Confronting COVID: How Civil Society is Responding Across Countries | Serbia
November 12, 2020
How are the impacts of the pandemic in your country evolving, and how are they diverging from those being seen in other contexts?
Whether the Government, the commercial sector, or the individuals and groups that are most affected by the pandemic – the Roma population, persons living in poverty, beneficiaries of financial social assistance, people sleeping rough, or other vulnerable groups – discussions about the impact of the pandemic in Serbia are marked by the roles of the discussants. These discussions make it seem as if we live in two different worlds - one where the Government pretends that, in order to adapt to this ’new normal’ we all live in, one just needs to switch instantly to the online world, and the other where people with real problems live.
Serbia is a developing country, resting between the much-desired European standard and the Global South, where hundreds of thousands of people cannot exercise their economic, social and other human rights, from their right to work, to the right to an adequate standard of living and social security. The State’s failure to undertake its positive obligations under international human rights law and to protect individuals that are most affected by the pandemic is just staggering. For example, we have documented cases where unhoused persons were fined because they were found on the street during the curfew, even though the homeless shelter has continued to reject new arrivals since the start of the pandemic. In another example, at least 25,000 Roma men, women and children continue to be left without access to water and sanitation. Remote schooling is widening the educational gap and future inequalities since not all children in Serbia have electricity, internet and learning support from their parents or other members of their families.
Unfortunately, this situation is a 'natural' and expected progression from the already introduced austerity measures that eroded basic economic and social rights and affected most vulnerable individuals. With one-quarter of the population already living at risk of poverty, and with around 7 percent of population already living below poverty line (which is around 105€ per month), the pandemic will accelerate social injustices and those who are already discriminated against will be further marginalized.
Again, there is little room for optimism in this regard. The newly elected Government's program of work shows us that the protection of economic and social rights will not be high on the agenda.
How has the pandemic changed economic policy debates in your country?
While Serbia is one of the few countries that failed to introduce any special social policy measures for the protection of the most vulnerable population during the state of emergency and the first wave of the coronavirus, it did provide 100€ of state aid for every citizen older than 18. However, the most vulnerable populations (i.e. ‘legally invisible’ Roma, people not informed about this measure, people experiencing homelessness, etc.) did not receive this support, and as a result many economists are questioning its impact on social inequalities and poverty reduction. As a consequence of this debate, we have recently managed to open up the space for discussions about the state obligation to use the maximum of its available resources, especially in times of economic hardship and economic contraction, to protect its most vulnerable populations. We are trying to advocate for rights-based economic policy decisions that will be participatory and based on the state’s obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
If we consider the fact that by some estimates, the state sponsored COVID-19 recovery program provided almost 230 million € to companies that had not registered losses, it appears that (at least some) resources are available, but their distribution is marked by discrimination and social injustices.
What are the priority economic/budgetary/resource measures you are advocating for in response to the pandemic?
Even before the pandemic, Serbia was in the middle of reforming its social protection system. This reform was marked by the failure of the state to comply with its human rights obligations. With the ongoing decline of budget expenditures for social protection, the growing number of individual beneficiaries, and the many administrative hurdles in place to receive these benefits, our key priorities are positioned around the protection of the minimum core of the right to social security and the right to an adequate standard of living. Of course, in times of the pandemic, all of these processes are more complex and can potentially have a devastating impact on the most vulnerable population. Because of that, our second goal in this new context revolves around the establishment of a specific crisis working group that will prepare and implement the measures for the protection of the most vulnerable population during and after the COVID-19 crisis.
Although we consider this measure to be a very reasonable ask, after more than seven months the Government has failed to even consider our proposal. In the meantime, the situation continues to grow in complexity and the most vulnerable populations are further harmed by the crisis.
What have been the challenges and opportunities for bringing human rights into these debates?
We believe that this crisis can an opportunity to produce real change, and that new perspectives and ideas can improve the bleak situation we are facing. With this in mind, we are trying to form a movement against the continued erosion of the social roles of the state, that will include other activists, CSOs, trade unions and academia, and all the progressive individuals and groups that will stand against the ongoing changes and the management of the crisis. We believe that with the introduction of economic and social rights into these debates, and the understanding of these rights as rights that are on equal footing as civil and political rights, we will be able to hold the Government accountable to improve the situation. However, this will not be an easy task, not just because of the dominant austerity narrative but also because of the very limited judicial engagement with the issues of social justice and economic and social rights and weak judicial and quasi-judicial protection of these rights in Serbia.
CESR and A11 have partnered to produce a submission to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for Serbia's forthcoming review by the Committee. The submission will focus on a broad range of issues including the human rights impacts of austerity, measures taken towards economic recovery from COVID-19 and the status of the economic and social rights of marginalized communities in Serbia.