WORLD REPORT 1999 - Croatia

Human Rights Developments

Concrete actions to improve human rights in Croatia fell short of the government’s stated commitments and treaty obligations in 1998, despite intense pressure from the international community. The transfer of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja, and Western Sirmuim (hereafter Eastern Slavonia) from United Nations to Croatian control on January 15 occurred peacefully, but displaced and domiciled Serbs continued to leave the region, frustrated by government obstructionism and harassment from ethnic Croats. Serb returnees elsewhere in Croatia and Serb refugees still abroad fared no better, although new laws adopted during the year offered some hope that housing and documentation problems could be resolved. The independent media continued to face state-sanctioned harassment, and temporary security measures undermined freedom of assembly. Government cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) remained limited, while domestic war crimes trials fell below international standards and confusion continued to surround the amnesty law.

While the overall security situation in Eastern Slavonia remained acceptable, incidents involving attacks and intimidation of Serbs increased following the formal transfer of authority from the U.N. Transitional Authority for Eastern Slavonia (UNTAES) to Croatian control on January 15. Most incidents involved Croat returnees attempting to force out displaced Serbs occupying their homes. Others, such as the February murder of an elderly Serb woman and the July murder of a mixed marriage couple, appeared to have more explicit ethnic overtones. Under the supervision of the U.N. Civilian Police Support Group (UNCPSG), the mixed ethnicity Transitional Police Force (TPF) followed correct procedures, although Serbs complained of frequent identity checks andfailure to investigate or follow up complaints.

While some municipalities had Serb council members and several had Serb mayors, the political autonomy granted to Serbs in Eastern Slavonia during the UNTAES mandate remained conditional: as of this writing, the status of the Joint Council of Municipalities, a consultative body of elected Serb representatives created under UNTAES, remained limited to that of a cultural organization, and no progress had been made in obtaining regular government funding. In April, despite earlier guarantees, the government decided to abolish the municipality status of Tenja and Mirkovci, two Serb-majority villages, allegedly for budgetary reasons, prompting many long-term Serb residents to sell their homes and leave.

Serbs throughout Croatia faced extensive legal and administrative discrimination when trying to obtain documents and pensions. Despite government decrees issued in April on the implementation of the 1997 law on convalidation, local authorities continued to refuse to recognize marriage and divorce certificates, certification stamps in working books, and property deeds issued by the authorities of the “Republika Srpska Krajina” between 1991 and 1995. Many Serbs of retirement age were unable to obtain pension credit for the time they worked between 1991 and 1995. Serbs frequently complained of long delays in obtaining identification cards, citizenship certificates and passports, and of discriminatory naturalization fees.

Housing discrimination against Serbs remained a major concern. While the government abolished several discriminatory war-time housing laws, courts refused to hear cases of Serb plaintiffs trying to reoccupy their property, while courts in Eastern Slavonia issued eviction notices to displaced Serbs occupying Croat houses, who also faced “soft evictions” in the form of harassment and threats from Croat returnee owners. Few of those forced out were able to reoccupy their own property and some were moved to collective centers. New mixed-ethnicity housing commissions established by the June “Program on Return”— a government plan to restore property to the pre-war owners—were formed in most municipalities, but as of this writing, the government had not issued effective instructions on their operation and few were functioning properly. Despite widespread destruction of Serb-owned property in war-affected areas, a discriminatory reconstruction act prevented all but a handful of Serbs from receiving government reconstruction assistance.

Although new laws were passed to facilitate return, the more than 300,000 Serb refugees living outside Croatia faced ongoing hurdles to voluntary repatriation, including the requirement that Croatian citizens without documents must apply for citizenship. In May, under the threat of European Union (E.U.) sanctions, the Croatian government amended the Procedures for Return, an April law enumerating the procedures for obtaining the documents necessary to enter Croatia, with Mandatory Instructions simplifying the application process. The Croatian embassy in Bosnia also began consular days in Banja Luka in July, allowing Serb refugees in Republika Srpska to apply for travel documents for the first time.

