Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia
Established in 1994, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia began its mission at the time nationalism had not only culminated in disastrous wars, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and genocide in the territory of Yugoslavia, but also in massive human rights violations in Serbia proper. Ever since and through hundreds of projects the Committee has been trying to expose Serbia’s prevalent ideology – nationalism – and, inasmuch as possible, alleviate its fatal effects on the entire scope of human rights, the country’s economy, the rule of law, regional and global relations and international standing, but, above all, on younger generations and attitude towards modernity and demands of the modern time, vs. deep-rooted patriarchalism, gender bias, etc.
Refugees and minorities – ethnic, religious, political – were the first targets of Serbian nationalism in action. The Committee was the first NGO to stand up for thousands and thousands of refugees who turned to the organization, and did all in its power to ensure their civil rights and safe return to their hometowns. The organization was also a pioneer among NGOs to monitor and report on the situation of other vulnerable groups such as national minorities (exploring the situation of some 30 minority communities), prisoners – especially confined women victims of family abuse and inmates of reformatories - psychiatric patients, institutionalized persons with disabilities, children in the first place.
What also singles out the Committee are: publishing wherein it ranges among the most productive NGO publishers (over 160 books so far, including comprehensive annual reports on the entire scope of human rights exercise, and its once renowned magazine The Helsinki Charter); ongoing education outreach programs for the young, including regional schools of human rights, seeking to cope with nationalistic prejudice and the culture of violence, and build the practically non-existent culture of memory; regional reconciliation and cooperation, mostly in partnership with like-minded NGOs and institutes from abroad; and, regular bilingual e-zines, Helsinki Bulletins, dissecting ongoing trends in Serbia and the region, and providing prognoses.
Presently, the Committee is mostly preoccupied with revisionism (historical), regional normalization with focus on Serbia-Kosovo relations, and the global phenomenon of radicalization and violent extremism.
As of 2019 the Committee will be working on a diversified three-year follow-up of its history project, the first part and a break-the-ice project “YU-Historia: A Multi-Perspective historical account, finalized in 2017 and now implemented under the title “Legacy of Yugoslavia and the Future of the Region.” In tandem with over 50 authorities from all the countries emerging from Yugoslavia, the project has thrown light on seven decades of a life together from all perspectives: Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, Slovenian, Serbian, Kosovo-Albanian and that of residents of Vojvodina. In brief, its “tangible” products were two over 500-page volumes “Yugoslavia from a Historical Perspective” (in English and in B/C/S) and a bilingual portal offering by far more multi-perspective and topic-specific studies than the book itself (available at www.yuhistorija.com). Although some 10,200 people on average have been visiting the portal on daily basis and edition in English has been recommended to international scholars and stakeholders at the www.academia.edu website as a fact-based, “temperate and sober” dissection of too many controversial issues standing the way of regional normalization, the Committee is fully aware that, all said and done, the project has just touched the tip of the iceberg of one-sided, mostly mythologized and truth-evasive narratives of mainstream historiographies in the post-Yugoslav region on which younger generations are being raised. This is why it now focuses younger intellectuals and university students – answer-seeking generations with blurred knowledge of Yugoslavia or no knowledge at all: national educational systems have not equipped them with factual explanations of Yugoslavia’s historical emergence and reasons behind its disintegration, given that “new” policy-makers are doing their best to distance their countries from the Second Yugoslavia and distort its realities, while picturing the First, at their own discretion, in extremes. Among other things, it includes summer schools (master classes), debates at all ex-Yugoslav university centers and yet another two volumes of the history of Yugoslavia, plus the portal.
The Committee has begun working on Serbia-Kosovo dialogue even before the breakout of the 1999 war, and was the first NGO to organize a conference that assembled intellectuals from both sides. Such activism was resumed after the ouster of Milosevic in 2000, and intensified since Kosovo’s independence declaration. For instance, the Committee was campaigning for Kosovo Serbs’ participation in the first local elections in Kosovo, visited tens and tens of Serb-populated communities and enclaves, and encouraging ethnic Serbs to take the reins of their future in their hands – an act preconditioned by their socioeconomic integration into Kosovo society rather than by official Belgrade’s political games, diplomatic manipulation and lip service. Presently, the organization has been working along two strategic lines: touring Kosovo, organizing meetings, interviewing Kosovo Serbs and Kosovo Albanians, and publishing relevant reports with recommendations, the recent one being titled “Kosovo Serbs: A Frozen Life in A Frozen Conflict;” continuing along the lines of its first “Kosovo-Serbia Cultural Ice-Breakers” project that brings together – in Kosovo and Serbia alike – young intellectuals and artists (painters, filmmakers, musicians, etc.) from both sides in joint performances, exhibitions, etc.
Leaning on its longstanding experience in Sandzak – Serbia’s region that remained among the most underdeveloped and economically devastated areas, the Muslim/Bosniak-majority community burdened by painful experience of ethnically motivated violence of the 1990s – the Committee is now implementing activities against all forms of radicalization and extremism that focus on the Sandzak youth and their educators and families; the former - that make the highest percentage of the unemployed, have been raised in a generally conservative and gender-biased environments and are under strong influence of their families, family friends and close neighborhoods; this, plus the legacy of the ‘90s created the room to radical groups to recruit both Muslim and Orthodox youth for foreign battlegrounds. Generally speaking, the project seeks to sensitize the local community about radicalization leading to violent extremism, strengthen youth self-confidence and critical thinking, and harness their creative energy for value-based promotion of ethnic and religious tolerance, and empower parents and educators in three municipalities of the region to understand and cope with the phenomenon of youth radicalization, recognize its drivers and early signs, and provide proper response through holistic and pragmatic multi-sectorial approaches.