COMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS CONSIDERS REPORT OF SERBIA
15 May 2014
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights today considered the second periodic report of Serbia on how the country is implementing the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Suzana Paunovic, Director of the Office for Human and Minority Rights of Serbia, said since Serbia’s independence in 2006 it had been committed to building a democratic society with full respect for human and minority rights. A large number of laws were adopted and international conventions ratified during the reporting period. Serbia had the highest number of refugees and internally displaced persons in Europe, currently close to 57,000 refugees and over 209,112 internally displaced persons. Measures to improve the rights of the Roma minority, refugees and internally displaced persons, persons with disabilities, women, workers and national minorities were described. Although Kosovo and Metohija were an integral part of the Serbian territory, Serbia was unable to oversee the implementation of the Covenant in Kosovo, and so the report did not contain detailed information on that part of Serbia’s territory, it was noted.
During the interactive dialogue Committee Experts highly commended the State party for offering subsidies to employers who employed Roma persons, and praised its new anti-discrimination law. They asked how the large number of refugees in Serbia were supported, and about assistance to internally displaced persons who fled Kosovo as a result of the 1999 conflict. Hate crime and ethnic intolerance was discussed, as were measures to socially integrate the Roma population and other ethnic minorities. Experts also enquired into cultural and linguistic rights of national minorities, how corruption was being tackled, and support and training for young unemployed people.
In concluding remarks, Ms. Paunovic said Serbia had tried to demonstrate it was in the process of building new economic, political and social structures. Its assets were very limited but it aimed to build a system that allowed people to enjoy a high standard of rights.
Waleed Sadi, Committee Member acting as Country Rapporteur, said he hoped the State party would find the Committee’s comments and recommendations helpful as it moved forward towards full implementation of the Covenant.
Zdzislaw Kedzia, Committee Chairperson, in concluding remarks, said Serbia had responded to the questions with very frank, profound, forthcoming and competent information amid excellent cooperation with the Committee.
The delegation of Serbia included representatives of the Office for Human and Minority Rights, Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Culture and Information and the Permanent Mission of Serbia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The Committee will next meet in public at midday on Friday, 23 May when it will hold a briefing for States. That afternoon (time to be confirmed) the Committee will hold a meeting to close the session and issue concluding observations and recommendations on the 10 country reports reviewed, which will be made available on its webpage.
The Committee is considering the second periodic report of Serbia (E/C.12/SRB/2).
Presentation of the Report
SUZANA PAUNOVIC, Director of the Office for Human and Minority Rights of Serbia, said since 2006 Serbia had been an independent country, committed to building a democratic society with full respect for human and minority rights. There had been intense legislative activity in Serbia during the reporting period, with a large number of laws adopted and international conventions ratified. Under the constitution ratified international treaties were an integral part of the domestic legal order and could be applied directly. Serbia was a party to eight core international human rights treaties and a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers. The constitution established that all persons were equal and everyone had the right to equal legal protection without discrimination, and in 2009 the Prohibition of Discrimination Act was adopted as a general anti-discrimination law covering a wide definition. Discrimination was a criminal offence under the Criminal Code.
Although Kosovo and Metohija were an integral part of the Serbian territory on the basis of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999, Ms. Paunovic noted that as a signatory country Serbia was unable to oversee the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Kosovo since the administration of the province had been completely entrusted to the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). For that reason the report did not contain detailed information on the implementation of the Covenant in that part of Serbia’s territory. Serbia welcomed that the Committee had accepted its proposal and asked UNMIK to compile information on the implementation of the Covenant in the territories of Kosovo and Metohija, which it did in 2008. Given that almost six years had since passed, Serbia kindly suggested that the Committee invited UNMIK to submit new information.
To improve the status of the Roma minority several laws and action plans had been adopted, as well as the establishment of the Council for the Advancement of the Roma, under the auspices of the Office for Human and Minority Rights. According to the 2011 census the population of Serbia was 7,186,862, the average age of the population was 42.2 years and the average household size was 2.88 people. There were 147,604 Roma living in Serbia, constituting 2.05 per cent of the population, although studies indicated the number was much higher, and may be around 250,000. Serbia had the highest number of refugees and internally displaced persons in Europe, although the number of refugees was being reduced due to their integration. There were currently close to 57,000 refugees and over 209,112 internally displaced persons, and some 1,641 of them were accommodated in 23 collective centres, including nine in Kosovo and Metohija. Serbia had close cooperation with the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, especially in working to improve the status of the Roma minority.
