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Letter to The Vice Prime Minister for European Integration

The Vice Prime Minister for European Integration
Mr. Bozidar Delic
Republic of Serbia

Dear Vice Prime-Minister Delic,

I write you on behalf of Human Rights Watch. An international nongovernmental organization based in New York with offices around the world, including London, Brussels, Geneva, Paris, Berlin and Moscow, Human Rights Watch monitors and reports on human rights abuses in more than 70 countries.

Last week, on March 4, 2009 the government withdrew a broad anti-discrimination draft law shortly before it was to appear on the agenda of the Parliament-even though the parliamentary committee on European integration had already approved it.

According to media reports, the government ordered the withdrawal of the draft anti-discrimination law after last- minute pressure from a coalition of churches led by the Serbian Orthodox Church. The coalition reportedly objects to two paragraphs in the draft law which would prohibit discrimination based on religion (article 18) and on sexual orientation and gender identity (article 21).

The draft law, written in close consultation with civil society groups, deserves full discussion and debate and a parliamentary vote.  The intervention by the church coalition came after the period for consultation had lapsed. We urge you to restore the law to the Parliament's agenda as soon as possible.

It is critical that full protections against discrimination be extended to all persons in Serbia without delay. 

Non-governmental organizations have documented discrimination as well as violence on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in Serbia.  The report "This is our Country," researched by the Gay Straight Alliance in Belgrade, and published in January 2009, contains a preface by Thomas Hammarberg, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, and  details  homophobic incidents against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Serbian citizens.  Legal protections against discrimination are a vital step to ensuring that all Serbians can enjoy their rights fully.

Serbia is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) . Articles 2 and 26 of the ICCPR affirm the right to equal treatment and the right to equal protection before the law without discrimination. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, charged with authoritatively interpreting  the ICCPR and monitoring states' compliance with its provisions, affirmed in its decision in Toonen vs Australia (1994) that sexual orientation is a ground protected against discrimination by articles 2 and 26.

Similarly Serbia is party to the European Convention on Human Rights, and was among the first countries to ratify its Protocol no. 12 which prohibits discrimination in the application of all rights "set forth by law" on grounds including religion and sexual orientation.  The proposed law would simply be a means of putting into place domestically Serbia's international obligations.

Serbia is also one of the countries involved in a Stabilization and Association process that could lead to membership of the European Union. The prohibition of employment discrimination based on sexual orientation is part of the acquis of European Union law which all acceding countries are required to integrate into their own legal systems. Moreover, in 2008 the European Commission published its "Proposal for a Council Directive on implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation." The proposed directive would protect against discrimination in other areas including social security, health care, education and housing.  

Accepting the broad anti-discrimination law that includes sexual orientation as a protected status will link Serbia with the developments in the European Union.

Human Rights Watch welcomes the fact that your government has already recognized the importance of combating discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, at a European level. On July 2, 2008, the 1031st meeting of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe issued a press release reaffirming the Council's strong attachment to the principle of the equal rights and dignity of all human beings, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. The press release stated that " the Council of Europe's standards on tolerance and non-discrimination apply to all European societies and that discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity is not compatible with these standards."

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, of which Serbia is a member state, has  specifically called upon member states "to include sexual orientation among the prohibited grounds for discrimination in their national legislation" (Recommendation 1474, September 24, 2000). The Republic of Serbia is a member state of the Council of Europe and is expected to amend its laws according to the recommendation.

We urge you and your government to protect everyone in Serbia against discrimination, by ensuring that the draft law including the grounds of protection against discrimination based on religion and based on sexual orientation returns to the agenda of the Parliament . We urge you to work for its approval and implementation.

I thank you for your attention and look forward to your reply.

Boris O. Dittrich
Advocacy director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program of Human Rights Watch

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