Human rights in Croatia

Human rights in Croatia

Human rights in Croatia are defined by the Constitution of Croatia, chapter three, sections 14 through 69.

There are numerous non-governmental organizations dealing with the issue in the country, as well as the Croatian Government's Office for Human Rights.


Since independence

The armed conflicts in former Yugoslavia during the early 1990s, which included Croatia, were characterized by widespread violations of human rights and humanitarian law. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) will have adjudicated only a relatively small number of cases involving the most serious crimes by the time it ceases operating. All other war crimes cases [1] — whether initiated domestically or referred back from the ICTY — will have to be tried by Croatia.

The experience of Croatia illustrates many of the concerns about the shortcomings of trials to date. Patterns observed by Human Rights Watch in war crimes trials in Croatia include:

  • A disproportionate number of cases being brought against the ethnic Serb minority, some on weaker charges than cases against ethnic Croats;[2]
  • The use of group indictments that fail to specify an individual defendant’s role in the commission of the alleged crime;[3]
  • Use of in absentia trials;[4] and
  • Convictions of ethnic Serbs where the evidence did not support the charges.[5]

The European Union, other European organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe, and those countries that have supported the important work of the ICTY all have an interest in seeing that the legacy of the ICTY is carried on successfully.

Human rights violations 1991-1995

Croatia's declaration of independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in June 1991 was followed by an armed conflict between the Croatian Army and Croatian Serb armed forces, aided significantly by the Yugoslav People's Army (Jugoslovenska narodna armija – JNA). In May 1992 Croatia gained international recognition as a UN member state.

From early 1991 to 1995 large parts of the country's territory, in particular areas bordering Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia with a significant or majority Croatian Serb population, were under control of the de facto Croatian Serb political and military leadership of the self-proclaimed autonomous Republic of the Serbian Krajina (Republika srpska krajina – RSK). In January 1992 a UN-brokered cease-fire came into effect and in April UN Protection forces (UNPROFOR) were stationed in the areas under Croatian Serb control (which became known as UN Sectors North, South, West and East).

In May and August 1995 the Croatian Army and police forces recaptured UN Sectors West, North and South, during operations "Flash" (Bljesak) and "Storm" (Oluja). During and after these military offensives, some 200,000 Croatian Serbs, including the entire RSK army, fled to the neighbouring Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina under Serb control (now the Republika Srpska entity).

In November 1995 the Croatian Government and the de facto Croatian Serb authorities signed the Basic Agreement on the Region of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium (Erdut Agreement). This agreement foresaw the peaceful return of the remaining UN Sector East to complete Croatian Government control by January 1998, following a period of interim management of the region by the UN Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia (UNTAES).

During the first stage of armed conflict in 1991 war crimes and crimes against humanity were perpetrated on a massive scale by Serbian forces, as well as by the JNA. These violations included murders, torture including rape, "disappearances", arbitrary detention and forcible expulsions. Instances of mass human rights violations, which are among the most serious in the 1991-1995 conflict, took place in November 1991 following the fall of the town of Vukovar in eastern Croatia. After a protracted and destructive siege of the city by the JNA, its eventual surrender was followed by grave human rights violations, including murders, "disappearances", torture including rape, and the forceful expulsion of a large part of the non-Serb population. The fate and whereabouts of many of those arrested and detained after the fall of Vukovar remain unknown. According to official data, over 500 people are still listed as missing in the Vukovar County region, many of whom are believed to have "disappeared" during or after the fighting.

Between 1991 and 1995, many of those members of the Croatian Serb armed forces believed to be responsible for human rights violations, while technically within the borders of the Republic of Croatia, were not within its effective control as the territory was held by the de facto Republic of Serbian Krajina.

The Croatian authorities, who remained in control of the largest part of the country, also failed to respect human rights, which was manifested in their restrictions on freedom of expression, unfair trials of political prisoners and torture and ill-treatment in police custody. Isolated events of retaliatory violence against the Serb population that stayed within the Croat controlled territory were frequent between 1991 and 1993, with the Gospić massacre of around 100 Serb civilians being the most severe single incident. From 1992 until the "Flash" and "Storm" operations in 1995, there was no major escalation or renewed full-scale armed conflict but instances of killings, torture and arbitrary detention continued to be reported mainly against the non-Serb population in the UN Sectors and elsewhere.

In the aftermath of operations "Flash" and "Storm" widespread human rights violations, in particular murders, torture, and forcible expulsions were committed by members of the Croatian Army and police against Croatian Serb civilians who had remained in the area, and to a lesser degree against members of the withdrawing Croatian Serb armed forces. These human rights violations met with vigorous international condemnation.