Despite these developments, consulates in Bosnia and Yugoslavia offered limited numbers of appointments per day which, combined with cumbersome and complex procedures requiring multiple visits to consulates, sharply limited the rate at which documents were issued. With much of the property owned by Serbs occupied or destroyed, and discriminatory procedures for reoccupying or reconstructing property, return remained an abstraction for many, even among those refugees with Croatian documents.

Croatia’s process of accounting for war crimes remained a matter of serious concern. Confusion about the law on general amnesty and politicized war crimes trials remained a source of uncertainty among Serbs inside Croatia and an impediment to return for refugees. While the government issued a list in March granting amnesty to 13,575 persons from Eastern Slavonia, it made no effort to inform the persons directly, and the information given for each name frequently lacked the biographical detail necessary conclusively to determine identity. The number of further potential cases under the amnesty law remained unclear. Irregularities in the conduct of war crimes trials led to suspicions that prosecutions were politically motivated; evidence produced and questioning pursued by the judge often bore little or no relation to the charges, and persons were sometimes subject to prosecution twice for the same crimes. An order from the president of the Supreme Court forbidding direct contact between court officials and OSCE and U.N. representatives severely restricted their ability to perform trial monitoring. Croatian authorities continued to refuse to refer war crimes evidence or cases to the ICTY for review, while Croatia’s overall cooperation with ICTY remained poor except in cases involving Croat victims.

Media freedom remained elusive during 1998. While renewal of Radio 101’s broadcast license and the launch of Forum 21, a media reform association, in November 1997 augured well, electronic media remained largely under the control of the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica, HDZ ). Croatia continued to lack a private national television station and, Catholic Radio aside, no private national radio station. The granting of broadcast licenses remained inconsistent and prone to HDZ interference. A draft bill in April to remove the Croatian Radio-Television (Hrvatska Radiotelevizija) from government control hinted at the licensing of an independent national television channel, but legislation remained pending at the time of this writing. While the court dropped criminal libel charges brought by twenty-two government ministers against the editor of the newsweekly Globus (Zagreb) in April, ongoing state-initiated persecution of independent print media through the courts continued. An unresolvedlibel case against Feral Tribune (Split) served as an egregious example of the hundreds of mostly state initiated cases pending against independent publications.

The response of the authorities to a mass demonstration in February organized by twelve trade unions and six opposition parties and its handling of inflammatory rallies by extreme nationalists the same month revealed the fragility of freedom of assembly in Croatia. After the municipal authorities and police rejected a request to hold a public rally in the center of Zagreb to protest rising prices and tax increases, ostensibly on safety grounds, organizers decided to proceed anyway. Demonstrators were met by 4,700 police officers, including 1,500 special (paramilitary) police, who erected barricades around the main square to prevent the protest from taking place. Although organizers relocated the demonstration to a nearby square, thirty protesters and six police were injured as police used force against demonstrators attempting to enter the cordoned-off area. In March, Croatian authorities responded to a February anti-Serb rally by the ultra-nationalist Croatian Party of Rights (Hrvatska Stranka Prava, HSP) in Borovo Selo by banning all public demonstrations in Eastern Slavonia until August, a measure in contravention of the Croatian constitution, and banned a further HSP rally scheduled to take place in Knin.

Defending Human Rights

Croatian human rights organizations continued to play a crucial role in civil society, exposing abuses and providing practical guidance to Croatian citizens facing administrative and judicial discrimination. Monitoring and campaigning organizations such as the Croatian Helsinki Committee, the Committee for Human Rights, and BABE (Be Active, Be Emancipated) provided a counterpoint to the predominantly state-controlled media, while groups such as the Serb Democratic Forum and the Civil Rights Project provided legal advice. While most domestic human rights groups and international monitors were permitted to carry out their work unimpeded by the state, some domestic monitors faced harassment in the course of their field work. In November 1997, the premises of the Croatian Helsinki Committee in Vukovar were stoned and the nameplate was removed, and in April monitors from the committee were attacked and had film confiscated while investigating the arson and looting of Serb houses in Donja Bacuga, near Petrinja. Both incidents were reported to local police and the Ministry of the Interior but no serious investigations were ever carried out.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations
UNTAES concluded its two-year mandate on January 15. While UNTAES managed the peaceful reintegration of Eastern Slavonia into Croatia, the ongoing flight of Serbs from the region circumscribed its success. At the request of the Croatian government, the Security Council established the UNCPSG to continue monitoring the region’s Transitional Police Force until October. Security Council presidential statements in March and July decried Croatia’s failure to fulfill key obligations of the 1995 Erdut and 1997 Joint Working Group agreements, including implementation of the amnesty and convalidation laws and funding for the Joint Council of Municipalities. Despite a growing need to protect returnees, UNHCR continued to consolidate its operations in Croatia, closing field offices and reducing international staff. After considering the report of its special rapporteur for the Former Yugoslavia, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution at its April Session calling on Croatia to facilitate the return “of all refugees and displaced persons to their homes,” and also “to guarantee freedom of association and the press.”

