Civil Society Needs to Unite to Protect Democracy and Human Rights in Serbia, a Council of Europe Chief Says

Too few people feel able to stand up for the protection of basic human rights in Serbia, said Belgrade’s chief for the Council of Europe

“There are not many faces that fight homophobia in SerbiaI miss faces from the government, from Parliament and public administration, Antje Rothemund said. “This is part of a living democracy and, even if people have to overcome some of their own hesitations, it shouldn’t be a problem to stand up for democracy. Too few opinion leaders and politicians have taken a very firm stand against homophobic expressions, discrimination and violence. This is also true in other spheres. There are very few well-known actors, musicians or sports people who have come out and openly stand up against homophobia because they fear disadvantages.

Antje was speaking after Serbia banned the Belgrade Pride Parade on national security grounds.We need somebody who is not from the LGBT community to stand up and say, this is just not correct,’ she said. “We have to work for a society in which it is fun to live, and safe to live. We do not want to live in a society that creates fear and stress and a lot of suspicion.

“We need a more holistic approach to combat homophobia. The state has an important responsibility but not only the state. It is also the civil society and the LGBT community. Nobody will bring your issues to the political agenda if you are not the main advocates.”

Ivana Howard, Senior Programme Officer with the National Endowment For Democracy foundation, also called for greater unity and commitment from civil society “It has to be a broader civil society movement, not just the LGBT community, I mean all of civil society,’ she said. “If you are a civil society organisation, a civic activist, or any other programme or effort that claims to fight for democracy, rule of law, human rights or minorities, then I don’t understand how you cannot be at the forefront of the Pride Parade.

“You cannot go around and say ‘We are a civil society organisation that deals with different issues, we’re not really into LGBT rights, we can’t really help with this.’ I’m sorry, if you say that you are an organisation that promotes democracy or human rights, you have to be at the forefront of supporting Pride next year, and start doing it this year.”

Antje explained how democracy and human rights are founding principles of the Council of Europe. “Every member state has to sign the European Convention on Human Rights, which regulates, not only by law, but by consensus, between the international community and the country that wants to join this community, in what sort of society do we want to live, what is the model of society that we chose for our country, and we work towards the development of the ideals that go along with it,’ she said.

“Serbia chose to join the European Council in 2003 and chose human rights as a fundamental paradigm for the development of society. Human rights are universal, they are interdependent, and they are indivisible. That means that human rights are not a supermarket, you cannot go in the shop and say, this human right I like, the other one I will leave in the shop because it’s too expensive or too heavy to carry home.

“You cannot say, I like freedom of religion, but I do not like freedom of expression. You cannot say, I like to protect the rights of ethnic minorities but I do not like to protect the rights of sexual minorities. It is not possible to divide human rights. They are indivisible. You cannot just interpret what you understand by them. They are not negotiable. This is why the lessons we have to learn are not only lessons for the next parade or what happens in between. They are lessons for the whole society.

“It might sound cynical after the banning of the parade, but the problem in Serbia is not legislation. Serbia has a very strong non-discrimination policy and also a law on assembly which is quite developed. What happened yesterday [banning of the parade] was not a legal issue. On the other hand, the everyday life of many LGBT people in this country did not change considerably with any change of legislation and many live in fear of violence or to become victims of hate crimes or discrimination, or to the point that LGBT flee the country and try to live somewhere they feel more comfortable and can enjoy their freedoms.

“Serbia has a quite developed anti discrimination law but the implementation is still having its shortcomings, to put it diplomatically. This is where NGOs in human rights should look at what should be done and to find holes in the legislation.”

Ignorance is at the root of the problem with homophobia in Serbia and needs to be addressed, Antje said. “It is very clear that there is considerable resistance among many people to discuss the full enjoyment of human rights for LGBT people.

“Public opinion in Serbia is still that the majority of the population thinks that homosexuality is an illness. Legally in Serbia, sexual intercourse between same sex couples was decriminalised in 1994, during the Milošević regime. So there is a big gap between law and understanding in society. The World Health Organisation has decriminalised homosexuality and taken it out of the list of illnesses of a long time ago. But still there are politicians in this country that say this happened because of some gay lobby that pushed the Organisation to take it out of the list.

“We need to understand why people do not know more about LGBT. There is a lot of fear and ignorance but most of all there is an enormous amount of stereotyping and prejudice. That is not something you can eliminate by marching once a year. We need to put people in a state of being better informed. We need human rights education programmes, awareness-raising activities, information and most of all we need dialogue. When I talk about dialogue, I don’t just mean between the state and civil society only, I also mean dialogue between people, between generations, between different layers in society so that the fight against homophobia and the campaign for human rights can get many more faces.” 

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