Milan Antonijević, director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, opened the conference by expressing his satisfaction with the composition of discussion participants divided into two panels, both on very significant topics, that include national minorities and fundamental rights, as well as documents developed during the negotiation process with the EU within the scope of Chapter 23.
Mr. Antonijević reminded everyone that the National Convention on the European Union (NCEU) forwarded the invitation by the Ministry of State Administration and Local Self-Government to all members and organizations that deal with national minorities and expressed his hope that the discussion on the Report on the Implementation of the Action Plan for Implementing Chapter 23 will be fruitful.
Mr. Antonijević addressed all the questions that were raised at NCEU sessions that are traditionally held in the National Assembly. Additionally, he thanked the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany for its support in holding and organizing the conference, as well as the overall support of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Serbia in its negotiation process with the EU.
Ivan Bošnjak, State Secretary in the Ministry of State Administration and Local Self-Government (MDULS), began by noting that civil society organizations have become hosts at the National Assembly, that they have a significant and constructive role in contemporary Serbian society, highlighting the fact that the previous two ministers of MDULS were from the CSO sector, as well as the necessity of CSO expertise in this period of reforms and integration. Mr. Bošnjak also talked about the organizational changes within MDULS (human resources, reform of work with different sectors) that were implemented in order to increase the functionality of not only the ministry, but also government on all three levels. Mr. Bošnjak further noted that MDULS is dedicated to completely implementing all decisions made on the central level in all levels of government, including the lowest.
Mr. Bošnjak highlighted that problems still exist, and that civil society support is key in the further depolitization and professionalization of public administration. Additionally, he talked about how MDULS opened itself up to citizens and that there is now a good communication via social networks not only with citizens, but also other state actors, giving credit to Minister Brnabić for introducing this system of communication.
Mr. Bošnjak further explained how MDULS received the task of implementing recommendations regarding the improvement of the legal and administrative framework for preventing conflict of interest in the work of civil servants. He also highlighted the preparations being made for amending the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Significance, and that a special working group was formed on 3 November 2016 for the preparation of a draft of this law. MDULS is also in charge of implementing the Action Plan for the Development of E-Administration as well as strengthening the capacity of the Ombudsman.
In conclusion, Mr. Bošnjak highlighted the large role and significance of civil society involvement in the depolitization and strengthening of transparency of the public administration
H.E. Axel Dittmann, Ambassador of FR Germany in Serbia, expressed his gratitude to YUCOM for organizing the second conference on national minorities in the National Assembly. At the beginning of his address, Mr. Dittmann addressed the latest report by the European Commission where he highlighted that the normative framework for the protection of rights and culture of national minorities exists and that it is generally adhered to, showing a serious intent by the state to achieve them. He emphasized the importance of not only state bodies, but also CSOs and independent institutions in the achievement of all fields of fundamental rights per the Action Plan for Chapter 23. Mr. Dittmann then focused on the negative comments from the report, that points to the significance of achieving freedom of expression, where much greater efforts need to be invested in order to secure the unimpeded work of journalists according to all European and international standards. Additionally, Mr. Dittmann highlighted the importance of enacting the new Law on Anti-Corruption Agency. Even though he participated at this year’s Pride event, he pointed to the fact that there are still large prejudices present in society, but also noted that steps were made in improving the position of the LGBT community in Serbia.
The significance of Chapter 23 in achieving economic and political development of Serbia was also emphasized, as rule of law and the respect of human and minority rights represent the basis of functioning of the EU, where Mr. Dittmann expressed the full support of Germany in Serbia’s efforts to join the EU.
Concluding his address, Mr. Dittmann articulated his hope for the quick opening the third chapter (26), considering that two chapters have been opened, with one already concluded.
Oskar Benedikt, Deputy Head of the EU Delegation to Serbia, commended the efforts of the NCEU and Government of the Republic of Serbia in implementing the AP, highlighting that this is a sign of dedication to reforms. Mr. Benedikt expects a wide inclusion of CSOs in the implementation of both Action Plans, especially expecting the inclusion of the Council for National Minorities in the AP for national minorities. He also emphasized the role of all stakeholders in order to ensure a quality society reform process. The active role of the National Assembly in this process is also unavoidable and necessary. In addition, he highlighted the importance of adhering to the given deadlines in the entire process, and also that these conferences offer an excellent platform for discussion.
