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LGBT Rights and Conflict Transformation: Views from a Former Serbian State Secretary

Marko Karadzic
March 2013

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

From 2008 to 2010, I was the State Secretary[1] (Deputy Minister) for Human and Minority Rights of the Republic of Serbia. At that time, Serbia was a potential candidate[2] for European Union (EU) membership and in the midst of a negotiation process for visa liberalization.[3] It was a period of coping with the past and struggling to define a clear strategy for the future. I will remember those two years by their battles — the victories, defeats, death threats, and attacks.

During those years, the Ministry of the Interior banned a gay pride march.[4] After many hurdles, the Anti-Discrimination Law was adopted[5], and the first (and only, to this date) gay pride march was organized.[6]

This paper is a reflection on the events, actors, and conflicts with regard to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) rights in Serbia from 2008 to 2010. The first part of the paper describes these events, actors, and conflicts. The second part evaluates them through four major conflict transformation dimensions: personal, relational, structural, and cultural.[7] The paper ends with the conclusion of lessons learned.

Choosing a Particular Issue to Deal With

In Serbia, as in many other countries, sexual minorities have lived with discrimination and fear, even though their rights are legally protected. LGBT concerns highlight the disrespect for human rights deeply rooted in our society. Those who were the first and most vocal in denying basic human rights of the LGBT population were the same ones benefitting from the suffering of others: corrupt politicians with blood on their hands from war crimes, Serbian Orthodox priests who drove expensive cars while their parishioners struggled in poverty, and ultra-nationalist organizations directly benefitting from violence.[8] They formed an anti-EU faction and represented themselves as defending "Serbian" traditional values and nationalism. As a representative of the state, tasked with protecting human rights, I found their misdeeds to be ethically unacceptable, based on manipulation and falsehoods, and not in compliance with international standards, particularly in their refusal to allow the LGBT population to express their identity and feel protected under their rights. I had more than enough personal, moral, and legal reasons to call attention to this issue. My position within the government as State Secretary provided me with an opportunity, and I wanted to use it in order to make a positive change.

The Government and the Ministry

The ministry's scope of work was defined by the law, but setting priorities in a society that was deeply divided, overwhelmed with the burden of the past, and unable to reach a consensus on its future inevitably provoked dilemmas and conflicts regarding its actions. Each of the political parties had its own priorities that were, in many cases, different from the officially proclaimed policy. This created deep division between and within the line ministries.

I was State Secretary in a government where decisions were made neither by the prime minister nor by most of the ministers. The center of power was far from all of us, in the political parties' headquarters. I worked directly with a minister[9] who did not want to draw attention to controversial issues and did little to carry out the mandates of his office. He had no other interests than to enjoy the privileges of his job. I saw him as a person without moral scrutiny; a reflection of the Serbian political establishment. In his ministry, drivers would regularly refuse to drive a member of the Roma national minority, and most of the assistant ministers — his friends — were openly homophobic. I was faced with a moral dilemma: should I stay at the ministry and pursue the protection of rights (thereby provoking a significant confrontation), or leave without making any changes? The former was more in accordance with my temperament and nature.

Since I was assigned to represent the ministry in public, as well as to lead all four sectors, I became the most visible government representative dealing with human rights, and more specifically, minority rights. I was the most vocal government official supporting LGBT rights and therefore I did not want to step back. I kept working, using my position in order to raise public awareness and support human rights defenders. Some politicians from the government supported my work, but not in public. I did not receive any official critique; the government needed people like me, who supported the values of the EU, for reporting purposes in order to meet the EU accession criteria. On the other hand, I was sure that invisible systems of fear and pressure were active, since almost all of the officials were trying to distance themselves from me in the face of the Serbian public.

