Serbia Has Failed its People & Dented its Future in Europe, a Democracy Campaigner Claims. The EU is Watching Closely, says EU Delegation

Banning Belgrade’s Pride Parade means Serbia has failed to maintain the basic human rights of freedom of expression and the right of assembly, an advocate for democracy has said. By outlawing public demonstrations, further progress towards EU membership would be ‘absurd’, said Ivana Howard, of theNational Endowment For Democracy. All this at a time when the EU say it is watching Serbia closely.

Serbia’s European future could be on the skids after its Interior Minister slapped a ban on the Pride Parade and all public demonstrations proposed for this weekend. The move was due to threatened violence and extreme action from nationalist hooligans and far right-wingers being deemed a threat to national security. In what amounted to an admission that it could not protect its people on the streets, Serbia has failed, said the Senior Programme Officer.

“Support for Pride is not Serbia’s only way into the EU, but the EU integration process does provide us with a very important framework,’ Ivana told a Belgrade press conference. “One of the most important things that the EU integration project entails is the Copenhagen Criteria. This political set of criteria requires that the state, in order to become a new member, has to have stable institutions that guarantee democracy, rule of law, human rights, and a respect for the protection of minorities. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Serbian government, a lot of times it isn’t about ticking [these] boxes.

“With last night’s decision, the Serbian government failed to meet the political criteria of the Copenhagenrules which are absolutely necessary for Serbia to move forward in its EU integration. I think it would be absurd to talk about Serbia’s further EU progress when, so obvious to all of us, they are not able to secure an event that in so many ways embodies and encompasses these important criteria.”

“On rule of law, the legislation is there but its implementation is not. Not just implementation through the executive but through law enforcement, which is not even able to secure an event like this. It is a failure of the rule of law. On human rights and, above all, the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly, that right has been denied to a whole group of people. 

“All of these things Serbia has repeatedly failed in, particularly when it comes to minority protection. In the EU progress report 2010, it has been said again that Serbia is not protecting its minorities, particularly the Roma, LGBT and disabled communities, from discrimination.

“The EU delegation expects the authorities to do everything to guarantee and secure the freedom of expression and assembly for all of its citizens, but not at the expense of other citizens. Those lines can be drawn. So, in a way, organising the Pride Parade is a condition of joining the EU. If this is what the Pride Parade really represents, if we find elements of the criteria I mentioned, then it is a condition and we could not, even if we wanted to, make an excuse that this somehow shows that Serbia is ready to get a good mark on these aspects.”

“Democracy is a form of government in which every person can chose freely their own destiny,’ said Ivana, whose Washington-based group is dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions and NGOs internationally. “The Pride Parade is a test for democracy. Pride is about human rights and democracy. Those two things are inherently linked. One does not exist without the other. A society in which citizens cannot fully exercise their human rights, particularly civil and political rights, and a society where the state cannot guarantee that those rights are going to be exercised, cannot call itself a democracy.

“Serbia has made great strides in its democratic transition since the ousting of the [Milosevic] regime, but this is a very serious failure on this path. Not just some steps back but a failure, or the recognition of a failure that was already there.”

In advance of next week’s European Union report on Serbia’s readiness to progress to the next stage of membership, Thomas Gnocchi, Political Counsellor to the EU Delegation to Serbia, spoke about how the eyes of the EU are on Serbia and its handling of human right issues. “We very much regret that the Pride Paradewas not able to take place. We condemn strongly the intimidation and threats of violence against the organisers, which were made in the run up to event and ultimately led to its cancellation. We continue to expect the authorities to do everything they can to protect and guarantee the freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of expression for all citizens of Serbia. This is the duty of the state. 

“We have been saying throughout the year, we welcome debate on LGBT issues and also on other topics relating to human rights and issues touching on tolerance and discrimination. Human rights is some we have close to heart and is one of the fundamental issues on which the EU is based. We feel that such a debate offers the opportunity to set the record straight.

“This is not about the EU. This is about the country’s constitution, the country’s own laws – its anti discrimination law in particular – and how these are implemented, the way these principles inshrined in the constitution are guaranteed for all citizens throughout the year. As the EU, we are looking very carefully at these issues, particularly at this moment in time, but it is not about a process of ticking boxes.”

Rumours have spread in Belgrade that the EU report is already complete and expected to give Serbia the candidate status its people so half-heartedly want. While they are only rumours, they are being supported by comment from senior sources in government. If it were true, the speculation is that this would have played its part in the decision to ban the Parade: the government did not have anything to lose as the EU would be powerless to respond negatively. Mr Gnocchi expressed his own opinion that wider issues are at play: “Obviously security plays a part of [banning the Parade] but it played a part last year, and the Pride Parade happened and it was secure. They quoted the security issue of threats made to the parade and also wider security considerations. It is a complex environment. It is not only the security situation relating to the event but more widely. ”

Ivana is no stranger to the situation in Serbia. She was in the frontline of Pride 2010 and witnessed the violence in Belgrade. Ivana explained why she feels that Serbia should ensure that existing conditions are met, before further progress could be made on plans to join the European Union. “I will remind everybody that it was only when Serbia was hard-pressed to arrest the war criminals, when it was hard-pressed to enter into constructive negotiations with Kosovo by the international community it hopes to join, it was only then that Serbia decided to do this,’ she said. “Is this the way to go? I am not advocating for new conditions, these are conditions we already have in the Copenhagen criteria, and if Serbia doesn’t show an ability to meet these criteria of democracy for its Council of Europe membership and its EU membership, then perhaps stronger and stricter conditions should be imposed.

“The lack of political will and the inability of the government and law enforcement to create conditions for a safe organising of the Parade is a process that will continue. What I see lacking is the political will to tackle this issue at the root, primarily through education, public awareness campaigns and opening a dialogue. Political will is important for a process to go on. The fight is on-going and it is not going to stop with the Pride Parade.

“In the more accepting societies, the Pride Parade is a celebration of diversity and life, differences and richness of the LGBT community. In societies like Serbia, it is a fight for human rights. I personally think that the Pride Parade is a perfect litmus test.”

Goran Miletić, Belgrade Pride’s presidentand a well-known campaigner for human rights, posed the question of whether the decision was made to pull the parade due to political will or an inability of police to protect its people?

Antje Rothemund, Belgrade office chief for the Council of Europe explained her understanding of the reasons behind the ban on public gatherings. “I have participated in some meetings where we got information from the Ministry of the Interior on why such a step was considered,’ she said. “The list of elements was very long. It started with the situation at border crossings in north Kosovo, hooliganism at football games and protesting building workers who were not being paid by the government. Then the church announced family demonstrations, right wing movements announced ‘Belgrade on Fire’ and it seems that the Intelligence Services got hints that there were attacks planned on foreign embassies.

“Also, the non-official trade union of the police also made very strong statements so the police probably also had some internal problems of loyalty or willingness of people to protect Pride. I think it was a real fear that this weekend might be a bit too hot for the country. The law of assembly foresees the possibility of allowing the state to cancel public assembly. One reason is national security, and this was the argument for this weekend.

“In many countries in this part of Europe, the Gay Parade is not at all cheerful and not at all what it is meant to be, to celebrate diversity and freedom. It would be really great if this could be the case and if other people could really enjoy this celebration. I am sad that in Serbia, after eleven years of democratic transition, it was not possible to hold this parade to promote diversity.”

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