In 2006 Serbia adopted the Prevention of Discrimination against People with Disabilities Act, which defined the terms and provided for better social protection, and led to related strategies and the adoption of a law on the rehabilitation and employment of persons with disabilities. Serbia had ratified a number of International Labour Organization conventions on minimum wages, equal pay for men and women, weekly rest and paid leave, work-place protection and compensation, health care and occupational medical services. In the first quarter of 2014 the unemployment rate in Serbia was 20.8 per cent. The total employment rate was 38.4 per cent, with the employment rate for men at 45.7 per cent and for women at 31.6 per cent. The freedom of association of labour unions and the right to strike were guaranteed by the constitution, and over 20,000 trade unions were registered. Social protection was regulated by law and included pensions, and disability, health and unemployment insurance.
The Gender Equality Act adopted in 2009 created equal opportunities policies for men and women and eliminated gender-based discrimination. Domestic violence was prohibited under the Family Act, which set up a special court for family cases, and the 2011 national strategy to combat domestic violence, which for the first time ever stipulated that a child that witnessed a form of domestic violence was explicitly defined as a victim of domestic violence. Serbia was looking to develop a comprehensive system of mandatory health insurance that would include all citizens, particularly the most marginalized groups. Primary education was mandatory and free, while secondary and higher education was financed by the State budget depending upon students’ success, or by self-financing. Members of national minorities could conduct educational work in the Serbian language, their native language or bilingually. The right of scientific and artistic creation was set out in the constitution, and the protection of monuments, museums, archives and libraries was set out in law which established that all cultural properties must be treated equally regardless of their time of creation and cultural provenance.
Questions from the Experts
WALEED SADI, Committee Member acting as Country Rapporteur, welcomed the delegation and noted the many strategies and legislation adopted by Serbia to promote and protect human rights. He hoped that during today’s dialogue the Committee would get a sense of how much difference the legislation was making on the ground. The Country Rapporteur asked the delegate to cite case law, if there was any, on the application of the Covenant, and asked how it raised awareness among the judiciary, lawyers and law makers of the Covenant rights.
He also enquired about Serbia’s asylum procedure and asked whether it guaranteed protection against refoulemenet, and whether the 2008 Law on Asylum was a failure, as only a handful of asylum requests had been processed. The work of the Serbian Commissioner for Refugees and Migration and its impact on the local integration of persons granted international protection under the Law on Asylum was raised.
The delegation was asked to describe the impact of the Commissioner’s assistance to internally displaced persons who fled Kosovo as a result of the 1999 conflict. How many internally displaced persons from Kosovo lived in Serbia? The magnitude of the problem of internally displaced persons was a serious challenge for Serbia.
Privatization had had negative consequences upon economic, social and cultural rights in Serbia, the delegation wrote in the report. The Country Rapporteur asked for more details about the impact of those policies.
Hate crime and ethnic intolerance were still widespread, the State party wrote in the report, and the Country Rapporteur commended Serbia’s honesty in setting out the problem. The considerable degree of hate crime and ethnic intolerance could erode the foundations for economic, social and cultural rights. Discrimination against minority and religious communities continued despite reported efforts to combat it. What was being done to tackle those issues?
Serbia had done something that few other countries had done, it was offering subsidies to employers who employed at least 20 Roma persons, which was a highly commendable incentive, praised the Country Rapporteur, wishing every State would adopt such a wonderful policy. Could Serbia give examples of where and how it offered the subsidies?
Serbia had a 30 per cent employment quota for women, and as such was doing the right thing to achieve gender equality. Other countries could learn from Serbia in that, and the Committee commended it for that action. How was the quota implemented and monitored?
