New Text of the Bill on Civilian Victims of War further Degrades their Status
The state secretary at the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Policy, Dragan Popovic, has recently said that the state respects and fulfils the rights of victims of war and that the Bill on the Rights of Veterans, Disabled Veterans, Civilians Invalids of War and their Families, which, as it has been announced, will be submitted to the Government, is aligned with the European acquis. As regards this statement and having reviewed the revised text of the Bill, the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) and the organizations comprising the Coalition Against Discrimination and the Coalition for Access to Justice call on this Ministry to stop deceiving the international and domestic public and above all more than 20,000 civilian victims of war living in Serbia, and to explain why the state refuses to respect their rights guaranteed by international conventions to which Serbia is a signatory.
Although more than one year has passed since the public consultation regarding the Bill was closed, the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Policy has not yet informed the public about the outcome of the public consultation and whether it accepted any of the many objections raised by victims’ associations or comments and suggestions raised by the HLC, announcing, however, that certain changes have been made to the text. In late October, the HLC submitted a request to the Ministry for access to the Bill, under the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Interest, but the Ministry rejected the request saying that the text of the Bill would be made publicly available only after receiving opinions from other ministries.
Nonetheless, the HLC recently gained access to this unlawfully hidden version of the Bill. Having thoroughly examined the text, the HLC underlines that the changes introduced by the Ministry following the public consultation were either just cosmetic changes of the existing legal framework or changes deteriorating the already disadvantaged position of civilian victims of war in Serbia.
In addition to taking over the same requirements laid down in the current law – that only individuals who sustained a physical impairment of 50% or more due to wounds or injuries inflicted by the enemy forces during war are to be considered civilian victims of war – the new Bill introduces another requirement according to which an application for status recognition must be submitted within 10 years of the occurrence of a harm (Article 140). Setting this time limit puts an end to any possibility of civilian victims living in Serbia exercising any of the rights provided for in the Bill. Furthermore, the new Bill explicitly introduces a condition which requires that a harm must have occurred on the territory of the Republic of Serbia. (Article 19), in contrast to the current law which does not stipulate such a condition (this condition emerged through the practice of the bodies deciding on the applications).
As regards the statement of a Ministry’s representative that the families of missing persons would also be included in the new law, which was presented as the major concession made to the families of civilian victims of war, it is patently clear that this is a merely nominal change, not a true change of the state’s attitude towards the families of missing persons. Namely, Article 19 of the Bill is changed to grant the status of civilian victims also to the families of Serbian civilians who went missing. However, the Bill maintains the unreasonable requirement for the families of missing persons to initiate judicial proceedings in order to declare the disappeared family member dead (Article 136). Such a requirement is directly opposite to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (Article 24), as noted also by the Committee on Enforced Disappearances in its Concluding Observations on the implementation of the Convention in Serbia. The Committee urged Serbia to ensure “that all victims of enforced disappearances that may have been perpetrated in the past obtain full reparation […] without discimination and without having to declare the disappeared person deadˮ [emphasis added].
Another change made in the text of the Bill concerns the provision which stipulates that all cash benefits under this scheme are considered to be a form of compensation for damage. Equating the rights pertaining to the domain of social security to a form of compensation reveals the obvious intent of the drafters to stop all compensation lawsuits brought against the state by the victims and families of victims of violations of human rights in the 1990s.
The HLC underlines that the text of the Bill in its entirety is an example of institutionalized discrimination against a large category of Serbian citizens. As such, it is contrary not only to the provisions of the Serbian Constitution but also to the commitments undertaken by Serbia in the process of transposing the EU acquis, including the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights, into its national law. This primarily concerns the obligation to implement social security measures without discriminating particular groups of beneficiaries, unless there is an objective and reasonable justification for so doing. (See, e.g. the case of Stec and Others v. the United Kingdom, European Court of Human Rights).
Additionally, the explanation given by Ministry officials that the Bill is in line with the European acquis since it has been approved by the European Integration Office of the Government of the Republic of Serbia is not valid, because a number of obligations imposed by relevant EU Directives (2004/80/EZ and 2012/29/EU), referring to the obligation of the state to provide compensation and assistance to victims of severe crimes, were not incorporated into the Bill. Also, the 2015 European Commission Progress Report for Serbia noted that only a few victims of war crimes have access to effective compensation under the current legal framework, and the Action Plan for Chapter 23 envisages that domestic legislative framework should be harmonized with the concept of “victim” under international law, in the first half of 2016. According to the Action Plan, the body responsible for the implementation of this measure is the Ministry of Justice. Hence the uncooperative and ignorant behaviour of the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Policy in the process of drafting the Bill is a step backwards for Serbia on its path towards EU membership.
The HLC recalls that civil society organisations have already urged the Ministry and the Government of the Republic of Serbia to withdraw the Bill regulating the rights of the civilian victims from adoption procedure and to draft a new version of the text which would be based on the Model Law on the Rights of Civilian Victims of Human Rights Violations Committed during and in Connection with Armed Conflicts in the Period 1991-2001.
Humanitarian Law Center
Coalition Against Discrimination comprising: Centre for Advanced Legal Studies, Civil Rights Defenders, Labris – Organization for Lesbian Human Rights, CHRIS – Network of Committees for Human Rights, Association of Disabled Students, Gayten LGBT, PRAXIS and Regional Minority Centre
Coalition for Access to Justice comprising: Centre for Advanced Legal Studies, Civil Rights Defenders, CHRIS – Network of Committees for Human Rights, Humanitarian Law Center, Youth Initiative for Human Rights, Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina, Sandžak Committee for the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms, NUNS and PRAXIS.