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Mr. Zoran Pašalić, the Protector of Citizens, was guest at Radio Belgrade 1 “Morning Program”.

International Human Rights Day. You have heard morning’s central questions– dear listeners, how do you perceive the state of play regarding human rights when speaking about our country, but also about foreign countries, what’s the situation like? In our program, we are speaking with Mr. Zoran Pašalić, the Protector of Citizens. Good morning, thank you for coming. Every year we are here for International human rights day with same stories – right to equality of men and women, child rights, rights of people with disabilities, right to elections, and right to democracy… Has anything been changing from year to year?

-What you have said has been repeating from year to year, and it is, if I may say so, a colloquial mantra, that has been going on for many years, maybe even decades. In my opinion, there are three fundamental rights - the right to life, health and the right to freedom. How someone understands that and how these three rights are represented in a particular part of the globe and in our country - that is the essence of the work I am doing, actually, the institution I have been heading for four years now has been dealing.

Do we all understand those rights in the same way? Here, for example, in Serbia, do three people see in the same way those rights to life, to healthcare, to all that we have mentioned...

- Not to healthcare. To health.

To health. Do we all experience those rights in the same way and is the fact that we do not experience them in the same way the reason why we cannot achieve uniformity? Maybe then there would be no work for you.

- You see, especially in our country where our citizens are such that they cannot agree on much less important things and less important issues, you will always have a different interpretation of human rights concept. The point is that the institution of the Protector of Citizens should respond to those citizens and groups of citizens who address it, regardless of what they consider their rights, whether it includes what is normatively regulated or their experience of freedom and justice. I have often said in communication with citizens that what is called justice and what is called right are often not correlated. Sometimes the right is much more represented than justice itself, and that is most often seen through the court decisions that citizens bring before the institution, thinking that the institution can help them change those decisions. It’s not about criminal law matters only, but primarily of litigation, extra-judicial proceedings, labor relations...

What do citizens complain about mostly? What do you get most as a complaint? How much has the corona virus pandemic changed the form of complaints?

- It didn’t, regarding the contacts to the Protector of Citizens. This is exactly what I said, they complain about their property rights, mostly the rights they believe they have acquired, and which have not been verified by decisions of the executive or more often judicial authority, and since I started doing this job most of the complaints are related to this area. Covid has definitely changed our lives in many ways including that the number of complaints since the start of the epidemic grew very progressively. At the moment when it reached maximum, when much less was known about corona, the number of complaints before the Protector of Citizens increased 10 times.

What did they complain about?

- Exactly what I am telling you, these are certain property rights...

I mean at the time of corona virus the number of complaints increased. Right?

- Certainly. This happened at the time, so to say, the state of emergency and limitations of freedom of movement, which is as I said one of fundamental human rights. Now, the manner how individuals perceive this freedom, that’s a huge debate on how and in what way it may be limited

What is going to happen with those complaints? Do you see that citizens are determined to get this straight, should this have been prohibited to us, was it in accordance with the Constitution or not? Or is it going to be pushed aside?

- The Constitution is frequently taken out, again sorry for using colloquial expression, as they say, pass card, which practically should pull off victory in some discussions. Both the Constitution and the Convention which refers to human rights provide the possibility of limiting certain freedoms at emergency situations, as was this situation, but we did not deal with it theoretically. I’ve always been saying that it is easiest to make a statement, to argue about it, but we are dealing with solving specific problems of citizens or groups of citizens. For example, I will tell you what was quite important, and that is that those people who cannot look after themselves and who are cared for by someone else were very deprived of that sort of help during the ban on movement, not only in the Republic Serbia but in the entire Europe. I kept in touch with colleagues from other European countries, primarily countries in the region, and practically it all came down to the same thing. Restriction of certain rights, inability to communicate with those with whom you should communicate as regards care.

That is the fate we all share. What are you facing? We’ve had Vietnamese workers in Zrenjanin, we have problems when it comes to children's rights, we have problems with people with disabilities regarding the level of accessibility. What does your field work look like? When you started, did you think that you would be able to solve all the problems, and then the terrain shows you something completely different?

