As one of Serbia’s most influential activists, Milan Antonijević uses the rule of law as his main line of defence in human rights protection. This is a major accomplishment considering he was a law student attending Belgrade University at the end of Milošević era, a time of censorship. Before Antonijević had completed his degree, the government fired any Serbian professor lecturing on the importance of human rights, gutting the education system of these important ideas.
However, Antonijević had barely reached adulthood in the wake of the atrocities that coincided with the Balkan wars and the fall of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Witnessing these events at a young age sparked a passion for activism in him, which was only further fuelled by his professors’ expulsion. He completed an informal education with these persistent lecturers, all of whom were human rights pioneers that bravely continued teaching despite losing their academic careers.
Antonijević has served as the director of YUCOM since 2005, joining the organisation in 2001 after formally receiving his MA in International Law, along with his human rights education on the side. Over the course of his career Antonijević has worked with a large number of human rights organisations, contributing to the creation of multiple campaigns and educational initiatives. This includes the Youth Group of the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, where he advocated for tolerance and reconciliation to the youth of the Balkan region in 2000. He is also currently involved in a coalition project promoting LGBTQ rights in Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo.
Many of Antonijević’s successes in activism were made during his time leading YUCOM, the Belgrade-based Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights. Internationally recognised for its efforts in defence, its team of lawyers and experts provide legal assistance to victims of human rights violations before Serbian and international courts. YUCOM grants legal aid to more than 1,500 citizens annually and also represents other human rights organisations in court when needed. The organisation is currently aiding citizens in several cases and represents activist groups such as Woman in Black and Youth Initiative for Human Rights.
YUCOM advocates for the rule of the law and seeks court orders to ensure the proper implementation of Serbian legislation when required. With each case, the organisation works to ensure genuine commitment and implementation of new laws protecting human rights. These cases involve economic and social violations such as unequal access to public resources, hate crime, harassment, hate speech, and denied access to healthcare and education.
Many of Serbia’s citizens and marginalised communities are subject to these violations frequently. In addition to legal assistance, YUCOM also organises civic initiatives and campaigns to further advance their cause of human rights protection and defence. In January of 2018, they launched a project to bolster and improve the level of reporting on the rule of law in several Balkan nations.
Antonijević is also a founder and board member of Human Rights House Belgrade, which interacts with an international network to promote and defend human rights in Serbia. YUCOM is one of the five member organisations that contributes to the efforts of Human Rights House Belgrade, the other four being Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, Civic Initiatives, Helsinki Committee, and Policy Centre.
Despite a regime that tried to hinder the formation of activist minds like Antonijević’s, he’s persisted with dedication to his cause, proving that censorship cannot stop a new generation from fighting for the rights of their fellow citizens.
Milan Antonijević spoke with Index on Censorship’s Samantha Chambers about the state of human rights in Serbia and his organisation’s work. Below is an edited version of their interview:
Index: What would you say are the most pressing human rights issues affecting Serbia’s democracy today?
Antonijević: To start, we can look at the rule of law and the possibility of our legal system to provide solutions for human rights violations. First, we spot deficiencies in implementation of existing law in the protection of human rights. So from the point of view of legislation and constitution, we do not have as many deficiencies, but there are still things that should be polished and there are improvements that can be made on the legal side. We’re identifying it in areas of discrimination, hate speech, hate crime, and in freedom of expression. I cannot say that there is any true implementation that we can be proud of. There is improvement, but the whole system of protection and implementation of the laws should be listed in order to really answer the needs of citizens for their rights to be fully protected.
Index: Just to verify, its solely the issue of the implementation laws and not the laws themselves causing human rights issues at the moment?
Antonijević: Yes, only the implementation of the laws, the laws themselves are agreed on by experts and the senate commission and so on, so full standards are there.
Index: Which human rights issues do you find yourself needed to defend the most often? What marginalised communities are facing the biggest threats?
Antonijević: YUCOM usually has around 2,000 cases per year defending rights through representation before the court, so this is our day to day work. Within those, generally we can say that economic and social rights are the biggest challenge for Serbia. But when speaking about marginalised groups and underrepresented minorities, the Roma are subject to multiple forms of discrimination, and there’s a breach on their rights in every level. So, of economic and social rights, specifically in healthcare, education and non-equal opportunities. In the Roma situation, there is no accurate response from the country’s social workers. Things are moving, we used to have a large population of Roma who were not registered, who didn’t have identification, who didn’t have any access to health care or welfare. Now things are solid on the level of the law, and they are solid on the level of implementation. If they do not have an address or live in an informal supplement, there are mechanisms in order to bring them into the system so that the system recognises them and gives them support.
Another minority group, the LGBT community also experiences harassment through hate speech and hate crimes without any adequate response from the state or from the judiciary. In Serbia we recently had a prime minister who was openly a member of this community. However, it hasn’t lowered the number of incidents for hate speech in front of the media or parliament.
