Photo credit: Amnesty International

Serbia: Social Card law could harm marginalized members of society – legal opinion 

Serbia’s Social Card law is an intrusive surveillance system that could harm the most marginalized members of society, including Roma communities, Amnesty International said today, as it submits a legal opinion as part of a review of the constitutionality of the law. 

The law, which entered into force on 1 March 2022, authorizes the establishment of a centralized government database that processes 130 categories of personal data from those applying for social security support to assess their eligibility. The Serbian authorities say the procedure allows for a fairer distribution of funds for the socially disadvantaged, yet in reality it is an invasive digital surveillance system that threatens the right to equality.  

“The legal opinion submitted by Amnesty International and seven other rights organizations raises serious concerns over how the Social Card law will affect people’s rights to social security, equality and non-discrimination. It also details how the system does not appear to comply with human rights-based approaches to data protection,” said Imogen Richmond-Bishop, Amnesty Tech’s Researcher on Technology and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. 

“The Social Card law is likely to harm the most marginalized people in Serbia. The authorities must urgently clarify how they are using the system to assess eligibility for financial support, and ensure that individual rights are not being violated.” 

The legal opinion submitted by Amnesty International and seven other rights organizations raises serious concerns over how the Social Card law will affect people’s rights to social security, equality and non-discrimination.

Imogen Richmond-Bishop, Amnesty Tech’s Researcher on Technology and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Those receiving social security support in Serbia, many of whom are people with disabilities or members of the Roma community, tend to have the lowest incomes in the country. By excluding them from the financial support system, the Social Card law could further exacerbate the already precarious living conditions of the most vulnerable people.  

There has been a total lack of transparency on the decision-making process used for the Social Card system, with the Serbian government yet to release any information on the automated technology employed for the scheme. 

In recent years, Serbia has increasingly relied on technology to monitor its citizens. In September 2021, following objections by the civil society and the Data Protection Commissioner, the government was forced to put on hold the planned roll-out of the facial recognition software and biometric video surveillance in public spaces. The unchecked use of technology by the government enables unprecedented intrusion into the lives of people in Serbia and could magnify discrimination of minority groups. 

“The vast amount of personal data being processed, coupled with an inability to amend data once it is in the system, means it is likely the automated system will make errors when assessing eligibility for social security. In such cases, individuals or families may face long delays if they challenge these mistakes and be denied crucial financial support from the state while doing so,” said Imogen Richmond-Bishop. 

Amnesty International, along with the seven co-authors of the legal opinion, is urging the Serbian government to halt its rollout of the Social Card law and to undertake a full assessment of whether the legislation complies with Serbia’s obligations under international human rights law. This review must also offer meaningful participation to those currently receiving social security support in Serbia, so they can assess whether the law meets their needs. 

Background 

On 28 November 2022, Amnesty International, in partnership with the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net), submitted a legal opinion to the Serbian A11 Initiative as evidence for their Constitutional Court challenge of Serbia’s Social Card Law. 

The legal opinion is co-authored by Amnesty International, Centro de Estudios de Derecho, Justicia y Sociedad (Dejusticia), the Digital Welfare State & Human Rights Project (DWS Project) at the Center for Human Rights & Global Justice at New York University School of Law, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER), Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), and the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) at Northeastern University.