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
After UNTAES’s mandate ended, the OSCE became the leading international organization in Croatia. While the mission often took a critical stance in confidential reports, its self-styled “political” function, coupled with diplomatic public statements and an unwillingness actively to monitor or intervene in human rights cases fell short of the full potential of its mandate. With more than 280 personnel, of which 120 were police monitors, deployed in regional centers and field offices, the mission played a central role in negotiating the procedures and program for return (described above) and expanded its operations in Eastern Slavonia after January 15. The newly appointed OSCE Representative on Freedom of Media, Freimut Duve, identified the government’s control of media distribution, excessive libel and defamation prosecution, and inadequate competition within the electronic media as factors restricting the development of free and independent media in Croatia. Following a July decision by the OSCE Permanent Council, the mission took over police monitoring in Eastern Slavonia from the UNCPSG on October 15. At the time of this writing, the mission mandate was expected to be renewed unchanged at the end of 1998.

Council of Europe
In November 1997, Croatia confirmed its ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages (a requirement of its membership in the Council of Europe). Unfulfilled membershiprequirements prompted legislative recommendations on media reform issued by the council in March, and a preliminary report from the Parliamentary Assembly’s Monitoring Committee the same month highlighting the need for greater Croatian commitment to the return of Serb refugees. During a June visit, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly, Leni Fischer, pointed to the need for continued efforts on “freedom and independence of the media, freedom of expression, resolving ethnic problems, and shortcomings related to election proceedings.” The Assembly’s Migration Committee visited Croatia in October to assess progress in the return of refugees and displaced persons.

European Union
E.U. relations with Croatia continued to be governed by the E.U.’s “Regional Approach to Countries of South-East Europe,” which has a comprehensive set of human rights criteria. Croatia’s failure to meet these human rights criteria caused the E.U. to limit aid to Croatia to 6.65 million ECU (U.S. $7.74 million) for humanitarian assistance and 2.7 million ECU (U.S. $ 3.14 million) in support to independent media, and it remained ineligible for PHARE reconstruction aid. On April 27, the E.U. Council of Ministers threatened to suspend autonomous trade measures (ATMs) with Croatia, citing especially the Procedure for Return as inadequate. The threat of worsening E.U. relations was instrumental in Croatia’s adoption of Mandatory Instructions and the Program on Return, both of which were cautiously welcomed by the council. While the suspension of ATMs appeared unlikely at the time of this writing, the council’s conclusions of June 29 stated that any improvement of relations would be conditioned on full implementation of the Program on Return.

United States
The United States relied mainly on incentives to induce Croatia to meet its Dayton commitments and improve its domestic human rights record. In January, USAID announced a $13.5 million two-year reconstruction assistance program designed to facilitate the reintegration of refugees and internally displaced persons into their former communities. The first year grant of $7.5 million formed part of the $23 million provided to Croatia through the SEED technical assistance fund. Croatia also received an estimated $425,000 through the IMET military training program. The close military relationship between the two countries was underscored by strong indications from the State Department in May and July that Croatia might be eligible for membership in NATO’s Partnership for Peace by year’s end provided that it made progress on refugee returns, Dayton implementation, and democratization. Remarks during Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s August visit to Croatia, however, signaled growing frustration over Croatia’s intransigence in all three areas, particularly with regard to its internal democracy and continued interference in Bosnian politics.