07 Oct Operating Environment for Civil Society in the Progress Report
Belgrade, October 7, 2020-
The Annual progress report of the European Commision for Serbia was presented in Brussels yesterday. In the chapter concerning the political criteria and rule of law, the Report also includes a section on the operating environment for civil society and cooperation between the civil and public sectors in conducting reforms as well as the process of European integration. The Commission noted that, although some steps have been initiated in terms of issuing guidelines and planning consultations, there is still a need for further efforts to ensure systematic cooperation between the government and civil society. Also, it was concluded that the situation on the ground is such that an enabling environment for the development and financing of civil society has not yet been established.
In the Report, the European Commission recognized the continued commitment of CSOs and human rights defenders to raising awareness of civil and political rights, and drew attention to the political pressures they face in their work, especially in the period immediately preceding the parliamentary elections. This pressure is reflected in negative statements made by government representatives, regarding civil society as a whole, as well the financing of individual associations, which are then repeated by the tabloid media. Furthermore, the Report highlights a case from July of this year, when a list of 57 organizations and individuals from the media and civil society, who had been subject to a risk assessment by the Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering (APML), was leaked to the public. In the Report, the Commission warned that it is necessary to establish the legal basis for this assessment, and whether the actions of the APML in this case are in compliance with the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). This case, as well as the need to review the actions of the APML, have been repeatedly pointed out in the Report, both in relation to Chapter 24 – Justice, Freedom and Security, and in the part concerning Chapter 4 – Free Movement of Capital.
As a positive step, the Report cited the new guidelines on the inclusion of CSOs in working groups for drafting regulations and public policies, which were adopted in January of this year. However, CSOs still report that the time given for public consultations was still too short, and that their comments on draft laws were not given sufficient consideration and follow-up. It was also noted that a national strategy and action plan to help create a positive environment for CSOs have still not been adopted. Furthermore, a council for civil society cooperation has yet to be set up, which are all problems listed as such in last year’s report.
Provided below is the full text of the section of the Report concerning civil society:
While some steps were initiated in terms of issuing guidelines and planning of consultations, further efforts are still needed to ensure systematic cooperation between the government and civil society. An enabling environment for the development and financing of civil society still needs to be established on the ground.
An empowered civil society is a crucial component of any democratic system and should be recognised and treated as such by state institutions. CSOs and human rights defenders continued to raise awareness about civil and political rights. This takes place in an increasingly polarised environment that is not open to criticism, with the authorities making negative statements, echoed by some media, about CSOs in general and on the funding of certain associations in particular. These statements are made, for example, in the context of smear campaigns or in parliamentary debates. Organisations and individuals that criticise the authorities in developments related to the rule of law are under particular pressure. Harsh criticism against human rights defenders has continued in tabloid newspapers and intensified in the period preceding the parliamentary elections. In July 2020, a list containing the names of CSOs and media reportedly subject to a risk assessment by the Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering (APML) was leaked to the public. The applicable legal basis for the APML’s actions, and the compliance of the APML with the recommendations of the FATF will need to be clarified (See Chapter 4 – Free Movement of Capital and Chapter 24 – Justice, Freedom and Security).).
A national strategy and action plan to help create a positive environment for CSOs have still not been adopted. A council for civil society cooperation has yet to be set up.
The National Convention on the EU (composed of representatives of governmental bodies, political parties, non-governmental organisations, experts, trade unions, private sector organisations and representatives of professional organisations), whose goal is to contribute to a structured debate on Serbia’s accession to the EU, has continued to monitor and assess the progress of accession negotiations. The authorities should use its expertise more systematically, in order to benefit from the full potential of the Convention and its working groups.
In January 2020, the government adopted guidelines on the inclusion of CSOs in working groups for drafting regulations and public policies. The government’s office for cooperation with civil society created a database of ‘CSO focal points’ in public institutions and local selfgovernments. The use of the urgent procedure for adopting laws was reduced, potentially allowing for more time for consultations in the law-making process. However, a number of CSOs have reported that the time given for public consultations was still too short, or that their comments on draft laws were not given sufficient consideration and follow-up.
For the first time, all public administration bodies were obliged in 2019 to submit an annual plan as regards public calls for financing CSOs to the office for cooperation with civil society, which then published an e-calendar of public calls. The implementation in practice of such annual plans needs to be monitored. The criteria for public financial support for CSOs need to be better defined and implemented to ensure overall transparency, especially at local level. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and reallocation of funds under the state of emergency, several grant procedures for CSOs, at state and local level, have been suspended.