with disabilities victims of sexual violence in the Penal Code.  Experts raised a number of questions on accessibility, including on the use of sign language and Braille for deaf and blind persons.  Concerns were raised about the lack of inclusiveness of the education system.  The migration crisis, emergency responses and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development were also discussed. 
 
In concluding remarks, Laszlo Gabor Lovaszy, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Serbia, welcomed the delegation of Serbia’s constructive participation in the dialogue, and its detailed responses to the questions raised by Committee Members.  He encouraged Serbia to give due consideration to the recommendations by the Committee and to continue efforts for the protection of persons with disabilities. 
 
The delegation of Serbia included representatives of the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veterans’ and Social Affairs, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Public Administration and Local Self-Government, the Ministry of Culture and the Media, the Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure, the Office for Human and Minority Rights, as well as the Permanent Mission of Serbia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
 
The Committee will resume its work today at 3 p.m., to start its consideration of the initial report of Lithuania (CRPD/C/LTU/1). 
 
Report
 
The initial report of Serbia can be read here: CRPD/C/SRB/1.
 
Presentation of the Report
 
SUZANA PAUNOVIC, Director of the Office for Human and Minority Rights of Serbia, presenting the initial report of Serbia, said that the Constitution of Serbia recognized international treaties as directly applicable in the domestic legal system.  Serbia was committed to cooperate with United Nations human rights mechanisms, and had issued an open invitation to all Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council.  It also cooperated with the Council of Europe on minority issues and promoting the rule of law.  Serbia was a candidate country of adhesion to the European Union, and was committed to adopt the best standards for the promotion and protection of human rights in all segments of society.  Kosovo and Metohija province was also an important part of Serbia, although the State was not able to monitor the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities there as its administration was entrusted to the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo following United Nations resolutions.  The Committee was invited to ask the Mission to provide input on the situation of persons with disabilities in this part of the Serbian territory so that the review of the situation in Serbia was complete. 
 
According to a population census, persons with disabilities represented 7.96 per cent of the population of Serbia.  The Law on the Prevention of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities, adopted in 2006, represented the first anti-discrimination law in the country, and regulated the general regime for the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability.  The Law on the Prohibition of Discrimination adopted in 2009 considered discrimination on the basis of disability as a special form of discrimination.  The Strategy for the improvement of the position of persons with disabilities of 2007 defined measures, goals and activities to improve the situation of persons with disabilities.  The Law on Social Protection of 2011 introduced a range of new social protection services for persons with disabilities. 
 
Serbia had made significant steps forward for deinstitutionalization, and had one of the lowest rates of institutionalization in Europe.  Numerous activities had been taken for the creation of community-based services.  The number of children in foster families had increased in recent years; foster care prevailed over institutionalization care, although there were still not enough families for specialized foster care for children with disabilities.  Many of these children were adopted by foreigners.  The Law on the Protection of Persons with Mental Health Difficulties of 2013 guaranteed the protection of human rights of persons with mental disabilities, and provided that a person with mental health difficulties could be voluntary admitted to an institution and only under special conditions could he or she be admitted without their consent. 
 
Legislation provided the conditions to enable the successful inclusion of persons with disabilities in mainstream education.  Significant shifts in the area of employment had been made in 2009 with the adoption of the Law on Occupational Rehabilitation and Employment of Persons with Disabilities, which guaranteed the principle of inclusiveness and introduced quotas.  The amended Labour Law obliged employers to provide alternative jobs to employees becoming unable to perform their previous assignments. The Law on Preventing Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities prohibited discrimination on the basis of accessibility.  Legal provisions also provided the basis for enjoying the right to public information by persons with disabilities.  Serbia was aware that challenges remained, in particular in improving the rights and freedoms of persons with disabilities.  The dialogue with the Committee would be useful for the Government’s efforts to continue improving and strengthening the system for the protection of human rights in Serbia. 
 
