Human rights in Macedonia

(Updated in October 2012)

In last four years, Macedonia has shown little progress towards meeting EU criteria as regards strengthening the rule of law and respect for human rights, and the country still has not met the necessary requirements for EU membership. The political sphere and developments there were marked by weak dialogue between political parties and boycott by the opposition. In 2011, the opposition accused the Prime Minister of failing to deliver economic growth, stalling EU and NATO integration and threatening media freedoms.

After a long dialogue between ruling party and opposition, early elections were held on 5 June 2011. Overall, the elections were a positive step forward and were completed in a peaceful manner with a high turnout. However, election monitors expressed concerns over allegations of irregularities, inaccuracy of voting lists and procedural misconduct. On the eve of the elections, a young boy was beaten to death during election celebrations by a member of the Special Police Unit. This tragic event mobilised the public in peaceful protests that lasted two weeks, during which citizens demanded the resignation of the Minister of the Interior and accountability for police brutality.

Two principal issues continue to erode Macedonia’s political scene. The unresolved name issue with Greece and the failure to enable further participation of the Albanian minority into society, thereby meeting the conditions of the Ohrid Framework Agreement. The government has done little to strengthen democratic principles and very little progress has been noted in strengthening the institutions that work to promote human and minority rights. Instead, the Macedonian Government has continued to push a nationalistic agenda based on the unsolved name dispute with Greece, and to spend huge budgetary funds to erect new statues and monuments.

Violence between Albanians and Macedonians
At the beginning of 2012, the already fragile inter-ethnic relationship further deteriorated with a series of violent incidents between Albanians and Macedonians . Gangs of mainly young people attacked people on commuter buses and on the streets in the capital and in other towns, leaving at least 40 injured. The police have apprehended about 30 suspects. Although the Government responded immediately in order to bring the perpetrators to justice and calm the situation, the tensions between the two communities are still high.

Macedonia was granted visa liberalisation by the European Union in January 2010. A strong political will from the EU and its member states was shown when taking the decision, but Macedonia was also able to show that it had met the criteria for visa liberalisation. Since then, there have been a large number of people, mostly from the Roma community, leaving Macedonia to seek asylum in EU member states. Strengthening the rule of law and freedom of speech were the first issues on the table as Brussels and Macedonia started the first round of “high-level” dialogue in March 2012. The dialogue is intended to boost the reform process in the country and complement – but not replace – future EU accession negotiations.

According to the Freedom House Civil Liberty Index for the period 2008-2011, Macedonia is considered Partly Free, scoring 3 for both political and civil rights. Civil and political rights are to a large extent respected, but not at a satisfactory level, and there are big problems in particular with the judiciary and freedom of the press. A slight improvement in the perception of corruption can be seen since 2008. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index shows a slight rise between 2008 (72nd place, with a score of 2.6) and 2010, when Macedonia was at 62nd place with a score of 4.2. However, in 2011 there was a slight fall to 69th place, with a score of 3.9. Although there has been a slight improvement in anti-corruption legislation framework, the implementation of the legislation remains inadequate and corruption is prevalent in many key areas. In March 2012, Transparency Macedonia published their annual report, stating that Macedonians are paying up to a billion Euros in bribes each year. By way of comparison, this is almost half the revenue of the national budget for 2011, which amounted to 2.3 billion euros. According to this report, institutions such as the Public Prosecutor, the State Audit Office and the State Anti-Corruption Commission are not doing enough to combat such practices.

Judicial reform in Macedonia shows little progress in ensuring the effectiveness and independence of the judicial institutions and proper access to justice for Macedonian citizens. The Judicial Council, the body that selects and disciplines judges and prosecutors, was established in 2007, but the Parliament did not appoint any Council members until mid-2008. Concerns were raised about political influences on the Council and the adoption of the laws regarding the judiciary went very slowly. This process was marked by many delays – for instance, the Law on Criminal Procedure, which was adopted in 2010, will only enter into force in 2012. The monitoring of judicial procedures and trials has revealed problems as regards the length of trials. By 2011, the ECtHR had brought 49 judgements finding Macedonia had violated the length of procedure and committed 19 violations of other rights to a fair trial. At the end of 2011, there were 1.020 cases pending related to Macedonia before the ECtHR.

Lack of transparency in the legislative process
The adoption of the key legislation was usually achieved without transparency, and in many cases it was politicized. Numerous vital laws were adopted without an opposition vote (Electoral Code, Law on Anti-Discrimination, Law on Lustration). Another example of the lack of transparency was the extremely speedy adoption of over 200 laws and amendments just after the elections in 2008, all by emergency procedure, without public debate and in the absence of opposition Members of Parliament. The Constitutional Court concluded in 2009 on a number of occasions that several new laws that had been adopted were unconstitutional. The majority of laws are being implemented very slowly and inefficiently.

The political influence on law adoption can be illustrated with the Law on Anti-Discrimination. In November 2009, the government proposed a draft law where sexual orientation and gender identity were included as grounds of discrimination to be covered by the law. It was a sign of political will, which was welcomed by the international community. However, after visa-liberalisation had been granted, in early 2010 the government submitted a new draft where reference to these grounds for discrimination had been removed. The new draft was adopted, despite heavy criticism by national and international organisations.

