A variety of independent domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without major government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. While government officials were mostly cooperative and responsive to questions on this subject, at times government bodies selectively ignored freedom of information requests, especially those related to COVID-19 emergency measures. Forty-one initiatives disputing the constitutionality or legality of general enactments adopted during the state of emergency were filed with the Constitutional Court by May 13. The Constitutional Court did not begin a review of constitutionality or legality of any of the initiatives, nor did it dismiss them.
Civil society groups were subject to criticism, harassment, investigation, and threats from some public officials as well as nongovernmental actors, including progovernment media outlets and a number of suspected government-organized NGOs. The government’s Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering (APML) sent an official request on July 13 to all commercial banks in the country to provide information and documentation related to all transactions and accounts of 37 civil organizations, media, and individuals for the previous year. The organizations and individuals included media associations, investigative journalists, philanthropy and community crowdsourcing organizations, and human rights and accountability monitoring groups. While the APML has authority to request this information, the appearance of selective investigation raised great concern. Official statements and media reporting on the investigation negatively influenced public opinion with regard to the targeted civil society groups and put some individuals at risk of danger.
On October 10, extremists attacked a local art gallery and destroyed art that they deemed anti-Christian. Police arrested five suspects (three of them minors) involved in the attack, who were to face criminal charges. The Ministry of Culture issued a statement condemning the violence against the gallery but also stated the presentation of “indecent and immoral content under the guise of artistic creativity rightly provokes negative reaction.”
On September 24, the Helsinki Committee premiered the play, Srebrenica: When We, the Killed, Rise Up, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the genocide committed by Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica. Immediately following the premiere, the Helsinki Committee and the play’s director and actors received threats on social media for their involvement in the play and its message. In an October 6 press statement, the Helsinki Committee criticized these “brutal threats” and called on the police, Prosecutor’s Office, and courts to prevent further intimidation. The Helsinki Committee reported it provided evidence of the threats to the Ministry of Interior’s Cybercrime Unit and police but received no official response.
Under the state of emergency, the government Office for Cooperation with Civil Society discontinued the allocation of grants from the country’s budget to organizations granted EU funding under a 2019 call for proposals, including for projects focused on investigation and monitoring of human rights. Requests from civil society groups for waivers to allow them to deliver humanitarian assistance and services to vulnerable categories during the emergency lockdown were ignored, which ultimately resulted in their inability to assist the most vulnerable members of the population.
In February members of the far-right Serbian Radical Party, led by convicted war criminal and, at the time, member of parliament Vojislav Seselj, physically and verbally assaulted Natasa Kandic, recipient of the first international Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award in 2013, and other activists in a Belgrade municipal building as they distributed a report detailing information on war crimes committed in the country. There were no arrests or charges against those who attacked the group.
By law NGOs without a lawyer registered in the bar are not allowed to provide legal aid, apart from a few exceptions. The Belgrade Bar Association warned that attorneys who act as statutory representatives for NGOs would be disbarred. In late 2019, 14 CSOs notified the international human rights community, including the International Bar Association, that the Belgrade Bar discriminated against CSOs with regard to their ability to provide free legal aid and raised concerns that the association’s actions would limit access to legal aid for vulnerable populations.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: In 2019 there were 2,595 Serbia-related cases presented before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), of which 2,445 (94 percent) were rejected. Of the remaining 150 cases, there were 24 verdicts, 22 of which established at least one ECHR violation. The country generally implemented ECHR’s decisions. On October 26, parliament amended the Law on Ministries, removing the Justice Ministry’s obligation to monitor the execution of ECHR decisions, along with the obligation to represent the country and publicly disclose ECHR verdicts.
Government Human Rights Bodies: Government bodies dedicated to the protection of human rights included the Office of the Ombudsman, the Office of the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality, and the Office of the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection. All three bodies were active during the year and especially during the state of emergency. On October 25, the government created the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue.
The Office of the Ombudsman was responsible for responding to citizen complaints, identifying problems within state institutions, and making recommendations on remedies. Three new deputy ombudspersons were appointed a year after the expiration of the previous mandates; one deputy was yet to be appointed. The number of complaints filed by citizens with the Ombudsman’s Office during the COVID-19 state of emergency was significantly higher than usual (4,700 between January and June, compared with an average of 1,400 annually).
The Office of the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality (equality commissioner) celebrated its 10th anniversary on May 27, the same day the commissioner’s five-year term in office expired. While the parliament must elect a new equality commissioner within three months of the expiration of the previous commissioner’s term in office, as of October it had not done so due to the pandemic and parliamentary elections. Before leaving office, the outgoing equality commissioner issued six recommendations concerning the COVID-19 state of emergency, mostly aimed at improving the status of those who were at greater risk of discrimination, such as victims of domestic violence, elderly persons, and socially vulnerable persons.
The commissioner for information of public importance and personal data protection was active in issuing opinions and advisories before, during, and after the state of emergency, including one highlighting the importance of access to timely information and protection of personal data. At the initiative of the Share Foundation, a local CSO, the commissioner requested that Google appoint a representative in the country pursuant to the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA), which the company did on May 21. The commissioner and citizens may now report all problems related to online data processing to Google’s Serbia representative to ensure compliance with the PDPA.