Chronology of major events

1991 Dalmatian anti-Serb riots

The Dalmatian anti-Serb riots were an act of violence that took place in the Croatian cities of Zadar and Šibenik on 2 May 1991. Croatian civilians vandalized and destroyed properties belonging to ethnic Serbs in both cities. There was no evidence of any Serb deaths.

Tensions between Croats and Serbs increased steadily through 1990 and 1991 following the electoral victory of Croatia's nationalist Croatian Democratic Union party, led by Franjo Tuđman. Many Serbs were deeply unhappy about the prospect of living as a minority in an independent Croatia. In the jostling for the future conceptions of Yugoslavia and territorial pretensions between the republics, there was an expectation among Serbs of military conflict and that that could lead to persecution of minority Serbs as had occurred during the Second World War. Such fears were promoted and emphasised in public speeches by local Serb leaders like Jovan Rašković, Milan Martić, Milan Babić and by propaganda coming from Milošević's regime.

In the summer of 1990, they took up arms in the heavily Serb-populated Krajina region of Croatia, just inland from Dalmatia, sealing roads and effectively blocking Dalmatia from the rest of Croatia. The insurrection spread to the eastern region of Slavonia in early 1991, when paramilitary groups from Serbia itself took up positions in the region and started to expel non-Serbs from the area. On 2 May 1991, paramilitaries allegedly associated with the Serbian Radical Party[citation needed] killed a number of Croatian policemen in the Borovo Selo massacre and mutilated their bodies. This was, at the time, the bloodiest single incident in the Croatian conflict, and it caused widespread shock and outrage in Croatia. The killings produced an immediate upsurge in ethnic tensions.[6]

The day after the incident in Borovo, one Franko Lisica, the police chief of Polače near Benkovac in northern Dalmatia, was killed by Serb militiamen.[7] This incident created new tensions in his home town of Bibinje near Zadar, where angry local Croats set fire to several properties of local Serbs.

Soon after these events, a group of younger people from Bibinje went to Zadar to participate in a demonstration against the Serb insurrection. The demonstration grew into a riot, and around a hundred properties were damaged, belonging to ethnic Serbs, or to Yugoslav companies such as those of JAT. Because there were many broken windows in the city centre streets, the next day the Zadar newspaper "Narodni List" printed the headline Zadarska noć kristala literally meaning "Zadar night of crystal" (intended to be a pun on kristalna noć, the Croatian translation of Kristallnacht).[citation needed] On 6 May, one Yugoslav army soldier was killed and another seriously wounded by protestors outside the Yugoslav naval command in Zadar.[8]

Demonstrations were also organized in the city of Šibenik[citation needed], where they involved another large group of Croats. Those protests also turned violent, with Serb-owned businesses and vehicles being attacked and destroyed.[citation needed]

The number of properties destroyed was reported to have been at least 168.[9] A number of individual Serbs were also assaulted.[citation needed]

The violence was reported to have lasted for several hours, without the police taking control.[10][11]

The Yugoslav communist government later accused local HDZ officials of having instigated the violence. It claimed that

[The] action was organized by a number of the HDZ activists and the highest-ranking officials in Zadar, in the presence of Vladimir Šeks, deputy Speaker of the Croatian Parliament and Petar Šale - both of them among the highest-ranking HDZ officials at the time.[9]

The events in Zadar were not widely reported at the time in the Western media, though the Serbian media cited the pogrom as an example of anti-Serb sentiment in Croatia.[citation needed]. It was cited in a similar context by the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević during his war crimes trial.[12]

In July, JNA and Serb forces launched the attack on Croatian-populated Dalmatia in the Operation Coast-91. Zadar and Šibenik would become the cities in Dalmatia most heavily hit by Serb attacks, with hundreds of casualties.[citation needed]

Refugees, their return and rights

Throughout the period of armed conflicts hundreds of thousands of people became internally displaced or refugees abroad and approximately 300,000 Croatian Serbs left Croatia during the 1991-95 conflict. According to estimates of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 200,000 Croatian refugees, mostly Croatian Serbs, are still displaced in neighbouring countries and beyond. Tens of thousands of Croatian Serbs could not return and many returns were not sustainable (due to political, but also economic reasons).

The Croatian authorities had pledged to return illegally occupied property by the end of June 2004 and other occupied property by the end of 2004, as part of their obligation to award reparations, including restitution of property, to Croatian Serbs displaced by the conflict. However, the repossession rate continues to remain slow.

Many Croatian Serbs, especially those who formerly lived in urban areas, could not return because they had lost their tenancy rights to socially owned apartments. Lengthy and in some cases unfair proceedings, particularly in lower level courts, continue to remain a major problem for returnees pursuing their rights in court. Moreover, Croatian Serbs continue to face discrimination in employment, property claims and access to other economic and social rights. As of 2006 conditions are improving, especially due to Croatia's bid for membership in the EU, but a significant percentage of Krajina Serbs still remain displaced in neighbouring countries, and the return to pre-war levels seems less likely.

