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Civil rights defenders: regional solidarity is crucial to defend European values

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SKOPJE – In the context of continued pressure on civil society through state-funded media and institutions, regional solidarity and joint work are essential to achieve positive change and the State of right in the Western Balkans.

This is one of the main conclusions of the civil society forum “Defending European values ​​in the accession process”, organized on December 2-3 in Skopje by Civil Rights Defenders (CRD). The forum brought together around 100 human rights defenders from the Western Balkans, Turkey and Eastern Europe, as well as key policy makers and representatives from EU member states.

According to the last Report on human rights defenders in the Western Balkanspublished on December 2, the situation of human rights defenders is gradually becoming more vulnerable in most Western Balkan countries, despite recent improvements in legislation.

A panel discussion at the event “Human Rights Defenders – Intimidation Instead of Recognition” focused on the position of activists as civil rights defenders and the pressures they face in the Western Balkan countries. The panel welcomed the following speakers: Uranija Pirovska from the Macedonian Helsinki Committee, Tamara Milas from the Center for Civic Education (Montenegro), Dragana Pećo from the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK), Milica Pralica from the NGO Sharp Zero based in Banjaluka, Ariana Qosaj Mustafa from the Kosovo Institute for Research and Policy Development (KIPRED) and Sidita Zaja, from the Tirana-based NGO Pro LGBT. The discussion was moderated by Ivana Ranđelović of Civil Rights Defenders.

The findings of the latest CRD report indicate that human rights defenders are often forced to promote or protect fundamental rights. “When it comes to freedom of assembly, the authorities use various tactics to dissuade organizers from demonstrating. One of them concerns the latest legal changes, which have made it more difficult to obtain permits for public gatherings,” the report said.

This is exactly the case in Bosnia and Herzegovina, confirms activist Milica Pralica, working in Banja Luka. The NGO Sharp Zero, where Pralica works, and herself were targeted during protests in Banja Luka following the death of 21-year-old David Dragičević.

THE death of David Dragičević in March 2018 sparked a series of anti-government protests, also known in Republika Srpska, with support rallies also held in Belgrade and Zagreb. The case remains under investigation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“Republika Srpska functions as a state within a state and it is very difficult to defend civil rights or even criticize the government. We are practically living in a dictatorship,” Pralica said during the panel, explaining that the civil rights situation became even worse after the death of David Dragičević. The protests, Pralica said, are leading to an escalation of police violence. “When activists, civil rights and human rights defenders were targeted, it became clear that there was no one to protect you in Republika Srpska,” Pralica said, referring to the fact that the President of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik. supported the initiative to ban protests in 2018. This resulted in charges being brought against some activists for “organizing unreported public gatherings”.

“Another problem we face is that in Republika Srpska, in the last ten years, I have only met two lawyers willing to accept such cases for what would be abnormal amounts of money. Legal help is really hard to find,” Pralica said.

The findings of the CRD report also confirm that the investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators of attacks against HRDs is slow and ineffective. “Even though most respondents had a positive experience with the police, they believe that prosecutions are the bottleneck of the system,” the report cites. According to Pralica, although activists have won some cases when they were targeted “as foreign mercenaries, terrorists, etc.” “, activists sometimes have to wait 5 or 10 years for the court’s decision.

Pralica explained that activists rely primarily on the support network they have formed among themselves, as well as support from international organizations such as Transparency International, Civil Rights Defenders, OSCE and others. “Often, only international organizations react,” said Pralica.

In the countries of Montenegro that have already started EU accession negotiations and implemented some reforms, the situation has not yet improved satisfactorily, said Tamara Milas, a Montenegrin activist.

Milas said that over the past seven years, since Montenegro started EU accession negotiations, the country’s situation has improved regarding the legal framework. However, Milas stressed, challenges regarding institution building and implementation of newly adopted policies remain.

“There is a general lack of understanding of the modern concept of human rights, as a less traditional concept, and stereotypes continue to be a source of discrimination against women and marginalized groups. Furthermore, there is no political will to prioritize human rights and put the interests of the public before those of the parties,” Milas stressed. She stressed that activists are considered political dissidents and therefore face discrimination.

Sexual and gender identity remains the main reason for discrimination. Sidita Zaja of the Albanian group “Pro LGBT”, whose organization recently conducted research into online hate speech, particularly against women. “When women are opposed to hate speech, they are seen as a group, but it has to do with honor, lack of morality or their sexual experiences.

Zaja felt that there is a tendency to reinforce gender stereotypes when it comes to targeting female activists in Albanian media. “The focus is on women as individuals, while men are targeted because of their work and are generally presented as if they play a more positive role in society than women.

Uranija Pirovska of the Helsinki Committee of North Macedonia said human rights defenders in that country face similar challenges. Pirovska added that the media in North Macedonia still supports the misogyny and homophobia of the former government. “During the Colored Revolution,” Pirovska recalls, “men were never referred to by sexual connotation, nor by their appearance or outfits, while this still happens with women in Macedonian society. “How dare you criticize the government, go home and cook – these are the messages I received from people who were not fighting the same struggle as us during the Color Revolution,” Pirovska said, adding that at During her career, she was attacked. repeatedly, both as a woman and as a human rights activist.

“North Macedonia is still a society in which the Church and other religious groups have a great impact and were collaborators of the former government,” Pirovska concluded.

The fact that EU officials give legitimacy to the current authorities and make the work of HRDs more difficult, cites the CRD, adding that the EU accession process and the reforms required in Chapter 23, if they are applied as is in a declarative manner, can make the work of HRDs more difficult. more efficient.

In the meantime, panelists agreed, civil and human rights advocates must rely on regional activist networks, such as the one that spontaneously formed during citizen rallies in the Western Balkans to support protesters demanding a investigation into the death of David Dragičević. Although short-lived, this act of regional solidarity with the Banja Luka protesters showed that such networking is not only necessary, but crucial to efforts to establish the rule of law in the Western Balkans.

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