Restrictions of the Freedom of Movement of Serbia’s Citizens during the COVID-19 Pandemic amongst the Most Drastic in Europe

May 7, 2020

BCHR’s analysis of the lockdown measures in European countries shows that the restrictions of the freedom of movement of Serbia’s citizens imposed by the Serbian authorities to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were amongst the most drastic in Europe. The state of emergency, imposed in Serbia on 15 March 2020, was abolished after 53 days by a parliamentary decision adopted on 6 May 2020. Many human rights of Serbia’s citizens enshrined in the Constitution and ratified international treaties were restricted during the state of emergency.

Freedom of movement was undoubtedly the right that was restricted the most in Serbia. The BCHR filed an initiative with the Constitutional Court to review the constitutionality of the Decree on the State of Emergency Measures and the Order Restricting and Prohibiting Movement of Individuals in the Territory of the Republic of Serbia. While we wait for the Constitutional Court’s reply to the question whether the Ministry’s Order constitutes valid legal grounds for derogations from constitutional rights, we would like to draw attention to another important issue – the scope of the restrictions of the freedom of movement.

Article 202(1) of the Serbian Constitution allows derogations from specific human rights during a state of emergency, but only to the extent deemed necessary. Similarly, Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) sets out that in time of public emergency, states may take measures derogating from their obligations under the ICCPR to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation. The Human Rights Committee said in its General Comment 29 on Article 4 of the ICCPR that States parties considering invoking Article 4 should carefully consider the justification and why such a measure is necessary and legitimate in the circumstances.

The impugned Order introduced a curfew during the state of emergency. Serbia’s citizens were under lockdown from 5 pm (and on some days from 3 pm) to 5 am on workdays, and from 5 pm on Fridays to 5 am on Mondays on weekends. People over 65 were under full lockdown as many as 34 days and were allowed to go shopping for groceries on a designated day every week, from 4 am to 7 am.

The BCHR’s analysis of the restrictions of the freedom of movement other European countries introduced in response to the pandemic shows that Serbia’s measures restricting and prohibiting the freedom of movement of its citizens were definitely amongst the most drastic in Europe. Frequent changes in the scope and periods of the restrictions and the illogicality of the order in which the measures were introduced and lifted created confusion among the people, who often had problems conforming their conduct and actions to the valid measures, as numerous cases of citizens penalised for violating the lockdown testify. The question remains whether such strict measures restricting and prohibiting the freedom of movement were necessary to achieve the goal – halt the spread of COVID-19, i.e. whether the same result could have been achieved by measures interfering less in the citizens’ rights, as well as whether the state acted in violation of the Constitution and international law in this case.

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Initiative Filed with the Protector of Citizens to Review the Legality and Regularity of MIA Operations during Curfew

May 4, 2020

Twelve civil society organisations (CSOs) filed an initiative with the Protector of Citizens to launch a review of the legality and regularity of the operations of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA), specifically, with respect to police responses to reports of citizens rallying on top of residential buildings and firing torches and fireworks in the evenings and to granting of curfew passes.

Over the past few days, media and social networks have been publishing footage of groups of citizens lighting torches and powerful fireworks in Belgrade and other cities across Serbia in the evenings, amidst the curfew imposed under the Decree on State Emergency Measures. The fire department intervened in one such fire hazard case in Niš. There were also clashes between these people and the residents, without whose consent they climbed on the roofs of their buildings and lit torches and fireworks and activated drones.

The social media also published allegations by citizens who reported to the police violations of the curfew and the Public Law and Order Act (Article 17 prohibiting fireworks and firing weapons). They claim that the police told them that they were not competent for these misdemeanours and to report them to the local communal police instead. Others reported that the police came to the scene, but took no action after establishing that the citizens lighting torches and activating fireworks had the curfew passes issued by the MIA during the state of emergency. 

Relying on Article 32 of the Protector of Citizens Act, the CSOs call on the Protector of Citizens to initiate a review of the legality and regularity of the MIA’s operations without delay, in order to establish:

  1. To whom the MIA’s has issued curfew passes and why,
  2. Whether it is true and, if so, why the MIA refused to respond to reports by citizens of violations of the curfew imposed under the Decree on the State of Emergency Measures and Article 17 of the Public Law and Order Act given that the Police Act charges the police with maintaining public law and order, identifying and investigating misdemeanours, identifying and apprehending their perpetrators and bringing them before the competent authorities, as well as with immediately forwarding all reports containing elements of misdemeanours to the police unit responsible for misdemeanours.