Statements by the National Human Rights Institution
 
VLADANA JOVIC, Deputy Ombudsman of Serbia, said that Serbia had done significant efforts in the last decade to fulfil its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  Persons with disabilities still faced challenges, however, resulting from a long history of prejudice and segregation of persons with disabilities, which was hard to change without an intensive promotion of their rights and education.  Challenges also resulted from the shortage and the wrong distribution of financial resources.  Accessibility remained a problem despite the legislation imposing the obligation for public buildings, streets, and other public areas and infrastructure to be accessible.  Access to education was difficult for persons with disabilities, due to the fact that additional support was insufficiently developed and due to the inaccessibility of facilities.  This also hindered the right to employment, and largely prevented persons with disabilities from being independent and autonomous.  Persons with mental impairment were the most vulnerable, as they were still largely placed into specialized institutions because community-based services remained underdeveloped.  Persons with intellectual disabilities placed in residential social security institutions were particularly vulnerable.     
 
MILOS JANKOVIC, Deputy Ombudsman of Serbia and Member of the United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture, presented the Ombudsman’s activities relating to the prevention of torture, including its visits to detention facilities and mental health institutions. The conditions in these institutions were poor, and not enough personnel worked there.  Persons with disabilities, particularly those with mental impairment, were in isolation and often dislocated from their communities.  There had been no major progress with regards to deinstitutionalization. 
 
Questions by the Experts
 
LASZLO GABOR LOVASZY, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Serbia, welcomed Serbia’s commitment to human rights and its ratification of many international human rights treaties.  He welcomed the Law on the Prevention of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities and other encouraging signs in terms of increasing the employment of persons with disabilities.  He asked for information on recent amendments to the Labour Law dealing with the termination of employment of persons with disabilities.  He also asked what measures had been taken to prevent persons with disabilities from ending up in sheltered workshops or becoming unemployed or inactive.  Some additional figures could be shared in relation to the efficiency of the so-called “quota system” in Serbia, he noted. 
 
The Expert noted that Serbia had initiated a National Strategy for improving the position of women and promoting gender equality, but regretted that women with disabilities continued to face discrimination in the Criminal Code when it came to sanctions relevant to sexual violence, rape and sexual abuse. 
 
The Country Rapporteur welcomed the recent adoption of the Law on the Use of Sign Language and the Law on the Movement of Blind Persons with the Assistance of Dogs, and asked for information on measures to be taken for the implementation of these texts.  He also asked whether sign language was considered as the first language of deaf persons in judicial procedures and education.  He welcomed progress in combatting disability-based discrimination, and asked what steps had been taken to ensure the right to vote of persons with disabilities. 
 
Continuing, Mr. Lovaszy welcomed promising trends in the reduction of the number of persons with total deprivation of capacity and increased foster care for children with disabilities.  However, reports alleged that, despite the legal prohibition, more than 40 children with disabilities under the age of three had been placed in institutions recently.  In addition, a new institution had recently opened, and there seemed to be no long-term plan for deinstitutionalization. 
 
The Expert welcomed the presence of pedagogical assistants in schools, having the role of intermediaries with parents.  He asked whether these assistants had received appropriate training to deal with children with disabilities.  He then asked for information on measures taken and funding allocated to ensure that children with disabilities had access to mainstream education and to provide reasonable accommodation for pupils and students. 
 
Another Expert asked for information on mechanisms for the prevention of discrimination and for the implementation of the anti-discrimination legislation.  An Expert asked whether the denial of reasonable accommodation was explicitly considered as a possible ground for discrimination in the Serbian legislation.  A Committee member welcomed the fact that the Constitution of Serbia had enshrined the principle of non-discrimination, and asked whether the Government had conducted a thorough review of the Serbian legislation in order to identify potentially discriminatory legal provisions. 
 
An Expert referred to the issue of violence against women with disabilities, and expressed concern that the Criminal Code provided a more lenient sentence when the victim of sexual violence was a woman with disability than if the victim was not a woman with disability.  This was discriminatory and seemed to imply that a person with disability had less value than a person without disability. 
 
More generally, Experts regretted the lack of measures and action plans aimed at addressing the vulnerability of women and girls with disabilities, including violence, negative stereotypes, institutionalization, and measures imposed on them to control their reproductive capacity without their consent. 
 
An Expert noted the opening of a new institution for children with disabilities and recalled that this sort of institution was not in line with the spirit of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  She asked for statistics on the number of institutionalized children, and asked whether children were moved to adult institutions once they turned 18.  Experts were in general disturbed by the situation of children in institutions, and expressed concerns about giving them psychotropic medication that was not licensed or approved for children.  What measures would be taken to address forced prescription? 
 
