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On September 3, 2003, Human Rights Watch issued a comprehensive, 61-page report, Broken Promises: Impediments to Refugee Return to Croatia, describing the situation of displaced Croatian Serbs. The report argued that tangible progress on returns should be a precondition to European Union (E.U.) membership for Croatia. Human Rights Watch conducted extensive field research in Croatia in February 2004 to assess developments since the release of the report. The purpose of this update is to summarize the findings of the follow-up research. Human Rights Watch’s main conclusion is that there have been no significant changes on the key issues affecting refugee return since September 2003.  

The Croatian government has made some progress on the repossession of Serb properties in some parts of Croatia, and has set deadlines for the resolution of the remaining housing problems. Progress continues to be slow, however, and formulating deadlines does not guarantee that the deadlines will be met in practice. Evictions of temporary occupants with homes in Bosnia and Herzegovina remain sporadic, and the looting and destruction of vacated property continues unabated. Legislation to provide housing to Serbs who lost tenancy rights has yet to be implemented. War crimes arrests and trials remain marred by ethnic bias, and deter return even for those who have not been implicated. Finally, little or no progress has been made in tackling employment discrimination or providing compensation for lost pension payments.

On December 23, 2003, the Croatian parliament elected a new cabinet, following parliamentary elections on November 22. The cabinet is dominated by members of the Croatian Democratic Union (Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica, or HDZ), which returned to power after four years in opposition. HDZ-dominated governments under President Franjo Tudjman hindered the return of Serb refugees in the five years that followed the end of war in Croatia in 1995.

Both before the elections, and since taking office, the new Croatian Prime Minister, HDZ party leader Ivo Sanader, has made repeated calls for Serb refugees from Croatia to return to the country, and promised to assist them in doing so. On December 18, 2003, as Prime Minister-designate, Sanader signed an agreement with Serb representatives in the Croatian parliament, pledging to make improvements for the Serb minority in various sectors of political and social life. The new prime minister also made an important symbolic gesture by using a traditional Serb greeting on the occasion of the Serb Orthodox Christmas in January 2004.

While these gestures and pledges are significant, the true test of the commitment and ability of the new Croatian government to facilitate refugee return, and to respect the rights of ethnic Serbs, remains concrete activity on the ground. It is of utmost importance that the international community, and in particular the E.U., submit to close scrutiny the return-related policies of the Croatian government. Croatia’s aspiration to join the European Union has created a historic momentum for reform and provides the E.U. and its individual member states with an opportunity and an obligation to encourage Croatia to fulfill its human rights commitments.

The European Union has identified improvements in the Croatian government’s policy regarding the return of Serb refugees and full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) as preconditions for deepening of relations with Croatia. In the April 2004 opinion on Croatia’s application for E.U. membership, which recommends that negotiations for accession should be opened with Croatia, the European Commission highlights the need for Croatia to “accelerate efforts to facilitate the return of Serb refugees from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina” and noted that “Croatia needs to take measures to ensure that the rights of minorities, in particular of Serb minority, are fully respected.”1  

[1] European Commission, Opinion on the application of Croatia for membership of the European Union, April 20, 2004, Com (2004) – 257 final, p. 119.

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