Only six months after becoming State Secretary, I faced many direct challenges. My assistant was fired, the use of an official car was often banned, my phone was switched off, and all assistant ministers stopped further communication with me. Additionally, the Ministry for the Interior ignored repeated inquiries from me and the UN for my personal safety assessment.[10] During this time, my name and photo were on many websites of ultra-nationalist, violent groups in Serbia. I received threats via phone and e-mail. Someone broke into my apartment. While I was told that it was a thief who robbed 200 other apartments, no evidence of that was found and no valuables were missing, but the apartment was a mess.[11] In addition, the newspapers were informing the public of the minister's attempts to replace me. The minister used my sexual orientation as the main reason for my replacement request.[12]

It was one of the hardest periods in my life. In September 2010, overwhelmed with fear, anger, and a sense of powerlessness, I resigned.[13] I was aware of the fact that I had done more than I ever thought I would do. Since I felt I could not do anything more and I was scared for my life, I decided to leave the ministry.

Society and its Readiness to Deal with LGBT Rights

Vamik Volkan would probably say that Serbian society has been suffering from malignant regression.[14] I could add that Serbian society was a society where traditional values, religion, and the past were tools for manipulation.

Those who claimed to be the keepers of "traditional" Serbian values were aggressive opponents of LGBT rights. They viewed the LGBT population as a product of "sick" western civilization that threatened Serbian traditional values. As Maksimovic Jelena explains,

"Dragan Markovic[15], leader of United Serbia, a small member party of the ruling coalition that refused to
support the bill the Anti-Discrimination Law, used more picturesque language, saying — 'If Europe wants
Serbia to acknowledge gay marriage as one of the conditions for accession, then we might as well go back to
tending sheep.' Opponents of the bill also played on the widespread distrust of NATO and memories of the
alliance's 1999 air war on Serbia during the Kosovo crisis, perhaps hoping to counteract the strong support
for EU membership among Serbs by making a connection between the two major Western alliances."[16]

Some Serbians were against violence, but unaware that there was ongoing structural violence and discrimination against the LGBT population. Others felt that sexual minorities were acceptable as long as they were not open in public. And still other Serbians were aware of the discrimination and willing to support necessary changes in favor of increased rights for the LGBT population.

Locating the Strategy

Despite all the strategies, laws, regulations and lip service paid to cross-sector cooperation, there was hardly any coordinated action in strategy implementation between the line ministries. Almost all human rights actions were ad-hoc and crisis-driven.[17] However, since Serbia had to fulfill certain requirements[18] in order to access the EU, some changes have been made. One major challenge in developing EU relationships was Brussels' willingness to turn a blind eye to the major causes of chaos in the Serbian society. For example, they supported technical law changes, but also supported some politicians who were vocal supporters of values that hindered the law's implementation. Thus, rather than gradually building the rules and procedures that together contribute to the rule of law, a reverse process was taking place. Since I spent more than 12 years working in the civil society sector, my strategy was to cooperate with non-governmental organizations, representatives of international organizations, and diplomats from the countries that were sensitive to human rights. My close friends were irreplaceable in the process. In addition, cooperation with media representatives gave me enormous power to speak for those whose voices hadn't been heard, and to speak out against the voices that were directed against equality and human rights.


Five years ago, everything seemed like a defeat — impossible and useless. But reflecting back on what I know now, I can say that most of these early confrontations played a significant — even necessary — role in the pursuit of social change. They were more successful than what I had thought at the time. The insight that "conflict is normal in human relationships, and conflict is a motor of change"[20] has helped shape this view. I realize now, that conflict helps us move from a point of "unbalanced power and low awareness of conflict"[21] towards desirable change. As Lederach suggests, the question is "how do we end something destructive and build something desired"[22] through non-violent struggle?

"Conflict Transformation and Four Dimensions of Change"[23]
"Personal Dimensions"[24]

Changing attitudes and behaviors is one of the most demanding long-term goals, since it requires parallel changes in both the "structural and transactional domains of the society."[25] Addressing attitudes and behaviors requires the ability to listen and creatively respond. This task was the hardest for me, and it brought me the biggest surprises.

