1. About the report
On March 30, the US State Department released its 45th annual report on respect for human rights in all countries of the world (2020 Report on Human Rights Practices). It is observed to what extent states implement their obligations arising from internationally accepted documents, which concern human rights, primarily the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This individually concerns a set of universally accepted human rights – individual, civil, political and labor rights.
The State Department prepares this report based on information from US embassies around the world, from foreign government officials, NGOs and international organizations, legal experts, journalists, university researchers, labor activists, and published reports. US embassies abroad prepare draft reports for each specific country, and the final version is made by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor within the State Department, in cooperation with other departments of the State Department, as well as with the US Department of Labor.
The report refers exclusively to the events and situations that took place during 2020.
The report does not provide specific numerical designations, coefficients, percentages of progress or setbacks, as is often the case with similar reports of international organizations, nor does it compare the situation in certain areas with previous reports (progress or setbacks). Nevertheless, there is a value methodology, which is very important for monitoring and properly understanding the assessments presented in the report.
As pointed out in the methodological notes, the report uses the formulation that a certain segment of human rights is Generally respected by the state, because it cannot be said with complete certainty that any government fully respects a segment of human rights, all the time, because it is a dynamic category. The State Department emphasizes that the phrase Generally respected is used to describe the conduct of a state that seeks to protect and promote human rights in full, and that it is “the highest level of respect for human rights used in this report”. This formulation will also be important for a full assessment of the State Department’s annual report on Serbia.
3. Report on Serbia – general assessment
The overall report is dominantly positive for Serbia. Out of a total of 35 observed human rights categories, two thirds or 24 categories (69%) were assessed positively (to varying degrees), while one third (11 categories or 31%) were objected to. This ratio was determined based on the methodology and formulations provided by the State Department itself and shows the following ratio:
Without any objections – 4 categories
Assessment “Generally respected” – 14 categories
Assessment “Significant progress” – 1 category
Neutral assessment – 5 categories
Negative assessment – 11 categories
In accordance with this picture, a summary of the report was formulated, although we notice a material error, one of the few in the report, as well as methodological inconsistency – the parliamentary elections on June 21 last year were marked as “extraordinary”, although they were regular. And in the summary, the elections for the President of Serbia in 2017 were also mentioned, although the description of the methodology of the report explicitly states that it only concerns the events from 2020.
As for the elections, the summary conveyed the assessment of international observers that they were organized efficiently in difficult circumstances (pandemic), but it was stated that the dominance of the ruling party, lack of opposition access to the media, and lack of media diversity limited voters’ choice.
The summary lists the “biggest” problematic issues, such as “serious restrictions on freedom of expression and the media, including violence, threats of violence, unjustified arrests and actions against journalists, numerous cases of corruption in government, crimes involving violence or threats of violence against persons with disabilities, as well as criminal offenses, including violence or threats of violence against gay persons”.
However, it is concluded that the government has taken measures to identify, investigate, prosecute and punish those officials who violate human rights, whether they are in the police or other authorities.
The fact that the national police maintained internal security and that it is under the control of the Ministry of Interior, as well as that the civilian authorities have effective control over the security forces, was assessed as positive.
4. Problematic issues
Remarks on respect for human rights in Serbia were expressed in 11 out of 35 areas. This objection is usually expressed by the formulation that there is legislation in this area, but that the government has not implemented it sufficiently, in order for human rights to be fully respected.
Almost all the remarks in its report, the State Department took from other sources – from the reports of international organizations, domestic NGOs and the media. Although some of them are documented with data from the “other side”, i.e., state bodies, the credibility of these sources is often in question, and the veracity of their data and claims is problematic. The State Department uses such sources, but always cites them, which can mean a kind of reservation about them and their credibility. In the following, we will analyze each of these remarks individually:
- Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
It is stated that the Constitution prohibits such practices, but it is added that “the police routinely beat detainees and harasses suspects, usually during arrest”. There is no argument for such a strong accusation, neither data nor sources, which is a curiosity for the whole report. Only indirectly, in connection with these allegations, reference is made to the report of the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture, which calls on the Serbian authorities to “recognize that the existence of ill-treatment by the police is a fact, it is not the work of a few rogue officers but rather an accepted practice within the current police culture, notably among crime inspectors.”
