Three things are required from a democratic country wishing to improve its human rights record: implementation, implementation and implementation.
Why implementation? Because changing laws is one thing, but ensuring that those changes take hold is another matter entirely.
Over the past 13 years, Serbian legislation has undergone a complete overhaul. As a party to all major United Nations and Council of Europe human rights treaties, Serbia is aligning its legislation and political system with international standards.
It has reformed its institutions, it continues to reform its judiciary and it has passed strategic documents governed by respect for human rights.
It has set up independent oversight bodies to complement the work of the Serbian Ombudsman, including:
Commissioner for the Protection of Equality (an equality body under European Union (EU) equality directives)
In so doing, Serbia has raised the bar for itself in international evaluations.
Serbia is judged by its peers on the implementation of its overhauled laws. During the Universal Periodic Review in January 2013, Serbia accepted 136 out of 144 peer recommendations, mainly regarding implementation.
The Universal Periodic Review basically reiterated the message that Serbia has heard from a myriad of other United Nations bodies, as well as from the EU and Council of Europe: “Now do it.”
Foresight: a commendable new development
The Government of Serbia, already in the process of European integration, is trying to jump over the last hurdles of the key precondition: Implementation of the Brussels agreement.
This agreement envisages the gradual integration of Serbian structures in the north of Kosovo (referred to in the context of UN Security Council Resolution 1244/1999) into the legal and political system of Kosovo.
Virtually every department of the Serbian government is anxiously expecting negotiations with the EU, hoping to receive both a course of reforms and an impetus for change.
The negotiations have not started yet, so the 2013-2014 period is ideal for jump starting negotiations with the EU and doing everything possible to improve Serbia’s human rights record.
The Serbian government has seized this opportunity to make changes before the negotiations start, dedicating its attention to improving implementation in accordance with United Nations recommendations.
These improvements will halfway implement key benchmarks which put Serbia on the path towards closing negotiations in chapters 23 (Judiciary and fundamental rights) and 24 (Justice, freedom and security) of EU accession.
How is this being achieved?
The Government unveiled the national mechanism for monitoring the implementation of recommendations from the UN Human Rights Bodies at a conference held on 10 December 2013, in honour of International Human Rights Day.
In addition to being one of the recommendations from the 2013 Universal Periodic Review, establishing such a mechanism was suggested by Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, during her 2013 official visit to Serbia.
The establishment of the mechanism was commended by the United Nations Resident Coordinator and the EU Ambassador, and the conference was attended by some 150 representatives from relevant ministries, civil society groups, independent scrutiny bodies and regional and international organizations.
The conference was the culmination of painstaking work by the OHCHR Human Rights Advisor and the Government’s Human and Minority Rights Office.
They presented a proposal from one of the country’s foremost human rights experts and went through rounds of consultations with relevant ministries and civil society organizations, finalizing the mechanism in November and endorsing it at the conference.
UNDP supported the initiative through its Universal Periodic Review Follow-up Facility, which is a unique mechanism designed for country offices in the region to implement their country-related recommendations. The cooperation between UNDP and OHCHR on these efforts is the embodiment of the delivering as one principle.
The mechanism will be chaired by the Minister of Justice, all members will be state secretaries and other high-ranking officials, and the Human and Minority Rights Office will serve as secretariat.
It will convene twice a year to review the progress of human rights policy implementation, prioritizing human rights recommendations from the United Nations.
The way forward…
Serbia, like an aspiring Olympic high-jumper, has raised its own bar. It strives to kill two birds with one stone – accelerating reforms will improve the human rights status of the country while moving Serbia closer to membership in the EU.
With the mechanism now in place, the relevant ministries will be coordinated in their implementation of international human rights standards. Concrete results should be visible in the course of the first six months.
The ‘implementation spirit’ that guided stakeholders at the national conference is now, thanks to the changes being made, the same spirit that guides Serbia towards a better human rights record.
What are your thoughts on Serbia’s steps towards human rights for everyone?
Do you have experience from other countries with similar goals?