The media was one of my greatest allies and also my enemy. My relationship with them was rewarding as well as exhausting. Building trust and relationships with the media representatives was a priority, because they had the power to address attitudes and encourage behavioral change. Some of the media representatives were openly homophobic, some in between, while few were on the side of human rights. I worked to build relationships with all of them. It was a process of learning and teaching. Honesty was my power. I've noticed that honesty is paramount when dealing with delicate issues such as LGBT rights. Without understanding, without honesty, and a balanced dose of emotions, all the attempts would be doomed to failure. The media campaign made the most visible change — insignificant for me at that time, but a huge step reflecting on it today. I was not aware of how important it was that a government official was willing to talk about, promote, and defend LGBT rights.[26] After a few months, there was almost no one denying the existence[27] of the LGBT community in Serbia.

On the other hand, the media opened up space for ultra-nationalist groups to promote values that were against human rights and equality. The biggest dilemma I faced was about what type of a relationship I should have with violent organization representatives. By ignoring them, I would not solve the problem. By initiating legal actions against them, their publicity and support increased.

Educational actions directed towards change of discriminatory attitudes and behaviors in schools, media campaigns, and cooperation with non-governmental organizations were of paramount importance for the long-term changes we were trying to achieve. All these actions were positive steps but isolated and time-limited, thus insufficient.

"Relational Dimensions"[28]

I experienced relations at that time to be based on individual interests. In politics, there was little honesty or trust, and almost no willingness for improvement. Almost no one wanted to deal with issues that were not bringing financial gain.

The pattern of indirect communication, well known throughout Serbian society, was also used in the ministry. The minister had been avoiding direct "communication"[29] with me, sometimes for more than three months even though our offices were almost next to each other. Thus, "cooperation"[30] did not exist. Our communication was indirect, through messengers. He would switch off my phone, take me off projects, prohibit further work, and refuse to meet with me. In response, I would try to solve the problem through political party channels. Since it was unsuccessful, I would inform the public through media about the conditions in the ministry. After that I would get the phone back, followed by further isolation. The minister was the highest authority, surrounded mostly by his personal friends, thereby limiting my influence in "decision-making."[31] I often used media to increase pressure for decisions to be made. There were no robust "conflict handling mechanisms."[32] Conflicts were analyzed and "solved" by the party leaders, using different types of power.[33]

Something similar was happening among the LGBT civil society leaders. Bad communication and cooperation led toward a battle among leading LGBT NGOs and the most prominent LGBT leader. Some governmental forces also contributed to this process.

I do not know about relational dimensions among the violent groups, but it seemed that they were much better at communication and cooperation than the rest of us. They were always ready to promote hate and violence.

"Structural Dimensions"[34]

The Draft Law[35], without articles that prohibited discrimination against the LGBT population, was sent to our ministry. After receiving it, I refused approval for further endorsement and, in cooperation with a state secretary from the Ministry for Labor and Social Policy, formed a working group that would revise the draft. We worked in cooperation with legal professionals in the field. Two public hearings followed, and the draft was sent to the government. They adopted the draft and sent it for final endorsement by the Parliament. The night before the Parliament session, the Serbian Orthodox Church requested withdrawal from the procedure and the minister's party withdrew the draft. At that time, I was talking on behalf of the ministry, even though the minister and I had completely opposite views. "Marko Karadzic, State Secretary in the Ministry for Human and Minority Rights, stressed that his Ministry will not allow the draft to be altered; it will insist on adopting the text as originally drafted. He went on to say that no individual or group has the right to change the legislative procedure".[36] It took ten days, and collaboration of the international community, civil society, some opposition political parties, and myself to return the unchanged draft to the Parliament.

The major success in regard to the structural dimension of the LGBT concerns was done through adoption of the Anti-Discrimination Law. This law "marks a step forward in protection of human rights. It provides for appointment of an independent commissioner for the protection of equality. Court protection is also envisaged. The commissioner would deal with all cases of discrimination, except those already processed in court."[37]

"Cultural Dimensions"[38]

"The culture of human rights, implying also the views of the public regarding the protection and respect of these rights, is still burdened by extremist nationalism and a strong presence of racist, neo-Nazi and other extremist organizations targeting especially the Roma, LGBT and persons belonging to other minorities or religious groups."[39] This statement, from a report on human rights in Serbia, supports John Paul Lederach's assertion that "cultural change is often very slow"[40] when working to transform conflict. I have not outlined the cultural dimensions explicitly, since they are "embedded in all three of the other dimensions."[41] Though my personal experience suggests that cultural change touches on people's deeply held values — for example, in the Church — and it is perceived to challenge their very identity. This kind of change emerges from a deep worldview and requires a long process of engagement, which is not always available in the world of short-term, crisis-driven politics.