- It might be a malformation from the job I did earlier. When someone complains that they have a problem, no matter who they had it with, we first check if it is really so or if it is someone's subjective assessment or if someone is trying to misuse information that could catch public attention. I have stated many times that we do not operate on the grounds of speculations or comments, but on the grounds of proven facts. So I spent most of my time going on site to see if the situation, which we learned about either through the citizens or through the media, often through the media, whether it was really on field as communicated. I couldn't speak in percentages, but most often what we found out, I'm talking about the media, it was not like that on field.

Can you give an example?

- Take, for example, the morning program, no matter what television, it is about an unfortunate parent who can barely support his own child. The video was made in a way that would move everyone. We go and see that the situation is not exactly like that, that it is an absolute manipulation with the aim of realizing some, as lawyers would say, property gain.

And these other situations, where the situation is really critical, how is it resolved?

- They are solved with really hard work. Because sometimes, maybe not a good expression, you often find yourself in a situation where the door you are knocking on is closed and someone has no intention of opening it for you. Only if you are persistent, or should I say boring, then that door will open, and then you will solve someone's problem.

Are problems being solved? Look, they made a decision, here are the recommendations of the Protector of Citizens, it should be one way or another. What is your feedback, how effective is what the Office does?

- The effect exists only if you solve it quickly, because we do not face small problems, extremely big problems and often existential ones reach us, so if we solve it quickly, normally and adequately, what the Protector of Citizens does would be expected to be fair and solved in a way that would satisfy the complainant, I consider it a successful solution. It happens that we cannot react because everything is already in a stage in which no one can react, not even the Protector of Citizens. So, when, say, a matter has been settled, it is in the executive procedure, the complainant or a dissatisfied citizen comes before the institution, but we cannot open that door because it is closed by a certain court decision. We had just such a case a few days ago. It was a demolition in the execution phase. We may ask for and fight for the delay in order to make it easier for that citizen, but we’ll certainly not be able to solve it in the way he wishes. Or one of the more difficult cases that happened a year ago, when an elderly person was in a situation where she had to move out of her flat, even though, as they say, right was on her side, but unfortunately the court decision was such, I don’t criticize the work of the court, it was simply a coincidence that she had to move out. What to tell someone in such a situation? The lady asked me, did I do anything wrong? I said you really weren't wrong. You have simply entered a cycle of manipulation that has led you to what was irreparable at the moment. These are the most difficult situations at work. When you see injustice and you definitely can't, but literally can't correct it.

Does the fact that there is a lot of talk about human rights in every sense mean that there is more injustice or just more talk and the media is more accessible for that? Do more stories about all this give hope that maybe through that story we will start to respect each other's rights or will there always be...

- It’s the system that determines someone's rights and responsibilities, the system that is operational and that works, so to speak, what it was formed and made for, only then can you hope for some improvement. When I say system, that implies how the system works, so I have to say that, even though it is less in the field of human rights, from family relations to the top of some organizational systems.

And where are we?

- I could not say where we are at the moment because everyone sees it in their own way. What I can say is that in contacts with colleagues who do this work not only in Europe but also beyond, I realized that the problems are the same everywhere and that the degree of human rights primarily depends on the organization of a system within the country, but many things in some of the changes that have made people feel much, much less free than it is proclaimed. In order not to confuse the listeners - I could call it one, to put it mildly, terror of the materialist organization of the world in which most countries that are considered the better part of humanity live. Only when you go to those countries or systems where people have much less, will you see that their freedom is far, far greater. When I say that they have much less, I mean that they are much less in touch with that materialistic conception of the world.

People from India come and are completely surprised. Although poverty is at every step, but the way these people think and function. How much can the Protector of Citizens influence the situation to make it different? How many of you should there be, I don't mean you personally but you as offices, more in public so that those rights might be more accessible?

- There should be enough of us or more in the sense that everyone recognizes us as an institution and people who deal with solving their problems when everyone else fails, so to speak. In this way, the institution gains authority from those who should act on our recommendations. We have no other weapon than authority. We cannot forbid, we cannot judge, we do not have some systems of coercion and repression. I really apologize, but I never advocated that repression while I was working as a judge, except in a situation when it is necessary, but often it can only open many doors.

Well, now there are current protests, street blockades. Are these the rights of citizens and does it conflict with any right, law, Constitution?

