Only a quarter of a century ago, sexual relations in between men were punishable by imprisonment in most of the Western Balkan countries. Unlike Western Europe, the authorities in the region were often not interested in systematic punishments of gay men, there was a lot of pressure and arrests while harassments were the reality, Decriminalization of homosexuality was an important step, but it was not enough. In the last two decades the authorities in all of the countries have slowly, but surely passed laws explicitly guaranteeing protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation to the citizens. Unfortunately, this process has not been fully completed, and there is often no reason for the absence of some laws.
LGBT community is often not happy that positive changes in the Wester Balkan countries were part of the reform process in the context of European integrations, that is a fact even today when the region is closer to the European Union. Despite the difference, all six countries in the region have similar legislative framework regarding the protection of human rights of the LGBT community that is sometimes advanced when compared to the countries of the European Union. Of course, a big difference is noticeable in the field of legal regulation of same-sex relationships, even though such regulation is in force in 2/3 of the EU countries, it is non-existent in the Western Balkans. Governments of the region are very well aware that passing of these laws has become an obligation in 2015 when the European Court of Human Rights has passed judgement Oliari and others vs. Italy. Despite promises, there is still no progress on this issue.
According to the results of a large regional research conducted by Civil Rights Defenders with partners, 45-70% of citizens in the region believe that homosexuality is a disease (the highest percentage is in Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro), and an unacceptable high percentage of citizens believe that LGBT community members should be physically punished or that they shouldn’t publicly express their identity. On the other hand, over half of LGBT community members were victims of verbal violence, this percentage is the highest in Bosnia and Herzegovina (72%), Albania (76%) and Kosovo (81%). Data on physical assaults are also discouraging, especially if taken into account that in many cases schoolmates are the perpetrators of such attacks, and that members of the LGBT community have no trust in the police and the courts.
Violence and discrimination remain the two main problems faced by LGBT community in the region. The vast majority of the community decides to hide their sexual orientation in fear of being beaten up, discriminated against in the workplace, or while accessing public services. However, the core of the problem is not that such incidents happen, they are present in every society, the problem is in the unacceptably slow reaction of the police, the prosecution and the courts, if they react at all. For members of the LGBT community, access to justice in the region is not a rule but an exception. Although this could be said for all other citizens, the reality is even worse for the members of the LGBT community. The vast majority of them are afraid to report violence or discrimination they faced, fearing reaction of their family members or employers. The small number of people that still decides to report an incident often face openly homophobic comments from the police and comments validating the perpetrators. As someone who gave statements to the Public Prosecutor for threats, I faced the fact that the prosecutor doesn’t know what hate crime is, what article of the law it is and how should that article be applied, even though this article is present in the legal system of Serbia for five years. If the case even comes before a court, the proceedings take long time, disregarding the fears that the victim feels when being confronted with the attacker during the trial.
In this situation, the first necessary step has already been made. We are at a time when efforts are being made to increase awareness on LGBT human rights violations by raising visibility in all the countries of the region. This is mostly done by organizing Pride Parades (Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo) or similar events (Albania). In Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the LGBT community is also working on the preparation of these events. Although there is a lack of understanding for “public displays of one’s sexuality” research shows the importance of increasing visibility on a prolonged period of time. Also, knowing someone who is a LGBT person clearly affects the conviction of violence and discrimination against this community. Pride Parades are now a reality, and as a result, the human rights issues of the LGBT community are on the table during the European integration process.
The next step is the legal recognition of same-sex relationships announced by every country in the region. Concrete steps in this direction are not yet on the agenda.
Goran has a Master of Laws from Belgrade University and an MA from the European Regional Master on Democracy and Human Rights in Sarajevo. He began working for Civil Rights Defenders in 2004 as a Programme Officer for the Western Balkans. Today he is Director for Europe. Goran is stationed at our Regional Office for Europe in Belgrade.