Press statement of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the situation of human rights defenders

The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the situation of human rights defenders, Ms. Hina Jilani, issued the following statement on her preliminary findings of her official visit to the Republic of Serbia.

The visit to the Republic of Serbia of the Special Representative started on 17 September in Belgrade and will continue to Kosovo on 20 and 21 September. The Special Representative will conclude her visit to the region with a follow up mission to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia that she visited in 2003.

The Special Representative thanks the Serbian Government for extending to her the invitation to visit the country and the collaboration provided in the realization of the visit. She also thanks the UN Resident Coordinator and his Office for the support provided in organizing the visit and the interest in following up recommendations to support human rights defenders in Serbia that will stem from the report on this mission. The report on the visit will be presented and discussed at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2008.

During the 3 days spent in Belgrade, the Special Representative met with Government representatives, members of the judiciary and the Parliament, the Ombudsperson and the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance, the international community, and human rights defenders.

Serbia is a country in transition and is confronted with the challenges coming both from the recent past and the crimes committed during the past regime as well as the challenges linked to the future and the uncertainties about determinations on Kosovo, which dominate the political discourse. This environment slows down the advancement of the country on many fronts, including and in particular on human rights.

This is the context in which human rights defenders operate. It is a context that affects heavily the work of defenders both in terms of challenges they have to address as well as achievements that can be registered.

The Special Representative recognizes a number of positive developments in the human rights situation of Serbia and that of defenders. She notes that attacks against human rights defenders have reduced in number and the environment is generally less repressive. In addition, she notes:
– A vibrant community of human rights defenders with recognized expertise developed during difficult times and harsh battles. This is a valuable asset not only for civil society but for the country as a whole.
– Improved access to information provided by State authorities to defenders. The positive role of the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance is consistently recognized as a key factor in this area.
– The establishment of independent human rights institutions, like the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and the Ombudsperson. This institution has just been established and its effectiveness cannot be assessed at this stage. The Ombudsperson needs support to be in a position to deliver the benefits expected from it.
– Some examples, although not systematic, of fruitful interaction between State actors and civil society, as in the case of access to prisons by defenders, the participation of civil society in drafting legislation affecting them and their work, and the capacity building activities provided by NGOs to state institutions, including the judiciary.

The draft law on citizens` associations, which is about to be debated in the Parliament, is another significant development for civil society. It is a positive step but it also presents some concerns that are to be addressed. The law is welcome as an instrument giving legal legitimacy to civil society organizations. The consultative process of sectors of civil society undertaken during the drafting stages is also positive and should be continued and strengthened when legislation affecting defenders and their human rights work is being drafted.

However, the Special Representative is told that some provisions of the draft are somewhat “over-regulatory” and can result in selective and intrusive control of the State on the work of some organizations. Those more critical towards the Government are more exposed to this risk.

In addition, the Special Representative is particularly concerned to learn that voluntary organizations are not exempted from taxation. She is assured by the Ministry on Local Self Government that it recommend adopting a tax free regime for non profit organizations, and hopes that this is the system that will be applied.

The Special Representative takes note of the vibrant and active human rights community in Serbia. Their expertise and knowledge in human rights, including the ability to use the international and regional human rights mechanisms, are unquestioned. She observes that the freedom of human rights defenders to operate has certainly improved since the Milosevic era. However, despite the positive changes pointed out above, the environment for the work of human rights defenders has yet to be improved to an extent where they can carry out their activities with safety and facility. It is regrettable that the very organizations who have been in the forefront of the Serbia’s human rights movement are targeted for marginalization and criticism by some quarters of the Government. This core group of NGOs prepared the ground for other human rights organizations which are now functioning in the country and do important human rights work in areas, such as legal aid, discrimination, lesbian, gay, bisexuals, transgender and inter-sexual (LGBTI) rights, women’s rights, minority rights, disability, human rights education, etc.

One of the major concerns of the Special Representative is the hostile attitude against the core group of human rights NGOs and prominent defenders, mostly women, who are under constant attack, mainly in the media. This acrimony against defenders appears to linked to their work on transitional justice and minority rights. These are issues that some sectors of the political establishment are not willing to address.

This stigmatization of defenders, which portrays them as “enemies” of the country is not countered by supportive statements of State authorities that would give them legitimacy. Firm stands of State authorities would contribute significantly to give to the defenders’ community recognition and protection.

Human rights defenders outside the capital are more vulnerable to attacks and harassment as they are more isolated and distant from the protection networks that exist in Belgrade. This situation is particularly concerning for women defenders working in rural areas. Defenders working on LGBTI rights are also particularly targeted.

The interaction of defenders with the Government and other State actors is neither systematic nor institutionalized. It takes place on an ad hoc basis and it depends on personal contacts or the good will of individuals in the public institutions.

There is no human rights action plan or policy determining human rights priorities and objectives for the country. This reflects the low level of priority that the Government gives to human rights and the work of defenders. The Government Agency for Human and Minority Rights does not seem to have the mandate and the means to take the leading role in this area.

The Special Representative is of the opinion that the presence and support of the international community to State institutions and civil society is critical for countries in transition. The role of international organizations has been crucial to support defenders in Serbia and to build their capacity. The Special Representative is concerned about the current trend of reducing the presence of the international community and funding made available to human rights NGOs.

The Special Representative wishes to make the following preliminary recommendations:

To the Government and relevant State actors:

-Take concrete steps to give political recognition and legitimacy to human rights defenders and their work. This can be made by way of firmly condemning attacks and campaigns against defenders and by acknowledging the importance of their work.
– Institutionalize interaction and consultation processes with civil society.
– Adopt a national plan or strategy on human rights with specific measures for the protection of human rights defenders and their activities.
– Take more forceful action on investigating, prosecuting and sentencing cases regarding violations against human rights defenders and provide adequate protection and redress to human rights defenders affected by these violations.
– Ensure tax exemption for non profit organizations.

To the international community and donors:

– Continue and strengthen support provided to human rights defenders, both in terms of funding and capacity building. This should be done respecting the independence of the defenders in determining their priorities and strategies and preserving their monitoring role of State institutions.

To human rights defenders:

– Improve coordinating networks aimed at strengthening the protection of defenders, particularly those outside the capital.
– Expand capacity among defenders to make full use of the existing national and international human rights mechanisms.