The Protector of Citizens, Mr. Zoran Pašalić, was guest in “Pravi ugao” TV show on Radio Television Vojvodina.
Good afternoon. We’re in “Pravi ugao” on Radio Television Vojvodina. I’m Ljubica Gojgić. Several NGOs stated recently that UN Independent Body might deny the highest A status to the Protector of Citizens in Serbia, that for the first time since the establishment of the independent body they might challenge the quality of meeting international human rights protection standards. The Protector of Citizens, who is a guest in "Pravi ugao", says that the objections are not grounded, and that a better testimony of the work is the number of citizens’ contacts to the Ombudsman over the last year and in 2019. Mr. Zoran Pašalić is in the studio of Radio-Television Vojvodina.
This is about, to make it simple for the viewers, a body that in a way verifies the quality of work of the Protector of Citizens, having in mind international standards when it comes to human rights protection. In a statement that you released when the news appeared, you stated that we, that is, you, still have that highest A status, that the status has not been downgraded for the Institution, but extended the verification period of your work until October 2021. So, what is this about? Do you have the highest status or has it perhaps been called into question?
Let me first say – this as, you read, speaks about the tendentiousness of what has been written, and that is what I don’t want to discuss for a simple reason. GANHRI is an Institution at the level of all world’s countries with similar Ombudsman Institutions, name them Committees, Protector of Citizens, Ombudsmen or otherwise. They award three statuses – A, B and C. A status is granted to most of the European countries, including us. B status, you have seen it yourself, is granted to a Sweden, whereas C status is granted to a Switzerland. And the essence is that this A status is reviewed every five years, not in relation to what you said and how it is written on the quality of human rights or what has already been said there, but in reference to the Paris Principles which include certain activities.
But the Paris Principles, to explain again for viewers who are not so close to it, they’re about verifying how the institution of the Protector of Citizens does its job and how active it is.
The bottom line is this, if I may interrupt you. The crucial thing is in this - the Protector of Citizens is a national institution that is accountable, so to speak, exclusively to the citizens of Serbia, directly or indirectly through the Assembly, which elects the Protector of Citizens and is the only one in this country who can dismiss him from office. I sparked the inception, for now informal, I hope it will be formal, of the Network of Ombudspersons from the Balkan region. Then, I signed, myself, dozens of bilateral agreements, believing that much more important is to keep a very frequent contact with countries that have a similar situation as ours or differ in that they have a very developed, at least declarative, protection of human rights. This is more important to me because I have those contacts all the time. Meetings that take place in these large organizations are once annually or biannually.
The strangest thing for me in all this is that someone won’t give a clear idea of who they are, what the interests and tasks of those organizations are. They bring together these institutions, as I said, which address the protection of human rights, and the essence is that the status and membership, that is, membership, is voluntary; and when it comes to the status itself, trust me, I tell you this now, to me it’s more important what the citizens of Serbia think about me, what attitude they have towards the Institution, than the one that have different citizens’ associations that are colloquially named non-governmental organizations, because there’s no legal-factual status of an NGO, but only citizens’ associations, and there are tens of thousands of them in the Republic of Serbia. Just a second.
Fine, fine, but let’s just break this down, that…
I have maintained good relations with citizens’ associations, not in Belgrade, not with those who have the ambition or believe that they are particularly significant and important, but with all those operating in the Republic of Serbia. So, not only in Belgrade, but everywhere in the Republic of Serbia. In the town of Trstenik for example, there’s a citizen’s association with far better results than those who constantly try to stand out by calling out or criticizing the Protector of Citizens’ work for reasons I don’t know.
This is multilayered. So, let’s first say about the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI).
There’s also European Institution, Global, Mediterranean.
These are your colleagues world-wide. It can be concluded that now you completely don't care if we have, when you say a Sweden has B status, it really is true, as well as Austria, Belgium and Cyprus. Romania and Switzerland have C status. Do you wish that the Protector of Citizens in Serbia retains the A status? That’s the highest one.
I’ll answer like this. I wish that the trust of the citizens of the Republic of Serbia and those who are on the territory of the Republic of Serbia in the Protector of Citizens as an institution to constantly grow, which the results indicate. When asked who they would turn to first, citizens put the institution of the Protector of Citizens in the first place. Three times more than in relation to all individual citizens' associations, which is what is important to us. Then, it is very important for us to have ombudsmen and institutions dealing with the protection of human rights in the region, in the surrounding countries, to have good relations with them.
Ok, and they are part of the Network, as well.