Mr. Benedikt said that the implementation of APs is met with obstacles, and that despite some activities being completed, quality implementation within specified deadlines must be ensured through greater effort. The EC is ready to offer support to the Republic of Serbia in the sense of human resources and experts.
The fulfillment of AP obligations will determine the further course of negotiations. Concluding, , Mr. Benedikt said that the purpose of AP 23 is the building of a secure society where all citizens are equal, national minority rights are upheld and the responsibility of relevant institutions is increased.
Suzana Paunović, director of the Office for Human and Minority Rights (KLJMP), presented the activities of KLjMP, highlighting as the key activity the reporting on the implementation of the AP for National Minorities. Although quarterly reporting is obligatory, Ms Paunović stated that due to parliamentary elections, KLjMP was not able to adhere to the given reporting deadlines, and that the quarterly reports were turned into semi-annual, where the report that was recently presented was for the first two quarters of 2016, whereas the second one will cover the third and fourth quarter. Ms Paunović highlighted as one of the most important activities of the year for KLJMP the preparatory activity, i.e. development of the methodology for reporting on the implementation of the AP for National Minorities, with the Council for National Minorities confirming that the methodology is good. She added that it has been agreed that each individual national minority council will submit its own report for the respective minority. Ms Paunović took the opportunity to address the fact that a certain number of state institutions, local governments and national minority councils did not submit their contributions for the Report, emphasizing that some of the councils did not submit their contributions despite having extensive comments on the Report.
Ms Paunović then talked about the the results of the Report on the Implementation of the AP 23 for National Minorities. She explained how KLjMP is increasing the capacities of local government units for reporting with the support of the Standing Conference of Towns and Municipalities, in order to ensure their constant contribution to the report, as well as to help the units themselves in recognizing their roles in the reporting process.
Regarding LGBT rights, Ms Paunović said that an all-encompassing campaign has been commenced on a national and local level, for which she hopes will improve the position of the LGBT community.
In addition, Ms Paunović stated that the Strategy for Improving the Position of the Roma Community by 2025 has been enacted, its AP is in the development phase, and that she expects the line ministry to forward it to the Assembly for deliberation. She also added as a significant fact that other laws, such as e.g. Law on Housing that deals with the issue of displacement of informal settlements, contain elements from the Strategy, stating that KLJMP will monitor its implementation.
Meho Omerović, President of the Council for Human and Minority Rights, spoke in general about the significance of Chapter 23, rights of national minorities and all other rights, stating that there is a lot of work to be done in the implementation of AP 23, as well as the importance of everyone working in continuity together on the implementation of the AP. He also emphasized that only Serbia has several APs for national minorities, which points to the massiveness of activities. Despite Serbia having clearly defined its activities and respective deadlines, Mr. Omerović pointed towards the lack of uniformity, i.e. inadequacy of deadlines. He also highlighted that some laws from the AP were not enacted, such as – the Law on Employees in Autonomous Provinces and Local Government Units, Law on Textbooks, Law on Prevention of Domestic Violence, Law on Amendments to the Criminal Code, law in the field of judiciary, Law on Social Entrepreneurship. Mr. Omerović stated that the biggest issue is that good laws exist, but are not implemented well and efficiently. Additionally, he highlighted the importance of securing the representation of national minorities within the public sector and companies, for which he thinks that a good legislative framework exists.
Mr. Omerović concluded with the observation that a symbiosis between state institutions, CSOs and the media is necessary in order to ensure a quality and efficient implementation of action plans for Chapter 23.
Izabela Kisić, Executive Director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, expressed her satisfaction regarding state representatives having spoken highly of their cooperation with CSOs, as well as their significance in negotiations, but also stated that this does not reflect reality, highlighting the campaign against CSOs that is being held throughout the duration of the negotiations, not only via the media, but also through the government representatives. Ms Kisić stated that some of the organizations left the process due to inadequate reactions by the state towards this campaign, expressing her hope that the stance towards independent CSOs will improve. Regarding the indicators, Ms Kisić emphasized that the problem with them is that they are essentially based on form, and that despite the Report on the Implementation of AP 23 claiming that activities were completed, this does not necessarily mean that they are actually completed. She also emphasized that this applies to laws as well, naming as an example the Law on Banning Genocide Denial.
