23 March, 2020
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State of emergency: why you should emerge ahead – obsolete*

The COVID-19 pandemic has already had a tangible impact both on Serbia’s economy and its citizens.  As countries around the world are embroiled in the same fight to stop the virus from spreading and to slow down the contagion rate, many (e.g. Spain, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Italy) declared states of emergency and went into full lockdown, sealing borders and ordering the population into isolation, with permission to leave their homes only to go to work, shop for essentials, such as food, and assist others.

Given the current developments and the increasing number of new cases, and sadly, deaths, especially in hotspots such as Italy and Spain, authorities in Serbia have also beefed up measures and declared a state of emergency.

How will this affect people’s everyday lives?

 

Declaring a state of emergency

The Constitution of Serbia sets forth that the National Assembly has the authority to declare a state of emergency. When the National Assembly is unable to convene, however, the decision to declare a state of emergency is taken jointly by the President of the Republic, the Speaker of the National Assembly and the Prime Minister, under the same conditions as the National Assembly.

Given that the Government issued an order on March 11, 2020 prohibiting any gatherings over 100 people – which also applied to deputies of the National Assembly – the National Assembly could not convene to declare the state of emergency. Thus, the decision fell to the President of the Republic, in conjunction with the Speaker of the National Assembly and the Prime Minister. Their decision came on March 15, 2020.

Under the Constitution, a decision declaring a state of emergency may remain in force for up to 90 days, and extended by an additional 90 days. The joint decision of the President of the Republic, the Speaker of the National Assembly and the Prime Minister will have to be confirmed by the National Assembly as soon as the National Assembly can convene. If the decision is not confirmed, it will cease to have effect at the end of the first sitting of the National Assembly held after the declaration of the state of emergency.

Hot on the heels of decision declaring the state of emergency was a Government decree setting forth measures to be implemented and limiting human and minority rights that, in line with the Constitution, may be derogated from during a state of emergency. Typical examples are freedom of movement, freedom of thought and expression, and freedom of the media, whereas the Constitution does not allow for any derogations from absolute rights such as right to life, physical and psychological integrity, prohibition of slavery and forced labor, etc.

 

What measures have Serbian authorities taken?

On March 16, the Government passed a decree detailing the measures to be implemented during the state of emergency.

According to the decree, trading was to continue as usual, although an export ban has been imposed on some products (e.g. flour, kitchen oil, soaps, antiseptics/disinfectants, tissues, surgical masks, kitchen rolls, gloves, etc.). Price hikes of groceries and protective equipment have been prohibited: those caught disobeying this order will be severely punished.

The police and the military have been tasked with implementing emergency measures and assisting members of the public. Specifically, this means that the police will be patrolling outside shops, pharmacies and in the streets, while the military will secure key facilities in cities (e.g. hospitals) and assist the police in securing the borders.

Freedom of movement has also been restricted. Senior citizens over the age of 65 are prohibited from leaving their homes day or night, while a nationwide curfew has been imposed on all other between 5 p.m. and 5 a.m. There are only several exceptions to the curfew – licensed medical personnel, police, military and other security forces on assignment. Persons in possession of a special movement permit issued by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, as well as individuals seeking emergency medical care are also allowed to move in public during curfew hours.

Since the start of the state of emergency, more than 320,000 Serbian nationals have returned to Serbia from abroad. To prevent a further influx of people and any deterioration of the public health situation, all borders have been closed as of March 20, 2020 for all passengers, Serbian and foreign nationals alike. Serbian citizens returning from abroad who entered Serbia prior to the borders being closed, must remain in self-isolation for 14 to 28 days, with police regularly checking their compliance with these measures. Those failing to comply may be subject to criminal liability, possible imprisonment and severe fines.

In addition to the restrictions imposed on the freedom of movement, public and indoor gatherings comprising 5 or more people have been prohibited. Public transport services and intercity transport services have been suspended, and all restaurants and bars are closed.

So far, authorities have not ordered a total shutdown of businesses, but instead have limited their business hours so that they comply with the curfew. Therefore, employees must continue to go to work, unless employers make or have put in place arrangements for remote working.

The measures have also hit university students, pupils, and children as schools, kindergartens and universities have been closed indefinitely, i.e. until the state of emergency is lifted. The primary school curriculum is to be delivered through national TV channels – such as RTS3 and RTS Planeta, or via internal teaching systems.

Finally, the state of emergency has indefinitely postponed parliamentary elections that had been scheduled for April 26, 2020 and the Serbian Electoral Commission has suspended all electoral campaigning.

 

No conclusion, just a plea

Both the pandemic and the state of emergency can only last so long, and so will the derogations from human rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution. Life will return to normal. Businesses will be rebuilt. Until then, all we can do is abide by the measures imposed by the authorities and do our bit to help society recover as soon as possible once the danger has passed.

 

For more information, please contact us via covid19@geciclaw.com