The Protector of Citizens, Zoran Pašalić, was a guest on the morning program of the Radio Television of Serbia.
Is every compliment sexual harassment? When is the line of what is acceptable crossed and becomes a nuisance? If you ask the search engine Google, the first five texts offered are about sexual harassment of children at the universities, at school, Petnica. It is devastating, no matter where it happens, it leaves us speechless when it happens in educational and scientific institutions. What's wrong? Zoran Pašalić, the Protector of Citizens, is our guest. Good morning... Due to the sexual harassment of a student at the Faculty of Architecture, you launched an investigation at the beginning of June. How far have you come with that?
- The investigation has been completed in terms of what we determined not only at the Faculty of Architecture, but at many faculties, that is, universities in the Republic of Serbia, which is that it was necessary to draft rulebooks and appoint commissioners who would deal with this topic. In many faculties, they were not written or commissioners were not appointed, so they are busy working on it. We gave recommendations on what it should look like, what the content should be and what kind of training the commissioners should have because it is an extremely sensitive topic.
What else have you established?
- We established what I just said – that the subject was not dealt with in the way it needed to be dealt with because of the sensitivity of the topic itself. In this, relatively new, so to say, criminal offense of sexual harassment, introduced in 2017, in Article 182a, in addition to the penal provisions, you also have a definition of what can be considered sexual harassment. It says that any verbal, non-verbal, physical action, i.e., some gesture which violates dignity in the area of sexual life and which creates an environment of fear, hostility, insult or humiliation can be considered sexual harassment. You saw that there is a lot of subjectivity in all that. And when you have subjective elements in a criminal act, then the procedure of proving something is very difficult, and therefore, the judicial practice is very modest. Admittedly, it is not modest only here, where this crime was introduced in 2017, but also in countries where it exists as a criminal offense since much earlier. Courts are in a dilemma, because as soon as you have a subjective element, then you also have to interpret some things in one way or another.
Let's go back to the Faculty of Architecture. What have they done since then and what have you done?
- This is the procedure. When someone experiences sexual harassment, they turn to the commissioner, the commissioner conducts the procedure. According to us, that procedure, conducted according to the rulebook, has certain shortcomings which we asked to be changed, namely – to prevent secondary victimization between the victim and the possible perpetrator. The procedure must be much more subtle, so to speak, that is, the commissioner himself must have much more knowledge in that area because secondary victimization can occur, that is, the victim may be exposed again to everything he/she has been through. All this was not done in the way we think it should be done, but it is certain that not only the Faculty of Architecture, but all faculties, i.e., universities, will arrange things in the right way.
Has any faculty solved this in a better way or is it generally a problem of all our faculties?
- This is a problem not only of the faculty, but of all those institutions where it can happen. And not only of the institutions. Let me tell you, for example, that on social networks, every tenth address can be considered, according to the definition I have given, sexual harassment.
Unfortunately, what we are talking about happens not only in colleges but also in schools, and we were amazed by the stories from the acting school and from Petnica. Children talk about this only when they grow up. Should there be warnings that something like this can happen while they are still small?
- It's absolutely the way. First, the most difficult thing is to define it – which is really very difficult and that's why I say it's a sensitive topic... What can be considered sexual harassment? To what extent? What are the limits? Who will determine them? For someone, a hug is not sexual harassment, for someone, again, a kind of look, a sentence or a word can be considered, according to his/her subjective feeling, sexual harassment. That is why it is necessary to educate children from the very beginning about what that is and in what direction it is moving and how they will recognize it.
Maybe someone will say that this problem is insignificant, but for the person to whom it happens, life really turns to hell, especially if it happens at work by the boss or at a university by the professor.
- You are absolutely right. Mind you, it is the situation where someone is put in a state of fear, just as the article of the law states, in a state of discomfort, in a state of constantly being insulted or humiliated, in an environment, regardless of whether it is a faculty, a school or any other place, where they really constantly feel uncomfortable or fearful or worse.
Zero tolerance on this topic.
- Zero tolerance, yes, but as I said at the beginning, it's a sensitive topic and we have to deal with it in great detail, in my somewhat subjective opinion, maybe even amend that article to make it clearer.
You talk to citizens every day, you have about 30 conversations a day, and I believe that the problems...
- I don't, but I'm constantly at work. Thank you for the compliment.
And I believe that every story is special, but can it be said in general in which areas the problems are the biggest?
- Property-legal and social problems are the biggest. This is what may not always be in the focus of the public, except when, for example, some very complicated phenomena or situations occur, such as the one with the tenants in Mirijevo, but this is the essence and it is in the core of our actions and activities.
What other problems are there? Let's define some specific case.
- These are problems related to property, to rights from social insurance, pension insurance, when citizens exercise some rights on which, to put it simply, their life and existence depend.
When will we talk about the individual responsibility of each employee who is entrusted with public powers and does not solve problems?
- We talk about it, because there is always a specific person behind a problem, and the contents of the recommendations refer to a specific person. Sometimes it is established who that specific person is, or we are referring to an authority that should deal with it, but the point is precisely to determine who made a mistake, i.e., who made an oversight, who did not do what he/she had to do according to the law and the rules of the job he/she performs.
And in accordance with that topic, but also with the criminal act of sexual abuse, what would your position be?
- Let me correct you – sexual harassment. Let's not make that mistake. We have to define it exactly. Say it.
Your advice, recommendation in general to our viewers and citizens, let's tell them that your doors are open and that they can contact you.
- They can always turn to the Protector of Citizens, but also, within those institutions where rulebooks must be adopted and a commissioner established, we must insist that it is really done in an adequate way, that is, that this person can provide them with help. Whether it will go in the direction of disciplinary proceedings, which will be conducted by the faculty administration, or in the direction of a criminal offense, that is now a question of the specific act, that is, the specific action and specific circumstances.
And since sexual harassment was introduced as a crime, what does it actually mean? Have women been encouraged to report, and not just exclusively women, and what does that mean for our society? Or are we just talking about it more now?
- If we are talking about something more, then that phenomenon is noticed more and therefore more attention is paid to it, so such situations can be solved much better. It has existed since 1970 in America, when for the first time someone talked about the fact that it should be introduced as a criminal offense, which, as you said, and thank you for it, does not apply only to women, but to all genders.
Thank you... Zoran Pašalić, the Protector of Citizens, was our guest this morning.