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Human Rights Watch World Report 1998


Human Rights Developments

International pressure induced a modest turnaround in Croatia's human rights record in 1997. The Croatian government's desire for financial aid and political recognition led it to take some steps toward the political and social integration of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja, and Western Sirmium withthe rest of Croatia. However, Serbs continued to face discrimination and ill-treatment by representatives of the state, leaving many anxious about their future prospects in the country. As in previous years, the government of President Franjo Tudjman cracked down on all political dissent and criticism, putting pressure on the independent press and domestic political opponents. Croatia also failed to use its considerable influence over Bosnian Croat communities to encourage the protection of human and minority rights in regions under their control. In October, however, Croatia did appear to reverse its long-standing policy of opposing the work of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) by helping to broker the surrender and extradition of ten Bosnian Croats indicted for war crimes by the tribunal.

Eastern Slavonia, Baranja, and Western Sirmium (hereafter referred to as "Eastern Slavonia") remained under the jurisdiction of the U.N. Transitional Authority for Eastern Slavonia (UNTAES) throughout 1997, with turnover now scheduled for January 15, 1998. Massive protests and violence in late 1996 and early 1997-including the bombing of a Catholic church and Croatian government offices-reflected the anxiety of Serb residents of Eastern Slavonia over the area's imminent reversion to Croatian rule. Many Serbs, however, have pledged to remain in the region after the turnover date.

Official discrimination against Serbs in Eastern Slavonia took a variety of forms in 1997, with Serbs facing obstacles to obtaining citizenship papers and receiving pensions. A 1996 amnesty law was shrouded in confusion and thus accorded no security to thousands of Croatian Serb combatants. In early 1997, the Croatian government circulated a list of thousands of Serbs suspected of committing war crimes, although the list was reduced first to 150 following international pressure, and later down to twenty-five. Police, nevertheless, arrested hundreds of Serb "suspects" on war crimes and other criminal charges. Croatia's constitutional court upheld a law allowing Croat refugees and displaced persons "temporarily" to occupy "abandoned" Serb property, though it did repeal articles prohibiting the exchange and sale of homes.

After repeated urging by the U.N. and assurances from Croatian government and social leaders, some Croatian Serbs did briefly appear to reconsider the possibility of reintegration. Though a successful referendum was held in early April on the creation of Eastern Slavonia as a politically autonomous region, Serb groups nonetheless decided to participate in national elections and a new moderate Serb political party, the SDSS (Independent Democratic Serb Party), won seats in Eastern Slavonia in the Croatian local elections held on April 13. On the other hand hundreds of Croatian Serbs were unable to vote when their names were mysteriously struck from voter registration lists, and thousands more were disenfranchised as a result of the dragged-out procedure of obtaining citizenship.

Through the first half of 1997, the Croatian government hampered attempts by non-Croats to return to Croatia, however, by the fall the government was allowing limited return. In May, around one hundred Serb refugees were expelled after an attempt to return to homes near Sisak. President Tudjman announced in the same month that it was "unreasonable" to expect that all of the 200,000 Serbs exiled from Croatia would be able to return and later claimed that such return would inevitably lead to renewed conflict-that Croatia's first priority must be to bring "home" all ethnic Croat refugees. Local newspapers have quoted officials as saying that the equivalent of only 5 percent of the prewar Serb population would be allowed to stay in Croatia. By October, however, international pressure had prodded the government into allowing 5,000-7,000 Serbs to return to their homes in the Krajina and Western Slavonia.

The government continued to exert strong control over the media, harass opposition politicians,and severely limit freedom of expression, despite repeated promises to open public dialogue to opposition views. In December 1996, the Croatian Journalists' Society declared that pressure on Croatian journalists had actually increased since Croatia joined the Council of Europe. Both the April 13 local elections and the June 15 presidential election suffered seriously from media bias toward the ruling HDZ (Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica). An American study found that Tudjman was given 300 times the airtime as that of his nearest opponent, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe declared the presidential elections flawed on the basis of unequal access to the media.

