The Protector of Citizens, Zoran Pašalić, in an interview for the Radio Belgrade broadcast - Radio Belgrade 1 Magazine (Magazin na Prvom)

With the epidemics’ outbreak, various problems arose. Since the coronavirus emerged in our country, you have warned that the number of citizens' complaints on different grounds is on the rise. At the outset, what did the citizens mostly complain about?

Exactly. During the state of emergency, the Secretariat, my Deputies and myself worked, I may freely say, sometimes until midnight, since the number of complaints augmented manifold. It is not possible to generalize what was prevalent, the topics were changeable and referred to the problems as they arose and appeared. Our priority was to ensure the return of our citizens from abroad, and how to implement mandatory quarantine upon return - whether at home or in some institutions. Then, as the number of patients increased, we received complaints regarding the protection of rights not only in the area of health care but also the right to communicate with relatives, e.g. if they are not able to have contact due to poor health then the health institutions should provide for the communication so that their relatives are acquainted with their health status. Furthermore, the fact that the citizens’ movement was restricted prevailed in practice. In that respect, certain exceptions needed to be made, primarily beneficiaries of custodial care who were alone during the weekend when there was an absolute ban on movement, then parents who have the right to see their children over the weekend. We have addressed these problems and solved them. Then, employment relations rights, such as the right to work from home for reasons stated under the Government’s Decree. Everything was very intensified then, and after the state of emergency, when the citizens relaxed a bit, we solved citizens’ problems regarding travelling, going abroad, everything that resulted from the state of emergency, not only regarding health care but also regarding the rights guaranteed under the Constitution and the UN Convention on Human Rights.

To solve any of these problems, you had to cooperate with the state authorities, as they are competent for solving the problems you have point out. What was that cooperation like?

Thank you very much for this question. The Protector of Citizens cannot in confrontation with state authorities resolve issues of citizens, both individual and systemic. There must be two-way cooperation. If we request that something be changed, a regulation or a specific decision on certain issues, we can only request it from the administrative authorities. Some of them have been cooperative instantly, it makes no sense to praise only some of them, but indeed there were those where we waited for the cooperation to be established, where disorganization and bad working system delayed the problem resolution. We have always insisted on speediness, not at all costs, but we insisted on being prompt because these are citizens’ issues that needed to be resolved urgently since sometimes their own life and health depended on it, and sometimes the life and health of their loved ones.

Still, please tell us whom you had the most problems with?

There were problems with local self-governments because in some cases they lacked interest to solve local problems, which was often explained by lack of funds and understaffing. However, in a situation such as the epidemic that has caused problems for the entire world not just for us, we have insisted that the last resources an institution or a self-government has, need to be used, since it is no longer a matter of good or bad governance but a matter of, as I highlighted, the lives and health of people.

There were many problems within the competence of the Ministry of Labor, but it seems to me that you cooperated relatively well?

We did cooperate, sometimes well, sometimes not as well. It is not that I defend the Ministry of Labor, that Ministry has practically the largest number of problems related to such situations, along with the Ministry of Health. But, you need to take into consideration the other Ministries that are involved, practically all of them. In some respects, we have only insisted that the Government’s decisions be fully respected, and we also insisted on not delaying individual problem resolution. For example, when people are surprised by a decision and have not organized themselves to solve the problem (visiting relatives, parents who cannot take care of themselves, children) in such situations you need to be flexible, not the Institution of the Protector of Citizens, but they who need to implement it.

So, that, in the end, I hope, resulted in some good practice.

I am speaking about the situation when the epidemic peaked; at least we all thought that it peaked then. What I warned about when the state of emergency ended, participating personally in solving all those problems, is that citizens must not relax. It was often necessary to strike a balance between what rights are being derogated from - whether it encroaches on the domain of fundamental or broader human rights and - what may happen if we all relax, which, unfortunately, we eventually saw.

The coronavirus has not stopped ordinary problems that occur beyond extraordinary circumstances. You were obliged to react at that point as well, so you had to, for instance, indicate to a child negligence case from so to say socially marginalized families that may be one of the most recent examples. A very serious problem, it must not remain under the radar because we currently have the epidemic as the primary topic in the country.

You said it very well, I can understand that the lack of staff and resources can delay solving a problem, but I really cannot and will never understand that a problem that arises within someone's competencies, I refer to social welfare centers (SWCs) here, is not recorded. It happens that we find out from the media, I really thank them for that, about a problem and ask the SWC what exactly has been done to solve the problem, and they are often not familiar with the problem. This is impermissible and that is why we have insisted and will insist that all problems, in a certain area covered by SWC, must be recorded. It is not simple, but it is their role. How the problems can be solved, whether the centers can solve them on their own or the local self-government or the wider community should be engaged, or the citizens who have always responded to help calls should be called upon to help in solving problems, that is another issue. Prompt recording of these problems is needed and necessary.

The recording is just the beginning of problem solving, one cannot start without it?

That is right. When you record a problem then you will definitely try to find the best possible solution. If you are not able to, you address someone who is, and then you solve it.

These days, the latest case is the case of six abandoned children from Alibunar. We often get information from various parts of Serbia that SWCs had no knowledge. This is a systemic problem.

Exactly. Sometimes it happens that citizens look at the problem around them and do not react by reporting it to the competent institution because they do not know where to report it, but also because they are overwhelmed by their own problems. I kept emphasizing: we are available round the clock, our e-mail and emergency numbers are available, and I really urge the citizens, when such a problem is noticed if you think that all other doors and Institutions are closed, to contact us, we will find someone to contact and how to solve the problem.

