Respecting human and minority rights is one of the important priorities of the Republic of Serbia and is part of the country’s overall efforts to build a democratic culture and responsible institutions, says Suzana Paunović, director of the Office for Human and Minority Rights.
What is the situation with respecting human and minority rights at the beginning of 2019?
— Advancing human and minority rights and the quality of life of all citizens is a key priority of the Government of the Republic of Serbia. It is worth noting that the right to life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness are core human rights. Human rights, as well as minority rights as a kind of their collectivity, stem from the nucleus of this idea. This ideal is not easily achieved even by so-cieties and countries with a long tradition of liberal parliamentary democracy. Serbia is a coun-try with a long tradition of statehood, but not a parliamentary democracy. We cannot expect to skip decades and longer periods of time. The situation with human and minority rights is a sequence on a long path of building a democratic culture and functional institutions. We measure + progress by considering the state of human and minority rights at a certain moment. This process is neither straightforward nor irreversible – we must accept the inevitability of all childhood diseases and strive to overcome them as quickly as possible and with as little damage to the social tissue. If we look at the current moment and try to articulate it from the as-pect of the state of human and minority rights, it is necessary to point out several facts. In addition to improving the domestic normative framework, we regularly monitor the implementation of recommendations, which we have to apply as a country that is a signatory of international conventions in the field of human rights. We consider the recommendations as a guiding adjustment and an opportunity for self-examination. During each cycle of reporting about the state of human rights, Serbia gets new recommendations from the UN and the Council of Europe. The fact that their number is getting smaller and that their structure is significantly changing with every new cycle is a sign that we are making progress. We are one of the few countries that systematically monitor all recommendations made by the United Nations regarding the state of human rights in our country. This demonstrates institutional seriousness, which was recognized and positively evaluated by the most important UN bodies, as well as by the European Commission in the process of Serbia’s accession to the Euro-pean Un-ion. The way in which national minority rights in Serbia are guaranteed and implemented is respectable. In certain segments, our approach can serve as an example to the entire region and the EU. Respecting diversity in Serbia is a matter of commitment, and Serbia should continue imple-menting such a policy. Countries from this region like to see themselves as regional leaders in the processes and policies that are riding the tide of values on which the European Union is founded. I hope that it is not unreasonable to say that the EU recognizes Serbia as one of the leaders in working with national minorities and respecting their rights. If we want this reflection in the mirror to remain a reality, in the long run, I am aware that it will not be enough to just continue with the progress in terms of the position of national minorities. Minority rights are a broader category than the rights of national minorities, and public policies, however good and deserving of occasional praise, are only declarative if they do not materialize in the way society functions. We cannot separate minority rights from tolerance. Tolerance is not an innate value, and it is not a matter of a social habitat, but a matter of culture and education.
How much progress did we make in this segment in relation to the accomplishment of EU integration goals?
— During the EU accession process, Serbia has opened 16 out of a total of 35 negotiation chapters with the key chapters relating to human rights – Chapter 23: Judiciary and Fundamental Rights and Chapter 24: Justice, Freedom and Security. By default, these chapters are opened first and closed among the last due to the importance of this field and the complexity of the compliance process considering that there are only a few laws at the EU level that regulate this area. Countries have a task to deal with these issues in the best way, respecting the standards that constitute the foundations of the European Union. The Action Plan adopted by the Government for Chapter 23 pooled the efforts of state authorities, local governments and the non-governmental sector to address these issues in the best possible way. The fact that 80% of the activities are carried out or ongoing speaks volumes about the Serbian government’s commitment for meeting the standards that represent the foundations of the European Union and contribute to the improvement of the state of human rights. The Strategy for Prevention and Protection against Discrimination, as well as special action plans that regulate the position of national minorities and the Roma people in our country, are among the most important documents that have come out of this process.
The European Commission’s report states that Serbia has demonstrated “slower progress” in terms of media freedom, the rule of law and fighting organized crime and corruption. Which measures, that come under your Office’s jurisdiction, are you implementing so that the next report is better?
— We can debate about the segments of the EU report that you are highlighting. But the good thing is that we comprehend these parts of the report as a mature and responsible society. We are aware that there is no rule of law without media freedom. Free media are not only needed to provide information, but they are constructors of habits and tastes; free media educate and warn, problematize but also direct, and this is the way how we approach this topic in the Government of Serbia. The Office for Human and Minority Rights ensures that all relevant departments in the Government, the National Assembly, local self-governments and national minority councils are familiar with the recommendations related to these areas. We have developed a plan to fulfil all recommendations of the UN human rights mechanisms addressed to the Republic of Serbia. This plan contains a total of 388 recommendations, including those relating to media freedom, corruption and the rule of law in general. Furthermore, the Plan includes information on the status of the recommendations, the goals, the deadlines, as well as the competent authorities in charge of their fulfilment. I have to note that the EC has underlined the fact that Serbia regularly monitors and reports on the implementation of international treaties, and therefore on these recommendations. This annual overview of the situation, with recommendations for further improvement of human rights, as well as all other areas of social life, are important, not only for our country’s accession to the EU but also for the improvement of the position of all our citizens.
Which donors contribute to your operations the most?
— The UN agencies and the OSCE mission in Serbia provide continuous support to the work done by the Office for Human and Minority Rights, especially in regard to monitoring the implementation of international and regional human rights agreements. We got significant support for improving the position of vulnerable social groups, especially national minorities and the Roma people, through the implementation of the IPA and the EU Twinning programmes. The Council of Europe, Sweden’s SIDA, Germany’s GIZ, FOS in Serbia, and the Kingdom of Norway have also supported our work.
WE HAVE CLOSE COOPERATION WITH THE CIVIL SECTOR
Non-governmental organizations are the most important partners of the state in the promotion and protection of human rights. The dialogue with the non-governmental sector is constantly improving. Although it is quite natural that our views on certain issues do not fully match, it is important that we all work together to achieve the same goal. Organizations are the ones that have the most information on the situation in the field and can thus help us to determine priori-ties in action. In the past period, the Republic of Serbia has been striving to improve the cooperation with the non-governmental sector, both through financial support for the implementation of numerous projects, as well as through direct cooperation in the adoption of new laws and strategies. The state, provincial and local budgets have all allocated funds to support non-governmental organi-zations in the implementation of projects that relate to the improvement of human and minority rights. The Government’s Council, which I chair, and which monitors the implementation of the rec-ommendations of the UN human rights mechanisms, has signed memoranda of cooperation with 12 civil society organizations, with the interest constantly increasing. The Council has initiated the establishment of a Platform of Organizations, currently consisting of 18 civil society organizations that submit reports to UN mechanisms for human rights, and plans to promote this co-operation.