By Todor Gardos, Amnesty International’s campaigner on Serbia
As I was getting on a plane to Serbia last Friday, my mind ran through all the different scenarios that could potentially have halted Belgrade Pride again this year. I know how crucial Pride is for many LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people and human rights defenders and I was not ready to accept another failure.
We’ve seen last-minute bans, secretive talks around security issues and blatantly discriminatory speech from top level officials in past years. In 2010, when Belgrade Pride was last allowed to go ahead, police were unable to contain the counter-demonstrators who caused significant damage to central Belgrade. Instead of holding these counter-demonstrators to account, the government instead blamed Pride organizers for insisting on having such a “high risk” event: an attempt to march peacefully under the colours of the rainbow.
This year, having followed the lengthy preparations and the success of volunteer organizers in convincing government contacts to speak out in support of Pride, it all seemed to be going much better. Yet just the night before the march, a security assessment was still under discussion behind closed doors, and Pride had still not been given the official green light.
Our group of human rights monitors sat anxiously together with Pride volunteers at one of the venues, waiting for the agreed words of support from the highest levels of the government. They never came, but as Saturday night turned into Sunday, we realized the authorities had missed their legal window to issue a ban, and any subsequent restriction on Pride would have been a clear violation of basic human rights.
This would not have been the first time though that we had seen the Serbian government fall short of its international and constitutional obligations, and instead give in to alleged threats of violence and riots. Hardly any of the past threats were ever investigated, yet they apparently served as a “legitimate” pretext to ban the Prides in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
This year there were no bans, so on Sunday morning we headed to the gathering. The streets were heavily policed, some roads were cordoned off and water cannons and riot police were lined up. But the sun was shining and the air was no different from any other city where life starts late on a Sunday morning.
As more and more participants arrived at the meeting point, the cheerful crowd waited impatiently to get going.
At 12.30 we set off. More than 1,000 people marched through central Belgrade, waving rainbow flags and banners in solidarity with all victims of discrimination, hate and violence. For the first time in four years, this was a much-needed celebration of equality and diversity.
This year, there were no reported violent incidents in the immediate vicinity of the march. But this is just a first step towards the protection of all people from discrimination in Serbia. Our group observed a number of counter-demonstrations before and after the Pride, where a few people were arrested and fined. Although most of these assemblies were non-violent, a climate of intolerance, discrimination and prejudice was evident as protesters chanted and displayed their banners.
Just two weeks before the Pride march, a participant at an international LGBTI conference was brutally attacked in Belgrade. Organizers of Pride, activists from Serbia and the region and members of the local LGBTI community frequently become targets of hate crimes and threats of violence.
In a public statement on Sunday night, we applauded the organizers and the brave participants of Pride and recognized that the authorities did a good job in providing all of us with a safe and secure environment during the march. Now we must build on this precedent – a genuine sign that Serbia is capable of protecting its people from violence and hatred.
Serbia has all the necessary legal instruments to fight hate crimes and discrimination, but these need to be implemented systematically. Building a tolerant and diverse society also needs continuous effort and a visible and persistent commitment by the state. As one of the speakers at Pride, an unyielding activist from the group Women in Black, said: “The job is not done until people no longer live in fear for who they are. Until that, we are all LGBTI.”