(Washington, DC, July 27, 2000) Human rights violations in Serbia have been on the rise since autumn 1998, when the threat of war with NATO hung over the country. The repression intensified during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (March to June 1999), and has risen still after the war ended.
Second, since relations between the FR Yugoslavia and Western countries have deteriorated in the wake of the NATO war, Yugoslav authorities are now indifferent to Western criticism, including criticism for human rights abuses. The limited restraint in the harassment of domestic critics which the authorities displayed in the 1990s has now all but disappeared.
Human rights violations in Serbia have been so abundant lately that I can only enumerate the main types of violations in the opening statement. It would literally take hours to say more about each type and to dwell on the cases by point.
1. Repression of free speech
An important target of the government's repression is free expression and public debate. In the wake of NATO war, criminal and misdemeanor proceedings have been initiated against opposition politicians and ordinary citizens who have publicly or even privately criticized the authorities. Some cases resulted in convictions. Appeals in these cases are still pending, but the very fact that trials have taken place has a significant deterrent effect. Ordinary people, traditionally used to criticizing the authorities before their friends or colleagues, now face a genuine risk of prosecution for "insulting the president" if they criticize Slobodan Milosevic in the presence of two or more people
The Law on Public Information, adopted in October 1998, has had an even more chilling effect. The law authorizes misdemeanor judges to impose high fines on media found to have published "libelous" statements or reports. Misdemeanor judges are appointed by the government and can be easily removed if they behave independently in politically "sensitive" cases. As a result, judges identify libel only if petitioners are members of the three ruling parties in Serbia -- the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), presided over by Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav Left (JUL), led by Milosevic's wife Mira Markovic, and the extremely nationalistic Serbian Radical Party (SRS) of Vojislav Seselj. In some 70 cases in almost two years, officials belonging to these parties, or their supporters, have recovered damages from independent newspapers and electronic media for alleged assaults on their "human dignity," "honor," and their "right to a private life." The fines paid by the media have been extraordinary high by Yugoslav standards and clearly aimed at crippling the media financially and curtailing free expression. In those blatant instances of libel in which opposition leaders have sued the pro-government media, misdemeanor courts resorted to various procedural pretexts to set aside the charges. In only very few cases were the government-controlled media punished, and even then the fines were much lower than those ordered to be paid by the independent media. As of January 2000, Serbian and Montenegrin independent media had been punished for violations of the media law on thirty-one occasions, and the average fine had been 420,000 dinars; pro-government newspapers were fined six times, with the fine averaging 143,000 dinars. The trend has only worsened since.
The government has always been in full control of the main national media -- the Radio-Television Serbia (RTS), but it has failed to establish an absolute monopoly in the area of public information. This is because in most large towns in Serbia, the authorities do not control the newspapers, TV, and radio stations founded by local assemblies, which since 1996 have been controlled by the opposition. There are also three major national newspapers -- Danas, Blic, and Glas Javnosti -- whose editorial policy is independent.
But the government since 1998 has been trying to establish full control, chiefly by refusing to issue licenses to the electronic media and by imposing enormous fines on newspapers charged with violations of the Law on Public Information. Two of the most important outlets, TV Studio B and Radio B-92 (later renamed into B2-92), were taken over by the authorities in May this year. Five more local radio and TV stations were closed down in May alone. Most of the independent media, however, have managed to survive so far, due to the persistence, invention, and courage of independent journalists, who are helped by financial support from abroad.
NGO activists, intellectuals, and journalists communicating with foreign colleagues have been prosecuted, or indirectly threatened with prosecution, for "espionage." Two such cases occurred during the NATO bombardment, and one more was initiated just yesterday in Nis, where a journalist, Miroslav Filipovic, stands trial. He is charged with espionage and dissemination of false information because of articles he published in an English Internet magazine at the beginning of this year. The articles deal with crimes committed against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo during the NATO war and with the tensions in ethnically mixed parts of Serbia where the Yugoslav Army and police have been deployed after pulling out from Kosovo.
In autumn 1999, peaceful demonstrations organized by the opposition or by university students met a violent police response. The riot police in Belgrade also beat peaceful protesters in May 2000, when thousands took to the streets reacting to the closure of TV Studio B and Radio B2-92. In some instances, the authorities engaged civilian thugs to disperse the protests.