An Expert asked what measures had been taken to ensure that children with disabilities in institutions had access to education, and what measures had been adopted to promote access to inclusive, mainstream education.  What awareness-raising initiatives had been carried out to promote a human rights-based approach to disability?
 
Questions were raised as regards accessibility standards, including for blind persons at the airport.  Were there any sanction measures for those violating accessibility requirements provided for in the law?  Were public transportation services accessible?  Were organizations of persons with disabilities involved in the design of Serbia’s accessibility plan?  What measures were in place to promote and standardize sign language?
 
A number of questions pertained to organizations of persons with disabilities, and measures taken by the State to promote their participation in public policies. 
 
Replies by the Delegation
 
Serbia was committed to collaborate with and empower civil society organizations, a delegate said.  The Government had sought insight from organizations of persons with disabilities for the enactment of a number of laws.  The recommendations by the Ombudsman were also taken into account. 
 
The Criminal Code contained two relevant provisions, one related to rape, and the other related to intercourse with a defenceless person.  The main element of the crime of rape was violence.  The crime of intercourse with a defenceless person was introduced to enable protection in cases where the victim was unable to offer resistance, which was often the case when persons with disabilities were involved.  Judges always aimed to assess disability as an aggravating circumstance and impose a higher penalty on the perpetrator. 
 
Mechanisms for the prevention of discrimination were defined by the law on the Prevention of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities and the Discrimination Law.  From 2012 to 2016, under these two pieces of legislation, there had been 27 litigation cases.  There had also been 18 proceedings for the crime of violating equality of citizens,  223 cases for violations in the area of labour, 54 crime cases for intercourse with a minor and eight criminal cases for crimes based on race. 
 
The Government had adopted a plan for the transformation of institutions for childcare, which prohibited institutionalization for children under the age of three.  Institutionalization was exceptional, and concerned children who had been abused in their families.  The Government had undertaken measures to strengthen the capacities of the families of children with intellectual impairments, including through educational workshops.  The transformation plan had led to a significant reduction of the capacities of residential care institutions for children and youth.   
 
On education, a delegate said that children with disabilities were educated in specialized schools.  In addition, there were 119 classes in mainstream schools that could accommodate children with disabilities.  Segregated education covered around one per cent of the students. 
 
Psychotropic medication administrated to children had to be in compliance with European Union legislation, and had to be prescribed by a psychiatrist. 
 
No medical procedure could be applied without the consent of the patient or his or her guardian.  If a medical worker believed that the guardian was not acting in the best interest of the patient, they had to notify immediately the legal guardianship authority.  
 
With regard to employment, a delegate said that Serbia had fully accepted the social model of disability, and had based word capacity assessments on this.  Such assessment was performed by a multidisciplinary committee. 
 
Moving to accessibility, the delegation said that public media services were obliged to use sign language.  In 2015, Serbia organized a conference on the role of information technologies in the development of an inclusive society and persons with disabilities.  For 2016, there was a plan for media training on sign language.  The right to sign language interpreting services was guaranteed by law to every deaf person, and was funded by the Ministry of Labour.  A rulebook defined measures and conditions for the planning, designing and the construction of buildings, including accessibility standards.  In cases where these standards were not met, the law had a tangible penalty for investors.  Serbia was in the process of adjusting its laws to European standards concerning public transportation and safety.  Facilities of public importance were fully accessible, a delegate said.  The State also promoted accessibility of cultural institutions at the national and local levels.  Persons with disabilities would be able to vote at home, or with the help of a personal assistant. 
 
Questions by the Experts
 
An Expert asked a number of questions related to Article 11 on emergency situations, including on alternative measures available to inform persons with disabilities and on the role of organizations of persons with disabilities in the implementation of relevant legislation.  Another Expert asked what was Serbia’s strategy to protect persons with disabilities in the event of a natural disaster, and whether persons with disabilities themselves had been involved in the elaboration of such a strategy.  
 
An Expert noted that Serbia still had large institutions where more than 6,700 persons with disabilities were still living, and that Serbia had recently opened additional institutions.  Experts asked what measures were being taken to ensure deinstitutionalization, rather than to keep things the way they were.  Another Expert asked whether the State would adopt measures to protect women with disabilities from sexual abuse and from the forced administration of drugs in institutions.  Experts asked how the free and informed consent of women in institutions was guaranteed with regards to the use of contraception.
 