You raised an important issue - penal policy in the cases of child begging. What is the problem there?

Begging in general is the problem, not only child begging. I worked in the Misdemeanor Court from 2009 to 2017, at which point I was appointed at this post. As a judge, and later as the President of the Misdemeanor Court, the highest court in that field, I insisted on it, and the statistics indicated it, that the one who specifically performs that particular so to say activity called “children working on the street” was always punished. Likewise, the organizers who you can certainly see if you pay attention are absolutely not prosecuted. The data are relevant for Belgrade only that is 1,153 cases of sentencing for begging under the Law on Public Peace and Order. Out of these, only six cases for group begging, and none of the organizers of all this was punished in either misdemeanor or criminal proceeding, although there are provisions that could be used in these cases.

Can we consider that as part of another criminal offence, which is human trafficking?

Yes. I insisted that, when amending the Law on the Protector of Citizens, which the Serbia is committed to under Chapter 23, it should be included that the national coordinator for monitoring the protection of prosecution and defense of citizens, potential human trafficking victims, will be under the competence of the Protector of Citizens. Since trafficking in terms of monitoring this phenomenon has been dealt with by misdemeanor courts since 2003, where I took part, although the bearers of all that were my colleagues who are working in misdemeanor courts today, and that is recognizing victims of human trafficking. Proceedings before misdemeanor courts are generally short and often someone who is not guilty of being in that position will appear. Another thing we insisted on was to change the work order given by the Ministry of Labor so that children up to 14 engaged in begging would be automatically removed from the biological family. Why? Because you have to, it is true that work is harder, more complex, but you have to individualize each case. Sometimes these children are victims, in any case, they are victims of the situation they are in, or of those, who organize the begging and sometimes they come from extremely poor families who really have no other way to eat than that, it is the only possible way. Every other point of view directly affects child rights protection, and as it is known, the Institution of the Protector of Citizens has an entire sector that handles child rights not only in this case but also on child violence cases and all those horrors that happened to our children starting from exploiting them for the purpose of begging to child prostitution, violence against children, forced labor, to the most tragic situations such as murder.

You deal with very difficult topics, that is your job, but also the problems in the society where we live. You mentioned that you have been the Protector of Citizens for three years; the second one in Serbia, the institution is relatively young and new. Are you satisfied with what has been achieved over those three years having in mind that you introduced some novelties like “Doors Open Days” with the citizens?

No. Firstly, the Law on the Protector of Citizens that I found does not meet the practical needs of citizens as it limits largely the Protector of Citizens regarding his operation. Secondly, cooperation with the institutions of the executive is in place but what we insisted on, due to a huge number of complaints regarding the work of the courts, is to be given the opportunity to control the court administration, meaning only the administration not the merits of each case, this is a limitation which restrains us. During the reception of citizens, certainly half of all addresses refer to the length of the procedure, non-execution of court decisions and the right to a fair trial. When you look at the statistics of the court in Strasbourg regarding our citizens’ applications, you will see that the largest number, over 70 percent, are precisely filed for the reasons I stated. Therefore, it is with great will that we approached the drafting of a new Law on the Protector of Citizens, which I hope will soon be publicly discussed. I want the widest possible public debate because we will probably hear what I may have missed, regarding what may be amended in the law, and eventually in the parliamentary procedure, and that we will then be able to work in much more detail. I want us to solve individual problems, and if those individual problems point to some systemic ones, such as e.g. the problem of "protected tenants", but also the owners of the apartments where they dwell. These are two very important problems for the City of Belgrade, you cannot just keep sending the letters to the institutions, but you must practically address the problem. We have solved the problem for one party, and we will solve the problem of the other one, as their interests differ. I singled out this particular example because it usually happens that if you solve a problem of one group, you raise a problem for another one.

Isn’t it the solution that you provide for systemic solutions that are supposed to be applied in general in that branch of the authority?

That is right – to make it the most simple. The Protector of Citizens has to indicate to both systemic omission by the administration and to systemic omission that are long lasting, some of them for years, thus indeed posing great problems to the citizens.

You said that you prepared a Draft of new Law; did you also prepare support for it, since it is eventually a political decision?

I cannot talk about it because I think that if we have pointed out certain problems, if we have received so to speak assurances from the Venice Commission, which gives practically the final word to our laws, as we, like all other European countries, are always under the scrutiny of Venice Commission, these are specific solutions for which everyone will realize that they can only do better, better work of the institution, more flexible possibility of Institution’s response in terms of shorter deadlines and faster reaction, and what is also important to citizens that is transparency, greater visibility of the problem. For example, in that Law, there could be a problem that during annual or periodic reports, the Assembly must hear both sides, which means the report of the Protector of Citizens, but also what is bad or good in that report regarding certain ministries, in certain areas of competencies and where we believe that it should be corrected in the short term or as soon as possible. For example, the Belgrade pollution problem, we insisted that the ministry was obliged to be very clear before the citizens and state: this and that problem arose for this and that reason, that part of that problem can be solved immediately, part in a few years and part for many years. If citizens do not know that and if they receive some partial information, as it happened during the state of emergency, then they are given the opportunity to react in a way that is not beneficial to them by listening to some other information that can often be arbitrary. Therefore, we insist that all this be seen directly in the Assembly when submitting reports and that everyone bears their share of responsibility.