The problem of corruption was raised by another Expert, who said it was not unique to Serbia, but was a problem that the entire country appeared to suffer from. From its replies to the list of issues, it seemed Serbia was aware of the issue and had already begun to tackle it through a national strategy and a plan of action which provided specific steps. An independent anti-corruption agency had also been founded. The Expert commended Serbia for its actions, and asked how widespread corruption was, and in which agencies it was most common, for example in public administration or in private enterprises.
An Expert asked about recent industrialization and privatization, and its impact on economic, social and cultural rights. The State party had described a sustainable development strategy; could it give examples on how it planned to combat the negative effects of industrialization, particularly with regard to the use of natural resources.
An Expert addressed the sensitive issue of the territory of Kosovo. If any European country faced difficulties of territorial fragmentation, it was Serbia. How did it view the situation? Was it the status quo of a frozen conflict, or was Serbia optimistic a solution could be found? Just one week ago Ukraine came before the Committee, and their situation could raise questions with regard to Serbia’s experience, he said.
Serbia had a very high number of refugees, more than 50,000. What were their countries of origin? Was Serbia mainly a transit country for them, or were the refugees seeking to stay there? Only a few persons had received refugee status despite the adoption in 2008 of a new and interesting law on asylum. The Committee was concerned about the fate of children of refugees and asylum seekers; did they fully enjoy their right to education at the elementary and secondary level? If they stayed longer could they integrate into mainstream schools?
The Committee was concerned that the State party did not give a picture of its civil society; for example how many human rights non-governmental organizations were there, had they been involved in the production of the report, and were they partners of the Government not only in the implementation of action plans but also in the evaluation of policies.
The new law which covered all grounds of possible discrimination was commendable. A lot of complaints were coming in; was the Government classifying them on the grounds of the type of discrimination, for example gender, race or ethnicity discrimination, and so on? That would help Serbia identify the areas it needed to work on.
The National Human Rights Institution, which had A Status, had no possibility to interact with the international human rights system or civil society – if that was the case, why?
An Expert spoke about the pension and retirement age, which was 65 for men and 60 for women. The life expectancy for men was 69.5 and for women was 70.5. Therefore men were in a minority, and dying out. Perhaps the pension age should be lowered to 60 for men as well, gender equality should go both ways, he commented. There were 1.6 million older people over 60 – every one in five people. The ageing population was an issue to consider.
The unemployment level was alarmingly high, an Expert said. Although much information was given on strategies to combat it, the Committee had heard little about measures to help young people out of unemployment and into sustainable employment opportunities.
The very low rate of employment and high rates of inactivity of persons with disabilities was another cause for concern. Were there enough opportunities, such as vocational training and job openings, for that vulnerable group of people to be fully included in society?
The Expert said he was very impressed by the number of trade unions in Serbia, as many as 20,000. What was the background to that diversity of trade unions, he asked, commenting that sometimes it was an employer’s dream to have so many unions that they could not make ‘one fist’ – was that the idea behind having so many? Could the delegation explain why it was still an unpopular choice for private sector workers to join a union?
Response by the Delegation
The Head of Delegation began by recalling a recommendation following Serbia’s Universal Periodic Review and a visit by High Commissioner Navi Pillay: for Serbia to create a Government-level body to monitor all recommendations Serbia received from United Nations treaty bodies.
Serbia was currently conducting its second round of judicial reform, which should embellish the State authorities and the rights of the citizens. More authority was being given to the highest council, judges and courts, so that in the near future verdicts were expected to reference the Covenant. The High Judicial Council had 11 members, including the President.
A delegate provided extensive statistics for complaints received and recommendations made by the Office of the Ombudsperson, which showed what an active institution it was. The Commissioner for Gender Equality in 2013 received 763 cases, an increase on the number received in 2012. The Commissioner responded with recommendations on the cases. Most complaints were made on the grounds of discrimination on the basis of health, working conditions, age, disability, marriage and family status, and ethnic and national origin.
Serbia had established a special office for cooperation with civil society, which was very much involved in all Government and State activities. Serbia, since 2010, had begun to reform its reporting system.