- What you said is very important and significant. My right may conflict with your rights and your right with mine. Harmonization of these rights is the right level of freedom of citizens and what is called human rights. So, of course, we can, there is, not to quote the Constitution and laws now, but that balance of rights leads to a relaxation in society. I can't impose something on you, and neither should you.

Maybe if we were all aware of that, then there would be no problem. How will you mark this date today?

- In addition to these official conferences that I have to attend, I am looking forward to meeting the children. This is our Youth Advisory Panel. I don't know how much the public knows, we have a group of young people who come from all over the Republic of Serbia and they help us a lot when it comes to children's rights. Why are they significant? Because now we are trying to make something better, something more functional and we leave it to them and they will continue to do so. I wouldn't want this to be understood as a cliché, I really think so. That is why those rights of the child and the rights of children are the most important to us, in addition to the rights of those who, unfortunately for various reasons - old age, illness, disability, marginalization, on any grounds, they cannot exercise. These are the two target groups we pay the most attention to.

Children and people with disabilities ...

- Not just people with disabilities. These are elderly, these are helpless people, these are various marginalized groups which, believe me, if tragic situations did not happen from time to time, would never be presented to the public in the way it is necessary or would be interesting to anyone in the media.

You mentioned the children, we can't gloss over the fact that they are the most important group to take care of. How to change that situation?

- That is the most important thing for me. How to change? If you start from a family, it is very difficult in times when both parents have to work so that they can maintain decent existential condition or even go below it, to maintain a functional family in every sense, and they are far from their children. That part of the time should be taken over by certain institutions, which unfortunately there are fewer and fewer, and these are institutions that would occupy that time in a creative way. We leave children, most often, in front of tablets, in front of screens, monitors, mobile phones, where children absorb various contents. These contents are often unverifiable or unverified. I extremely appreciate the work of one institution, which is the Children's Cultural Center, and we work closely with them. When they invite me, no matter what it’s about, I am ready to go and help, because such places that bring children together in some creative situations mean a lot, first of all, for their orientation what to do in life, they reveal their talents. Secondly, they are all sports organizations, although it is now quite commercialized and expensive.

How is it manifested? What reached the Office of the Protector of Citizens from situations in which children are left to fend for themselves?

- By changing the law, we insisted on that with the lawmaker, which is the Ministry of State Administration and Local Self-Government, and that is that very young children can come to the institution on their own and complain, so without any assisstance from others, so to speak. It was the case, but at the beginning of my mandate, when a 12-year-old boy came and knocked on the door of the institution, he ran away from home from a place in Vojvodina. I really don't know who gave him our address, but the boy came, it was January and then we tried and it was not easy, to help him in terms of settling in an adequate place and to solve his problem in a way that, first, the child demands by his own problem, that is, that is by what was imposed on him and what was the reason for his ...

It turned out that the situation was really like that...

- It was like that, really. However, children don’t lie. Children absolutely do not lie. For example, there were cases that upset the public a lot and relate to the abuse of children, especially girls. I never insisted on talking to them, but they insisted on talking to me. And then, when in one conversation you hear from the mouths of those children what they all survived, then you ask the question what good does everything else do. Why organize certain segments of the child protection system when something is wrong in those elementary things.

The future? Will we ever attain a society, given all the stories you have told us this morning, where we will respect each other’s human rights?

- The human kind has always had the idea to attain a completely just society, so then it went astray. I repeat, everything is in those three fundamental rights - do not attack anyone's life, health and someone's freedom. When I say freedom, I do not mean only freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, but the ability to organize one’s life in a way that suits their family or them, only him or her, without compromising other people's rights, anyone's rights, and while having functional life. In saying this, I think that someone can make a living from their job, decently and that in the part when they have free time, they really organize it as they want. Not to dedicate all their time to something that consumes his whole life, doing something, trying to achieve something in a completely materialistically organized world, only to finally, when the line is drawn, see that they have been wrong. And then you have something new again, you have a story about human rights again, and that story, I follow it by looking at it not only functionally in the process of work, but historically, comes down to the fact that each generation thinks it has won a right, and only when you look at it historically, you see that some generations long before us, who had much worse living conditions, had much greater rights than we have.

Thank you for being the guest of Radio Belgrade 1 Morning Program . On the International Human Rights Day, our guest was the Protector of Citizens, Zoran Pašalić.