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Letter to The President of the Republic of Serbia

The President of the Republic of Serbia,
Mr. Boris Tadic
People's Office of the President
Masarikova 5/VI
11000 Belgrade
Serbia
Via Fax +381 11 3620 676

Dear Mr. President,

I write to you to express concern that persistent homophobia in Serbian society has given rise to incidents of violence, and prevents lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Serbians from exercising to the full enjoyment their human rights. Recently the Serbian human rights organization Gay Straight Alliance asked Human Rights Watch to visit Belgrade. On that visit, I met with Ministers Svetozar Ciplic and Snezana Samardzic Markovic, state secretary Marko Karadzic, several members of parliament from the Democratic Party, G 17, the Socialist Party of Serbia and the Liberal Democratic Party. A meeting was also organized with representatives from the Serbian police, the Ministry of Education, the deputy Ombudsman and with the Serbian association of judges.

As you are aware, Human Rights Watch is an independent organization dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. We investigate and expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable.

Human Rights Watch was concerned by your government's decision to prevent the Pride Parade from taking place on September 20, 2009 in Belgrade. Allegedly the decision was made because authorities could not guarantee the safety of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights defenders who would participate in the demonstration. In the weeks before the Pride Parade, graffiti in Belgrade, as well as media statements by opponents of the march, had contained threats against parade participants. This was not an isolated incident in which LGBT people's rights of assembly and expression were curtailed.

In February 2009 the Director of the Sava Center in Belgrade, a center for conferences and cultural events, cancelled a press conference of the Gay Straight Alliance that was due to take place in the center, stating that the organization promotes and advocates gay rights and therefore was inappropriate for the center. When the press conference took place in a different venue in Kragujevac one month later the organizers who held their press conference faced homophobia again. Hooligans threw stones to the windows and doors of the venue while shouting "Faggots, we will kill you".

It appears that the extremist groups' threats against the Pride Parade indeed merited protective action by the government.  However, protection should mean ensuring that those under threat can exercise their legitimate rights-including the right to peaceable assembly. I would like to emphasize that your government needs to take appropriate measures at national, regional and local levels to ensure that the right to freedom of assembly can be effectively enjoyed. Your government should ensure that law enforcement authorities, including the police and state prosecutor, protect participants in any peaceful demonstration from unlawful disruption.

Human Rights Watch is concerned by the numerous instances of discrimination against persons because of their sexual orientation and other manifestations of homophobia that continue to take place in Serbia, and the lack of an adequate response by the Serbian authorities. Following my conversations with members and representatives of your government, members of parliament from different political parties and members of the Serbian human rights groups I would like to suggest that your government take the following measures to reduce the level of intolerance and build an open and inclusive society-a society where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people can live without fear of violence or discrimination.

1. In 2009 state secretary for human and minority rights Marko Karadzic appeared on television and defended the right of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people to demonstrate. He explained that human rights are applicable to all human beings, this includes people with a different sexual orientation than the heterosexual one. After this interview the state secretary received death threats. We are deeply grateful for his public courage. However, we are concerned that neither you nor the minister for human rights and minorities nor any other government member publicly supported the state secretary. The Serbia 2009 Progress report (SEC 2009) 1339/2 dated October 14, 2009, issued by the European Union to measure Serbia's progress in relation to accession in the EU, criticized this lack of response. Failure to protect human rights defenders creates a climate of insecurity that affects all of civil society.

We urge you, as President of the Republic of Serbia, to publicly denounce discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. December 10, international human rights day, provides an excellent opportunity to affirm that human rights are for all.

2. According to Minister Snezana Samardzic Markovic only a fraction of the cases related to aggression and violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity, that the police presented to the office of the State Prosecutor, have led to an adequate judicial response. Most cases were dismissed without any judicial follow-up. Perpetrators of crimes should be held accountable and brought to justice; this climate of impunity should end. Both victims and witnesses of violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity must know that their complaints will be investigated and that they will be protected from intimidation. Your government should ensure effective, prompt investigations into crimes where the sexual orientation or gender identity of the victim is reasonably suspected to have constituted a motive for the perpetrator. Your government should ensure that relevant data are gathered and analyzed on the prevalence and nature of discrimination and violence on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, in particular on hate-motivated incidents.

Your government should also take all necessary steps to ensure that law enforcement structures, including the police and the judiciary, have the knowledge and skills to identify such crimes and incidents and provide adequate assistance and support to these victims and witnesses. In this respect we suggest that the Serbian human rights groups which focus on LGBT rights, train the police, the state prosecutor and the judges periodically.

3. The anti-discrimination bill adopted in 2009 provides for a Commissioner of Equality to start his or her work in January 2010. We urge that a sufficient budget be allocated to this new official so that he or she can start his or her work immediately in a meaningful way. Several people I spoke to expressed their concern that this part of the anti-discrimination law will falter if the Commissioner of Equality's work is not fully funded and supported.

4. In schools, there appear to be no programs teaching students about tolerance, respect and the importance of non-discrimination. Basically lesbian and gay students and teachers are left on their own. Human Rights Watch suggests that your government take appropriate measures at all levels to promote mutual tolerance and respect in schools regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. This should include providing school curricula and educational materials containing objective information with respect to sexual orientation and gender identity and providing pupils and students with the necessary information, protection and support to enable them to live in accordance with their sexual orientation and gender identity. Your government must safeguard the right of pupils and students to education in a safe environment, free from violence, bullying, social exclusion or other forms of discriminatory and degrading treatment related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

5. Finally I would like to underline the importance of developing strategies and policies to combat homophobia in close cooperation with Serbian human rights organizations defending the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender persons. These organizations, including the Gay Straight Alliance, Labris and Queeria, are experts and know what the LGBT community needs. If the organizations decide to organize a Pride Parade in 2010, Human Rights Watch suggests that your government, the police, and local authorities create a working group together with the organizers of the Pride Parade. All relevant information about the security situation should be shared. We urge you to cooperate in developing a  plan to ensure that the Pride Parade of 2010, if desired, will be held. We suggest that you as President, or one of the ministers of your government, speak at the Pride Parade to underline the state's support for LGBT people's right to assemble.

On behalf of Human Rights Watch I urge you as President of the Republic of Serbia to demonstrate political leadership by making visible efforts to end violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Yours sincerely,

Boris Dittrich
Advocacy director
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program
Human Rights Watch

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