The number of refugees and internally displaced persons had already been given in the presentation, a delegate said, but she noted that previously Serbia had 60 refugee centres with 20,000 people living in them. Today there were just 23 centres, and Serbia intended to close them down over the next three years, with assistance from the European Union. The refugees mostly came from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. A lot of work had been done to integrate them and many had become Serbian citizens. Through a Regional Housing Programme the State aimed to provide permanent housing solutions for the 25,000 most threatened refugee families, who numbered 45,000 individuals. A regional conference was recently held in Montenegro at which Serbia and its neighbouring countries, along with the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, committed to work together to solve the problems of refugees on a programme worth €454 million. People living in Kosovo were indeed citizens of Serbia and enjoyed all of their human rights, including to education and social security, she confirmed.
The Office for Human Minority Rights was established in August 2012, when it took over jurisdiction over the implementation of policies and projects relating to the social inclusion of Roma. The Council for the Advancement of Roma and the Decade of Roma Inclusion were established in June 2013. A Roma Inclusion Office has also been founded at the level of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina. Indeed, the office employed many members of the Roma Community, including its Deputy Director. The Office implemented the quota that Ministries should employ at least two members of the Roma community. It also oversaw the Strategy on Improvement of the Status of Roma, adopted in 2009, and its ensuing action plans.
To better support persons with disabilities, legislation and action plans had been put into place. In 2006 the Prevention of Discrimination against People with Disabilities Act was adopted, followed by the Professional Rehabilitation and Employment of Persons with Disabilities Act in 2009, which led to significant progress in the field of labour and employment. There was also the Strategy for the Improvement of the Position of Persons with Disabilities in Serbia 2007 to 2015. The Labour Office had complete statistics on the number of persons with disabilities who were in employment, or unemployed.
Questions by the Experts
On the housing of Roma communities, an Expert asked whether the use of metal housing containers by the Roma had been eradicated. What measures were being taken to end the eviction of the Roma from their informal settlement places, often for development projects. Were they given ample notice, access to legal redress, compensation and an alternative settlement place?
What strategies did the State party have to ensure long-term care for elderly persons? How was the State party replacing institutional care for persons with mental health illnesses with community-based care? Was its network of mental health care adequate, she asked.
Domestic violence was a concern and it seemed there was little legislation to prohibit it, little intervention in cases by the police, and a low number of prosecutions. Could the delegation please elaborate? There were problems with birth registration, particularly in rural areas and among the Roma community. The lack of birth registration meant problems for people in terms of having a nationality and a place of residence.
Child labour was a problem, as many children under the age of 15 years appeared to be involved in the informal economy, an Expert noted. He also asked about violence in society.
Response from the Delegation
The constitution prohibited discrimination against national minorities and guaranteed their equality before the law. Inciting racial or national hatred or intolerance was also prohibited under the constitution and the Criminal Code. National minorities were represented by National Councils elected at elections, and their work was funded by the State budget. There had been some incidents of hate crime, but they had been reduced by 35 per cent. In 2012 and 2013 the Ministry of Interior recorded 315 incidents that may be considered as inter-ethnic or allegedly motivated by ethnicity.
A delegate spoke about the situation in Kosovo, and said ongoing negotiations under the auspices of the European Union had resulted in a number of agreements. Serbia wanted to create the conditions for people living in Kosovo to fully access their rights and have a good quality of life, irrespective of their ethnicity. Today life in Kosovo is very difficult, especially for the Serbs and non-Albanians. People lived with a poor security situation, limited access to public services, unresolved property problems due to destroyed or occupied residential or agricultural property and restrictions on using their own language. Those were the main reasons that so few internally displaced persons had returned to Kosovo.
There were still more than 200,000 displaced people in Serbia. Only 4,000 people had achieved a sustainable return, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, which amounted to less than two per cent. Serbia was keen to continue its dialogue with Pristina and implement what it had achieved so far in negotiations in Brussels. Together with the European Union Serbia aimed to achieve a comprehensive solution, but the delegate emphasized that Serbia did not accept Pristina’s declaration of independence.