Looking back from the vantage point of eight years and with the lenses of conflict transformation, numerous insights and lessons can be suggested.

  • The agony of the moment overwhelms a person in a conflict. Fear, anger, and disappointment tend to limit our focus to only one piece of a puzzle. Our own battle becomes the only and the most important one, leaving us without an ability to step back, observe, and realize that ahead of us is a long, complicated process of completing the whole puzzle. Therefore, observe, plan, act, and learn through evaluation, over and over again.[42]
  • A conflict tends to disable our capacity to be "long-term strategic."[43] It makes us think that most of the actions are failures if the results are not immediate. In these situations, our ego starts controlling the actions, making us impatient, dissatisfied, and short-term victory oriented. The battle for LGBT rights is complex and it takes time. Thus, be "short-term responsive and long-term strategic"[44] in order to succeed.
  • The battle for LGBT rights is not two-sided. It is not "us" versus "them"; it is about realizing that issues are interrelated and influenced by various factors. If we take into consideration these aspects, we may be able to understand those who perceive our battle as rubbing salt into their wounds. Understanding where the pain comes from helps address issues in a way that is healing-oriented and more sustainable.
  • In conflict situations, we sometimes naïvely rely on our supposed allies. For example, in the case outlined in this essay, the LGBT non-governmental organizations and civil society representatives were seen as allies. Even though we may share the same goal, we should not forget that some people faced with challenges and survival dilemmas choose different paths from our own, and sometimes, despite a strong history of support, may become our enemies. Therefore, do not rush with judgments; take time, observe, and listen in order to see who your real allies are. There are many supporters and potential partners that you may not be aware of.
  • The battle for LGBT rights is accompanied by moments when the most terrible feeling of loneliness and fear captures your emotions, and we should be ready for them. Friends are the most important and often the only support pillar you may have in those moments. Knowing this in advance is of great help, since disappointment may overwhelm your emotions and prevent you from further work.
  • If faced with loneliness, do not overestimate the role of organizations and underestimate the role of individuals. There are clearly situations when our individual actions initiate and set a foundation for future changes more effectively than any collective action.
  • Be honest, different from others, creative, and courageously stand for your rights while promoting non-violent communication as the only acceptable option. Show — through honest love toward other human beings — why fighting for human rights is worthwhile.

[1] Jovanovic, Igor. "The Other Karadzic." Transitions Online. July 13, 2009. Accessed March 24, 2013. <>.

[2] "European Commission." Last Modified October 10, 2012. <>.

[3] "Citizenship in South East Europe." Accessed March 24, 2013. <>.

[4] Lowen, Mark. "Gay march plan tests Serb feelings." BBC News. September 19, 2009. Accessed February 24, 2012. <>.

[5] "Serbia: Anti- Discrimination Law is Adopted." International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission. Accessed March 24, 2013. <>.

[6] Anonymous, "Serbs riot over gay pride march in Belgrade." The Independent. October 10, 2010. Accessed March 25, 2013. <>.

[7] Lederach, John Paul, et al. Reflective Peacebuilding: A Planning, Monitoring, and Learning Tool Kit. (The University of Notre Dame: Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, 2007). 17-24.

[8] Milosevic, Sasa. "How Young Serbs Learn to Hate." Global Post. July 10, 2011. Accessed March 24, 2013. <>.

[9] Kuzminovic, Ivan. "Sins According to Ciplic." Pescanik. February 6, 2011. Accessed March 24, 2013. <>.

[10] "2009 Human Rights Report: Serbia." U.S. Department of State. Accessed February 24, 2013. <>.

