Human Rights in Macedonia

Updated in October 2015

Macedonia is a member of the Council of Europe and has been a candidate country for membership of the European Union since 2005. However the country falls short when it comes to implementing reforms and human rights standards and as of writing has not yet started negotiations with the EU. Ever since the 2001 armed conflict between ethnic Albanian rebel forces and the Macedonian Army and the Police, inter-ethnic tensions between the two groups has been constant, with numerous reported cases of ethnically motivated violence. In May 2014, an Albanian student was arrested on claims of murder of a Macedonian student, which triggered two-days of unrest and ethnic riots in the capital, Skopje. Another case occurred in July 2014, when six ethic Albanians (two of them not present at the trial) were convicted to life imprisonment on allegations of murdering five ethnic Macedonians. The verdict triggered massive protests of ethnic Albanians in Skopje, resulting in riots.

Impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity remain a serious issue for reconciliation between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians. There has also been little or no progress in locating 13 persons who were reported as missing (and presumed to be dead) during the 2001 conflict.

The situation for vulnerable groups, especially the Roma and the LGBT community remains unchanged, with a high level of intolerance, exclusion, hate speech and discrimination perpetrated against these groups. Although no new reports of physical attacks were reported, previous attacks are still unresolved and vulnerable groups remain largely unprotected by state institutions.

The situation for Human Rights Defenders in Macedonia
In general, the situation for human rights defenders remains unfavorable, due to public defamation campaigns against organisations funded or supported from abroad who are often branded as “traitors”, “mercenaries” and “spies” in the media and by pro-Government activists. The campaigns are usually carried out through Government controlled media.

Ten rights in focus

The right to life and physical integrity

The Constitution of Macedonia guarantees that  “the human right to life is irrevocable” and forbids torture, inhuman or humiliating conduct or punishment and forced labour. Although the right to life and physical integrity are guaranteed by international documents ratified by Macedonia and the national legislature, several incidents of ill treatment by the police have been reported. In one such case (in May 2014), two Roma children were beaten up by the police, who wrongfully accused them of theft, while one of them was held at the police station without the presence of a caregiver or an attorney. Mistreatment and excessive use of force remains a serious issue, especially against the Roma population, and has not been dealt with effectively by governmental institutions.

The right to liberty and security of person

Macedonia has done little to improve the situation in prisons and pre-detention facilities and institutions remain underfunded and understaffed. Overpopulation remains an issue in both pre-trial detention facilities and exceeds 100% of current capacities. According to standards and practices of the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), this is tantamount to torture. More then 200 complaints have been made to the Office of the Ombudsman regarding the excessive use of force by the police throughout the prison system.. However only one police officer has ever been convicted.

The right to a fair trial and to effective remedy

Macedonia falls short when it comes to implementing guaranteed rights in line with international standards concerning fair trials and effective legal remedy. The judiciary system remains under pressures and influence from the political elites and Government, Insufficient competence and training of judges, a lack of transparency in the operation of the courts, unequal access to justice and the right to trial within reasonable time and the presumption of innocence are amongst the most pressing issues affecting the judiciary.

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion

Freedom of though, conscience and religion has generally been respected, but separation between church and state remains a problem. This is most visible in the case of a Government backed construction of an Orthodox Church in Skopje costing millions of Euro.

The right to the freedom of expression

There has been a steady decrease in freedom of expression in Macedonia in recent years. Although the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, there is a growing trend of control and pressures from the Government, resulting in self-censorship and biasness in reporting, while the Public Service remains under the strict control of the authorities.

Government influence occurs on many levels, most notably through state-financed advertising and defamation charges against journalists. A lack of public debates on important issues and access to accurate and objective information not being made public through mainstream media are some of the major issues. Disruption in the role of the independent media was made visible when inter-ethnic violence broke out in Skopje in May 2014 when police seized equipment and erased recorded materials belonging to three media outlets. Apart from this incident, journalist Tomislav Kezharovski is still under house arrest for allegedly revealing the identity of a protected witness.

The right to freedom of assembly and association

Freedom of assembly and association are generally respected and no breaches were reported, nor any controls in place as of the time of writing.

The rights to protection against hate speech and war propaganda

Ethnic and political divisions in the country make it a solid ground for propaganda and hate speech, especially towards critical media and human rights defenders, Albanian, Roma and LGBT communities. Hate speech and defamation campaigns are most often carried out through Government controlled media labeling all critical voices as “traitors”, “spies”, “mercenaries” and “terrorists”. In December 2014, two organisations filed lawsuits against two journalists for hate speech against the LGBT community.

The right to political rights

Parallel presidential and early general elections were held in Macedonia in April 2014, where the ruling coalition retained control in both instances. Although the leading party declared a landslide victory, the opposition refused to recognise the legitimacy and legality of the elections, accusing their opponents of fraud. This resulted in opposition MP’s returning their mandates and boycotting the Parliament. One of the problems that Macedonia faces in order to secure a fair election process is the unclear division between the ruling party and the state, which enables office holders to often misuse their functions and promote their political parties when acting as state representatives.

The right to protection against discrimination

The Macedonian Law Against Discrimination is still not aligned with international standards since it does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. In January 2014, the Constitutional Court accepted an Amendment, which defines marriage solely as a community between a man and a woman, thus effectively banning same-sex marriages, which is against European practices and standards. Although no new attacks against the LGBT Support Centre has been reported, previous attacks dating from 2013 have not yet been resolved. Prejudice against the Roma community is exceptionally strong in the areas of employment, healthcare, education and housing.

The role of Civil Rights Defenders in Macedonia
Through its regular field presence with the field office in Skopje, Civil Rights Defenders has developed close partnerships with its local partners. The field office in Skopje was opened in 2004 and closed in 2009, and since 2010, activities in Macedonia have been covered from the field office in Prishtina. Our long term cooperation and close cooperation with partners has contributed to an improvement of partners’ professionalism and credibility, advocacy and networking capacities.

Civil society in Macedonia faces a difficult situation, where many NGOs are struggling to survive at a time when scrutiny of government transparency and accountability is as important as ever. However, political pressures during recent years seem to have increased in the country, making the media and the NGOs less inclined to criticise the government.

Within the field of the Rule of Law, our main focus has been strengthening the organizations enabling citizens to access justice and monitor the accountability of duty bearers. In regard to weak access to justice, we have continued to be one of the few international organisations advocating for a new national system of legal assistance and an inclusive Law against Discrimination. Both the Law on Free Legal Aid and Anti-Discrimination Law have been adopted, and our partners are now monitoring their implementation in practice. Also, we have opted to support the monitoring of fairness standards of trials in Macedonian courts, since corruption remains a big problem in Macedonia.

In the area of Freedom of Expression, our main focus has been to support media organizations in developing and strengthening media professionalism, and at the same time lobbying and advocating for the proper implementation of the broadcasting regulatory framework affecting the whole media landscape.

Within the Non-Discrimination Programme, we have worked to improve the human rights of Roma people in Macedonia, put LGBT issues on the public agenda and improve the legal protection of LGBT persons, as well as advance the legislative mechanisms for protection against discrimination. We have focused our efforts on assisting the starting up of the first LGBT organization in Macedonia. Since, regrettably, the organization has ceased to exist, we have continued supporting the protection of the LGBT population through activities that have tackled protection against discrimination.

In addition to our support to local partners, we have continued to perform monitoring and advocacy work by reacting to events of importance in our own capacity (open letters to government and ministries, press releases, joint campaigns with our partners).

Categories: Country Reports.
Tags: Human rights.
Regions: Macedonia and Western Balkans.