Calling for people-centred policies in Serbia, with a focus on ESCRs

A Roma settlement near the industrial zone in the city of Novi Sad, Serbia. © Vojin Ivkov

In 2020, UN Human Rights increased its advice on the application of an HRBA to economic policies and practices through its Surge Initiative. Emphasis was placed on building back better in the context of COVID-19 and leveraging the human rights obligations of States to reduce inequalities and ensure inclusive social and economic systems.

Serbia was one of the countries that received the support of the Surge Initiative, a field-driven initiative composed of human rights and development specialists. Within the framework of the 2030 Agenda, the objective was to increase the realization of ESCRs through tailored research and advice on development, economic and fiscal policy options at the country level.

UN Human Rights and its national partners, including representatives of Roma communities, CSOs and government stakeholders, led a real-time mapping exercise of needs and risks in substandard Roma settlements. This provided the first compilation of cross-checked information on over 700 settlements with approximately 170,000 inhabitants, which identified health risks and assessed access to electricity, clean water and sewage infrastructure and gathered data on sustainable sources of income.

These activities offered detailed information on the human rights impacts of COVID-19 on select Roma communities and directly informed the UNCT’s analysis of vulnerable groups, enabling their inclusion in the UN SERP. It also contributed to the enhanced delivery of support to Roma and other inhabitants, including through the timely allocation of government resources and emergency aid.

ESCRs can determine whether people will live or die or if societies will become more resilient or fall apart. Consequently, all human rights need to be integrated into all policies, programmes and processes. “It is important that we see ESCRs as essential rather than luxuries,” said Todd Howland, Chief of the Development and Economic and Social Issues Branch at UN Human Rights.

As noted by Françoise Jacobs, Resident Coordinator in Serbia, “The rippling effects of the pandemic” prevented many people from enjoying their essential rights, such as access to work, education, safe water and electricity, thereby threatening their “health, well-being and prosperity.” By gaining a deeper understanding of the situation of vulnerable Roma persons, the Government, the UN and other partners are better able to provide assistance. 

While this work is still in its early days, there are promising signs that the approach is working. In addition to the pandemic, the world is facing a panoply of risks, including economic upheaval, potential human rights violations, the dismantling of health care systems and the long-term disenfranchisement of groups that are being left behind. The Office’s expertise in ensuring that ESCRs are central to development and humanitarian efforts can help pave the way for respecting, protecting and fulfilling key human rights, reducing inequalities and preserving the dignity of people left behind when a crisis hits.

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