- Denial of Fair Public Trial
This section does not make specific remarks, but the essential objection refers to the slow pace of constitutional reforms in the field of justice, aimed at reducing political influence over the judiciary. That is why this is not an essential objection, but a statement that an important process that Serbia is already working on, in cooperation with its partners, especially the European Union, has not yet been completed, and which will be completed in the foreseeable future.
- Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
This section also states that the Constitution prohibits such actions, but adds that “there were reports” that the government failed to respect prohibitions, in particular, that the Ministry of Interior, for example, “often” does not obtain court order before monitoring potential criminal activity. There is no explanation, argumentation, or indication of what are the reports that indicate this practice. But there are referrals on “activists”, “independent journalists” that there is “monitoring” of their posts on social media, because they are critical of the government!? The credibility of such accusations in Serbia is equal to zero.
- Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
This is the most extensive critique in the report, compiled according to the same matrix, and with almost the same material, as the reports of Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders on the same topic. These two organizations are also the two main sources of views that have served as material for this chapter.
Last year’s Freedom House report “Nations in Transit” is quoted, which in 2020 reduced Serbia’s status from a “semi-consolidated democracy” to a “transitional or hybrid regime”, precisely because of the situation in the field of media and expression. We believe that this FH report is extremely biased, unobjective and incompetent, so it is unfortunate that the State Department took it as the main source for its remarks on the state of freedom of expression and media in Serbia. The author of the FH report (Miloš Damnjanović, BIRN associate) based 90% of his assessments on articles in the Serbian media, and in only 10% of cases used data from state institutions or NGOs. Damjanović, and with him Freedom House, found more than half of the material for their critical views on Serbia in the reports of only four Serbian media – BIRN, Free Europe, Južne vesti and N1. It is, therefore, a huge bias, which gives a wrong and one-sided picture of Serbia. Unfortunately, this has seriously undermined the credibility of Freedom House, but the fact is that the State Department has accepted that report and included it in its review of the human rights situation in Serbia.
It is interesting that the State Department in several places, as problematic, cites the fact that the media sector in Serbia is “oversaturated” with the media and that a large number of them do not operate with profit. This very important fact is rarely stated in similar international reports, although it is the root of many problems faced by the media scene in Serbia, as well as part of the reason for constant objections to the state of media freedoms. Of course, the State Department does not blame the state for this.
The main objections concern threats and attacks on journalists, non-transparency of media ownership and the large role of the state in the media space.
The report completely incorrectly describes the situation in the field of cable television. First, it is rightly stated that the United Group controls more than 50% of the cable market and Telekom 25%, in order to conclude that “this concentration and dependence on government advertising … makes it difficult for opposition leaders to communicate with potential voters”. Here, a completely incorrect picture is given and an incorrect and tendentious conclusion is drawn on a very important topic, considering the fact that by far the largest cable operator (United Group) has its own media that are extremely anti-government and opposition-oriented.
As the most drastic case of the attack on journalists, it reports about the burning of Milan Jovanović’s house in Grocka, for which the president of the municipality, Dragoljub Simonović, was accused (at that moment). Considering that the report covers only the events from 2020, it is stated here that the court procedure is ongoing, but in the meantime, it ended with the imposition of a prison sentence on Simonović, so that this problematic issue can also be considered closed.
This report, apparently under the “impulse” of other similar reports from international organizations, also states violence against protesters in July 2020 during the attack on the Assembly. Interestingly, the State Department report also states that journalists were attacked by “protesters and police”, which is another formulation used by Freedom House and which clearly states that the protesters themselves were violent, and by no means peaceful.
- Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
This section makes a relatively mild objection, according to which the law provides protection to internally displaced persons, based on UN criteria, but that implementation “fell short in some areas”. Given that the data of domestic and international organizations that keep track of internally displaced areas are being used here, the remark can be understood as an objective and difficult situation, for which the state is not responsible. The only recommendation to state authorities is that care for displaced persons from Croatia, B&H and Kosovo should continue to be guided by the 2002 National Strategy, which is not comprehensive and cannot provide the technical and financial conditions to ensure durable solutions for displaced persons.
- Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
Noting that the legal framework provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, it is stated, as usual in such reports, that there is a widespread “public perception” that the law is not applied consistently in cases of so-called high corruption. Also, in this section, the Report refers to the findings in the Freedom House report, whose competencies and credibility we have already discussed earlier.
However, the report cites as a positive step the statistics of state authorities on a large number of detected and prosecuted cases of corruption with low- and mid- level officials, by the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Corruption and the newly formed Department for Fighting Corruption within the Ministry of Interior.
- Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
In this section, regarding the violation of women’s rights, it is stated that the law is not applied effectively, when it comes to protecting women from rape and domestic violence. This applies in particular to a procedure that allows the perpetrator to be removed from a home, but that this legal possibility is not applied effectively.
Regarding discrimination and abuse of persons with disabilities, it is also stated that the law is not applied effectively, more precisely, that there is a lack of a comprehensive strategy for deinstitutionalization of care for persons with disabilities.
When it comes to discrimination against members of national, racial and ethnic minority groups, Roma are recognized as the most vulnerable minority group. These allegations are supported by data from relevant institutions and organizations. However, this is not the case with the assessment that members of the Albanian community are discriminated against and disproportionately unemployed, because there are no explanations, arguments and sources for such an attitude. In this segment, in the context of discrimination against Albanians, Minister Aleksandar Vulin is also mentioned, because he continuously used a “pejorative racial slur” for Albanians. The curiosity is that Minister Vulin is the only government official mentioned by name in the State Department report, and only in this context of hate speech.
- Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The state does not apply the laws effectively in this case, although they prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the report states. These objections are assessed as “serious problems”, which is the only case in the entire report. The only source for such assessments is the remarks of NGOs dealing with the rights of sexual minorities, there is no reference to any state institutions in this area, so this part of the report must be viewed with reservations and a reasonable assumption that they are biased and overemphasized.
- Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
This section specifies the legal provisions that define the permissible age for employment and the conditions under which minors can be employed, and makes a “mild” remark in the sense that the competent institutions “have not always” effectively applied these legal provisions, as well as that the penalties were not always proportionate to the gravity of the offense committed.
The State Department’s annual report on respect for human rights in Serbia for 2020 is mostly positive. Assessments for two thirds of the total of 35 observed areas are positive, and for one third remarks were made, most often that the existing laws that protect certain human rights are not applied effectively.
The authority of the institution that drafted the report and its credibility make this document far more credible than many other, similar reports, whose authors were international NGOs.
The report is biased and of problematic credibility only in those parts in which it bases its assessments on assessments from similar reports of international NGOs, and this is the case in almost all sections in which objections were made to Serbia.
Unfortunately, the State Department uncritically takes the views and assessments of some established human rights NGOs, such as Freedom House, although their methodology and objectivity have repeatedly proven to lead to completely distorted and inaccurate conclusions about the state of some freedoms and rights in Serbia.
This is especially true of the issue of freedom of expression and the media in Serbia, which is highly politicized in these reports and is most often the result of inaccurate and biased inputs coming “from the field”, i.e., from biased sources from Serbia.
Although, unlike others, the State Department uses government arguments and documents much more frequently, they are still insufficiently used as a “counterweight” to strongly politicized and biased attitudes and assessments by the civil sector and the media.
Several cases of human rights violations, to which the Report has paid significant attention, can be considered already resolved, bearing in mind that the Report deals only with the events of 2020 and that it did not “wait” for their completion. This is the case, for example, with the verdict for the burning of the house of journalist Milan Jovanović from Grocka, whose perpetrators have already been convicted in 2021, or for the process of constitutional reforms in the field of justice, which is still ongoing and will be completed in due course.
Some important cases, for which objections have been made, simply cannot be blamed on the state and the government, because they are the result of objective circumstances. For example, the situation of refugees and internally displaced persons, which in Serbia is still the highest in Europe, or the large number of unreported cases of harassment and abuse in vulnerable groups, such as the Roma population.
 A neutral assessment is a label for those categories in which both positive and negative cases are presented, to the same extent. Also, in those categories in which the State Department did not give any value assessment, but only stated the facts (Categories Election and Political Participation, Anti-Semitism, HIV and AIDS social stigma and Acceptable conditions of work)