Yes, but someone from Geneva will certainly not solve the problem that emerged, say, at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis or state of emergency, and that is, the travel of our citizens who had to cross the territory of Slovenia and Croatia to enter Serbia, and in both countries they were facing quarantines for e.g. two weeks, and it was a very complicated trip for them. Moreover, we solved it precisely due to good cooperation with the Ombudspersons from the region. Or if, in a country with which we have bilateral agreement, a problem emerges that our citizen is detained/imprisoned, and there is a very dubious or relatively determined legal basis for that, so only through bilateral cooperation do we solve that problem.
Or to be clearer, it is important to me how much trust the citizens of Serbia have in us. We do not operate based on statements since I have been the head of the Institution, based on proclamations, based on some, say, writings about this or that. We handle concrete situations, we address concrete cases, concrete human destinies, on the grounds of proven facts.
The Protector of Citizens is a young Institution in our country. In previous periods, there was also that constant looking up to the world, of countries where that experience is longer lasting. Therefore, I ask you how you explain this situation. This would be the first time.
Well, here’s a situation.
This would be the first time…
You have, Sweden has B status, and Sweden is considered the progenitor of the ombudsman institution. Do you need a bigger explanation? I can now draw you into that story completely, but we would spend the whole program talking about what the A status, B status and C status that these countries now have practically means, although there will no longer be C status.
Do you consider the fact that status A has not been confirmed, but you have to wait until the end of this year, a criticism of your way of working?
No, because I think that when I had, we will call it an interview with GANHRI representatives, I spoke about what is in the interest of the citizens of the Republic of Serbia. I don't care if anyone likes me.
What could they not like?
I absolutely don’t go there. We’ll see in October whether they did or did not like something. However, my goal is not to please anyone. My goal is to fulfill in accordance with the possibilities of the institution and my own, to fulfill realistically, not to issue proclamations, announcements. Mind you, it's easiest for me to sit in the office and issue statements on the day of this, that or to condemn or support. That is not the job of the Protector of Citizens. This has been done in the institution for a long time. The job of the Protector of Citizens, if need be, to go in the mud, to go among people who are in trouble, to go among people who are sick.
Is it correct to conclude that GANHRI's assessment that we should wait before the status is confirmed, which is confirmed once every five years, was preceded by a warning coming from the non-governmental sector in Serbia that, as one of the explanations says, citizens trust the institute of the Protector of Citizens has decreased and that the Protector of Citizens no longer deals with the issue of human rights in the way it has been done?
All right, let's agree with what was written.
Here it is...
I can only say…
YUCOM - Committee of Lawyers for Human Rights…
Let go, let's not bid.
... wrote that over the last five years...
The integrity of the institution was significantly reduced…
Ljubica, let's mention all non-governmental organizations that deal with…
Let's not favor anyone.
Without mentioning the ones that drew attention.
Let's not mention anyone, please.
These are the Belgrade Center for Human Rights...
Let's just mention this…
Let's mention what is essential.
The Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights and A 11 Initiative for economic social…
This is important - that the trust in the Protector of Citizens, which I talked about a moment ago, that these selected associations of citizens participated in that research, and that the Protector of Citizens with the greatest trust is far more than all citizens' associations individually.
Okay, 26 percent, and that may be questionable, Mr. Pašalić. Is that enough? Is that positive?
We are not speaking about 100 per cent, 15 per cent. We are speaking about an abundance of Institutions – including those that can be encompassed within the executive. And then in reference to that – a quarter, over a quarter. And, if you believe that that’s low, I cannot agree with you. Another thing, during the state of emergency, when there was а huge outcry about human rights violations, there was another situation, another independent institution conducts research and says: Who would you turn to first? And everyone says - the Protector of Citizens. That's what I’m interested in.
Then how did this conflict come up?
There’s no conflict.
You should be on the same task.
We can’t be on the same…
Belgrade Center for Human Rights is a renowned non-governmental organization...
No, please, come on. Who gave them the reputation? You, these people recording this? Who?
Citizens as well.
But how, when did they give it, they have 8 percent, as you said, and we have 26 percent, and they exist longer. You know what the point is? The point is that we are held accountable, and citizens' associations aren’t accountable to anyone.
But, you let them voice…
Wait, please allow me
Everyone can speak up.
And about the work of the Protector of Citizens.
To the media.
Everyone may say everything. I have always supported that. So, it’s not the problem in speaking up. I even like criticism myself. But it has to be informed criticism. You can’t just be saying something that is not true.
Fine, so let’s be specific. From the decision’s rationale…
Or something is not true. But you have to substantiate it with evidence, right?
From the decision’s rationale to put on hold the status reassignment, verification of the status, they say that it reads like this...