Authorities have also resorted to other means to prevent opposition views from reaching a broad audience. During live broadcasts of parliamentary debates on RTS, speeches by opposition MPs are voiced over by the announcer. In the months preceding the takeover of Studio B, which is controlled by the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement, the government disrupted the signal when news programs would air in the evening. Essential transmission equipment from a Studio B's transponder unit was stolen in January.
2. Attacks on Otpor and other opposition activists
The main novelty in the government's strategies is police beatings of opposition activists and members of Otpor (Resistance), an anti-government group mostly comprised of university students. The police have also refused to investigate attacks on opposition activists by plainclothes thugs. In June and July ten such cases have been registered by Human Rights Watch, Serbian NGOs, and the independent media. The beatings took place in police stations or on city streets, where government critics were placing anti-governments posters or simply wearing T-shirts with symbols of Otpor—a clenched fist—or opposition parties. In one case, a police inspector kicked an 18-year girl during an interrogation of sixteen Otpor activists in the police station. The group was arrested while playing a soccer game and demanding the resignation of the Yugoslav soccer team coach, as a metaphor for demanding the resignation of president Milosevic. Also, a group of unidentified men in the town of Sabac seriously injured two people on crutches who are members of the opposition Democratic party, after beating them with their crutches; the victims, whose only fault was to wear T-shirts with the symbol of the party, claim that a police patrol quickly appeared but refused to pursue the attackers.
In May and June, the police detained and interrogated 500 Otpor activists and banned the group, accusing it of being a terrorist organization, an absurd charge. Otpor seeks peaceful political change through free and fair elections, and its activities consist of street actions aimed at ridiculing the government's policies. Numerous university professors, human rights activists, artists, church representatives, and members of the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts have publicly supported the group or become its members. With one exception, Otpor activists have not been convicted or even tried for any violation of law, least of all for terrorism. The exception regards an ongoing trial in Pozarevac, the home town of Slobodan Milosevic and his wife, where an Otpor activist is being charged with attempted assassination of a member of the Yugoslav Left. Serbian human rights groups and independent media assess that the trial is politically motivated. Because of pressure exerted by authorities in Belgrade, the prosecutor and the investigating judge in the case resigned, unwilling to compromise their judicial independence and integrity.
3. Judicial system in Serbia
The Milosevic government has sealed its authoritarianism through manipulating the courts. It exerts strong pressure on judges who appear impartial and professional, and benefits from those judges and prosecutors who require no prodding for their pro-government bias.
Prominent advocates of judicial independence in Serbia, including former judges of Serbia's Supreme Court and Constitutional Court, claim that a majority of judges in Serbia are still professionals whose only guide is justice and truth. The structure of the judicial system, however, enables the minority intimidated by, or loyal to, the executive branch to shape the performance of the judiciary in a decisive way. Presidents of the courts in Serbia are elected by the government-dominated Serbian parliament. These presidents then have an important role in running the court, since they can assign politically sensitive cases to "reliable judges." Since juries strictly follow instructions by judges, decisions in political trials reflect the will of the government. Numerous trials of ethnic Albanians, arrested during the NATO war and then transferred to prisons in Serbia, were conducted in absolute disregard of fair trial requirements: as a rule, the indictees were convicted even though the prosecution did not produce any evidence to prove the case. A similar pattern emerged in several trials against political opponents in Serbia. The Supreme Court (which in Serbia does not rule on the constitutionality of a case: a separate Constitutional Court is vested with that power) has been more resistant to political influence, but most of the controversial cases decided by the lower courts since the NATO war have not yet reached the Supreme Court, and it remains to be seen how the court will act.
In December 1999 and July this year, the authorities carried out outright purges of the judiciary. The victims were two judges of the Supreme Court of Serbia, one judge of the Constitutional Court, and 17 judges of district, municipal, and commercial courts. All were removed by the Serbian parliament even though the Supreme Court had not pronounced upon the proposed removals, as required by law.
