The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia
by an interview with Sonja Biserko, president of HOS
For almost a decade now the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, based in Belgrade, has been one of the most vigorous and bravest advocates of a democratic future for Serbia and its neighbours, one of the most consistently serious and constructive contributors through its publications to the debate about how such a future is to be achieved. A few of the many books it has published are listed below; an idea of the quality of its monthly Helsinška Povelja [The Helsinki Charter] may be gained from the brief selection translated here of articles published over the past year; while its website (in Serbian and English) may be viewed at www.helsinki.org.yu
The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia -
an interview with Sonja Biserko, president of HOS,
conducted by Branka Magaš on behalf of Bosnia Report, 11 September 2003
When was the Helsinki Committee For Human Rights in Serbia founded and with what aim?
The Helsinki Committee(HOS) was established in 1994 as one of the successors to the Yugoslav Helsinki Committee. The Yugoslav committee was founded in 1988, but it ceased to function in 1991 when its steering body simply fell apart along national lines. Its president Tanja Petovar then froze its activities. After the formation of the new states Petovar helped, with the aid of the International Helsinki Federation, in the creation of new national committees in the region, first in Croatia and then in Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia. The Kosovo committee was founded in 1992, in response to the mass repression conducted at the time by the Serbian police there. All these committees emerged in response to the need for an organisational network that would systematically monitor the situation in regard to human rights. One can indeed say that the war in the former Yugoslav area stimulated and changed the nature of the work of the International Helsinki Federation.
As for HOS, from the start it set itself ambitious aims in view of the dramatic situation in the region and Serbia's role in the events. We were directly faced with the parlous position of national minorities (Croats, Albanians and Bosnian Muslims) and refugees, and with the situation in the media, all in consequence of the attempt to implement the Greater Serbia project. At this time the International War Crimes Tribunal for Yugoslavia was established, which we have supported from the start not just verbally but actively. We have collected various materials necessary for an understanding of the Serbian nationalist programme. HOS took a clear position on the issue of Yugoslavia's break-up, guided by our understanding that the key to the future of the region lies in this process being fully completed. Our support for the independence of Montenegro and Kosovo, which flows from this, has exposed us to strong attacks. Although this prospect is today widely accepted, our gutless elites continue to obstruct its progress.
How does HOS function?
Our committee is active in several strategic directions, such as monitoring the situation of human rights and in this context of minority rights in particular; confronting the past; working with young people in various forums (from a school on human rights to confidence-building between various ethnic groups); supplying legal aid to citizens; analysing the nature of the legal system and its functioning, etc.
What sort of problems do you confront in your work?
From the very start HOS has met with strong resistance, especially from those who form public opinion in Belgrade. This is because ours was the first organisation which escaped the control of every single centre of power in Belgrade. HOS stands out from the so-called alternative scene by its rigorous stand in regard to the war, Serb nationalist extremism and war policy. HOS has always tackled taboo subjects such as refugees, war crimes, the question of minorities, the presence of extreme nationalism in Serbia, etc. This is why it is regularly denounced in the media. On several occasions it became the target of orchestrated media campaigns, which occasionally took the form of open lynch calls. Even the so-called independent media took part in the campaigns against us, albeit in their own way, though as a rule they ignore what we are doing. Thanks to its many activities on the ground HOS has been able to establish good communication with various local organizations and even parts of the media. It is well received in some places, though not in compact Serb areas, due to the media campaigns against us. Looking back to the past one can say that HOS's 'original sin' is its attitude to the past and Serbia's responsibility for the war in the area of former Yugoslavia. In Serbia today there is a strong desire to equalize the responsibility for the war and to deny the ethnic motive in the crimes. We are speaking of a struggle over the interpretation of the recent past. While the elite linked with the Serbian Academy of Science and Art played a key role in defining war aims in the past, the elite linked to the faculties of political science and law is today keen to minimise the responsibility of the Serbian side. It is unfortunate that much of the former anti-war opposition has joined this effort, as was illustrated by the polemics on this theme which took place last year in the pages of the weekly Vreme. HOS has published these polemics in book form.
Can you tell us something about your publications?
HOS concentrated from the start on publishing works dealing with the situation in Serbia. We have published over 50 titles thus far, which have become required reading for all those researching this period. We publish regular annual reports which deal not only with infringements of human rights, but also with the society, i.e. with the context that generates extreme nationalism, xenophobia and intolerance: investigations of the legal system, or of particular social phenomena or institutions such as the Serb Orthodox Church and the Army; in-depth analyses of individual events such as the demonstrations of 1996-7; and so on. Within the framework of our project called ‘Confronting the Past’, the committee has produced a variety of publications grouped under such rubrics as ‘Testimonies’, ‘Helsinki Notes’ and ‘Surveys’. ‘Testimonies’ contain writings by people who have tackled some of the darkest aspects of the Serbian society, but have remained a marginalized minority. We believe that their testimony will be of great importance when this society decides seriously to examine its past. As for ‘Surveys’, this was inaugurated with a book by Olivera Milosavljević, a work of seminal importance for understanding Serb nationalism, followed by Mirko Đorđević's Serbian Conservative Thought. We have just completed a TV presentation in ten parts called 'A View of the Past: Serbia 1965-1991'. The idea is to start a debate about the period during which the trends leading to the rise of Slobodan Milošević and the war were consolidated.