It’s not put on hold, please. And that is wrong. I was there, I was talking to these people from GANHRI.
That the status issue will be resolved in October.
No, but deferred.
The first day was postponed due to technical problems that these people had where they organized. The second day went the same with technical disturbance. So we then extended that time indefinitely. You have it recorded. The representatives of those citizens' associations watched it. And then it was deferred to October.
So, you don’t think that it is a matter of criticism, substance, but a technical issue.
Let me tell you, I repeat once again, I'm tired of it, but since it's you, I'll repeat. The only judgement I’m interested in is the judgement of the citizens of the Republic of Serbia, and nothing else.
Let me please read just this. From the GANHRI’s explanation, delays in resolving citizens’ complaints and a significant backlog in the number of complaints received since 2017 may indicate reduced citizens' trust in the work of the institution. Second thing, lack of activities of the Protector of Citizens related to the protection of…
Let me answer the first point. You see, since I have been heading the Institution, we stopped doing things following an old principle – receiving everyone’s complaints, handling it and after three months or some time, informing him/her that it’s not within your competence. Or that he/she hasn’t already exhausted all legal remedies, which is mandatory according to the applicable Law. That person is being informed that the complaint can’t be handled. Or, that the deadline came out or that legal means weren’t exhausted, or that it is about those that the Protector of Citizens is not mandated to control, you know that, let’s not enumerate. So, in this way, you reduce the number of complaints in the handling process, but you have a higher number of complaints. Secondly, what I have established is immediate contact with the citizens. Immediate means that you go on field, talk to people, you hear their problems. I don’t operate with numbers, I operate with results.
However, you gave the information that there were, that the number of complaints surged.
I had to. You know why? Because it is obligation of the Protector of Citizens as the Institution to inform yearly the Assembly that appoints him.
OK, are there more or fewer complaints?
Well, how can it be fewer? Here, take, compare the numbers.
Yeah, that’s what I’m asking you. In the report that you presented to the Assembly, you said that the number of complaints is on the rise?
Not that it is on the rise, but we had so many unfortunately, it’s due to the epidemic in 2020. There have never been so many contacts, which speaks about the fact that the citizens of Serbia have chosen us to turn to when in challenging times.
Lack of activities of the Protector of Citizens regarding economic, social and cultural rights, and regarding the protection of economic, social, cultural rights, and fable response of institutions to the recommendations you issue in that area.
The weaker response of institutions to recommendations in this area is incalculable. That has remained the one constant. So, we do not have the recourse to force someone to act. What has been done before, what I do not do, and that is to simply thank the institutions for taking it into consideration at all. We now use another Article of the law, which stipulates that in case they do not act, we use what the law gives to us, we will ask for the officer’s dismissal from duty. That was not written before. Now, the thing is that this, which speaks of economic and social problems, is our focus on economic and social problems.
The most complaints of that type…
Most of all, not only that there are the most addresses about it, but all the problems or most of the problems of the citizens of the Republic of Serbia are basically socio-economic in nature.
Are you afraid, that's the question?
Of what or whom?
Since you were appointed, do you shy away from one or another political group? Do you shy away from the authorities? Do you consciously not enter into cases where you would come into conflict with the representatives of the ruling party and the ruling coalition? On the other hand, you were called out in the parliament when you presented the report, that you follow with insufficient attention the statements of the opposition and them attacking on the President, the Prime Minister, and MPs. So, that is a question raised in your case even more than in the case of your predecessor. Do you make political calculations?
Firstly, it has never been a problem for me if someone disliked me if I can defend what I claim, and that is that what I said is supported by evidence. And because of that, we have attacks from both, from the third and from the fourth. You mentioned two sides. I can list ten more sides that attack the institution and me personally. But trust me, I have no problem nor do I shy away from anyone if what I say either orally or through a recommendation is based on law and supported by proven facts. I avoid, and I will never do that while I am in office, to give arbitrary statements or assessments, purely to make someone to like me, either one or the other or a third or fourth party, that something difficult to verify or something not fully proven.
How will this unwholesome state of affairs be resolved now between the Protector of Citizens and part of the non-governmental sector, if you say that they are incompetent and malicious?
I didn’t say it.
If GANHRI says…
No, I didn’t say that they…
... that cooperation with the civil sector is even your obligation.
So you see, if someone tells you to hang out or spend time with someone, does that oblige you? If you have another circle of people, with whom you are more comfortable, or you cooperate better or you cooperate better or you think that these people are, let's say according to some of your criteria, better educated. With non-governmental organizations, as you called them, and I repeat, these are citizens’ associations and there’s a large number of them in the Republic of Serbia. I really don't want to favor anyone.
