Croatia’s new government should put refugee returns and accountability for war crimes at the top of its policy agenda, Human Rights Watch said today.

The European Union has consistently emphasized Croatia’s need to make progress in both areas—among others—as a precondition for deepening of relations with the country. In a set of benchmarks released today, Human Rights Watch proposed specific steps to measure Croatia’s implementation of these key demands.

“The key human rights issues determining Croatia’s path to Europe are refugee return and accountability for war crimes,” said Rachel Denber, acting director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “There is a fair amount of concern about the new government’s human rights credentials. It can go a long way to address this by fully adhering to E.U. standards in these areas.”

On December 23, 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. After the 1991-95 Balkans war, HDZ-dominated governments hindered the return of Serb refugees and took very limited steps to bring to justice ethnic Croats responsible for war crimes.

More positively, the new Croatian Prime Minister and HDZ party leader, Ivo Sanader, has repeatedly called on Serb refugees from Croatia to return to the country, and promised to assist them in doing so.

However, Mr. Sanader has been evasive about the extent of his commitment to cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). While pledging cooperation with the tribunal, Sanader has avoided stating that his government would surrender to the custody of the tribunal Ante Gotovina, a fugitive general indicted for war crimes committed against Croatian Serbs in 1995.

“The E.U. has a key role to play in encouraging reform in Croatia,” said Denber. “European leaders are keen to see Croatia fully integrated into Europe, as a first step toward the integration of other states in the troubled region of the former Yugoslavia. But this shouldn’t lead to any weakening of human rights standards required for membership.”

The European Union did not exert adequate pressure on the outgoing Croatian government to facilitate refugee returns, Denber added.

The Human Rights Watch benchmarks focus on the issues of refugee returns and war crimes accountability—cooperation with the ICTY and the need for genuine efforts to bring to justice before domestic courts those not tried before the ICTY. Human Rights Watch also emphasized that Croatia should make improvements in other areas as well, including minority rights, judicial reform and freedom of the media.

The issue of refugee returns is discussed more fully in Human Rights Watch’s September 2003, report, “Broken Promises: Impediments to Refugee Return to Croatia,” which describes the plight of displaced Croatian Serbs.