Thousands of asylum seekers and migrants wait on the Serbian side of the border to enter Croatia on October 23, 2015.

© 2015 Marko Drobnjakovic

(Berlin) – Governments in the Western Balkans should revitalize their efforts to strengthen human rights and create a rights respecting environment for all, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2017. Human Rights Watch documented human rights concerns in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Croatia, Serbia and Kosovo during 2016. Concerns about Croatia are included in a chapter on the European Union.

Human rights concerns in the Western Balkans include slow progress on justice for war crimes in national courts, attacks and threats against journalists and government interference with their work, and discrimination against minorities. Asylum seekers and migrants are facing difficulties in entering and seeking protection in Serbia even as numbers along the Western Balkan migration route have fallen. Among the concerns are a backlog of asylum cases, low rates of asylum approval and overcrowded reception facilities.

“The Western Balkans governments should take concrete steps to improve media freedom, protect minorities and refugees, and deliver justice for wartime abuses,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Progress on human rights is not just important to fulfil European aspirations, it is also vital to secure a better future for everyone in these countries.”

In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights as an impediment to the majority will. For those who feel left behind by the global economy and increasingly fear violent crime, civil society groups, the media, and the public have key roles to play in reaffirming the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built.

During 2016, journalism associations recorded several attacks and threats, including death threats, against journalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and in Kosovo. The inadequate government response throughout the region to these attacks and threats creates impunity for the attackers and a chilling atmosphere for the media, Human Rights Watch said. Journalists and media outlets also face government interference and unwarranted actions in the courts.

There was slow progress on justice for war crimes in national courts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo. War crimes prosecutors in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia are underfunded and lack sufficient capacity to deal with cases. Despite progress during the year, the Kosovo special court to try serious crimes committed during and after the 1999 war is not yet operational due to delays in adopting necessary legislation in the host country, The Netherlands. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s divided government failed to make progress to end discrimination in its political system, as the European Court of Human Rights has ordered.

Roma in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Kosovo face discrimination in accessing health care and education and are vulnerable to evictions. Kosovo has made limited progress in integrating Roma and other minorities forcibly returned from Western Europe as rejected asylum seekers.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups face harassment and intimidation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that same-sex couples in Croatia face discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.