As a result of the conflict from 1991 to 1995 in the former Yugoslavia, more than 500,000 refugees had found shelter in Serbia. There were still 57,000 refugees in Serbia, most of them from Croatia, according to United Nations Refugee Agency figures. As the country with the largest number of refugees in the region, Serbia had a strong interest in finding a long-term solution for them by fully honouring the Convention on the Status of Refugees. To date durable solutions had been found for more than 200,000 refugees in Serbia through local integration. That process continued for the more than 10,000 refugees whose cases were dealt with each year. Unfortunately repatriation to countries of origin had long been burdened by lack of access to rights, depriving refugees of the choice of their solution – therefore local integration became the only possibility.
The process initiated by the 2005 Sarajevo Declaration was after a long stalemate revitalized at the 2010 Belgrade Regional Ministerial Conference to discuss the refugee problem, with participation from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia, and the international community. The meetings had resulted in the adoption of the Joint Ministerial Declaration which established the Regional Housing Programme for refugees and internally displaced persons. However, not a single project had been finalized yet, mainly due to the complicated procedure of approval of funds, he said.
Unfortunately, in March 2014, the United Nations Refugee Agency recommended the cessation of refugee status for refugees from Croatia, a delegate regretted. The recommendation was based on the fundamentally changed circumstances in the country of origin in accordance with the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Serbia did not accept the recommendation and clearly stated it was premature and unfounded, and could seriously undermine the return of refugees, the implementation of the Regional Housing Programme and the raising of the rest of the necessary funds.
The anti-discrimination law governed the general principles of discrimination and provided for procedures to deal with it. The law referred to nine vulnerable groups, those that according to the surveys were the ones that were most often victims of violence in Serbia, and focused on them.
Hate crimes were not prohibited by law it was true, but the term ‘hate’ was mentioned in the Criminal Code as an aggravating circumstance. The Office for Human and Minority Rights had a contact person who monitored the situation with regard to incidents with signs of hatred. Serbia prepared annual reports on hate crimes, and received information on good practice.
Corruption was present in many segments, including the judiciary, the health service, local government and others. A delegate spoke about how anti-corruption measures were increasingly focused on those areas.
Regarding the integration of the Roma people, especially in terms of employment, a delegate described how the Roma were involved in short-term local public work projects.
The right to strike may be restricted by law in regard to the nature of the profession. For example, the right of the police to strike may be restricted in specific cases, such as if the State was in conflict, during riots, or if Serbia was in a state of emergency. Members of the professional army were not allowed to strike, the delegate added.
Measures to tackle youth unemployment were outlined by a delegate who spoke about the National Employment Strategy from 2011 to 2020, which was adopted in May 2011. The primary objective was to establish a fixed, stable and sustainable employment growth trend.
According to the census the average age of a person with a disability was 67 years old, and 52 per cent of persons with disabilities were women. Six per cent of the population of Belgrade had disabilities, while 10 per cent of the population in rural areas had disabilities. There was no national database of persons with disabilities yet.
Regarding anti-poverty measures, a delegate said that children were the most vulnerable group at risk of poverty. The next most at-risk group was those aged 18 to 30 years, as per the European average. Older people suffered the least risk of poverty. Families with two adults and two or three children were 40 per cent at risk of poverty, and single parent families were also high-risk. The National Strategy of Social Housing and action plan for its implementation designed different forms of housing and their development, including accommodation in informal settlements.
Domestic violence was prohibited under the Criminal Code, and a new law established who could be protected.
Efforts to integrate Roma persons into society included issuing as many as possible with identity cards and health insurance. Affirmative action had been taken to enrol Roma children into secondary schools and universities, by use of scholarships and loans.
There had been an increase in the number of people living with HIV/AIDS. Additionally 30 children infected with HIV lived in Serbia, and they had full access to healthcare. Healthcare workers, especially gynaecologists and obstetricians, were fully trained in working with patients infected with HIV, including in delivering healthy babies.
Regarding the lack of potable water and sanitation in rural environments, the Government sought to unify water management and create a sustainable system. The Law on Waters was the basis for the rulebook on managing water use and cross-ministerial cooperation. There was also a rulebook on managing hazardous or dangerous subjects in water.