An effective national legal aid system, necessary for enabling proper access to justice for vulnerable groups and people in need, is not functioning properly. The Law on Free Legal Aid that entered into force in 2010 prescribes that a wide range of groups can benefit from state legal aid. According to the law, NGOs can provide legal aid, but need to re-register and amend their statutes. However, it is not clear whether there will be any funds available for this purpose nor how these free legal aid providers will be selected.

The situation in detention centres and prisons still remains a matter of concern, since conditions do not meet international standards. Problems with separation of prisoners, lengthy pre-trial detentions and overcrowding, as well as poor conditions of hygiene, are repeatedly reported. The monitoring report on Mental Health Facilities, published in 2010 by our partner the Macedonian Helsinki Committee, reveals very bad conditions in these facilities. Legislation in Macedonia prohibits any use of torture or excessive force by state police. In its report published in January 2012, the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Committee expressed concern over conditions in the country’s largest prison at Idrizovo near Skopje. The Committee noted that many prisoners were locked in cells for 23 hours a day in poor conditions. It also noted several allegations of torture by officers and prison guards. The Committee urged measures to end these practices and recommended more independent inspections of facilities that could further pinpoint shortcomings.

A large drop in press freedom since 2008
The existing legal framework formally protects freedom of press and speech. However, in recent years, the situation with freedom of expression has considerably worsened. Specifically, in 2011 many international organizations expressed concern about the deterioration in the freedom of media. According to the Press Freedom Index, Macedonia showed a large drop in press freedom, from 42nd place in 2008 to 94th place in 2011/2012, and losing 40% of its media with the closure of a media company that owned three dailies and a TV station.

The media are subject to severe interference and political pressure, something that was visible during previous elections but also before the June 2011 elections. The owners of the media have economic interests and are in most cases closely linked to political interests and the ruling party. Hate speech continues in the media and seems to be used as an instrument to divert attention from the political parties when they come under strong pressure. Defamation was decriminalised at the beginning of 2012 and all on-going lawsuits against journalists for defamation were suspended in February 2012. The change in the law follows months of negotiations between the Macedonian Journalists’ Association and the new centre-right government. At the moment, more than 160 different lawsuits are pending against journalists in the Macedonian courts, most of which have been brought by politicians, wealthy businessmen and other public figures. Macedonia does not have Press Council or any other self-regulatory body. The closest to the Press Council is the Court of Honour within the Journalists’ Association, which monitors breaches of the Code of Conduct.

One of the most discriminated against groups in Macedonia is the Roma people. There are continuous reports on systematic discrimination in relation to the Roma community and a number of cases of discrimination against Roma are pending before the local and European courts. The Roma face systematic discrimination related to access to basic social rights including jobs, social security benefits and education. However, the decrease in the number of Roma people who lack personal documents indicates some improvement. Although Macedonia assumed the Presidency of the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015, the government has shown little progress in the implementation of a Roma strategy.

The stigmatization of the LGBT community is still visible, and there are no initiatives by the Government to address discrimination and abuse of members of the LGBT community. At the moment, there are no organisations openly working to promote the rights of LGBT persons, which is a step backwards compared to the situation 5 years ago. In their Annual report for 2011, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association puts Macedonia at the bottom of the list of Balkan countries when it comes to legal protection for the LGBT community. Macedonia scored only -2 on a scale from 17 to -7, with -7 indicating a country characterized by “gross violations of human rights and discrimination” against the gay community.

Civil Rights Defenders in Macedonia
Through its regular field presence with the field office in Skopje, Civil Rights Defenders has developed close partnerships with its local partners. The field office in Skopje was opened in 2004 and closed in 2009, and since 2010, activities in Macedonia have been covered from the field office in Prishtina. Our long term cooperation and close cooperation with partners has contributed to an improvement of partners’ professionalism and credibility, advocacy and networking capacities.

Civil society in Macedonia faces a difficult situation, where many NGOs are struggling to survive at a time when scrutiny of government transparency and accountability is as important as ever. However, political pressures during recent years seem to have increased in the country, making the media and the NGOs less inclined to criticise the government.

Within the field of the Rule of Law, our main focus has been strengthening the organizations enabling citizens to access justice and monitor the accountability of duty bearers. In regard to weak access to justice, we have continued to be one of the few international organisations advocating for a new national system of legal assistance and an inclusive Law against Discrimination. Both the Law on Free Legal Aid and Anti-Discrimination Law have been adopted, and our partners are now monitoring their implementation in practice. Also, we have opted to support the monitoring of fairness standards of trials in Macedonian courts, since corruption remains a big problem in Macedonia.

In the area of Freedom of Expression, our main focus has been to support media organizations in developing and strengthening media professionalism, and at the same time lobbying and advocating for the proper implementation of the broadcasting regulatory framework affecting the whole media landscape.

Within the Non-Discrimination Programme, we have worked to improve the human rights of Roma people in Macedonia, put LGBT issues on the public agenda and improve the legal protection of LGBT persons, as well as advance the legislative mechanisms for protection against discrimination. We have focused our efforts on assisting the starting up of the first LGBT organization in Macedonia. Since, regrettably, the organization has ceased to exist, we have continued supporting the protection of the LGBT population through activities that have tackled protection against discrimination.

In addition to our support to local partners, we have continued to perform monitoring and advocacy work by reacting to events of importance in our own capacity (open letters to government and ministries, press releases, joint campaigns with our partners).

Categories: Country reports.
Tags: Human rights.
Regions: Macedonia.