[11] "Serbia: Break-in at the home of State Secretary for Human Rights, Mr. Marko Karadzic". FrontLine Defenders. Accessed March 24, 2013. <>.

[12] "Minister Ciplic requests from Prime Minister to replace Karadzic" (author's translation). Press. March 5, 2010. Accessed March 25, 2013. <>.

[13] Anonymous, "Human Rights Ministry Official Resigns." B92. September 25, 2010. Accessed March 25, 2013. <>.

[14] Volkan, Vamik. Blind Trust: Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror. (Charlottesville, Virginia: Pitchstone Publishing, 2004). 58.

[15] Ilic, Sasa. "The Pillars of Domestic Affairs." Pescanik. April 20, 2012. Accessed March 24, 2013. <>.

[16] Maksimovic, Jelena. "Discrimination Law on Trial." Transitions. May 22, 2009. Accessed March 24, 2013. <>.

[17] Lederach, John Paul. The Little Book of Conflict Transformation. (Pennsylvania: Good Books, 2003). 33.

[18] "European Commission." Last Modified October 10, 2012. <>.

[19] Lederach, John Paul, et al. Reflective Peacebuilding: A Planning, Monitoring, and Learning Tool Kit. (The University of Notre Dame: Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, 2007). 2.

[20] Lederach, John Paul. The Little Book of Conflict Transformation. (Pennsylvania: Good Books, 2003). 4. <>.

[21] Lederach, John Paul. Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures. (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1995). 12-13.

[22] Lederach, John Paul. The Little Book of Conflict Transformation. (Pennsylvania: Good Books, 2003). 33. <>.

[23] Lederach, John Paul, et al. Reflective Peacebuilding: A Planning, Monitoring, and Learning Tool Kit. (The University of Notre Dame: Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, 2007). 17.

[24] ibid, 17-24.

[25] Ricigliano, Robert. Making Peace Last, A Toolbox for Sustainable Peacebuilding. (Boulder-London: Paradigm Publishers, 2012). 35.

[26] Jovanovic, Igor. "The Other Karadzic." Transitions Online. July 13, 2009. Accessed March 14, 2013. <>.

[27] Visnjic, Jelena. "The Portrait of the LGTB Population in the Serbian Media Discourse." Heinrch Boll Stiftung. February12, 2013. Accessed March 24, 2013. <>.

[28] Lederach, John Paul, et al. Reflective Peacebuilding: A Planning, Monitoring, and Learning Tool Kit. (The University of Notre Dame: Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, 2007). 17-24.

[29] ibid, 21.

[30] ibid, 21.

[31] ibid, 21.

[32] ibid, 21.

[33] Mayer, Bernard. "Dynamics of Conflict: A Guide to Engagement and Intervention." (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012). 67-92.

[34] Lederach, John Paul, et al. Reflective Peacebuilding: A Planning, Monitoring, and Learning Tool Kit. (The University of Notre Dame: Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, 2007). 17-24.

[35] "Serbia: Anti-Discrimination Law is Adopted." International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission. Accessed March 24, 2013. <>.

[36] YUCOM. "Withdrawal of the Anti- Discrimination Law." Pescanik. March 5, 2009. Accessed March 24, 2013. <>.

[37] "Serbia 2009 Progress Report." European Commission. October 14, 2010. Accessed March 24, 2013. 17. <>.

[38] Lederach, John Paul, et al. Reflective Peacebuilding: A Planning, Monitoring, and Learning Tool Kit. (The University of Notre Dame: Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, 2007). 17-24.

[39] "Human Rights in Serbia." Civil Rights Defenders. October 1, 2012. Accessed March 24, 2013. <>.

[40] Lederach, John Paul, et al. Reflective Peacebuilding: A Planning, Monitoring, and Learning Tool Kit. (The University of Notre Dame: Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, 2007). 23.

[41] ibid, 23.

[42] ibid, 8.

[43] Lederach, John Paul. The Little Book of Conflict Transformation. (Pennsylvania: Good Books, 2003). 47. <>.

[44] ibid, 47.

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