In 2007 Serbia issued a national strategy on mental health care. More than 300,000 citizens had some kind of mental disturbance and 27 per cent suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. The strategy aimed to reform psychiatric services into more humane treatment. The reform involved taking services away from large hospitals and establishing dedicated clinics in both rural and urban areas.
Every two years Serbia held seminars at which it worked out binding operational conclusions concerning activities for the full integration of the Roma over the following two-year period.
Questions from the Experts
In 2005 the Committee recommended that Serbia take measures to promote school attendance by Roma children and children belonging to other minority groups, as well as refugee and internally displaced children. However, the State party’s update on its legal and policy framework was not satisfactory; what the Committee wanted to know was how that framework worked in practice. Had there been an evaluation of the impact of measures in Serbia to address the non-attendance of Roma children and children from other minority groups in primary education? What subjects were taught at schools in the minority languages?
Approximately 17 per cent of the population was of non-Serbian origin, divided into quite a large number of different minority groups. Could the State party inform on measures taken that privileged the cultural identity of minorities? Was there a national integral framework which integrated the individual efforts by minority councils, to promote their work at a national level and create a wider sense of tolerance in Serbia?
Given recent events many Serbs were now outside the country. What was the State doing in order to establish cultural contacts or other types of support – for example providing text books in their national language? It was a serious question within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the High Commissioner.
Response from the Delegation
Classes were taught either in Serbian or a national minority language, or bilingually. Children from minority groups were also taught about elements of their national culture. Teaching at the secondary level was available in Albanian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Slovenian, Slovak and Croatian languages. School text books were also available in the languages of national minorities; the books had low circulations, so the Government funded the publishers to print them. A pre-school programme offered different classes on multi-cultural diversity. Some eight per cent of Roma children were in pre-school education, and the Government was working hard to increase that number. A poor financial situation often limited access to education for certain groups of children.
The cultural institutions of national importance were funded by the budget of the Ministry of Culture. The Ministry itself implemented the project ‘Serbia in Serbia’ between 2009 and 2010, in which cultural institutions and prominent artists toured Serbia with their diverse programmes. The Ministry bought books and provided them to libraries across the entire territory, including books written in the languages of national minorities.
There were 19 National Minority Councils in Serbia. The Councils had legal status and exercised important public duties with regard to self-governance, use of languages and script and so on. Each Council had a Chairperson, a Secretariat, and Committees for education, culture and official use of language and script. The Councils were funded by the State via the Office for Human and Minority Rights and various public competitions. The term of office for the current Councils would expire in June and there would be elections later this year, once approved by parliament.
Follow-Up Comment from Expert
WALEED SADI, Committee Member acting as Country Rapporteur, regretted that time had been too short for a meaningful dialogue, but returned to the issue of national minorities. He asked whether every minority was entitled to its own school system and for every child to be taught in its national language. If so, what would happen to national unity? It was one thing to respect minority languages, but another to keep everybody separated – it was a double-edge sword, he commented.
Response to Follow-Up
A delegate replied that there were certain conditions relating to the number of students who were members of a certain minority who attended classes, there had to be 15 pupils as a basic precondition for holding classes in a national minority language. Serbia would bear the Expert’s comments in mind when considering classes in minority languages.
SUZANA PAUNOVIC, Director of the Office for Human and Minority Rights of Serbia, thanked the Committee for the dialogue, which raised a lot of questions, and said if the delegation had omitted to answer any question in particular it would submit answers in writing. Serbia had tried to demonstrate it was in the process of building new economic, political and social structures. Its assets were very limited but it aimed to build a system that allowed people to enjoy a high standard of rights.
WALEED SADI, Committee Member acting as Country Rapporteur, thanked the delegation, and said although he wished there had been more time for the dialogue, he hoped the State party would find the Committee’s comments and recommendations helpful as it moved forward towards full implementation of the Covenant.
ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Committee Chairperson, expressed his appreciation to the highly professional and highly experienced delegation from Serbia, whose members had responded to the questions with very frank, profound, forthcoming and competent information, amid excellent cooperation. He noted that the State party was seeking to harmonize its legislation with the European Union, and said in that regard the Committee would appreciate the State party’s harmonization with the Covenant as well.
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