The initiative was submitted by:

  • Belgrade Centre for Human Rights
  • Belgrade Centre for Security Policy
  • A11 – Initiative for Economic and Social Rights
  • Centre for Judicial Research – CEPRIS
  • Civic Initiatives
  • Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights – YUCOM
  • Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia
  • Policy Centre
  • Youth Initiative for Human Rights
  • Committee for Human Rights Niš
  • Committee for Human Rights Negotin
  • Committee for Human Rights Valjevo

New periodic report Right to Asylum in the Republic of Serbia for January – March 2020

May 2, 2020

periodic report smallBelgrade Centre for Human Rights has compiled a periodic report covering the first three months of 2020, analyzing the right to asylum and material reception conditions during the state of emergency, as well as the current public discourse on migrants. In addition, the report deals with the the right of access to the asylum procedure with special focus to access to the Belgrade airport procedure, as well as the practice of decision-making bodies in the asylum procedure through the analysis of individual decisions.

The authors endeavored, to point to examples of good practices, but also to certain gaps in regulations and in the work of competent authorities, through the perspective of human rights standards and through the personal stories of asylum seekers. The aim of such an approach is for the Republic of Serbia to develop a more functional asylum system. In this regard, the BCHR team offered recommendations for improving existing solutions.

You can download the report here.

Coronavirus: UNHCR offers practical recommendations in support of European countries to ensure access to asylum and safe reception

April 28, 2020

With the world mobilizing to combat the spread of COVID-19, many countries in Europe and beyond have adopted exceptional measures to manage their borders, limiting air travel and cross-border mobility. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has called today on European countries to safeguard the many good practices and redouble their efforts to strengthen asylum systems in Europe in these trying times.

It is encouraging that nearly two thirds of European countries have found ways to manage their borders effectively while allowing access to their territories for people seeking asylum. Medical screenings at borders, health certification or temporary quarantine upon arrival are some of the measures put in place by European countries. These are important positive precedents for other States in Europe and beyond.

“With refugees and asylum-seekers at the centre of our efforts, we have prepared a series of practical recommendations in support of national asylum systems as we continue to provide our expertise to governments,” said Pascale Moreau, UNHCR’s Regional Director for Europe.

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New Newsletter on Isolated Youth

April 27, 2020

Capture newsletter 02.JPG 2The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) Youth Programme team has published its second Newsletter providing a biweekly overview of the On an Isolated Youth campaign. 

Like its predecessor, this issue of the Newsletter also focuses on promoting and informing about youth human rights in this time of crisis. It includes a new column titled “Stories from Isolated Islands” in which young people share their stories and feelings during lockdown. We are grateful to all of them for their courage, honesty and for their wish to share their stories with us.

The Newsletter is part of the Youth Programme team’s campaign initiated during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can follow the campaign on our social media profiles, Facebook and Instagram, and on the BCHR’s website. 

Please feel free to contact us if you want to share your thoughts or stories from your isolated islands with us or report violations of youth human rights at youth@bgcentar.org.rs and in DM on Instagram @mladibgcentar.

The new issue of the Newsletter is available in Serbian HERE.

BCHR Calls on the Serbian Authorities to Immediately Respond to Claims about the Existence of an Alleged Serbia-Austria Agreement Migrants and Asylum Seekers

April 17, 2020

The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) calls on the Serbian Government to publish accurate information in response to claims about the existence of an inter-state agreement between Serbia and Austria on Serbia’s admission of irregular migrants and unsuccessful asylum seekers at Austria’s request.

Following a number of media speculations, the Deutsche Welle Serbian language programme published a report on 15 April 2020 stating that the Austrian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) had confirmed the existence of a “working agreement” between Austria and Serbia on Austria’s return of unsuccessful asylum seekers to Serbia, that such an agreement was signed on 24 April 2019, and that both parties agreed not to publicly divulge their mutual rights and obligations. Given that Deutsche Welle obtained such confirmation indirectly, through insight in the Austrian MIA’s response to a question posed by the Liberals in the Austrian Parliament, BCHR considers it crucial that the Serbian authorities urgently and precisely clarify whether such an agreement exists.

The BCHR recalls that increasingly radical anti-migrant views are regrettably being propagated by some Serbian groups, and that some media and social networks are flooded with unconfirmed reports and dubious information about the alleged Austrian-Serbian agreement. Imprecise, unclear and partial information that is now available gives rise to risks of various forms of abuse and is not in the interest of the legal certainty of either Serbia’s citizens or the people transiting through Serbia and seeking international protection.

The BCHR calls on the relevant state authorities, primarily the Serbian Ministries of Internal and Foreign Affairs, to respond to the allegations about the agreement between Austria and Serbia. If these claims are true, the authorities should make the document available to the public. The BCHR notes that it is critical that Serbia’s state representatives conduct a clear and transparent migration policy.