This article is a part of the campaign #12 Women on the Barricades, developed by The Norwegian Helsinki Committee in collaboration with illustrator Jenny Jordahl. We present 12 portraits of women standing on the barricades of other women, focusing on the greatest human rights challenges facing women in Europe today – and what needs to be done to overcome them. Read about the 11 other women on www.nhc.no/en/12womenonthebarricades
“I’m used to smear campaigns, both under the war and afterwards”, says the experienced human rights activist Sonja Biserko.
The 71-year-old still fights for human rights in Serbia and in the Balkans.
With her mild face, short hair and oval glasses, she has become a familiar face in the human rights movements in the Balkans and all-around Europe. All the governments she has worked with, have so far only given her resistance and hostility. Despite this, Sonja Biserko doesn’t let them scare her, even if she, as a female human rights defender, experiences tougher conditions than her male colleagues.
“Over the last three decades, women have become more active and exposed in the human rights movement, despite the struggles they meet. Women showed more courage and determination”, she says.
Courage and determination. Two words that are also used to describe Sonja Biserko by those who know her.
The institutions that disappeared
The war in the Balkans started as a war over state structures and nations. During the middle of the debates that raged in the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, Sonja was employed in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Yugoslavia. This was an ideal vantage point to witness the dissolution of the Yugoslavian federation close by.
“I left my post in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and joined the anti-war movement. The war had influenced the lives of millions”, she says.
Sonja didn’t wait until the war was over before she started criticizing the growing nationalism in the Balkans. Already before the war crimes were a fact, she was a sharp and clear critic of the nationalistic thinking.
At the beginning, the movement Sonja joined was a genuine protest against the war and the politics of the Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. Later the movement started focusing on the massive human rights violations that went on – from ethnic cleansing, mass murder, torture, mass rape and other atrocities.
“It was as a response to this that we started the Serbian Helsinki Committee for human rights, Sonja explains.
She was an almost fundamental supporter of strong institutions. The institutions that the nationalists destroyed, in favor of their way of ruling by the power of the mob.
“This was how they destroyed not only the Yugoslavian federation and its institutions, but also the Serbian institutions. We still live in this state of emergency, and we don’t have a modern state,” she says.
“An enemy of the state”
Sonja thinks that the authorities in Serbia and in the Balkans, are aware of the potential that is within the civil society.
“That’s why they call us “enemy of the state” and “traitors”. The Serbian civil society – with the human rights organizations in front – that fight for free and democratic ideas, become targets of the regime. Also, the right wing and so-called patriotic groups attack us because they equalize our liberal ideas with Western imperialism”, Sonja says.
On a daily basis, these groups label the work of Sonja as “foreign mercenaries”, “Serb-haters” and the like.
Death threats as part of the working life
“Personally, I was put under hard pressure due to my cooperation with the ICTY”, she says.
Sonja wasn’t just met with smear campaigns in the media, but also physical threats. The intensity of the campaign against her, further transferred into internet forums, portals, comment fields and websites. All this contributed to the atmosphere in which any action against her, was allowed.
“In the comments, the readers openly suggested the measures to be taken against me, including radical ones staged by security services – such as, arranging a traffic accident to kill me or infecting her with a deadly virus, but also prosecution for high treason, expulsion from Serbia or a ban on my work”, Sonja says.
Over the last three decades, women have become more active and exposed in the human rights movement, despite the struggles they meet.
Not a single government official condemned the assaults. On the contrary, some of them refused to participate in the debates which I had been invited.
“Instead of standing up for a human rights defender, Serbia’s officials silently sided with the media campaign against me, and thus additionally inspired hostile commentaries and lynch calls”, Sonja says.