Back Serbia: Concerted efforts needed to address the legacy of the past, protect media freedoms and ensure inclusive education

Country visit
Serbia: Concerted efforts needed to address the legacy of the past, protect media freedoms and ensure inclusive education

“Serbia has to move forward resolutely in addressing the legacy of the past,  establish an adequate environment for media work and overcome the remaining obstacles to inclusive education.” said today Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, following a four-day follow-up visit to the country carried out from 19 to 22 February 2018.

Noting as an important step forward in addressing the legacy of the past, the recent discussions of the presidents of Serbia and Croatia, including the issue of missing persons from the 1990s’ war in the region, the Commissioner calls on all the countries in the region, including Serbia, to step up their work in addressing the remaining obstacles to establishing the fate of missing persons, including by opening of military and police archives that may hold important information about missing persons.

The Commissioner underlines that persistent impunity for certain serious human rights violations adversely affects justice and durable peace in the region. While he noted with interest information indicating that the prosecution of wartime crimes has been stepped up in recent months and that regional co-operation in this field has continued, the Commissioner urges the authorities to ensure that all perpetrators of serious human rights violations committed during the 1990s’ wars are brought to justice without further delays. “Any document that can shed light on serious human rights violations committed during the wars and enable the effective investigation of such crimes should be made available to relevant institutions, and decisions according to which some documents were declared a state secret should be revised in line with the pertinent recommendations of the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance.” Noting with regret that there has been no recent progress in creating a comprehensive reparation mechanism for all war victims, the Commissioner calls on the authorities to put this issue higher on their agenda and draw from positive legislative examples in the region, in particular as concerns reparations for victims of war related crimes of sexual violence.

The Commissioner is seriously concerned that certain persons convicted for war crimes by the ICTY have been given a public platform in Serbia to promote their views and deny the crimes for which they were convicted, while leading politicians have not distanced themselves from such persons, and even included them in some political processes. “This approach to dealing with the past is harmful for reconciliation in the region and is an insult to the victims of those crimes. Moreover, raising young generations in Serbia in the spirit of peace, tolerance and respect for the other, will be difficult as long as persons convicted for wartime crimes are treated in society as heroes.”

The Commissioner was pleased to note the additional progress made by Serbia in ensuring systematic birth registration of Roma and providing them with personal identity documents. He encourages the authorities to make additional efforts to resolve about 2000 remaining cases of Roma lacking personal identity documents.

As concerns freedom of the media, the Commissioner noted the agreement of all media actors that he met that Serbia has a solid legislative framework governing this field. ”Serbia also has great investigative journalists, some of whom have been presented with prestigious international awards. The Commissioner for Information of Public Importance, whose importance for investigative journalists’ work cannot be overstated, is a model institution that should be fully supported by the authorities and whose decisions need to be fully complied with.”

However, the Commissioner noted many concerns about a deteriorating situation for the work of journalists and media since his previous visit. The safety of journalists remains an issue of concern, and despite some efforts by the authorities to ensure a better institutional response to crimes against journalists, few such cases have been effectively prosecuted.  Smear campaigns, inflammatory remarks and other forms of pressure against journalists have increased and have led to self-censorship and discouraged journalists from performing their important work. The Commissioner called on the authorities to investigate and prosecute all crimes against journalists. “Politicians are urged to unequivocally condemn all cases of violence targeting journalists who play such a crucial watchdog role in the society.” The Commissioner noted some serious challenges in the implementation of the project-based funding of media, introduced in 2014, which entails state financial support at national and local level for media projects of public interest. “Lack of transparency, politically motivated decisions and funding awarded to tabloids and media known to be violating media ethics are among the serious challenges that need to be addressed by the authorities in this context.”

Underlining the importance of inclusive education for social cohesion and the educational opportunities of all children, the Commissioner was pleased to note some positive developments in this field. “I find the authorities’ clear commitment to inclusive education and their wide acceptance of the principle of inclusion of all children in mainstream education, including children with disabilities and Roma, crucial for making further progress in this field. Another positive development is that Roma children are no longer systematically sent to special schools, which violated their rights and perpetuated their marginalisation. It is also very important that the authorities have recognised the importance of mandatory pre-school classes and the work of pedagogical assistants for better inclusion of children in mainstream education and that further improvements in this context have been planned.”

Notwithstanding these positive developments, the Commissioner called on the authorities to enhance their efforts to ensure full inclusion in mainstream education of all Roma children and children with disabilities. He was seriously concerned by the effects of 2009 legislation which provides for a possibility that parents choose a school for their children regardless of their place of residence, which has facilitated so-called “white flight” from certain elementary schools and exacerbated the segregation of Roma children. One such school was the school Sutjeska in Zemun visited by the Commissioner, in which an increasing percentage of students were Roma. The Commissioner urged the authorities to address this issue by reintroducing the catchment area system as a precondition for de-segregation of such schools.

Noting the importance of the provision of children with disabilities with personal assistants for their better inclusion in mainstream education and the lack of funding in some local communities for the engagement of such assistants, the Commissioner called on the authorities to find a systemic solution in this regard to further inclusion. Last but not least, the Commissioner urged the authorities to make enhanced efforts to include children with disabilities residing in six institutions for social care in mainstream education.

Belgrade 22/02/2018
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