Human Rights in the eyes of Serbia’s citizens

December 10, 2020

On the eve of International Human Rights Day on 10 December 2020, the BCHR presented the main findings of its public opinion survey “Human Rights in the Eyes of Serbia’s Citizens” conducted in November.

The year behind us was marked by numerous restrictions and derogations of human rights enshrined in the Constitution and international documents in Serbia, which culminated during the state of emergency that was in force from 15 March to 6 May 2020. In the view of Serbia’s citizens, 2020 brought new challenges in the realisation of human rights compared to 2019, which came as no surprise in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The survey respondents said that the most jeopardised rights were the right to health (18%), freedom of movement (18%) and media freedoms (16%), as opposed to 2019, when they singled out the right to work, the freedom of speech/media freedoms and the right to live in dignity. Whereas public perceptions that the right to health was at greatest risk in 2020 was expected amidst the global fight against the pandemic, the respondents’ ranking of other rights among the most jeopardised ones varied depending on their age and education level: respondents in the 18-29 and 30-44 age categories singled out freedom of movement, college graduates aged 30-44 highlighted media freedoms, respondents in the 18-29 age category thought the freedom of assembly was at risk, while respondents with lower education levels and respondents between 45 and 49 years of age were the most concerned by violations of the right to work.

The survey also showed an increase over 2019 in the number of citizens who complained about human rights violations to the Protector of Citizens, non-government organisations and the Serbian President and a decrease in the number of citizens who turned to the police and courts.

Public mistrust of the judiciary was evident in 2020 as well. As many as 64% of the respondents opined that the judges were not independent. Given that courts are the most important for the protection of human rights at the national level, such deep public mistrust in their work illustrates the hopelessness of the situation of people who believe their rights are at risk or have been breached. Around 45% of the respondents positively rated the work of the police; police activites met with the dissatisfaction of around 29% respondents, mostly younger ones. This indicates that the incidents during the state of emergency and the July protests, characterised by police brutality and excessive use of force, did not reflect negatively on public assessments of their activities.

The survey results also testify to the deep polarisation of Serbia’s society on media freedoms and the right to information: 49% of the respondents, most of them over 60 and with lesser education, believed that media with nationwide coverage informed the public of issues of public interest accurately, fully and promptly. Just as many respondents, mostly 18-44 years of age and respondents with university education, held the opposite view. Most respondents got their news from the public service broadcaster Radio Television of Serbia (RTS),  then Pink and Prva TV, stations with nationwide coverage, and cable TV station N1.

Public views on the role of human rights CSOs are still divided: 26% of the respondents had positive opinions of their work and an identical share disagreed. The divide does not come as a surprise given the executive’s many activities aimed at sidelining these NGOs and labelling them as “foreign mercenaries and groups working on destabilising the state”. Although abuse of anti-laundering and terrorist financing mechanisms by the Ministry of Finance Anti-Laundering Directorate caused the most stir in 2020, 37% of the respondents had neutral views on the roles and activities of NGOs.

Serbia’s citizens believe that discrimination is widespread. As many as a quarter of the respondents said they had suffered discrimination in 2020, while nearly a half of them (around 46%) said that women were treated worse than men.  Discrimination against women is quite extensive; so are discriminatory gender stereotypes in public discourse. The survey results show that the public is aware of numerous problems in this field, especially of gender inequalities in the labour market.

“Human Rights in the Eyes of Serbia’s Citizens” is the second annual survey BCHR conducted in cooperation with the UN Human Rights Team in Serbia and Ipsos Strategic Marketing. The survey aimed to gauge public perceptions of human rights in Serbia on the eve of International Human Rights Day. 

International Human Rights Day is marked on 10 December, the day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948. This year, it is marked in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic and the states’ efforts to fight its transmission and consequences, which have all directly reflected on the realisation and enjoyment of numerous human rights and freedoms.

The BCHR is preparing its 2020 Annual Human Rights  Report, which will provide a comprehensive overview of the state of human rights in Serbia and the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic brought to their realisation.