The European Court of Human Rights in 2006 decided against Croatian Serb Kristina Blečić, stripped her of occupancy rights after leaving his house in 1991 in Zadar.[13] On July 20, 2007 the OSCE released a report praising Croatia's cooperation and progress in legal reforms and refugee rehabilitation, specifically completion of most of the obligations regarding Serbian refugees, and fairnes in war crimes trials.[14]

In 2009, the UN Human Rights Committee found a wartime termination of occupancy rights of a Serbian family to violate ICCPR.[15] In 2010, the European Committee on Social Rights found the treatment of Serbs in Croatia in respect of housing to be discriminatory and too slow, thus in violation of Croatia's obligations under the European Social Charter.[16]

Human rights practices in Croatia in the 21st century

The continuing impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the 1991-1995 armed conflict remains the main human rights problem in the Republic of Croatia. The many perpetrators of such crimes committed against Croatian Serbs largely continue to enjoy impunity while the victims and their families are denied access to justice and redress.

Courts are still applying ethnic criteria in investigating and prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity and the Croatian judicial system has overwhelmingly failed to address violations allegedly committed by members of the Croatian Army and police forces.

In its bid to join the European Union, Croatia must ensure respect for fundamental human rights and the rule of law. The failure of the Croatian authorities to ensure that all perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity are brought to justice, regardless of their ethnicity or of that of the victims, and to award full reparations to the victims and their families, is a serious obstacle to the realization of these principles and rights. In the 2004 Amnesty International report on Croatia's human rights practices, concerns are detailed on the unresolved human rights legacy of the 1991-1995 armed conflict focusing in particular on:

  • The failure of the authorities to investigate thoroughly and promptly allegations of unlawful killings and extrajudicial executions committed during the 1991-1995 armed conflict by members of the Croatian Army and police forces, and to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice in proceedings that meet international standards of fairness;
  • The failure of the authorities to disclose information on the fate and whereabouts of Croatian Serbs who went missing during the 1991-1995 armed conflict and of victims of "disappearances", whose alleged perpetrators were members of the Croatian Army and police forces, and to bring to justice those responsible for the "disappearances".

The arrest of the former Croatian Army General Ante Gotovina is a major step in addressing impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the 1991-1995 war in Croatia, Amnesty International said.

LGBT rights

Homosexuality was legalised in 1977. The age of consent was equalised in 1998. Homosexuals are not banned from military service. In 2003, the Croatian government passed laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and education, the distribution of homophobic materials, and defamation of homosexuality and homosexuals. Rights are conferred upon same-sex couples after three years, but registered unions are still not permitted.

In November 2010 the European Commission's annual progress report on Croatia's candidacy stated that that Croatia's numerous homophobic incidents, like the ones mentioned above as well as others, are worrying since inquisitions need to make further efforts in combating hate crimes.[17] The European Parliament, as stands in its 2010 resolution, “expresses its concern at the resentment against the LGBT minority in Croatia, evidenced most recently by homophobic attacks on participants in the Gay Pride parade in Zagreb; urges the Croatian authorities to condemn and prosecute political hatred and violence against any minority; invites the Croatian Government to implement and enforce the Anti-Discrimination Law”.[18]

See also


  1. ^ Human Rights Watch (2004). "ICTY:Justice at Risk". 
  2. ^ Human Rights Watch (2004). "ICTY:Justice at Risk". 
  3. ^ Human Rights Watch (2004). "ICTY:Justice at Risk". 
  4. ^ Human Rights Watch (2004). "ICTY:Justice at Risk". 
  5. ^ Human Rights Watch (2004). "ICTY:Justice at Risk". 
  6. ^ James Gow, The Serbian Project and its Adversaries, p. 159. C. Hurst & Co, 2003
  7. ^ Timeline for Croatian War of Independence
  8. ^ Soldier killed in Croatian protest Associated Press, 7 May 1991
  9. ^ a b Sixth Report of the FRY Government on War Crimes committed in the territory of the former SFRY, December 1995[dead link]
  10. ^ Belgrade home service report (via BBC Monitoring), 2 May 1991
  11. ^ War Crimes, Report VI[dead link]
  12. ^ Transcript of the testimony of one Marko Atlagić, The Prosecutor v. Slobodan Milošević, ICTY, 15 February 2006
  13. ^ ECtHR Grand Chamber judgment on application no. 59532/00
  14. ^ Agence France-Presse (AFP) (2007). "OSCE praises Croatia's legal reforms, refugee rehabilitation". 
  15. ^ HRC views on communication no. 1510/2006
  16. ^ ECSR decision in case no 52/2008
  17. ^
  18. ^

External links

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