Human Rights and Democracy

Danilo Vuković

Despite the relatively developed legal and institutional framework that protects human rights in Serbia, in the past decade – which can be characterized as a period of marginal progress but also significant stagnation and setbacks – there have been numerous cases of their violation.

When it comes to freedom of expression, the lack of tolerance towards dissidents is a constant feature of Serbian society. Social intolerance first manifested itself in issues that marked the first decade of the “October 5 Republic”. This was primarily related to the human rights of the LGBT community members and the interpretation of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the wars that followed. However, there is a recent decline in the government’s tolerance of criticism, which we are seeing in all spheres of political life, in parliamentary debates, media appearances, public discussions, etc. The media discourse and arguments of the ruling elites are increasingly reminiscent of the models of delegitimizing interlocutors from the 1990s. Government officials are also initiating lawsuits against journalists and political activists with the aim of further limiting public criticism.

Freedom of peaceful assembly has instrumental value, both for the government and for the citizens of Serbia, but its respect was dependent on the context. In cases where freedom of peaceful assembly was an indicator of the quality of democracy and the rule of law, the government provided adequate protection. On the other hand, numerous socio-economic and political protests were not treated favorably. Lately, when faced with strong civil discontent, the government has tolerated unreported protests and in a way guaranteed freedom of public expression. However, protests that erupted in mid-2020, sparked by the announcement of a new curfew, were met with excessive use of force by the police. There are also lingering suspicions that the government itself was involved in provoking numerous incidents.

The prohibition of discrimination became part of our legal system with the adoption of the Constitution in 2006 and the Law on Prohibition of Discrimination in 2009, which established the institution of the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality and provided for judicial and misdemeanor protection. However, although institutional mechanisms have been established, citizens still don’t trust the state institutions and therefore don’t search for protection there.

Institutional mechanisms for protection against discrimination have been established, but most citizens state that in case of discrimination they would not turn to anyone (41%), 22% would approach the Commissioner, 14% the police, and only 4% would go to court. Among citizens who would not turn to state institutions, as many as 59% cite distrust in institutions as the main reason (Commissioner, 2019).

Limited progress has also been made on the right to a fair trial. The burning issues are the length of court proceedings, non-enforcement of judgments and protection of property. Numerous verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights make this obvious. The Law on the Protection of the Right to a Trial within a reasonable Time entered into force in 2016, but it has not yielded expected results. However, the data of the Supreme Court of Cassation indicate that, in the last decade, the average duration of the court process has been significantly shortened. The Law on Free Legal Aid began to be applied only at the end of 2019, and the first analyses indicate low institutional capacities for its application. Citizens who meet relatively restrictive criteria for receiving financial social assistance are entitled to free legal aid. On the other hand, citizens’ associations have been given the right to provide free legal aid only in the areas of asylum and protection against discrimination, through hired lawyers. On their own, they can only give advice and fill out forms. Therefore, it is estimated that access to free legal aid, and thus access to justice, is still unavailable for a significant part of the citizens of Serbia.

It seems that, unlike civil and political rights, which have in some way remained in the center of public and media attention throughout the decade, socio-economic rights stay neglected. The interests of workers were neglected by both the political elites that were in power until 2012, and those that make up the current government. The situation on the Serbian labor market is characterized by low wages and a low level of labor law protection. Young and senior workers, as well as Roma, are in a particularly bad position at the job market. All of them are characterized not only by instability of employment, but also by poor working conditions, low incomes and a low level of labor and legal protection. Trade unions, which have the role of protecting workers’ rights, lost their members and power during the transition.

Inequalities are seen not only in terms of employment and income, but also in access to public services, such as health care and education. Health insurance coverage is lower among the rural population and among Roma, and refugees, IDPs and undocumented persons also have difficulty accessing services. Similarly, certain groups in our society face barriers to accessing education. The rural population, the poorer social class and the Roma have less access to pre-school education services, while the greatest segregation between children from middle/upper and lower class occurs at the transition from primary to secondary school.

Children from the middle and upper class enroll in grammar schools, which later lead them to university education. Children from the lower class, even when they do well in primary school, choose secondary vocational schools that lead them to the labor market faster and impose lower tuition costs. In addition, the learning process shifts from school to home. This, along with the decline of some educational, recreational and upbringing functions of the school, creates a new market of educational and recreational services and new financial pressure on families with lower and middle incomes. All these are just some of the indicators of an inefficient and non-inclusive education system that fails to provide equal services to all citizens.


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