Ms Kisić further stated that, for many years now, a discussion on the essence of the EC’s reports is lacking. In the context of freedom of expression, she touched upon the illegal removal of the management team of Radio-Television Vojvodina, where CSOs submitted proposals for the strengthening of the independence of this institution, with no answer. She also discussed the elections for the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media Council, where a CSO representative has not yet been elected, the process is continually disrupted, but the Council still conducts its operations in an incomplete compostion.
Nikola Kovačević, lawyer from the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, agreed with Mr. Antonijević and Omerović in the evaluation of the legislative framework as good, but stated that implementation is lacking. This is in relation to judiciary efficacy, where with the introduction of prosecutor investigation in the Criminal Code on 1 October 2013, Mr. Kovačević noted that that prosecutors were left on their own, as they did not have enough human, technical and infrastructure resources to conduct the job that courts were conducting up to that point. Regarding the ban on torture, Mr. Kovačević emphasized the part of the UN Report on Torture which noted that prosecuting torture perpetrators, mainly members of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is usually inadequate whether due to sanctions that are usually conditional, or due to the principle of absolute obsolescence in the CC for police officers, which is contrary to international law customs. He gave as an example more than 170 criminal charges submitted against more than 250 police officers, where only 8 of them managed to reach the main discussion phase, and the prosecutions usually rejects the charges. Mr. Kovačević then discussed the overpopulation in prison institutions as another serious issue that was noted by the UN Report (Sremska Mitrovica, Požarevac, Zabela institutions have double the amount of inmates compared to capacities), as well as the systematic denial of torture by the state, emphasizing an example where the delegation of the Committee against Torture of the Council of Europe visited several police stations chosen at random and found cases of torture on the spot that the state subsequently denied and rejected the charges as unfounded. Additionally, there is a group of people that are still waiting to serve their prison sentences (usually small ones under a year) due to this overpopulation, stating that judicial practice can easily change this (instead of giving prison sentences, they can be given different modes of sanctions, for which there are good laws).
Petar Žmak, Project Coordinator for Public Policies of Civic Initiatives and member of the Intersector Subgroup for Freedom of Expression and Media, noted that in August 2014, a set of laws were enacted that were supposed to harmonize this field with EU acquis, discussing the problems in their implementation. The goal of those laws was to ensure the state’s exit from media ownership and creation of a system of independent media that will inform the public on pressing issues in a timely and correct manner, without political influence. Mr. Žmak stated that the free sale model of media privatization is inadequate, mainly due to a lack of protective measures, noting the example of RTV Kragujevac whose owner closed it upon taking it over.
Ivan Đurić, program director of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, gave a general address on the presentations by previous panelists.
The following panel on national minorities was opened by Ana Janković Jovanović, lawyer of the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, who gave a short summary of the topic of the panel.
Robert Sepi, Deputy Obmudsman in charge of national minority rights, talked about Mr. Dittmann’s observation that Chapter 23 is extremely important for the entire negotiation process, referring to the reasons for which this chapter is significant for the Ombudsman institution as well: 1) the syntagma of human and minority rights is present in all segments of society; and 2) the AP itself deals with the two institutions that are the main pillars and walls in the protection of human rights, those being an independent and efficient judiciary and work of independent institutions. Regarding the judiciary, he referred to Mr. Antonijević’s address related to the problem of non-final court judgments, whereas from the aspect of the Ombudsman there is a problem with the implementation of final judgments. Additionally, Mr. Sepi addressed hate speech, defending the judges by stating that they did not receive adequate education on the subject, in addition to the fact that the legislative framework is pretty conservative and is not in accordance with Council of Europe standards, but also that this framework will be harmonized over time. Mr. Sepi noted that the AP included comments and recommendations from the Protector of Citizens, but he also had suggestions that legislative and normative activities should recognize the real interests and needs of national minorities, and that their rights and freedoms should be improved in accordance with the real capabilities of the state. Mr. Sepi concluded by addressing the indicators, where he raised the issue of several institutions in charge of certain activities, and why they were chosen for them.
