Visiting Serbia at “an important and transformative moment” in its history, the United Nations human rights chief today urged a steadfast focus on fundamental rights as she hailed a succession of political advances that augur well for the country itself and for the future of the wider region.
“It is a positive sign that the authorities are addressing some tough human rights issues in a calm and pragmatic manner,” said Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, during a press conference in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. She has been in the region since Sunday, 16 June, and will next head to Kosovo before wrapping up her visit on Thursday.
Noting that his was her first visit to Serbia as High Commissioner, she praised the country’s recent political advances after more than two decades during which the various wars in the Balkans cast a long shadow over its development and reputation.
“Human rights are, of course, a fundamental element in any country’s political, social and economic development, and it is for that reason I am here.”
During her visit, Ms. Pillay held meetings with President Tomislav Nikolic and Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, Ministers of Justice and Public Administration, of Labour, Employment and Social Policy, and Health.
She also held discussions with the Speaker of Parliament, the President of the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights and Gender Equality, the acting President of the High Court of Cassation, the Director of the Government’s Office for Human and Minority Rights, the Ombudsman, the Commissioner for Protection of Equality, and civil society.
Serbia’s progress on the human rights front was recognized during its recent Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council in January, she said, also noting that the country has adopted a strong and fundamentally sound body of laws and standards relating to human rights, including, the Law on the Ombudsman, the Law on Prohibition of Discrimination, the Law on Gender Equality and amendments to the Criminal Code.
She also welcomed progress being made in drafting the anti-discrimination strategy and the judicial reform, which she hoped will take into account all relevant recommendations of the UN human rights mechanisms.
“As I see it, effective implementation remains a serious challenge, for a variety of reasons, including a lack of senior level interdepartmental coordination on human rights, insufficient resources and the fact that local services are underdeveloped.”
One issue that was raised most often was the lack of access to justice in terms of efficiency and timeliness, Ms. Pillay said, adding that even judges acknowledge serious problems such as lengthy pre-trial detention and court proceedings, the backlog of cases and lack of enforcement of court decisions. “I have offered to cooperate with the Judicial Academy and to provide OHCHR manuals on human rights in the administration of justice in order to enrich its curriculum,” she said.
The human rights chief also urged the Serbian Government to clearly define its human rights agenda and priorities, and suggested it bases these on the prioritized recommendations, not just of the UPR, but also of the various UN human rights mechanisms. An agenda developed along these lines will most probably receive support not just from the UN, but also from important regional organizations such as the European Union and Council of Europe, she said.
With regard to discrimination against various minorities, including Serbs where they are in the minority, Ms. Pillay declared: “the answer is the full respect of international human rights standards.” Specifically, the situation of Roma featured prominently in her discussions and what became clear was that there remain four crucial areas that need to be better addressed, namely health, housing, education and employment.
“My Office is engaged actively on issues related to the housing of Roma in Serbia, and we are pleased to see some progress in that area, although it is not yet sufficient,” she said.
The situations relating to lesbians, gays, bi-sexuals and transgender people (LGBT), violence against women and children, and the human rights of persons with disabilities were also highlighted in her various meetings. “I particularly welcome the understanding shown by President Nikolic towards allowing the Pride Parade and his readiness to exercise his leadership and be an advocate for an end to domestic violence,” she said.
Finally, she said that she understood that there were well recognized challenges and issues facing Serbia, many of which require considerable efforts and resources – for example those related to the rights of thousands of internally displaced people and refugees – as well as the social and economic rights of 800,000 unemployed, and the rights of numerous minorities.
“But there are also areas where lack of resources is not the obstacle, but where the crucial missing ingredient is a major concerted effort by all those in charge,” said Ms. Pillay, citing the overall human rights culture, and the need to show leadership and to educate the wider public on all aspects of human rights.
“Those in responsible positions can and should make the difference by promoting human rights for all people, irrespective of their nationality, origin, gender identity, or social status,” she said, adding that civil society organizations and human rights defenders should be supported, protected and respected, and should be included in all discussions of legislation, projects, and strategies on human rights.