Human Rights in Serbia

Updated 8 June 2016

Serbia is currently a candidate country for a European Union (EU) membership. The negotiations for Serbia’s EU accession officially opened in January 2014. The negotiating framework requires progress in normalising their relations with Kosovo, while the implementation of the Agreement will be closely monitored. The opening of the negotiations has not improved the situation in regards to human rights; the situation has even deteriorated in comparison to 2014, particularly in the areas of freedom of expression, independent regulatory bodies, judicial reform and national minorities.

The situation for minorities remains precarious, not least for Roma and LGBT people. The Belgrade Pride Parade was successfully organised in both 2014 and 2015 without any major incidents occurring, however, heavy police forces were present to secure the march and the improvements regarding the situation for Roma and LGBT people remain rather symbolic. Another issue is that media reports are strongly influenced by daily politics. This verifies the conclusion that the Serbian media is moving further away from their purpose to inform the public and is instead continuously becoming more of an obvious political tool used to influence public opinion.

The situation for Human Rights Defenders in Serbia
Over the last few years, several human rights defenders in Serbia have continuously been subjected to a number of human rights violations. They have been the targets of physical violence, death threats, hate speech, harassment and defamation, as well as faced imposed restrictions on their freedom of assembly. Violations most commonly target either human rights defenders individually or the organisations they work for.

Ten rights in focus

The right to life and physical integrity

Under the Constitution of Serbia, the right to dignity, life, physical and mental integrity shall be inviolable and no one may be subjected to torture, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, nor subjected to medical or other experiments without prior consent. However, there have been anomalies in applying the legislation when it comes to protecting the right to life.

Many crimes committed by the Serbian military and police forces during the armed conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Croatia have not been processed or investigated and the perpetrators have not been brought to justice, even though the state has an obligation to prosecute them. The perpetrators of a number of murders, particularly those committed before 2000, have never been identified. Furthermore, the problem of protecting women from domestic violence still remains prominent in 2015.

In addition, police officers accused of torture or ill treatment are rarely brought to trial nor punished for their reactions. Valid provisions and 2015 practices of the judicial authorities clearly demonstrate a lack of will to identify and punish perpetrators of ill treatment, particularly in regards to public officials (usually policemen).

The right to liberty and security of person

There are approximately 11.500 imprisoned people in Serbia even though the prison capacities only cater for somewhere around 6.000 people. Overcrowded prisons are fertile grounds for human rights violations, in particular violations of the absolute prohibition on torture. Situations where these violations occur still exist in Serbia’s correctional institutions, in which the material conditions, the living regime and the overpopulation have led to inhumane and degrading treatment. The lack of staff in prisons, in particular medical personnel, has led to an inadequate health care for people deprived of their liberty. Alternative sanctions were introduced in 2009, but a full execution of those has not yet come into place. There are 20 offices established for the execution of alternative sanctions but they lack effective capacities. The number of alternative sanctions did not increase considerably in comparison to the previous period and to the number of institutionalised prisoners. Many of those punished with alternative sanctions are still “on the waiting list” as a result of the government’s failure to develop an adequate implementation mechanism.

The right to a fair trial and to effective remedy

As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Serbia is obliged to incorporate and implement, into its system, the provisions stipulated by these international documents, including the provisions regarding fair trials. However, the judiciary system in Serbia is marked by inefficiency – cases are taking too long to be resolved, some are even being reconsidered regarding sentencing or under statute of limitations, Furthermore, in some cases the verdicts are not enforced, which brings concerns over the functioning of the judiciary and judges impartiality. In the course of one year, courts often have a greater number of received cases than solved ones, resulting in the situation deteriorating year after year. Reforms within the judicial system are continuing and based on the National judicial reform strategy for the period 2013-2018, but also the Chapter 23 Negotiations Action Plan in the process of EU accession. The National Assembly was supposed to elect 55 prosecutors, including the Prosecutor for War Crimes. A new Prosecutor for War Crimes has however not been elected, because none of the six candidates won the necessary majority of votes.

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion

The Constitution of Serbia states that Serbia is a secular state and treats the separation of the church and state at the level of constitutional principles (i.e. prohibits the establishment of a state religion). However, the influence of the Orthodox Church in the decision-making process continues to be significant. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is a constitutional category in Serbia, and is protected by the highest legal document. Access to church services in some minority languages is not fully enforced. Religious communities are exempted from paying VAT and religious education is an optional subject in primary and secondary schools.

The right to the freedom of expression

The freedom of expression has deteriorated significantly since 2014, and has continued on that path over the recent period of time. After several political TV shows were cancelled in 2014, there was an increase in political and financial pressure on the media, as well as increased threats of prosecution against journalists and bloggers. This has led to a high degree of censorship and self-censorship that completely disables free and critical debate about any of the serious issues in the Serbian society. There are 4 journalists still living under 24 hour police protection, 38 attacks on journalists occurred throughout 2015, out of which 11 involved physical attacks, 24 verbal threats and pressures as well as three attacks on property.

A set of new Media Laws, which to a great extent regulates the media field in line with EU standards and regulations, was adopted in 2014. However, this did not greatly influence the progress within the media sector in regards to pressures and attacks on media and journalists, as authorities failed to react or strongly respond to them, thus showing a lack of willingness to protect journalists’ rights and media freedoms.

The presence of Roma in mainstream media is rather poor and usually only occurs in case an accident has happened. There are very few Roma journalists engaged in reporting on the actual rights and needs of Roma within the national media. These journalists have no permanent contracts nor any media space in mainstream news articles or primetime. This is a serious issue, which not only portrays the lack of participation of Roma in mainstream life but also show the obstacles in combatting discrimination through mass media or integration in the longer run.

