Progress made, issues remain

Council of Europe (CoE) Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg said during his recent visit here that while some progress has been made regarding the respect of human rights in Serbia, plenty still remains to be done.

Hammarberg told B92 he was leaving Serbia somewhat disappointed concerning the judicial system, corruption, discrimination, police behavior, freedom of speech, media, and protection of minorities – especially the Roma minority.

He also voiced his concerned over racial issues, intolerance and hate speech.

Hammarberg is due to publish a report on human rights in Serbia in January and suggest concrete measures for improving the situation in the sector. Still, he told our reporter he is an optimist.

B92: What are the biggest human rights issues you have identified during your stay in Serbia?

Hammarberg: It is difficult to identify a single problem. There are several problems, but I think that the most important one is a lack of judicial efficiency. Corruption is still present, court processes take too long. Your prisons are overcrowded, which is problematic, and there is some criticism of the police work. It is necessary to review the functioning of the entire judicial system.

B92: What is your view of the conditions in Serbia’s prisons?

Hammarberg: Some buildings are not suitable, they are very old and in a poor condition. Still, the biggest problem is overcrowding, too many people in a limited space. I think that it is necessary to build new prisons and not to use old buildings, but also to find innovative ways of punishment, to try and find alternatives to imprisonment. There are certain experiments tried by other countries where imprisonment is not necessary but only one of the options.

B92: What was the government’s reaction when you told them about the problems?

Hammarberg: I spoke with the justice minister about the judicial and prison issues. She has a long list of suggestions that she expects the parliament will adopt. I am pleased that she sees problems and is not happy with the situation. That’s the necessary first step to solve problems in the judiciary, including the corruption.

There are some dilemmas, for instance, there’s some criticism of the judges suspected of corruption, and that calls for the government’s intervention. But at the same time, independence of judges and the whole system needs to be guaranteed. We don’t want politicians to sit in courts and control their actions. That’s the dilemma, but it can be solved.

B92: If you were to give Serbia a mark on a 1 to 5 scale, what would it be?

Hammarberg: It is very difficult to give a mark. There are problems in all countries in Europe, even those with longer democratic tradition. You have are problems that remained from the war, displaced persons from Kosovo and there is the issue of human rights. Still, in a way, Serbia’s lucky to start from zero and you have a chance to build a new system.

You have established the Ombudsman and that is very interesting – you have something to teach other countries. All in all, I think that Serbia is a typical European country that shows some progress, but still has problems. I am an optimist, I believe there will be progress in this country.