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Who Defends Human Rights Defenders?

By Pavel Domonji

5. October 2008, HCHRS


Serbia is a dangerous country for human rights defenders. Daily assaults, demonization and vulgar defamations are the sad reality of human rights defenders in Serbia. A campaign against the Helsinki Committee and Sonja Biserko, the organization's chairwoman, has been on in Serbia for a month already. Over the past week the assault has turned into an open lynch call. Having denounced her as an immoral person and slandered in the worst possible way, a weekly magazine for the second time publicized Sonja Biserko's home address.

What formally caused the campaign was the Helsinki Committee's annual report for the year 2007. The Committee was accused of having made a list of unsuitable intellectuals. Whoever

regularly reads the Committee's reports and is at least familiar with its work knows perfectly well that the organization has never composed any list whatsoever. The true focus of the Committee's annual report is Serb nationalism. The report just quotes the statements by ideologists, executioners and apologists of Serb nationalism. What bothered its critics, among other things, was the report's cover page. The picture on it shows Serbia without Kosovo for the first time and for all to see. Serbia is pictured as a floating ice field that gradually melts down and melts away.

The cover page speaks for itself. The sea in which the Serb ice field floats is nothing but Serb nationalism. Serbia is not melting down and fragmentizing due to Sonja Biserko, Natasa Kandic, Biljana Kovacevic-Vuco and their European friends and associates but due to Serb nationalism. It was not Sonja Biserko who brought disrepute to Serbia but nationalists' arrogance and brutality. It was not the Helsinki Committee that put Serbia in the dock in the International Court of Justice but the crimes committed in the name of the nation.

The assaults against non-governmental organizations, intellectuals and the media standing for human rights and insisting on their full respect testify of the deplorable situation of human rights in Serbia. Unlike in many post-communist countries where elites managed to reach consensus on some fundamental issues, the Serb political elite is not only incapable of reaching a consensus on its own political future but also to solve the country's decades-long identity crisis. It is unready to confront the past and unable to break with nationalism. The conservative and nationalistic part of Serbia's political and intellectual elite tried to profit on Kosovo's independence declaration and extradition of Radovan Karadzic to imbed itself in power. That part of the elite constantly exploits the myth of its own nation presenting it as a victim deprived of its legitimate interests, the victim punished all the time - and now punished by a seizure of a part of its territory.

Insistence on one's own victimized nation is a handy ideological gadget - on the one hand, it is used to erase the memory of dark and traumatic chapters of national history - the chapters in which we were executioners rather than victims - and, on the other, to prepare the terrain for a showdown with all those who would not approve myths, nationalistic dogmas and futile stories of the nation's moral impeccability. Instead of making a clear break with nationalism, dedicating itself to consolidation of democracy and catching up with the time Serbia has lost while role-playing a 19th century imperial power, the Serb elite spares no effort to save nationalism, normalize it and justify as Serbia's and the Serbs' unavoidable and self-explanatory response to the misfortune and injustice that have befallen them. With the support of the political establishment, the nationalistic elite deliberately and cunningly mixes up causes and consequences, and denounces to the frustrated people all those who have seen through its mystifications as false missionaries and anational elements preferring some supra-ethnic, abstract concept of human rights to loyalty to their own nation.

Domestic authorities' response to the attacks targeting lately Sonja Biserko, as well as other human rights defenders such as Natasa Kandic, Biljana Kovacevic-Vuco or Borka Pavicevic, is utterly inadequate. Instead of implementing laws and penal provisions they remain indifferent - and their indifference only intensifies the impression that these assaults and the actions by various rightist organizations alike are silently supported by responsible governmental agencies. When neo-Nazis attacked the participants in the anti-fascist protest in Novi Sad last year, some MPs were openly equalizing them with the League of Vojvodina Social Democrats and the Liberal Democratic Party and accusing the later of extremism. Those remarking in pubic that neo-Nazi groups operate in other European states as well seem to forget that neo-Nazis are not those that make Serbia different from others. What differs Serbia from the rest are its political elite, political imbecility and moral idiotism.

True, individuals and NGOs committed to the defense of human rights have always been targeted by nationalists, various organizations of the extreme right and the shotgun media. However, those individuals and NGOs are not the ultimate targets. The ultimate target is the state itself. The state's duty is not to safeguard the myth of Kosovo, Cyrillic alphabet, the Uzice round dance or the sauté a la Leskovac. The state's duty is to secure peace, safety, security and full exercise of human rights to all its citizens, including human rights defenders. When a state is either unwilling or unable to secure that to its citizens, one can raise one question only - "What's the difference between a state and a robber band?"


The author is a head of the Novi Sad branch office of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia



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