Index: Why did you decide to work for and become the director of an NGO (YUCOM) defending human rights? Why is your work so important in the nation’s current state?
Antonijević: My passion for human rights began as a very young student. Some of my professors at Belgrade law school, who were deeply involved in human rights protection were expelled from the law school, by the regime under President Milošević. A new law that was adopted in 1996 on education, and later on in 1999, completely cleared the professors who were dealing with human rights from the law school. I just continued working with them through informal lessons and lectures. From that, I became devoted to human rights. In addition, some of the injustice that I witnessed from the armies in 1994 and 1995. In 1994 and 95 as a young kid of 18 or 19 years, I witnessed some of the mistreatment, and international justice became important to me.
Index: Do you find that academic censorship is still a very pressing issue in Serbia today?
Antonijević: Academically, the moves of Milosevic had a big negative influence, and the law school never recovered from that.Those professors didn’t come back to university to raise new generations, so now the education from the law school is leaning towards disrespect of human rights. I’m sorry to say that now, very rare are the professors who share the ideas of human rights in this law school.
Index: How did continue to learn from these professors after they were expelled?
Antonijević: Those were some of the people who were initially starting the human rights organisations at that time. They met with special groups of students because many of us worked in the same organisations, so we were able to meet and continue our education. You had to do continue with both had the formal education where you could get your degree and your diploma and you’d stay with the informal classes, with professors who were expelled. They were really the pioneers of human rights in 70s, 80s, 90s and are still the names that you quote today.
Index: Do the Balkan wars have an impact on human rights work in Serbia?
Antonijević: Yes.The Balkan wars led to gross human rights violations and displacement of populations on all sides, so neither side is innocent in that sense. Serbs were forced to leave Croatia and parts of Bosnia, Kosovo and the same can be said for all nations that used to live in ex-Yugoslavia. Only the civil society is speaking on the victims of other nations, while politicians are stuck in the rhetoric of proving that the nation that they come from is the biggest victim, quite far from the restoration of justice and future peace. When you have mass murders, mass graves, and disappeared persons, speaking out about human rights becomes a harder task. Frustrations are high on all sides, with reason.
Index: Has media freedom declined under Aleksandar Vučić?
Antonijević: Funding has a negative influence on the media, because subsidies are only given to media if they are pro-government, not to others. Sometimes there are higher taxes for media that is independent and there’s a disregard for journalists posing questions from these organisations. There are also trends that are visible often in other European countries, with officials and others using social media and fake news, there is an atmosphere that you can easily create in a country with that kind of attitude. People are not questioning the information that they’re getting, and its really leaving a lot of space for malinformation, leaving many misinformed.
Index: What do you find is YUCOM’s biggest struggle working under a sometimes oppressive regime? What have been the biggest systematic barriers in accomplishing the goals of the organisation?
Antonijević: I wouldn’t call it oppressive. We’re in this strange situation where you’re sitting at the table discussing legislation with the democratic officials of your country, but — at the same time — not seeing the change of policy on every level. We’ve managed to influence the induction of the laws, and we’re still working on the changes with the government so it’s not a typical regime where you cannot say one word against the government. They have proven that they are able to allow separation of powers and debate in our society. We’re just now talking about the quality of the democracy, not the existence or non-existence of the democracy. The country is really leaning towards the EU and all the EU values are repeated from time to time by our officials. It’s not something that can be compared with Russia. It’s really a bit different, however, we need more commitment to the laws. Examples we see are going in the wrong direction, on an implementation level. We have sets of laws that are not being fully implemented, including the labor laws, the anti-discrimination laws, hate speech and hate crime laws, laws on environmental protection, etc. A few years ago YUCOM organised a panel with the minister of labour at that time, who is still in the government, and we discussed the new labour laws. The minister stated openly that there is no “political will” to implement the law. But we must note that the political will has to come from the government, parliament, judges and prosecutors. Only they can generate it. The public can demand it, but we as a civil society can only demand this implementation.
Index: How have the human rights violations occurring in Serbia affected you personally?
Antonijević: There is a constant side against us by different non-paid sectors. Some of the media that are not quite pro-government are reading that we work with the officials. Sometimes we receive threats but they are not coming from the state. Receiving threats is something that happens in this area of work, especially in issues on war crimes and cases that are more sensitive.
Index: Why is it important for Yucom to be part of a larger organisation like Human Rights House Belgrade? What has the support of the larger organisation done for Yucom?
Antonijević: I’m the director of YUCOM, but we also founded the Human Rights House Belgrade. It’s a new possibility, a new space to have one place dedicated to human rights and the promotion of human rights. The Human Rights House concept has helped YUCOM gain visibility and connect us to activism on an international level with other Human Rights Houses across Europe. There are 19 other houses and we all have one unanimous voice and find support from one another.