In May, two journalists from the independent Feral Tribune, charged under an internationally-criticized law forbidding defamation of top government officials, again faced trial after an appeals court overturned their September 1996 acquittal. The Feral Tribune was also subjected to a U.S.$7,000 fine for printing a "pornographic" cover. Independent Radio 101, another frequent target of state harassment, was threatened with non-renewal of its broadcasting license; although the government bowed to pressure from the European Union and public protests in November 1996 and did ultimately extend the license.

Democracy suffered further setbacks in Croatia throughout 1997. President Tudjman was re-elected in a presidential election described by the OSCE as seriously flawed. In addition to the impact of media bias described above, the presidential election was also compromised by an eleventh-hour assault on candidate Vlado Gotovac, who was beaten so badly by a Croatian army captain that he was forced to spend the days leading up to the election in the hospital. Gotovac's subsequent request that the election be postponed was rejected by the government.

President Tudjman and the ruling HDZ party continued to suppress opposition in 1997, after having Interior Minister Ivan Jarnjak removed in December 1996 for failing to quell anti-government protests. Following its wide success in the April elections, the HDZ succeeded in placing enough members on the Zagreb city council to elect a mayor from the HDZ, ending an eighteen-month standoff during which time Zagreb was essentially without a mayor, as President Tudjman had vetoed the installation of one opposition-party mayor after another.

Intolerance to opposition reached absurd heights in May, when Croatian opposition politician Stipe Mesic was accused of treason for allegedly providing ten pages of testimony to the ICTY on conversations between President Tudjman and then-President of Serbia Slobodan Milosevic on the partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina prior to the war. Such conversations were widely believed to have taken place. Mesic, the last president of federal Yugoslavia, has never testified before the tribunal. Ivan Zvonimir Cicak, president of the Croatian Helsinki Committee, is currently under investigation for discussing the same conversations in an August interview with the Feral Tribune. The newspaper was the subject of bomb threats following publication of the interview.

Croatia failed to secure compliance of ethnic Croats in Bosnia in accordance with its promise under the Dayton Peace Accords to "guarantee" their compliance with the agreement. Instead, Croatian officials frequently appeared to support divisionist tactics by Bosnian Croats. In May, Defense Minister Gojko Susak indicated his support for the illegal nationalist attempt to create a Croatian state within the Bosnian Federation and attended a "state" meeting in which "Herceg-Bosna" adopted a coat-of-arms, flag, and national statute. Susak also gave a funeral oration for Bosnian Croat leader Mate Boban, head of the HDZ during the height of wartime abuses against civilians, in which he praised Boban for creating "the framework of statehood," and swore that Croats must not "betray what he began."

Providing a clear indication of the Croatian government's influence over the Bosnian Croats, athreatened boycott of the September Bosnian municipal elections by Bosnian Croats led OSCE Chief Ambassador Robert Frowick to ask for Tudjman's assistance in convincing the Croats to accept the election. Tudjman's intervention in this case resulted in the immediate suspension of the boycott. By contrast, Croatia failed to intervene in West Mostar, where Bosnian Croats, through mass evictions, bombings, and killings, successfully "cleansed" their town of its small minority of Bosniaks.

Until October, the Croatian government voiced frequent and heated opposition to the work of the ICTY-in violation of its numerous promises to support the Dayton agreement. In December 1996, President Tudjman decorated indictee General Tihomir Blaskic in absentia for retaking the Knin region in 1995-the very operation that was the subject of Blaskic's indictment by the tribunal. Croatia has persistently refused to supply official transcripts, memos, and recordings solicited by the ICTY as evidence in the Blaskic case. Defense Minister Susak called the ICTY's demands inappropriate, saying that turning over these documents would "jeopardize national security," and also repeatedly refused the ICTY's request that he come to provide testimony before the court. Justice Minister Miroslav Separovic echoed these statements in May, charging that the ICTY "violated Croatian sovereignty" by conducting investigations in Croatia without the government's approval. Then, in a surprising about-face, Croatian authorities played a major role in the October surrender of ten Bosnian Croat indictees to the ICTY. It remains to be seen, however, whether Croatia similarly will refuse to provide important documentation in these cases, which would significantly handicap their prosecution.

