Elections in Serbia, Yugoslavia, on September 21 will be neither free nor fair, declared Human Rights Watch/Helsinki. State control of the media and a lack of accountability for police brutality following last year's elections seriously undermine the legitimacy of Sunday's vote.
"An election that does not allow open debate, particularly on television, and a climate of impunity are antithetical to real democracy," charges Holly Cartner, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki. "In his unwillingness to relinquish power, President Slobodon Milosevic and his ruling Socialist Party have subverted the electoral process."
The Milosevicg overnment has demonstrated a blatant disregard for human rights during the past year, according to a new report, Discouraging Democracy: Elections and Human Rights in Serbia, released today. In November 1996, it annulled the results of local elections won largely by the opposition in Serbia and then beat those who protested. The government ultimately recognized the opposition's victory after eighty-eight days of peaceful demonstrations, but not before police arrested and beat hundreds of demonstrators. Excessive force was used on many occasions, even against journalists and others who were clearly not part of the protests. While the state-run television and radio ignored the massive protests, the government harassed and, at times, shut down the independent media that was covering the demonstrations.
Many of these violations, such as the government's restrictions on the independent media, continued throughout 1997. In July the government temporarily closed down over seventy-five independent or opposition radio and television stations, ostensibly to "establish order" in the airwaves. Other violations, like police violence against peaceful demonstrators and journalists, have never been addressed by the government. To this day, not a single government official or police officer has been held accountable for the violence that took place, even though more than sixty criminal charges have been filed with the state prosecutor by demonstrators and journalists who were beaten. Impunity for such abuses of authority virtually ensures that they will reoccur.
Although most western governments criticized the 1996 electoral violations and subsequent police violence, many have since taken steps to welcome Yugoslavia back into the international community. In April 1997, the European Union granted Yugoslavia preferential trade status, which gives Yugoslavia beneficial conditions when trading with E.U. countries. Then, on May 15, the European Commission approved an aid package to Yugoslavia worth U.S. $112 million.
In this way, the E.U. has rewarded Yugoslav President Milosevic for doing what he was legally obligated to do in the first place -- recognize the elections -- without regard for the other human rights violations that persist today, including the persecution of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and Milosevic's refusal to cooperate with the war crimes tribunal on the former Yugoslavia. Such concessions squander an essential source of leverage to compel Milosevic to improve his human rights record and to comply with the Dayton Agreement.
In the report, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki makes the following recommendations to the Milosevic government and the international community:
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki calls on the Serbian (republican) and Yugoslav (federal) governments to:
Investigate incidents of police abuse after the November 1996 elections and hold accountable all police officers and their superiors found responsible of using, or ordering the use of, unnecessary force, through administrative sanctions, such as dismissal, or through criminal prosecutions and sentencing.
Open criminal investigations into the sixty-one known cases of police abuse that have already been submitted to the state prosecutor by Yugoslav citizens. If the prosecutor's office dismisses a case, it is obliged by law to notify the complainant right away so that he or she may initiate proceedings as a private prosecutor.
Propose legal reform to enable individuals to bring legal action as a private prosecutor against police in both minor and serious cases when the public prosecutor has not responded to a complaint within a specified period of time.
Prepare a code of conduct for law enforcement officials that addresses the prohibition of torture and all forms of police brutality, a definition of the legal use of force and conduct to safeguard human dignity and the basic rights of individuals.
Establish an independent commission, with the participation of nongovernmental organizations and legal experts, to examine police abuse in Yugoslavia and its legal remedies. The commission should propose concrete changes in police procedure (from police training to civilian review) and Serbian and Yugoslav law to minimize police abuse and ensure that victims are able to seek redress.
Prepare new media laws and regulations in full consultation with the independent media in Yugoslavia that guarantee freedom of expression in television and radio. Concrete changes in the Serbian Law on Radio and Television, the Laws on Connection Systems, and the Laws on Information should guarantee that broadcast licenses are distributed and regulated by an independent body without regard to political considerations. The new laws should take into account the concerns and proposals of the independent media.
In the interim, permit all currently licensed, and all unlicensed but currently operating, radio and television stations to broadcast without interference. No regulation of the airwaves should take place until Yugoslavia has a new set of media laws and regulations that guarantee free expression in accordance with international standards.
Ensure all parties contesting in the September 21, 1997, elections, and future elections, equal access to state television and radio, as well as to the state news agency, Tanjug.
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki calls on the international community to:
Carefully monitor the September 21, 1997, elections and its follow-up, making public the findings. Violations in electoral procedure, as well as violations before and after the vote (such as restrictions on the media or attempts to alter the results), should be publicly condemned.
Implement a policy of human rights conditionality for aid to Yugoslavia. The international community should establish well defined human rights benchmarks and a timetable that the Yugoslav government must abide by, with negative consequences when progress is not made. Reviews should be regular and transparent.
In bilateral and multilateral meetings with Yugoslav government officials, discuss the issues and recommendations raised in this report, and emphasize the importance of Yugoslavia respecting its international human rights obligations.
Provide assistance to Yugoslavia's civil society, especially local nongovernmental organizations and the independent media.
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki calls on the European Union to:
Strongly reaffirm its principle of human rights conditionality and its readiness to respond firmly to Yugoslavia's non-compliance.
Consider human rights conditions in Yugoslavia when reviewing Yugoslavia's preferential trade status, as is required in the April 1997 agreement between Yugoslavia and the E.U.. Lack of improvement in the key areas mentioned in the agreement (media laws, independence of the judiciary and minority rights) should result in disciplinary action against Yugoslavia and, perhaps, a revocation of the preferential trade status.
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki calls on the European Parliament to:
Ensure that E.U. conditionality principles are implemented.
Ask to be kept fully informed about such implementation by the European Commission and European Council on an ongoing basis.
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki calls on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to:
Deny Yugoslavia readmission to the OSCE until there are concrete improvements in the country's human rights record, including respect for freedom of the press, independence of the judiciary and minority rights, as well as cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Copies of this report are available from the Publications Department, Human Rights Watch, 485 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10017-6104, for $8.50 (North American shipping) and $13.00 (international shipping). Visa/MasterCard accepted.