Housing Rights and Forced Evictions in Serbia

07 May 2002

Branimir Pleše1

Zoran Radičević, Ćazim Kovačević, Zoran Paunović, Zoran Petrović, Miljan Matić, Zeljko Paunović, Steva Miladinović, Senka Duraković, Zoran Mitrović and Svetislav Stojanović are all Roma and were all, together with their families, as of March 20, 2002, living in an illegal, predominantly R omani settlement close to a hospital on Zvečanska Street, Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro. They have been housed in this settlement for the last 15 years and have in the meantime invested considerable time and their limited financial resources into making their lives bearable. Since moving into the abandoned sheds, they have built separate toilets and a drainage system and even secured power supply.

During the last few years, the inhabitants of the settlement, with the assistance of several local non-governmental organisations, repeatedly tried to engage the municipal authorities to improve their conditions. They requested that they be provided with a more adequate and permanent solution to their housing situation. They stressed that, at present, there are around 150 people living in the settlement, many of whom are old, sick or children. To date, however, there has been no genuine local government effort aimed at resolving the problem.

Instead, on December 16, 1999, the hospital started eviction proceedings against the above-listed Romani inhabitants and their families. The claim was filed with the Belgrade Municipal Court and ultimately divided into 10 separate cases, all of which were pending before first or second instance courts as of March 20, 2002.

Even though there is still no final decision ordering the eviction of the inhabitants and their families, it is clear that under domestic law, there is simply no argument based on which the defendants could conceivably expect a favourable outcome.

There are, however, relevant international legal standards. Article 11(1) of the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provides as follows: “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.”

General Comments IV and VII, adopted by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, are also of particular relevance in interpreting this provision. Thus, paragraph 18 of General Comment IV states: “Instances of forced eviction are prima facie incompatible with the requirements of the Covenant and can only be justified in the most exceptional circumstances, and in accordance with the relevant principles of international law.” Paragraph 16 of General Comment VII reads: “Evictions should not result in individuals being rendered homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights. Where those affected are unable to provide for themselves, the State party must take all appropriate measures, to the maximum of its available resources, to ensure that adequate alternative housing, resettlement or access to productive land, as the case may be, is available.”

Slana Bara Romani settlement, Novi Sad, northern Serbia and Montenegro, January 1998.
Photo: ERRC.

The United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is another international document that contains provisions of particular relevance to the case at hand. Article 7 provides that “[N]o one shall be subjected to […] inhuman or degrading treatment […].” Article 17 paragraphs 1 and 2 provides that “[N]o one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family … [or] … home ... [and that] … [e]veryone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” Article 2 paragraph 1 states: “[e]ach State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure, to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction, the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Finally, Article 23 paragraph 1 and Article 24 paragraph 1 respectively read as follows: “The family […] is entitled to protection by society and the State [...] Every child shall have, without any discrimination as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, national or social origin, property or birth, the right to such measures of protection as are required by his status as a minor, on the part of his family, society and the State.”

In view of the above, through a local attorney and with the assistance of the ERRC , Romani inhabitants of the settlement on Zvečanska Street have decided to file a c ounterclaim against both the central government and the local authorities. They will be requesting adequate alternative accommodation and basing their claim on the above-cited international standards as well as on Article 16 paragraph 2 of the Yugoslav Federal Constitution, which explicitly states that all ratified international treaties are binding and as such are an integral part of the domestic legal framework.

This will be the first time in Europe that Romani plaintiffs will be relying on self-executing international standards before a domestic court in a forced evictions case. Should their claim ultimately be unsuccessful, the case will be pursued further before the United Nations Human Rights Committee.2


  1. Branimir Plese is Senior Staff Attorney of the European Roma Rights Center.
  2. Serbia and Montenegro still have not signed the European Convention on Human Rights and therefore filing an application with the European Court of Human Rights is not an option. The state has, however, both signed and ratified the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides for an individual complaints procedure. It should also be noted that the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights itself does not provide for an individual complaints mechanism of this kind.



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