Feature 21 Apr 15

Serbia’s Neglected War Victims Hope for Legal Change

Legislation proposed by Belgrade-based rights groups is being sent to Serbian ministries on Tuesday in a bid to finally win compensation and benefits for victims ignored since the Yugoslav wars ended.

Ivana Nikolic
Sandra Orlovic of the HLC during the presentation of the model law. Photo: Media Centre Belgrade.

“Two of my brothers went missing in 1998 and 1999. We get nothing from the state; we could receive compensation if we declare them dead but my mother refuses to do so,” said Simo Spasic, who fled Kosovo when Serbian forces’ war with the Kosovo Liberation Army ended in June 1999.

“We still hope they are alive,” Spasic, who is also the head of the Association of the Families of the Kidnapped and Murdered in Kosovo and Metohija, told BIRN.

According to the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre, HLC, Spasic is one of around 20, 000 people in Serbia who suffered during and in connection with the armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, either as a civilian victim or someone whose relative was killed or forcibly disappeared.

But Spasic cannot claim reparations from the state as the existing Law on the Rights of Civilian Invalids of War does not recognise missing persons and their families as civilian victims of the conflicts.

They are just one of many categories of people excluded from the current law, including victims of sexual violence and torture, people suffering from mental health issues and physical injuries whose disability level is below 50 per cent as well as people who died or were injured at the hands of members of the Serbian armed forces in other countries.

“Civilian victims of the war have far less rights than war invalids and war veterans. And we need a law to regulate the status of the families whose members are missing [from the 1990s conflicts] as we feel neglected,” Spasic said.

The HLC and the Centre for Advanced Legal Studies in Belgrade have prepared a ‘model law’ that would set out the rights of civilian victims who suffered during and in connection with armed conflicts from 1991 to 2001.

The HLC is sending the draft to Serbian ministries for consideration on Tuesday. The rights group says it is a necessary response to the decade of improper treatment that some war victims have endured in Serbia.

“Their status today is disastrous and devastating. The existing law passed in 1996 is a manifestation of the state’s relationship towards them; it is an example of legalised discrimination,” Sandra Orlovic, director of the HLC, said while presenting the model law last week.

The fact that the current law does not recognise broad categories of victims is the reason why as few as 10 per cent of victims of war who live in Serbia have been recognised as such, Orlovic said.

The current law was also criticised in the European Commission’s latest progress report on Serbia, which said that “there has been no improvement of assistance to victims”. Further criticism has come from the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, which urged Serbia to safeguard the rights of the families of missing persons.

The rights groups' model law was put forward after the Serbian Ministry of Labour, Veterans and Social Affairs proposed its own new legislation. That, too, has been severely criticised by NGOs that argued that it doesn’t uphold victims’ rights and urged the government to withdraw it.

‘These families live on the edge’

The model law however received a warm welcome from victims’ associations.

“Passing this law would completely change the situation of the families of missing people; it would give them both symbolic and material reparations,” Gordana Djikanovic, from another missing persons’ association, told BIRN.

“These families live on the edge and can hardly make ends meet,” she added.

Victims would gain rights to healthcare, subsidised housing, professional rehabilitation, free city and inter-city transportation, as well as free legal aid and financial compensation – 10, 000 or 20, 000 euros, depending on which of their rights were violated.

“It is also very important that the public knows the exact number of people that used the rights [prescribed by the law]. So the model law also envisages regular public reports,” said Sasa Gajin, from the Centre for Advanced Legal Studies in Belgrade.

No guarantee of success

Dragan Pjevac is another civilian victim of the war, a refugee from Croatia.
After fleeing Croatia, Pjevac was seized by police in Belgrade in August 1995 and sent to the Croatian village of Erdut, to a training camp used by paramilitary Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan’s notorious paramilitary group, the Tigers.

Afterwards, he was deployed to Serb-controlled territory in Beli Manastir in Croatia for three months until the Dayton peace deal ended the war.

“I am a civilian victim twice over - my mother was killed in Croatia, and I was forcibly mobilised for three months,” Pjevac said during the presentation of the model law.

But even though he was forcibly mobilised, he has received no compensation, as people from this category are also excluded by the current law – and by the government’s proposed new one as well.

Djikanovic said she doubted however whether the Serbian authorities will support the rights groups’ proposed legislation.

“I am sceptical [it will be adopted] because this model law differs a lot from the law proposed by the ministry of social affairs. I doubt they will give up their proposal and pass this one,” she said.

But the HLC’s Orlovic was more optimistic.

“It is uncertain how [Serbia’s] institutions will accept it, but they cannot ignore it. These are real problems and I have no doubts the bigger part of it will be passed,” Orlovic said.
Action is needed quickly because time is passing, Orlovic warned.

“A large number of victims are of advanced age and any delay would mean the continued deprivation of their rights,” she said.

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