Finally, I would like to draw attention to our monthly publication The Helsinki Charter, which has appeared regularly for the past eight years. It is published in three thousand copies and can be read also on our web-site. Some of the articles are translated into English. The Charter is read in the neighbouring countries and - this is not just my view - gives by far the best insight into what is happening in Serbia. We have had very positive reactions on this score from our neighbours, and also from within Serbia itself. We are particularly proud of this aspect of our work Yet it is the case that we find it particularly hard to win funds for the Charter. The publication receives no mention in the Belgrade media, although everyone reads it with great care.
What sort of people are drawn to your activities?
We attract professional people such as journalists, former diplomats and politicians, historians, lawyers, etc, but also young people who learn a great deal by working within HOS. That way they gain considerable knowledge and experience about how Serbia functions and constitute the nucleus of the generation which will press the issue of the past in the future. Among the people who work with us I would mention in particular Latinka Perović, Ljubivoje Acimović, the late and much missed Novak Pribičević, Olivera Milosavljević, Olga Popović -Obradović, Vladimir Ilić, and others.
How do you finance your work?
Given the lack of interest in our work in Serbia, or rather the strong dislike of what we are trying to do, we would not be able to survive without outside donations. This is why we have had to rely on the support of foreign governments and foundations. Sweden and Norway contribute most to our funds, followed by the American and German governments, the EU and the Council of Europe. Our situation has in fact become more difficult since 5 October 2000, i.e. Milošević's fall, because the donors have turned their attention mainly to state institutions. It is becoming clearer, however, that changes in civil society are an integral part of change in our country.
You have collected around you an impressive number of historians. How do you explain that?
It is of the greatest importance that a group of young women historians working with Latinka Perović have joined us, because they have a new approach to Serbian history. The truth is that they themselves are marginalized in their profession, because they challenge the official Serbian historiography, much of which is based on falsifying historical evidence. It is impossible to imagine a positive change taking place in Serbia without it occurring also in the field of historiography, which given its nature played a crucial role in the preparation for war.
How would you assess your achievements up to now?
We have been in existence for ten years now. It has been a long and very dynamic period for us, albeit weighed down by all sorts of accusations and obstructions and lack of appreciation for what we have been trying to do. We have nevertheless made a significant contribution to the return of refugees, above all to Croatia, despite impediments on all sides. HOS was the first, and it seems the only, organisation which during the past nine years has been working tirelessly on helping people return to their homes. There is no doubt that most of those who returned to Croatia did so with our help. We also raised the issue of minority rights at the very start of our work and have published a series of analytical works of the highest quality on this subject, which remain a main source of reference. This is why we are a main port of call for all NGOs involved in this kind of work. Within the framework of our project ‘Confronting the Past’ we have organised a number of conferences, round tables and public debates throughout Serbia. We prepared eighty such events in 2001 and the same number in 2002. HOS has always carefully monitored the changes within Serb nationalism and promptly responded by pointing out its new forms and adaptations.
What structural problems do you confront in your work?
This country is faced with enormous problems. They include the absence of a legal state, low-level and frivolous media, a barren and capricious political elite, a deeply conservative society, and refusal to confront the past. The very idea of human rights finds little support in the country and is perceived as a form of Western pressure.
Do you have support in your neighbourhood?
We work together with other Helsinki committees in the area, since we are part of the wider family or network of the International Helsinki Federation. At times we engage in common projects. However, we act in the region also outside the IHF structure, depending on the problems we are called upon to tackle.
How do you see your work in the future?
Our key strategic project is ‘Confronting the past’, which is also the most difficult one, but it is worth the effort. Following its historic defeat and great losses, Serbia is presented with two options: one is to remain silent, the other is to free itself from the burden of the past. Contemporary Serbia has chosen silence, which is why it is difficult to work here and gain resonance. However, without this confrontation in Serbia it will be difficult for the region to regain the necessary mutual trust. The Serbian government has chosen not to follow the second option, and whatever it does it does under outside pressure. This is true also for its orientation towards Europe. Đinđić's assassination is a good illustration of the strength of resistance to Serbia's integration into Europe. Serbia, however, has no other choice. Our neighbours have already opted for Europe, while Serbia is being pushed forward by the EU and the world - against much resistance and turmoil. Serbia will continue to behave in this manner in the foreseeable future. We, on the other hand, will continue to work in this setting, despite all the problems it brings. We do, however, need positive support from outside, coupled with an understanding that some things must be achieved by internal forces. We particularly need support for our project of ‘Confronting the past’, since without grappling with its past Serbia will never be able to catch up with its neighbours.
Of the more than fifty titles published to date by the Helsinki Committee in Serbia, many remain in print, including notably:
Nacionalne manjine i pravo
Tačka razlaza: povodom polemike u ‘Vremenu’
U tradiciji nacionalizma (Olivera Milosavljević)
Srpska konzervativna misao (Mirko Đorđević)
Katarza i katarakta (Miodrag Stanisavljević)
Koren zla (Ivan Stambolić)
Poslednja instanca (Srđa Popović)