The Right to Monitor

Human rights monitoring by domestic and international organizations generally proceeded unhindered, though the threat of lawsuits under Croatia's excessively restrictive government defamation laws and harassment by extremist groups inevitably resulted in a certain degree of self-censorship among domestic monitors.

The Open Society Institute (OSI), a democracy-building initiative of the U.S.-based Soros Foundation, was singled out for particular attention from the Croatian authorities this year. In December 1996, Croatian customs confiscated U.S.$65,000 from OSI on the grounds that it was not properly declared, and then detained three staff members on related charges. The organization was later accused of tax evasion and forced to pay $500,000 in order to be able to stay in the country.

The Role of the

International Community

United Nations

Though the transfer of Eastern Slavonia was scheduled to have taken place on July 15, the Security Council resolved on July 14 to extend UNTAES' mandate for an additional six months, expressing "grave concern" over the lack of necessary conditions for refugee return to Eastern Slavonia, the lack of improvement in the area of civil and political rights, and the government's failure "to cooperate fully" with the ICTY. The secretary general added in his October 2 status report that "Croatia's insistence and pressure for the termination of the UNTAES mandate has increased, but the progress achieved to date does not give confidence that the peaceful reintegration of the people of the region is as yet self-sustainable and irreversible."

It was generally believed that the presence of UNTAES was the only reason Serbs have feltcomfortable staying as long as they have in Eastern Slavonia during 1997. Croatia was adamant that the mandate of UNTAES finally end in January 1998, though it expressed a willingness to accept the presence of international monitors in a reduced capacity.

Organization for Security and

Cooperation in Europe

On June 26, the OSCE decided to broaden the mandate of its mission to Croatia, increase the number of personnel on the ground to 250 from fourteen, and extend the stay of its mission from June 30, 1997, to December 31, 1998. Expressing concern over the status of refugee return and the protection of national minorities, it declared its intention to monitor legislation and official actions pertaining to these issues, as well as to continue to monitor human rights and assist the Croatian government with the development of democratic institutions and processes.

European Union

The European Commission did not recommend that Croatia be invited to begin talks on accession into the E.U. Croatia received a "no compliance" rating with regard to the E.U.'s conditions for Croatia's membership, including cooperation with the ICTY, facilitation of refugee return, ethnic reintegration, political cooperation in Mostar, and national reconciliation. Both the E.U. as a body and individual European governments expressed deep concern over Croatia's intransigence in these areas, and the E.U. threatened to place trade sanctions on Croatia in 1998 if improvements did not occur. The European Commission did continue, however, to provide financial support for de-mining efforts and reconstruction of infrastructure.

United States

The U.S. remained one of the most active monitors of the Croatian government's activities, exerting substantial pressure on Croatia throughout 1997 to resettle refugees and cooperate with the ICTY as promised under the Dayton agreement. A number of visits from U.S. officials brought renewed pledges from officials but appeared to generate few tangible results. Frustrated with Croatia's lack of progress, in June, the U.S. blocked a $30 million World Bank loan to Croatia that was to be the second installment in a three-year $486 million package. In September, the U.S. also issued a paper to the Council of Europe calling for Croatia's suspension from that body on the basis of its noncompliance with commitments to improve, among other things, freedom of expression, discrimination against minorities, and resettlement of refugees. The U.S. withdrew the suspension recommendation after the ten indictees' turnover, though its fundamental criticism was unchanged. Croatia's November 1996 admission to the Council of Europe was conditioned on its agreement to respect the rights of minorities and to promote reconciliation and return.

Relevant Human Rights Watch Report:

Croatia: Human Rights in Eastern Slavonia During and After the Transition of Authority, 4/97

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