Goran Bašić, Director of the Institute for Social Sciences, noted the lack of availability of information on this topic, saying that this make the work of people that deal with this topic a lot harder, including national minorities. Mr. Bašić talked about the pressures Serbia is experiencing regarding national minorities in the context of opening and working on Chapter 23. In his evaluation of the AP for Chapter 23, Mr. Bašić talked about the misgivings in evaluating the completion of indicators, giving as an example the amendments to the Draft Law on the Protection of Rights and Freedoms of National Minorities from 2002, where the changes did not achieve actual improvements in the protection of the rights of national minorities. He also talked about the delay in enacting the AP for Implementing the Strategy for the Inclusion of the Roma Community. Mr. Bašić further noted the confusion regarding terminology, where terms such as inclusion and integration are used interchangeably, even though they do not have the same definition, calling for this issue to be rectified.
Vlado Radulović, Advisor in the Department for the Improvement of the Rights of National Minorities at the Office for Human and Minority Rights, noted that this particular AP is one of many areas of the larger AP for the Negotiation Chapter 23, that the Office continued to develop the documents via an inclusive process, where the working group for the development of the document contained representatives of CSOs, national councils for national minorities and international organizations, with the work coordinated by an expert hired by the Council of Europe. Accepting the faults in the document, Mr. Radulović emphasized that this document offers KLJMP the possibility to measure the realization of activities within the area of protecting national minorities. He also refereed to last years’ parliamentary elections as a reason for the delay of the Quarterly Report. Concurrently, Mr. Radulović highlighted the inadequate preparation of some contact persons in the quarterly reporting process, as well as the inadequacy of contributions to the report due to a lack of timely training.
Darko Baštovanović, Researcher at the Center for Regionalism, talked about the social position of the Croatian national minority, as well as its significance in Serbia’s Euro-integration process. Highlighting the centuries-old presence of the Croatian national minority on the territory of Serbia and talking about the factors that influence the position of that particular minority, Mr. Baštovanović discussed the lack of policies targeting minority groups, claiming that they are inconsistent, and also addressed the relations within the Croatian minority community and between Croatia and Serbia. Mr. Baštovanović further stated that Serbia commenced its democratization process much later than other post-communist states, and that as a result, policies towards national minority groups is often inconsistent and confusing. Talking about regulating the position of national minorities, he stated that the process must be done within the framework of standards set in contemporary Europe. Mr. Baštovanović also talked about the socio-political realities that governed during the enactment of the Law on the Protection of Rights and Freedoms of National Minorities in 2002, and how the law does not fulfill the aforementioned standards of contemporary Europe. Discussing about Croats in Serbia, their perspective and significance in EU integrations, he expects that their position will improve with the fulfillment of measures from the AP, amending the current legislative framework, enacting of key European documents, intensified dialogue between Serbia and national minorities, as well as the inclusion of the Croatian national minority in the negotiation process for Chapter 23.
Marko Kmezić, lecturer and senior researcher at the University of Graz, addressed the statement by Mr. Bošnjak that Serbia can represent an example to certain EU members regarding the legislative framework for the protection of national minorities, raising the question of how much we are actually satisfied with the results achieved so far. Mr. Kmezić then addressed the question of ‘rule of law’, specifically its definition, which differs among experts from the EU. He then talked about the strategy of the state of Serbia for national minorities, for which he states that it is correct, considering the wide coalition of states, including USA, that have been invited by Serbia to aid in the improvement of the position and rights of national minorities, but also that it needs to have its basis in the implementation of all obligations that Serbia has accepted through its negotiations with the EU and bilateral agreements with neighbors. Mr. Kmezić also stated that the fight for the freedoms and rights of national minorities is simultaneously the fight for the freedoms and rights of the citizens of Serbia as well.
At the end of the conference, Mr. Antonijević invited NGOs to engage in showing where the reports on the implementation of the AP for National Minorities and Chapter 23 do not fit the picture that was presented. He also explained that there are activities in the AP that are not reported about, and that pressure will be made on institutions that did not submit their contributions for the report.