On accessibility, an Expert asked why sign language was not the primary means of communication with deaf persons in criminal proceedings.  Was there any affirmative action to promote persons with disabilities in the judiciary professions?  Were helplines for victims of violence available for deaf women?  Was it possible to bring guide dogs into airports? 
 
Replies by the Delegation
 
The amount of allowance for children with disabilities varied from 29,000 to 36,000 dinars for placement in foster care.  The number of children in institutions was constantly decreasing.  There were currently 474 children in institutions.
 
Serbian legislation ensured the freedom of movement of all persons with disabilities, including those accompanied by a guide dog.  It was  the same in airports and on airplanes, airlines simply had to be notified in advance of the presence of the animal in the aircraft.
 
Gender equality was one of the priority issues for the Serbian Government.  A coordination body on gender equality had been established, and a new gender equality law was being developed, with a special focus on women with disabilities.  In January, the Government had adopted a new national strategy focusing on economic empowerment, healthcare and combatting violence against women with disabilities.  The first step taken was the creation of a helpline.  Additionally, the Government was supporting the work of non-governmental organizations, particularly those working on access to health for women and assisting the victims of violence. 
 
The Ministry of Justice had prepared a law on domestic violence, including protecting women with disabilities.  An organizational law would improve mutual coordination among the different sectors on these issues.  There would be designated persons in courts with certificates certifying that they had completed specific training on domestic violence. 
 
Turning to Article 11 of the Convention,  a delegate said that a manual for emergency situations had been made available to all citizens.  A new law would be adopted to introduce new solutions for rescue operations.  It would particularly focus on persons with disabilities, and organizations of persons with disabilities would be invited to comment on the draft text prior to its adoption.  
 
Serbia was paying due attention to the current migration crisis, and had demonstrated great openness and willingness to address it.  Migrants transiting in Serbia had been provided with healthcare, transportation and accommodation.  Special care had been taken of pregnant women, including those who had delivered their baby in Serbia.  In such cases, the babies were also provided with adequate care, and their birth had been administratively recorded.  Serbia had worked collaboratively with the United Nations Refugee Agency, non-governmental organizations and journalists on these issues.  Twenty-four asylum applications had been received in 2015, and 10 in 2016.  None of them came from persons with disabilities. 
 
The law provided that physical restraints could only be forcibly applied in psychiatric institutions to a person with mental health difficulties in exceptional cases, when this was the only way to prevent this person from putting his or her life – or the life of others – at risk.  A person with mental health difficulties could be admitted in a psychiatric institution without his or her consent, or without the consent of his or her guardian when a psychiatrist  assessed that this was necessary to protect his or her life, or the life of others.  It was required to submit a notification to the competent court within 24 hours following forced institutionalization.  The court was then required to hold a hearing within the following three days to hear the views of the parties. 
 
Special education was only possible with the consent of the parents of a child with disability. There was no consensus on how to transform special schools, the delegation said.  One possible way was to have a number of schools transformed in resource centres where they would support inclusive education.  Some schools would become technology centres where education personnel could receive training on disability issues.  Universities and student libraries had been made accessible to persons with disabilities. 
 
Moving to human rights education for law enforcement officials, a delegate explained that a judicial academy had been established to provide training for future and current judges, including on European Union standards and the European Convention on Human Rights.  Continued training for judges was organized through seminars on different topics of relevance.  Training was also provided to prosecutors and police officers on issues such as non-discrimination.  The police academy was also organizing training for police staff, including on human rights, non-discrimination and the rights of persons with disabilities.  
 
Questions by the Experts
 
An Expert asked how many service providers had been licensed so far and how many of them were providers of services for persons with disabilities.  How many organizations financed by the Government had been licensed?
 
A Committee Member required additional information on safeguards to ensure that psychiatrists and personnel of psychiatric institutions could make decisions affecting persons with mental disabilities without bias. 
 
Turning to education, Experts asked what measures had been taken to improve access to higher education for students with disabilities.  Also, concerns were raised with regard to the lack of training on disability issues for teachers in inclusive schools.  Were support teachers specifically trained to use sign language in classrooms?
 
