(New York, October 10, 2005) The Serbian government is failing to tackle a rising tide of violence against the country’s ethnic and religious minorities, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today as the European Union enlargement Kosovo: Failure of NATO, U.N. to Protect Minorities
Press Release, July 27, 2004
The 52-page report, “Dangerous Indifference: Violence Against Minorities in Serbia,” documents a range of crimes against minorities since 2003, including physical assaults, attacks on religious and cultural buildings, and cemetery desecration. The Serbian government’s response to these attacks has been inadequate. Officials have been quick to minimize incidents, police have sometimes failed to protect mosques and minority-owned businesses from attack, prosecutors have been slow to prosecute attacks, and those who are brought to justice are often punished with suspended jail terms or small fines.
“Violence against minorities has increasingly become a problem in Serbia today,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Serbia cannot hope to move closer towards the European Union unless it starts taking these attacks a lot more seriously.”
The EU Enlargement Commissioner, Olli Rehn, will visit Belgrade today, to open negotiations with the Serbian government on a Stabilization and Association Agreement. The protection of minorities in Serbia is an important benchmark for upgraded EU ties.
Over the past year and a half, the Serbian government’s weak reaction to ethnic and religious violence has served to encourage Serb extremists. In March 2004, Serb ultranationalists in Belgrade and elsewhere in the country reacted angrily to news of anti-Serb violence in the predominantly ethnic Albanian province of Kosovo by subjecting ethnic Albanians, Muslims and Roma to several particularly violent attacks.
Attacks on ethnic Hungarians and Croats in Vojvodina province have been widely reported. In 2004, ethnic Slovaks and Ruthenians in Vojvodina were the targets of intimidation and violence for the first time in many years. This year, ethnically motivated incidents have decreased in Vojvodina, but have intensified in other parts of Serbia, often taking the form of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim graffiti, as well as physical assaults on Roma.
Members of the minorities, who were victims and witnesses of attacks in Vojvodina and other parts of Serbia told Human Rights Watch that, in some cases of ethnically motivated violence, the police were slow to intervene, allowed the assailants to leave, or even expressed approval of the attack. In March 2004, for example, demonstrators broke through an undermanned police cordon and set fire to Belgrade’s only mosque. Initial orders to police not to use force on demonstrators contributed to the police failure.
Serbia lacks a hate crimes law that would allow ethnically motivated violence to be subject to more serious punishment than ordinary crimes. Offenses against minorities are often dealt with through administrative proceedings rather than the criminal courts. Where wrongdoing is established, the punishment is usually light. Fines in misdemeanor proceedings rarely exceed the equivalent of US$20 and jail terms are limited to 10 days. The government’s implicit message to Serbian society is that it does not take violence against minorities particularly seriously.
Minorities are still grossly underrepresented in the police force, a legacy of the nationalistic government of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic during the 1990s, when non-Serbs were virtually excluded from its ranks.
“The government needs to show both perpetrators and victims that violence against minorities will not be tolerated,” said Cartner. “Condemning ethnically motivated attacks for what they are, and bringing those responsible to justice are crucial.”
Human Rights Watch’s report includes recommendations to the Serbian government to make policy and legislative changes to curb anti-minority violence, including prompt and unequivocal government condemnation of offences against minorities, new hate crime legislation, increased minority representation in police ranks, and more robust implementation of the existing laws.