Serbia seeks to improve protection for human rights defenders

25/02/2014

Activists and the EU are urging Serbia to increase protection for human rights defenders.

By Ivana Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 25/02/14

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LGBT activists are a main target for extremist groups in Serbia. [Nikola Barbutov/SETimes]

Although Belgrade has made progress in its efforts to stop radical groups' actions against vulnerable members of society, including human rights defenders and minorities, more action is needed to achieve security and to meet EU standards, experts said.

"While we welcome the progress made, threats and violence remain a significant factor. Extreme right-wing organisations published a 'black list' of media organisations, NGOs and prominent human rights defenders, and incited violence against them. Authorities have not taken the appropriate [responsive] actions," the EU Delegation in Serbia said in a written statement for SETimes.

One of the most notable recent incidents involved threats against Aida Corovic, former head of the organisation Urban-In from Novi Pazar, a predominantly Muslim region in Serbia. Islamic extremists were threatening her because of her critical viewpoints on radical interpretations of Islam.

Police gave her around-the-clock protection when the threats escalated earlier this year.

"Systematic change is needed. The educational system, media system, the whole system should be improved if we want to be protected from extremism," Corovic told SETimes.

Milan Antonijevic, director of the Belgrade-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, said an increase in the government's efforts will benefit the country as a whole.

"The solution for human rights defenders' protection and the fight against extremist groups should be systematic, a strategy should be created. Of course that will also contribute to the EU integration process," Antonijevic said.

He added that on its path to EU accession, Serbia will need to implement Union guidance for human rights defenders.

"Since Serbia is in the process of accession, it is obligated to fight against the attacks on defenders, against the actions of extremist groups and to report them. Serbia is obliged to accept and adopt the EU regulations as its own. When chapters 23 and 24 are opened in negotiations, the question of protection for those who protect the rights of minorities will be opened too," Antonijevic said.

The EU guidelines aim to improve support and protection for human rights defenders in non-EU countries, allowing them to operate freely.

Human rights defenders play a key role in maintaining fundamental rights and in protecting victims by documenting violations, providing victims with legal, psychological, medical and other support, combating the impunity of those who violate the law, and raising awareness of human rights at national, regional and international levels.

"This document explains what the states should do in order to protect human rights defenders," Antonijevic said.

Boban Stojanovic, the founder of the Queeria Centre and a leading LGBT activist in Serbia, had his apartment in Belgrade attacked three months ago by a group called Fight 18, a local section of the European Nazi network Combat 18.

"They drew a big swastika, threw a Molotov cocktail at the window, posted stickers that said 'We know where you live. We know when you sleep.' If I was in the apartment that night, I would certainly have died because I would have gone out to see what was happening," Stojanovic told SETimes.

Goran Miletic, the Civil Rights Defenders programme director for the Western Balkans, said radical groups in Serbia mainly target the LGBT population, Roma, small religious communities and Albanians, as well as those who protect them.

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He told SETimes that although the country has appropriate standards and legal framework to increase its efforts against these groups, the implementation of the laws is lacking.

In 2009, the state amended the penal code to include racial crimes and discrimination. The law now includes protections for human rights defenders.

"The main culprit is the justice system. I hope that the process of EU accession will make these processes faster and more effective, which will improve the fight against these groups," Miletic told SETimes.

What steps can countries in the region take to ensure human rights defenders are protected? Add your opinion to the comments section.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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