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Human Rights Defenders Under Pressure in the Western Balkans

October 31, 2022 by BSC

This panel discussed the recent, increasing pressures that human rights defenders have been facing globally, in the EU, and in the Western Balkans. Participants exchanged ideas and analyses of the challenges and possible strategies for the protection of human rights defenders. They addressed the question: how to ensure effective protection for those that defend the public and citizens and what options do NGOs have within authoritarian political systems? 

Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, emphasized the important work of Human Rights defenders in holding those in power accountable. She noted that human rights defenders work under alarming conditions: ‘’they are endangered and pressured, which presents a huge problem. They are singled out by public officials and media outlets.’ Mijatovic also addressed the problem of solidarity among NGOs. She was present at Europride 2022 in Belgrade and noticed a lack of solidarity within the Serbian NGO sector during that event. 

Nils Muiznieks, Director of the Europe Regional Office at Amnesty International, agreed with Mijatovic. He added that “it is important that human rights activists seek coalitions with other NGOs because repressive governments use tactics to divide civil society.” According to Amnesty International’s analyses, freedom of protest, expression and assembly are threatened globally, and it is also an increasing problem in Serbia. One important tactic that politicians and businesses use to pressure human rights defenders are SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation). SLAPP suits place time and financial strains on the work of NGOs.  

Katarina Golubovic, President at The Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, noted that in the Western Balkans, endangered rights are the result of weak political institutions. In times of crisis, weak institutions don’t have enough power to oppose politics, which decreases the belief of people in the ability of their institutions to protect them. She expressed concern over human rights violations in Serbia, such as peaceful protestors being arrested and restrictions on freedom of assembly. YUCOM and their partners document such violations in a map of incidents: which is a novel, interactive map of attacks and pressures on organizations, informal groups, and individuals in Serbia.  

Katalin Cseh, Member of the European Parliament from Hungary, expressed her concern over the trends of democratic backsliding and growing authoritarianism within both the EU and Western Balkan countries. These trends pose many challenges for human rights defenders. Ms. Cseh highlighted that “in the EU, we have to do much more to defend human rights. “In the enlargement process, human rights must be a priority. However, the EU can only be a credible actor in promoting democracy if its institutions are not idle when some EU member states are engaging in democratic backsliding themselves.