Several Experts required further information on measures taken to accommodate the needs of deaf persons and blind persons in general, including access to, and recognition of, sign language and Braille.  Experts referred specifically to access to information and the media, to access to the helpline for victims of gender violence, and to the publication of textbooks in Braille for students who needed them.
 
An Expert was concerned about the administration of contraceptives to institutionalized women and children, which could be decided by the institutions themselves when they acted as legal guardians.  The forced administration of contraceptives was not a proper protection from sexual violence or its consequences, the Expert said.  Other Experts echoed these concerns. 
 
A Committee member asked what efforts would be made to promote disability inclusion in the framework of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  What measures had been taken by the State party to comply with the recommendations of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, particularly with regards to the eradication of poverty among persons with disabilities. 
 
Replies by the Delegation
 
Accessible legal aid, SOS helplines and tele-assistance were provided by organizations of blind persons and other non-governmental organizations, with funding from the State.  The Government was working in cooperation with the Federation of Deaf Persons in developing a training programme in sign language.  After the adoption of the standardized sign language training programme, Serbia would be able to teach deaf culture and sign language at an advanced level.  So far, 300 persons, including staff of various public services, had participated in sign language training programmes. 
 
Inclusive education was a strategic choice for the Government.  The Action Plan for Inclusive Education was about to be adopted, and would further specify the methods and mechanisms for achieving that goal.  The Government did not have data on the education of children with disabilities, a delegate regretted.  The Government wanted to define a mechanism where funding would follow the child in the mainstream education, and where support was provided to children with disabilities.  Children with visual impairment and deaf children were educated both in mainstream and specialized schools.  The Law on Textbooks of 2014 specified that students with disabilities should use textbooks with a format adapted to their needs.  School tests could be taken in Braille.  Unfortunately, there was no system-wide approach to teacher training in sign language, except for teachers working in special schools.  One per cent of the places in faculties was reserved to students with disabilities. 
 
A Special Protocol had been adopted on the actions of staff in social protection services, prohibiting all forms of violence against clients, abuse of power and trust, neglect and other actions that violated the dignity, health and development of clients.  Medical interventions could only be taken with the consent of the person with disability or his or her guardian.  Amendments to the Family Law and the Law on Civil Proceedings would align the legislation with the Convention.  
 
Serbia had ratified the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence (the “Istanbul Convention”), and was in the process of harmonizing its legislation with its provisions. 
 
The total number of foster carers was higher than 6,000 in 2015, 20 per cent of which were special foster carers.  The number of institutionalized children had been considerably reduced.  In the future, Serbia would take measures to provide independent living through community housing support as part of the transformation of institutions. 
 
A database was being developed on persons with disabilities, with more than 40,000 persons registered to it.  The Government had data disaggregated by age, sex, type of disability and employment, educational and income status. 

Serbia had taken an active role in the negotiation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the definition of its goals, a delegate said.  The Government considered it a very ambitious agenda, and recognized the eradication of poverty as a priority.  It had created an inter-sectorial working group in September 2015 for the coordination of the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.  This working group would prepare periodic reports on the implementation. 
 
Closing Remarks
 
VLADANA JOVIC, Deputy Ombudsman of Serbia, in concluding remarks, welcomed Serbia’s commitment to improve the situation of persons with disabilities in the country.  What was needed was a higher level of cooperation among agencies and at the national and local levels, as well as better cooperation with civil society organizations.  What was also required was better allocation of financial and human resources, as well as independent monitoring of the improvement of the situation of persons with disabilities. 
 
MILOS JANKOVIC, Deputy Ombudsman of Serbia and Member of the United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture, in his concluding remarks, underlined the need to intensify the reduction of institutionalization of persons with disabilities.  He also referred to the need to have legally prescribed conditions for institutionalization, for imposing restraints and for using chemical substances.  
 
LASZLO GABOR LOVASZY, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Serbia, in his concluding remarks, welcomed the delegation of Serbia’s constructive participation in the dialogue, and its detailed responses to the questions raised by Committee members.  He encouraged Serbia to give due consideration to the recommendations by the Committee and to continue efforts for the protection of persons with disabilities. 

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