Serbia: Women in Black seminar addresses the security of women human rights defenders

WiB - Belgrade
Male and female activists from throughout Serbia participated in the Women in Black “Women, Peace, and Activism’ seminar held May 18-20, 2007 in Totovo Selo in Vojvodina.
Activists involved with women’s and peace movements, nonviolence, and respect and advancing human rights addressed the issues of the increasing danger to the security and safety of fighters for human rights.
The goal of the ‘Women, Security, and Activism’ seminar was to analyze the condition of women’s human rights defenders in Serbia, identify the dangers and threats that these defenders face, and seek ways and to minimize these dangers.

At the seminar, a subset of women’s human rights defenders who are especially at risk was identified. According to participants’ analysis, this most threatened group is women activists who confront the past, lesbian activists who work for the rights of sexual and gender minorities, women activists who are sexual minorities, and activists who fight against patriarchy.

It was stated at the seminar that human rights defenders are marginalized in society and within civil society and their families. They have a high profile in their surroundings. They are exposed to systematic media campaigns against them and attacks from government representatives and non-state actors.

Participants in the discussion took care to emphasize that they are struck by the insufficient organization and coordination, conceptual disagreement, squandering of energy, and distrust and rivalry within the nongovernmental sector. This happens especially when approaching donors, who are still practically the only source of financing for NGOs. This has serious consequences for NGOs’ positions and subjects them to disfavor in their surroundings. It also affects the amount and quality of their activism.

Showing readiness to strengthen activity through the eliminating their own unresourcefulness and mistakes, activists noted that to improve the performance of NGOs, it is necessary to:

· Fight to express our own identities as champions of resistance to the criminalization of society;
· Work to change the media image of NGOs;
· Increase the size of NGOs’ actions and influence the media to react to them;
· Energetically work to build and strengthen solidarity as a very important value within civil society;
· With more dedication, expertise, and openness; educate others within civil society. Civil society frequently becomes careless about educating others.
· Respond to pressure and perfidious forms of mistreatment in politics and public life more generally through consistent actions, not only sporadically;
· In communication with institutions and organizations in this country and abroad—including donors— illustrate the phenomenon of the transformation of the civil sector into a prolonged arm of the state.

Seminar participants emphasized that it is important to increase pressure on the government and other state institutions to adopt, apply, and respect the numerous international documents signed by the state of Serbia. Additionally, NGOs will continue to urge that human rights defenders be respected and accepted as a legitimate type of people’s involvement in a democratic society. They should not be described as traitors or enemies deserving of marginalization and demonization.

Activists in the seminar offered ways to improve their security:

1. Campaigns are necessary to change the image of marginalized and despised groups in Serbian society.
2. More interpersonal solidarity among all nongovernmental organizations is necessary.
3. Trainings should be organized to promote a culture of security for women activists.
4. The Serbian Parliament should adopt a declaration which protects the rights of women human rights defenders in keeping with UN Security Council Resolution 1325 ‘Women, Peace, and Security’ and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.


Noting that violence and a lack of tolerance and respect for others – especially ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities – has become dominant in behavior and communication in all segments of modern Serbian society, seminar participants emphasized that the media and state institutions, especially The Prosecutors’ Office and the Ministry of Justice act with impermissible benevolence and approval towards this social climate. They even build relationships with political parties. In this way, these institutions express and confirm their lack of readiness to confront the causes and consequences of the wars and war crimes committed in our name in the former Yugoslavia.

Women activists with nongovernmental organizations that work for discontinuity with the criminal past and for respect, protection, and the advancement of human rights as an essential part of safeguarding the dignity and integrity of individuals, groups, organizations, and society as a whole are especially exposed to prosecution, public stigmatization, belittlement, and even physical attacks.

Women who every day work and fight for their rights, the rights of other women, human rights, and the rights of everyone who is subject to discrimination marginalization, injustice, and violence—women who oppose the prevailing norms—are subject to risks. Patriarchal structures isolate and silence human rights defenders. The women in this group are exposed to an additional risk of violence and injustice. Crimes committed against women defenders go unpunished. This leads makes it possibility to exclude these women from communities and society as a whole. The acceptance of these risks for women human rights defenders becomes disregard for their engagement in defending human rights. Traditionally, the media considers asking most human rights organizations and networks, unions, and political parties specific questions about women’s rights an unnecessary division and disregard for “more universal and more important” issues. This tendency isolates women’s human rights as well as their defenders. The best protection for human rights defenders is the fulfillment of all human rights, without hierarchy. Human rights defenders are endangered by an atmosphere of growing political repression, authoritarianism, and militarization of the state.

The government, NGOs, and other actors in civil society should protect human rights defenders in keeping with The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and other international instruments and mechanisms. Protection mechanisms should confirm the principles of equality and non-discrimination. They should forbid culture or religion to be used to justify inequality for women. Activists should be protected in all fields of their work, in the public and private sphere. All state and non-state actors should be involved with this.

Because of This, We Demand that the Government and Serbian Assembly:

Annul all laws and decisions which violate women’s and human rights and threaten human rights defenders, actively apply the principles of The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and make it possible for women to have equal rights to fight for human rights and all other rights.

Effectively punish state and non-state actors who misuse criminal laws or use the media or other groups to hurt human rights defenders or prevent them from defending human rights and freedoms.

Secure means for the protection and promotion of human rights defenders and their rights.

We Call on the UN and International Human Rights Groups to:

Create new mechanisms of citizens’ responsibility for violence against women and women human rights defenders. Support of the mandate of the Special Representative of the General-Secretary on The Situation of Human Rights Defenders and assurance that women human rights defenders are a focus of their work.

We call on the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to perform monitoring. We call on state institutions, including national commissions for human rights, the consistent application of UN recommendations about human rights defenders and human rights, especially women human rights defenders.

We Call on Human Rights Organizations, Civil Society Movements and NGOs to:

Protect everyone who is under pressure because they defend human rights, especially those who confront the past, work for the rights of sexual and gender minorities, are members of an ethnic minority, or work in rural areas without public protection.

Formulate programs and direct funds to the protection of human rights defenders and respond to violence against women human rights defenders motivated by gender.

Allow women human rights defenders their freedom of choice and consult both women and men human rights defenders about issues of their security.

We Call on the Media to:

Respect the integrity of human rights defenders.

Not tolerate, but react to every violation of the human rights of human rights defenders, in accordance with the journalistic code of practice and professional ethics.

Show special sensitivity to women human rights defenders and those whose rights they support.

June 14, 2007

Women in Black—Belgrade
Yukom, The Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, Belgrade
The Anti-Trafficking Center (ATC), Belgrade

Joined by:
The Women in Black Network—Serbia from Bor, Vranje, Vrbas, Vlasotince, Velika Plana, Dimitrovgrad, Zaječar, Kikinda, Kraljevo, Kruševac, Leskovac, Novi Sad, Novi Pazar, Novi Bečej, Niš, Pančevo, and Tutin. Hera Women’s Club, Bačka Topola; The Youth Initiative for Human Rights, Belgrade; The Incest Trauma Center (ITC), Belgrade; The Autonomous Women’s Center (AŽC), Belgrade; Voice of Difference, Belgrade; The Reconstruction Women’s Fund, Belgrade; Feminist ’94, Belgrade; The Queeria Center, Belgrade; The Roma Women’s Network, Belgrade; Hora—A Group for the Emancipation of Women, Valjevo; The Belgrade Center for Human Rights; Urban In, Novi Pazar; and Zorana Šijački.