The right to freedom of assembly and association

The new Law on Public Gatherings/Assembly has been adopted as of the beginning of 2016. The drafting process was done very exclusively without experts’ participation and consultation with the non-governmental organisations working in the field. Following reactions of the human rights organisations some of the articles have been improved.

In 2015 the second successful Pride March took place. Approximately 2,000 people took part in the march, which was secured by a large police presence. The first Pride march of Roma people was organised in September 2015, where around 1.000 participants marched down the streets of the capital. Although these two events have occurred, there has been another ban on organising public events. Aiming towards honoring the victims of Srebrenica genocide, human rights activists wanted to organise a public event. This gathering was banned due to the lack of safety for the participants and yet another threats from right-wing organisations and political parties.

The rights to protection against hate speech and war propaganda

On several occasions, politicians and religious leaders throughout Serbia have used political inflammatory speech and hate speech against political opponents, human rights organisations, human rights defenders and the international community. Hate speech against Roma, national minorities, human rights activists and even representatives of independent regulatory bodies have largely increased and is frequently used by political party representatives, religious representatives, extremist groups, several media outlets and individuals. Some of the popular pro-governmental media have, on several occasions, spread panic related to the possible war with ISIS, Albania, Kosovo and Croatia.

The right to political rights

Serbia has 100 registered political parties, which is more than any other individual EU member-state. The Law on Political Parties states that a political party is required to win at least one seat in the parliament during a period of 8 years in order to be a part of the register. In order to participate in parliamentary elections, each candidate list has to submit at least 10,000 citizen signatures if they want to stand in the elections. Every political party has to win at least 5% of the vote cast to be represented in the National Assembly except for the parties representing national minorities. Finally every list must comprise at least 30% of women amongst its candidates. However minority groups and women still remain underrepresented in political institutions, especially when it comes to decision-making positions.

The most recent elections were held on 24 April 2016. The REC registered 20 candidate lists nominated by political parties, coalitions of parties and groups of citizens in an inclusive manner. The 250 members of the parliament are elected for four-year terms from a single nationwide constituency through a closed-list, proportional system. It was notable that the government’s and the ruling parties’ activities dominated campaign coverage both in the news and current affairs programmes. In addition, there are reports indicating that the ruling parties were putting pressure on voters, especially those employed in the public sector and therefore there is a concern that the voters were abet to cast their vote freely. These elections were marked by series of possible manipulations, including the election’s results, which were not investigated accordingly. Due to this, elections were repeated at 15 polling stations, adding tensions between the political parties that were uncertain whether or not they were going to pass the threshold.

The right to protection against discrimination

Although relatively good legislative framework exists, the Roma and LGBT communities remain some of the weakest, most marginalised and discriminated groups in the country, not rarely exposed to violence. Cases of violence and discrimination are still dealt without proper reactions from the police and judiciary. The highest degrees of ethnic distance among Serbs exist towards Roma, LGBT people and ethnic Albanians. The government is seen both as an institution that is engaged in discrimination as well as the one most responsible for alleviating the problem.

Discrimination of Roma is most visible in areas of employment, education, health-care and housing. The lack of personal documents continues to be a problem, mostly among the forcibly displaced Roma from Kosovo, hindering their ability to enjoy fundamental human rights. The new Strategy for social inclusion of Roma in the Republic of Serbia for the period 2016 to 2025 was adopted in the beginning of 2016. The document covers five priority areas; education, housing, employment, health and social protection.

As for the cases of discrimination against the LGBT population, which are still very common in Serbia, responses by relevant state bodies continue to be inadequate. Apart from the fact that LGBT persons are discriminated by general population, the main issue that remains is the lack of adequate implementation of legislation that explicitly refers to sexual orientation (the comprehensive Anti-Discrimination Law; Labor Law; Law on Higher Education; Public Information Law; Broadcasting Law; Law on Youth; amendments to the Law on Health Insurance; Social Security Law; amendments to the Criminal Code; Law on Education of the Elderly).

In general, the watchdog functions of human rights organisations are now the key to achieve international human rights standards during the EU integration process of Serbia, but the capacities of the majority of organisations are not sufficient and they are vulnerable both in terms of sustainability and attacks emanating from different duty holders.

The role of Civil Rights Defenders in Serbia
Civil Rights Defenders has been strengthening human rights organisations, independent media and human rights defenders in the Western Balkan region, including Serbia, since 1996. We have worked closely with approximately 100 human rights organisations and media outlets in Serbia, and we have contributed to a number of positive developments in regards to human rights protection. Together with partner organisations we monitor human rights developments, demand reforms, justice and accountability.

The Belgrade office serves as a hub covering the Western Balkan region as well as the programme in Serbia. A regional presence such as this has enabled us to engage in networking with organisations that are covering similar issues in the Western Balkan, as well as to support regional initiatives and cooperation. In 2016, together with our partners from AIRE Centre, we organised the third Rule of Law forum, bringing together judges from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and judges from Serbia and the region. Civil Rights Defenders remains the key partner of Belgrade Pride, organising numerous events during the Pride Week and participating in the Pride March. Civil Rights Defenders also launched its Roma component in 2014 and became more fluent in protecting and promoting Roma human rights in Serbia and the region at large. In 2015 we supported the organising of the first ever Pride March of Roma people in the center of Belgrade. We have encouraged and supported our partners to be more engaged in lobbying before the EU institutions and we have supported a number of regional initiatives in the Western Balkans.


Download the country report here: Serbia Country Report.

Read more about our partner organisations in Serbia.

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