You won't choose those closer to you?
I will select, I will chose as per the one who knows how to do his job better, who is more diligent, who is more thorough.
Do YUCOM, Crta and Belgrade Center…
It’s absolutely not important.
… know how to do their job?
Leave it to those who will think about it. And these are the ones who will give them certain projects believing that they are doing better than others. But then I ask you a question. There’s no monopoly in Serbia. Outside Belgrade, there are plenty of associations, as you call them NGOs, which work extremely well, but which cannot reach what the existence of such associations is based on. And those are projects. Why would I insist on someone from Belgrade, when in Novi Sad, Niš or in smaller places, Čačak, Kragujevac or in some much smaller place there are also citizens’ associations that do something very diligently and thoroughly. Now, because it might be understood pejoratively, I won’t name and compare with those with whom we cooperate and are absolutely unknown to the public. If someone thinks highly of himself, and thinks he is important, that’s his right and I don’t go into that. But...
Then it's more, more than what anyone thinks.
When you say YUCOM, Crta, Belgrade Center for Human Rights, those organizations mean something to this public and this society.
If I were to mention the Association of Young Enthusiasts from Kragujevac 500 times now, out of great respect, if I repeated it 5,000 times, you would remember that name. Right?
I‘d probably remember both the name and some of the activities.
Yeah, both the name and the activities, that’s right.
Well, let's give a few, Mr. Pašalić, if you agree just a few examples.
Or the Association of Gardeners from Temerin that has very serious activities. Don't take that this is pejorative. I trulz appreciate those associations.
From the point of view of human rights protection.
From the standpoint of what they do. You see, I can proclaim the protection of human rights. Give me something specific. Give me.
Let’s be specific.
What someone did.
This interpretation appeared. The Protector of Citizens rejected the initiative of a non-governmental organization to discuss and address the issue of high mortality rate among doctors and medical staff in Serbia during the Covid.
Well-said, Ljubica. Thank you for this. Be careful, read again what you said. High doctor mortality rate. There are so-called captivating, suggestive questions. You’re suggesting to me that there is a high mortality rate among doctors.
Wait, the question is suggestive. So read it again.
Is it 77, that’s what the doctors say, Mr. Pašalić, is it 77?
No, the doctors didn't tell us that. No, the doctors told us…
Yes, that's what the doctors said.
Let me finish, please. If the doctors had told us that, we would have done the same as anyone. And that is, we would instruct what the basic law states, and I will not violate the law.
Yes, but you could see it in the media.
May I just finish, please?
So, you’re addressing the first institution that’s the first relevant to give you the information. It is known who it is. Ministry of Health, right, or Batut.
In case they don’t give you that information because of the most usual, as it were, work that the institution of the Protector of Citizens performs, and that is the administrative silence, you are contacting us. So we are instructing that citizens’ association of to follow the path specified in the law.
So you didn’t reject, but… Ok.
You see, you know what, they are the first ones who should be familiar with the terms. You can’t just be saying anything, I mean if you handle.
Here, I’ve got to explain.
You didn’t reject.
But you instructed.
Please. I have to clarify this. They use the term, say, "ex-officio" official duty. Everyone educated knows that duty implies something that must be done, the so-called imperative norm. That does not exist in the law. The law states that the Protector acts on complaints and on his own initiative.
Maybe that’s what they had in mind - own initiative.
Well, you can't mean it. Either you will express yourself properly or we will treat you like someone who doesn’t know how to do their job.
Is there, do you find beyond that request, do you find something that could be a topic for the Protector of Citizens in that story?
I’ll tell you instantly.
A large number of almost 80 doctors...
Firstly, there are two data. Please.
… because you dealt with another topic and that is the death toll. And that's where you were looking for…
Firstly, I don't like playing guesses with the number of the dead. Secondly, it's something I can't get over, every life is important. Be it one life or 70, 2, 3, 4, according to the report given by the Chamber of Doctors, Pharmacists and Dentists, that is, the Union, sorry. But you also have the Medical Chamber, which provided other information, 45 deaths. Then you have the Union of Nurses and Technicians set the data on 32 deceased nurses.
Is that an issue that needs to be clarified?
Well, all that should be. These are all people who worked in healthcare and who passed away. What they died of cannot be speculated upon. To do it would be, if not unserious, then distasteful. Because that's where the equivalent is put in the environment. With data that are totally incorrect. And why are they incorrect? This is someone who has contacts with the ombudsmen of those countries speaking and who, not daily but monthly, goes through the problems that they have, including those that we have.
