There is still no justice for the parents of hundreds of babies that have gone missing in Serbia.
March 26, 2013, was a day that brought a lot of hope. Zorica Jovanovic had won a case against the Republic of Serbia before the European Court of Human Rights which ruled that Serbia had violated Jovanovic's right to private life.
Thirty years before, on October 28, 1983, she gave birth to a healthy boy in a small Serbian town called Cuprija. Three days later, Jovanovic and her husband were informed that the baby had died, but the parents never saw the body or learned where the baby was buried. This raised suspicion that the child could still be alive, a suspicion that the couple held so many years later.
Although Jovanovic is the only one whose case successfully reached the European Court of Human Rights, she is not alone in claiming that her newborn disappeared. More than a thousand other parents believe the same happened to their children.
So how did we arrive at this devastating situation?
Between the late 1960s and early 2000s, at least several hundred parents tragically lost their newborn children under very suspicious circumstances.
Only years later, when media started reporting about these cases did it become clear that there was a suspicious pattern. The baby was seemingly healthy at birth, but shortly after, the parents would be informed about the baby's death and prevented from seeing the body or burying it.
Often, there would be no death certificate issued. Other times, the death certificate would simply say 'death without indication as to the cause.'
Taking it to the top
Mass requests for the truth about these missing babies started in the early 2000s. Before reaching the European Court of Human Rights, Jovanovic, as well as many other parents, had to exhaust domestic remedies, which meant that they unsuccessfully requested information about their children from Serbian authorities repeatedly.
In 2005, many of these parents reached the Serbian Parliament with their requests for redress. The parliament formed an Investigative Committee and subsequently published a report stating that adequate redress could only be offered if the relevant legislation is amended. This was the first act by the government that confirmed the suspicions of the parents could indeed be true – that their children's disappearances were systematic.
However, the relevant authorities did not respond promptly to this report. In 2010, the Human Rights Ombudsman recommended passing an entirely new law that would establish the final truth about what happened in these cases.
In its ruling, the European Court of Human Rights followed this logic. It ordered Serbia to establish a mechanism for individual redress that would ideally be supported by a lex specialis, a special law that serves only this specific group of people.
Not all law is good law in these parents' view. After the Jovanovic judgment, the Serbian Ministry of Justice did propose a draft law on establishing facts regarding the status of newborn children based on suspicion of abduction from the maternity wards in the Republic of Serbia that would tackle this issue. The government finally reacted, but the parents protested.
Since then, most associations of the parents of missing babies have firmly rejected this law as they believe it would not serve the most crucial purpose of revealing the truth.
Legislation to silence the truth
A careful reading of the law shows that the purpose is not to uncover the truth, to try and keep the parents quiet.
Two major drawbacks are that, firstly, it envisages no investigation about the circumstances in which a child went missing that would be led by a public prosecutor and secondly, it does not solve the status of the missing child.
The parents are asking to know whether their children are dead or alive and for either status to be determined through an effective investigation. Yet, the proposed law puts the burden of proof on the parents to provide or suggest evidence about the child's status.
Where sufficient evidence is lacking, the child's status can be ruled as 'cannot be determined' (Article 21), and the case is shut for good.
The law promises reparations to eligible parents who could receive compensation of up to 10,000 euros regardless of the status (Articles 22 and 23).
But the message coming from these parents is clear: no amount of money is more valuable than the truth.
No money can compensate for the loss of one's child and living in a perpetual state of not knowing what has happened to them. No money could ever be enough to accept that one's child fate 'cannot be determined.' These are humans, not statistics; humans who are either alive or dead, not somewhere in between.
These parents have a right to know the truth. Although not a standalone right in the European Convention, the right to truth is implicit in other provisions of the convention and has crystalised into a legally binding norm. It is often linked with the crime of enforced disappearance, which is treated as a continuing situation for the family of the disappeared.
In the case of these parents, it should be treated as a violation of their right to the truth that cannot be restituted as they continue to live with perpetual uncertainty and anguish.
At a recent public consultation about the proposed draft law, the president of one of the parents' associations stood up and tore the draft apart. So, the struggle continues.
But the parents are not only fighting an indifferent and insensitive government that avoids addressing a mass violation of human rights from the past. They are also in a battle against the passage of time, a struggle they might be losing.
For some of these parents, four or five decades have passed since they lost their baby. They are getting older, and so are the perpetrators of these violations and possibly the only bearers to the truth.
The time to finally hear these parents' demands is now.
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