Report presented: The legal and institutional framework in Serbia regarding the rights and needs of civilian victims of war

Report presented: The legal and institutional framework in Serbia regarding the rights and needs of civilian victims of war

1On Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017, the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) presented the report The legal and institutional framework in Serbia regarding the rights and needs of civilian victims of war. This report provides a brief overview of the existing system in Serbia in terms of the rights and needs of civilian victims, and it seeks to ascertain its key shortcomings and identify recommendations for its amendments and improvements.

Opening the discussion on the Report, the HLC Legal Programme Director Milica Kostic stated that there are tens of thousands of people now living in the territory of Serbia, who were suffering during the wars in the former Yugoslavia as civilians or are families of civilian victims of war. Their rights are regulated by the Law on Civilian Invalids of War – the law that left thousands of people deprived of their rights. The HLC advocates its change for years, as it is one of the most drastic examples of discrimination. Due to the discriminatory implementation of this law, tens of thousands of citizens – as a rule the most vulnerable of them, cannot exercise their minimum rights that this law provides in the field of material protection and state aid. Victims of rape and sexual violence in the war, people who were imprisoned in the camps, families of the missing persons are excluded from this protection. Despite the Constitution and the Anti-Discrimination Law, as well as dozens of international conventions, this law distinguishes victims from whether they suffer from the physical or psychological consequences of violence and introduces categories such as whether the injury was inflicted by an enemy in a conflict or by a “friend”. These categories are incomprehensible and unlawful. It is important to point out that this law does not make the difference between “others” and “ours” – it disregards “ours”, that is, Serbian victims – for example, hundreds of victims of the Storm.

Kostić pointed out that despite the criticism from the European Union, the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, the Human Rights Committee and, most recently, The Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, there is no response from the competent state authorities. Last year, the Constitutional Court of Serbia rejected the initiative of the HLC to assess the constitutionality of this law, under the pretext of a procedural mistake. This year for the first time we had a section in the Report of the Ombudsman dealing with civilian victims of war. The Ministry of Labor, which is in charge of the implementation of this law, did nothing about it, but in 2014, it proposed a draft law that actually additionally worsens the position of civilian victims of war. Not even in the accession negotiations with the European Union this field had not been adequately addressed. In the Action Plan for Chapter 23, concerning human rights, the rights of victims are explained in an abstract manner and do not specifically concern victims of war.

The author of the report, Relja Radosavljevic, said that the Report represents an analysis of the legal framework and corresponding bylaws, and explains which rights are “reserved” for civilian victims of war and it further makes a parallel with other categories, such as war and peacetime military invalids. This is followed by a brief overview of procedures for exercising those rights under the law, so the Report can be used as a guide for people applying for the recognition of the status of a civilian victim, because in addition to being unaware of the mere existence of the Act, the procedure itself is non-transparent. The relevant institutions were also presented and HLC attempted to determine whether there were other social services envisaged for the victims of the war, but unfortunately, they were not found. The Report also offers a comparative overview of the situation in the region, in particular in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Kosovo, and then deals with EU regulations guaranteeing compensation, procedural rights and support for victims of serious crimes. These rules can be applied to victims of armed conflicts because they are the victims of the most serious crimes, and those rules will also be of importance for Serbia in the process of joining the EU.

Radosavljevic reminded the audience that the material for the Report was based on long-standing HLC’s expertise in representing victims in procedures for obtaining the status of a civilian victim of war, but also on information obtained primarily from local authorities in Serbia. As the key findings of the Report, he pointed out that the system of protection of civilian victims of war was inherited from the former Yugoslavia, that the applicable legal framework is discriminatory, that civilian victims are discriminated against in relation to military victims, that all the foreseen rights are in fact in the form of social protection, and that some of them were conditioned by the poor material position of the victim. As the key problems in obtaining the status, the victims are faced with great demands in terms of proving the proof of injury sustained, since they are required to have valid and complete medical and other documentation from the time when the injury or death (for the families of victims) occurred. Another problem is related to the arbitrary interpretation of the legal concepts of “enemies”, “war” and “war events”, and particularly problematic is an interpretation of the Law so that it applies only to the territory of Serbia, effectively excluding all victims who live in Serbia today and come from other republics of the former common state. An additional burden for the victims – applicants is a necessity to obtain a large number of certificates proving their poor material status and the fact that they do not make any other income.

Radosavljevic concluded that, according to the available data, no civilian victim of war was sheltered in social housing, and that there are no other services – rehabilitative, social, inclusive and integrative, which is of great concern as this population is older and, due to their age, additionally marginalized in society.

Lejla Heremic, a social worker from the NGO Medica Zenica from BiH, said that since its establishment in 1992, this organization has been providing psychosocial and medical assistance to survivors of sexual violence in the war, but since 2006, recognizing the need for this, it also started providing legal assistance. That year, thanks to the high pressure and appeal of civil society, victims of sexual violence, as a particularly vulnerable category in Bosnian society, have been included in the existing law on civilian victims. Since then, efforts have been made to improve the process of exercising their rights, although slowly. In 2011, Medica established the Network for the Support of Witnesses in War Crimes, Sexual Violence and Other Crimes. This Network and such support were also important for the Prosecution, who they already had war crimes trials, but the Prosecutors did not know that the victims could exercise that right. Heremic said that they have had situations when victims say they have been visiting centers for social work for twenty years, but nobody has given them or explained to them the status of a civilian victim of war.

Heremic stressed that applying for the status of a civilian victim means that women talk about what happened to them, which is always difficult and implies termination of anonymity. Some survivors abandoned the procedure, simply because they do not want to recall the trauma, or because they have to provide a medical report on the current treatment with a neuropsychiatrist. For the status of a civilian victim of war, rather apply women who are undergoing worse economic conditions. Once they have exercised their rights, they still do not consider that they are adequately recognized by the state. The help they recognize and that matters to the victims is the help of non-governmental organizations. Medica research has shown that persons who have managed to exercise their rights show a lower level of PTSD, a better health status and a higher quality of life.

Heremic concluded that this progression unfortunately refers only to one part of BiH, to the Federation of BiH. In 2007, in the other entity (Republika Srpska) the deadline for applying for civilian victim status expired.

Report The legal and institutional framework in Serbia regarding the rights and needs of civilian victims of war is available here.