I wanted to ask you… You announced several scoops. One is, for example, that the deadline for the Tax Administration has just expired.
No, the deadline for the Tax Administration is to expire if we are speaking about freelancers.
For them to submit to you the data on the investigations initiated in relation to the so-called freelancers. Were they informed on time what their liabilities were? Can they charge taxes for five years, for previous five years? Under what conditions? And what happened there that spurred the protest of the citizens?
The absolute statute of limitations expires after 10 years. So, 5 years is some sort of prospective deadline, and I wouldn’t go there now. The point is this. Whether the taxpayers under the so-called income tax, who are obliged to report income on their own were on time, and in a specific way, because they are gentlemen the tax payers, I live off them, and all those who work in the public sector and who get paid from the budget live off them. Was everything done to inform them on time on their liabilities? Only then, can we speak about their obligations if they really exist.
Because if they failed?
And only then, just a moment, then about what their liabilities are. How is the interest calculated for them? Is it calculated fairly? And then, on that occasion, we speak about the share of the tax, for which the statute of limitations expired, which is irrecoverable. That's right, that simple question should be raised. Because, in order for someone to be motivated to pay taxes, then the tax rules must apply to everyone in the same way. I mentioned that when we talked about the cases of these, I'll call them, schools, that's how they're called. Supervise them, don’t check just one group but check all, and we in turn will check how you control, whether you controlled in a way that is proper. We expect the response on Friday, and a meeting on Monday. As soon as we receive the response statement from the Tax Administration, we will start checking everything that I have told you.
Serbia MOI was obliged; the deadline has expired these days to submit a report to you on how the MOI officers treated the people who protested in July 2020. The deadline has expired, and as you told me, the recommendation is now done. What will be in the recommendation?
Not for everyone. The recommendation is completed, where we have absolute evidence, like footage where you can see the excessive use of force, MOI members so, police, gendarmerie, who have used excessive force. So, identification.
What’s going to be recommendation there?
The point is in this, identifying the persons who have used excessive force. One, ten, a hundred police officers, it’s practically meaningless unless we ascertain the names of those persons. The part that will be investigated for some more time is where you have no footage, where you have no material evidence, where you have the word of the one on whom excessive force was applied or he/she deems that excessive force was applied, and the one who applied the force.
And what’s the Recommendation? Sanctioning, suspensions of police officers who…
Not a chance that it’s going to be just that, there’s where comes the most important part. There’s nothing substantial in just sanctioning someone. Instead, you have to create conditions for that not to happen. So it is clear when you have footage that you can have a clear identification of who is doing what on that footage.
And a final question. What will happen, what is the fate of Mr. Đorđe Joksimović, the father of three children, three daughters, who served as the inspiration for the film, and who claims that the state took away his children?
No, he doesn't claim that, please don't. It has been misused so many times that he…
Right, who the children were taken from and given to foster parents. It was conceived in the public…
And why do you use the term taken? No one kidnapped or took the children. In simple words, the Social Welfare Center considered….
Children aren’t with him.
The children are definitely not with him. They are in a foster family. And Mr. Joksimović Đorđe…
…has come to beg you to help him get his children back.
No, he didn’t come to beg me, I invited him. No one’s begging me. He came to the meeting to acquaint me with all the facts that he considered relevant.
Because he wants the children back.
That’s right. On the other hand, there’s the Social Welfare Center Report that came through.
You got it.
On the third part.
That's right, the report of the Ministry that we received the second day after we requested it.
What can you do?
What I did today, and here, it is a sort of scoop for you, I talked to Mr. Jokismović. These days, I will see his lawyer, who will bring me what he has regarding the necessary documentation, but what is basic, and what I asked him, and that is that he should initiate the procedure for the restoration of parental rights. I cannot return the children to him, or you, or anyone, only the Court, not even Social Welfare Center, and in that procedure to determine whether he meets the requirements. And for his part, the Protector of Citizens will do what he needs to do. We will not roll the papers over, so to speak so colloquially, and release a statement and say: Here, the Protector solved the problem in half an hour. Bravo to the Protector of Citizens. We will address the problem very diligently.
Did Social Welfare Center…?
Please let me finish.
… work properly?
Excuse me, I told Mr. Đorđe, looking him in the eye just as I look at you, what we make as a conclusion and as a recommendation, we can defend in court. Whether you will be satisfied or dissatisfied, I cannot prejudge until I have an insight into everything. But certainly, we won’t permit that the children be in a family other than yours due to somebody’s mistake as you said, someone's mistake, intention, abuse.
Thank you for being guest in “Pravi ugao”.