Progress in minority rights protection is being implemented in accordance with EU standards and values.
By Ivana Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 21/02/14
Several primary schools in minority areas in Serbia use textbooks and teach in minority languages. [AFP]
Serbia is upgrading legislation and educational and cultural programmes for the betterment of rights for national minorities in an effort to meet EU standards and accelerate European accession.
Significant improvements in national minorities' rights have been made recently in Serbia, Meho Omerovic, president of the parliamentary Committee for Human and Minority Rights, told SETimes.
"According to the 2013 European Commission progress report on Serbia, the legal framework for national minorities' protection has been established. Adopted laws should be implemented, especially in the fields of education, language use and access to media and religious services in minority languages. Although there is obvious progress, constant efforts are necessary to improve Roma and displaced persons' positions," Omerovic told SETimes.
Parliament is currently reviewing amendments to the criminal code, which would increase prison sentences for hate crimes targeting race, religion, national or ethnic origin. Lawmakers are also debating amendments that will ensure that all minorities will receive proper identification.
"Our obligation is not only to harmonise our legislation with international standards, but also to implement it systematically, not only on the state level but also on a local level," Omerovic said.
Nebojsa Marjanovic, president of the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians in the Belgrade community, said the adoption of the law on national councils for minorities in 2009 contributed to improvements for minorities, especially in culture and education.
"The results are most visible in education. The national council established a system to help finance students, as well as some teaching personnel, in order to help them pursue their careers. The national councils have had an influence in selecting directors of the schools," Marjanovic told SETimes.
Slaven Bacic, president of the Croatian National Council in Serbia, told SETimes that classes taught in the Croatian language and programmes on national culture have become a part of primary school curriculum in villages where Croats live.
"The most significant result is printing class books in Croatian for primary schools, although the financial construction of the project is not closed yet," Bacic said.
Progress in education has also been made by the Bosniak national community in Serbia, according to Semir Gicic, the co-ordinator of culture and information in the Bosniak National Council. Teaching in the Bosnian language has been implemented in educational institutions in predominantly Muslim municipalities in Sandzak.
"The process of introducing schooling in Bosnian allows Bosniak community members to use their basic collective and identity rights. This is not only a linguistic issue, but also a cultural, historical and religious specification for Bosniaks, which is now a part of school books. The process affirms tolerance, co-existence and multiculturalism in Sandzak," Gicic told SETimes.
But along with progress on the minority rights issue, there have been some setbacks.
The Constitutional Court ruled in January that 10 articles of the law on national minority councils are wholly or partially unconstitutional.
The court said the provision regulating the councils' authority over the so-called "institutions of special importance for national minorities" is unlawful, as well as the provision that says national councils have founding rights in the media.
The regulation on the national councils' authority to appoint bodies to the state and provincial public media services is also unconstitutional, the court said.
The basis for the court ruling was that the articles favoured minority groups and gave them rights that the majority population does not have.
Although the decision left the foundations of the minority framework intact, the national minority councils plan to seek a solution to the decision.
Bacic urged the government to work harder on implementing adopted laws, since human rights protection is an important segment of the EU integration process.
"EU standards for minority rights protection should not be the only formal obligation that governments have to accomplish. There should be more awareness that minorities are equal citizens and have a need for protection of their rights," Bacic said.
Omerovic said Serbia is committed to achieving EU standards and values in the field of minority rights.
"Multi-culturalism, respect and the preservation of cultural, religious and linguistic diversity are European Union values. Because of that, it is very important that each state that is a candidate for membership in the European Union meets certain criteria and standards to become part of this community," he said.
What can countries in the region do to protect the rights of national minorities? Tell us what you think in the comments.