4. The political atmosphere in Serbia and the effectiveness of the political opposition
As intimated at the beginning of this presentation, the steady decline of support for Slobodan Milosevic and his government is the probable principal cause of the increased harassment of government critics in Serbia. To illustrate the point, I attached below a review of opinion polls taken since October last year. All polls have shown a clear advantage in favor of the opposition -- if it is united. Five out of six agencies have found that the advantage neared the proportion of 2:1 (the sixth agency finds that the proportion is 1.2 : 1). The results are alarming to the government, and, as it seems, surprising even to the opposition and international observers, who have grown used to electoral victories for Milosevic and his allies since 1990.
The Serbian opposition is notoriously divided. The main obstacle to its efforts to achieve a change of government has been the rivalry between its leaders, notably between Vuk Draskovic, president of the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), and Zoran Djindjic, president of the Democratic Party. Currently, the critical difference within the opposition relates to the issue of whether the opposition should participate in the forthcoming federal and municipal elections. SPO advocates a boycott of the elections, whereas other parties think the opposition should participate. Interestingly, in the last elections in Serbia -- Serbian presidential and parliamentary elections in 1997 -- the SPO was the only opposition group which took part, thus neutralizing the effect of the boycott by the rest of the opposition. The SPO argues that in 1997 the conditions were more favorable for free and fair elections than they are today. Other opposition parties favor participation for two reasons. First, they say, while in 1997 a boycott would have damaged Milosevic's standing abroad, this time it would not, as Milosevic is no longer interested in the international response. Second, they believe there is simply no alternative to elections. Street protests and other forms of activities have proven insufficient to force Milosevic either to step down or to create conditions conducive to free and fair elections. The best the opposition can do, in this view, is to participate, as long as its capacity to control the electoral process -- and the vote-counting in particular -- is not so severely restricted as to render the participation meaningless. Finally, in the opinion polls the forces supporting Milosevic seem to lag so far behind that the opposition seems to be willing to tolerate the imperfection of the electoral process.
5. U.S. Policy
In the ensuing months we shall probably see more attempts by the authorities to prevent any meaningful elections from taking place, as such elections are likely to produce a defeat. Human rights violations, in that context, are almost certain to continue and intensify.
Direct leverage by the United States on the events in Serbia is close to nil, but the United States government can do things to help pro-democracy forces in Serbia. It can, for example, engage Russia in a dialogue on democratization and respect for human rights in Serbia.
In legislation, the U.S. should resist conditioning the lifting of sanctions on Serbia's membership in international institutions on the achievement of a lasting settlement in Kosovo. One can envisage a situation in which a democratic government in place in Belgrade might be unable to find a common language with the Kosovo Albanians, should the latter choose to pursue a maximalist position. In this kind of scenario, subjecting FRY to sanctions would be misguided. Instead, any conditionality should follow the spirit of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244, which states that FRY should be required to show dedication to the process leading to an agreement on a settlement.
Finally, the U.S. government can pro-actively and directly encourage the development of democracy in Serbia in three ways. It can take steps to reduce the impact of sanctions on municipalities in Serbia in which nongovernmental organizations and independent media operate free of pressure from the local authorities. It can increase funding for training programs, technical development, and human rights awareness for the nongovernmental sector. And it can increase support for the nongovernmental sector and the independent media through such programs as exchanges and study tours.
Results of opinion polls in Serbia since October 1999
NATIONAL DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS (Washington DC)
- forced choice ballot test: coalition Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS)/ JUL 18 per cent, Serbian Radical Party (SRS) 9 per cent
open-ended question SPS 16, JUL 2, SRS 7
- forced choice ballot test: Alliance for Change (SzP) 47, SerbianRenewall Movement (SPO) 11
open-ended question: SzP 30, SPO 9, Democratic Party (DS) 4, Civic Alliance 1, Social Democracy 1, other opposition parties 6
INSTITUTE OF SOCIAL SCIENCES (Belgrade)
- coalition SPS/ JUL 13 per cent, SRS 4 per cent
- SzP 12, SPO 7, Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) 3, no data about smaller parties
- coalition SPS/ JUL 21, plus coalition SPS/JUL/SRS 14.3
if running separately, SPS 26.9 , SRS 9.2 , JUL 3
- united opposition 55.2
if running separately, SPO 19.7, Democratic Party (DS) 9.4, DSS 8.4
INSTITUTE OF SOCIAL SCIENCES (Belgrade)
- coalition SPS/JUL 18, SRS 6
- united opposition: 46
if running separately: Alliance for Change (SzP) 30, SPO 9