As Croatia closed membership negotiations and received a tentative date (July 2013) to join the European Union, its progress on human rights lagged behind its commitments. The government’s reaction to the international war crimes conviction of a Croatian general and its domestic handling of war crimes revealed continuing difficulties in coming to terms with the past. Croatia released a long-promised plan for deinstitutionalizing persons with intellectual or mental disabilities, but took little action to implement it. Despite the announcement of a plan to compensate Croatian Serbs stripped of property rights during the war from 1991 to 1995, Serbs faced continued obstacles reintegrating back into Croatia.
War Crimes Accountability
In April the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found former generals Ante Gotovina and Ivan Cermak guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against Serbs in 1995. A third defendant, Mladen Markac, was acquitted. The convictions of the generals led to days of protests by veterans’ groups and others opposed to the ruling, and condemnation from political leaders in Croatia, including Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor and President Ivo Josipovic.
On July 20, 2011, the remaining fugitive wanted by the ICTY, Goran Hadzic, was arrested in Serbia and extradited to The Hague two days later (see Serbia chapter). Hadzic, president of rebel Serb-controlled territory in Croatia in 1992 and 1993, is charged with ordering the killing of hundreds and the deportation of thousands of Croats and other non-Serbs between 1991 and 1993. In August he pled not guilty to 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In the first eight months of 2011, 20 individuals were indicted for war crimes in domestic courts: 11 Serbs and 9 members of the Croatian army and police. The most prominent of the nine, Tomislav Mercep, is accused of having command responsibility for—and in some cases ordering—the illegal detention, torture, and killing of 53 Yugoslav Army soldiers in 1991.
The number of war crimes trials conducted in absentia increased in 2011, particularly in cases in which the defendant was a Serb. An ongoing plan by the Chief State Attorney’s Office to revise past convictions rendered in absentia fails to address the continuing problem of conducting trials in absentia. In the first eight months of 2011, 20 of the 33 active war crimes trials took place at least partially in absentia, and of the 20 newly-indicted individuals in 2011, 10 were indicted in absentia, primarily Serbs. Suspects continued to face trial in regular district courts rather than the four courts specially designated for war crimes trials.
In March—five years after pledging with the EU to move people with disabilities out of institutions and into the community—Croatia published a five-year plan for deinstitutionalization. The plan pledges to move 30 percent of people with intellectual disabilities out of institutions by 2016 and 20 percent of people with mental disabilities by 2017, while developing community-based support for these populations, such as organized housing.
However, the plan continued to consider smaller institutions as adequate community living options and did little to define criteria for community-based support. At this writing the government had yet to provide increased funding to community support programs for people with intellectual or mental disabilities, according to disability groups in Croatia.
More than 17,000 people in Croatia remain deprived of their legal capacity, stripping them of the opportunity to exercise basic legal rights and putting them at risk of arbitrary detention in institutions. Despite commitments by Croatia at the Universal Periodic Review before the United Nations Human Rights Council in November 2010, including to abolish guardianship laws, there has been no progress in reforming the system.
Return and Reintegration of Serbs
Four hundred seventy-nine refugees—all Serbs—returned to Croatia in the last six months of 2010 and the first six months of 2011, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), down slightly from the same period twelve months earlier. Only two Serb internally displaced persons (IDPs) returned to their homes in Croatia in the first six months of 2011. As of the end of June there were 2,084 IDPs in Croatia, 1,636 of them Serbs.
Croatian authorities began to implement a September 2010 decision to permit Serbs stripped of the tenancy rights during the 1991-1995 war to buy apartments at discounts of up to 70 percent, a key impediment to Serb returns in urban areas. Out of the 1,140 households eligible for this program and contacted by Croatian authorities, 610 had submitted applications to purchase homes as of September 2011. However, according to official data, as of mid-year none of the apartments had been sold because of delays in legal registration of the state entity in charge of selling the apartments.
There were ongoing delays in government-sponsored housing programs for returnees. Only 286 applications were approved from June 2010 to June 2011, bringing overall approvals to 7,742, of which 60 percent were from Serb families.
There was some progress in processing Serb’s pension eligibility claims for recognition of wartime work in formerly rebel-held areas. According to UNHCR, as of the end of June, 23,568 of 24,901 requests had been processed, although only 57 percent were resolved positively, with ongoing problems about admissible evidence. There were only minor increases in positive decisions in regions where recognition had been as low as 30 percent in previous years, continuing to compromise the financial security of returnees to those regions.
Asylum and Migration
Asylum applications rose to 392 in the first seven months of the year compared to 290 in all of 2010. Problems with processing asylum applications remained, including lack of access to a state-funded lawyer at first instance and for those seeking to challenge their detention. The recognition rate for asylum applications in 2011 decreased to about 3 percent, with 7 individuals recognized as refugees in the first 7 months of 2011 and 2 granted subsidiary protection.
Croatia addressed overcrowding at its asylum reception center in Kutina by securing a temporary facility with similar conditions that can accommodate 150 more individuals.
Despite increasing arrivals of unaccompanied migrant children (213 in 2010), Croatia continued to lack an adequate infrastructure to protect them. Although guardians are appointed to all unaccompanied migrant children upon arrival in Croatia, they lack capacity and guidance on how to secure the best interests of their wards, with no provision for interpreters, legal assistance (other than for asylum appeals), or a tracking system, despite UNHCR reports that about 90 percent leave Croatia before their asylum procedure is completed.
Freedom of Media
Concerns over freedom of media, particularly for journalists reporting on corruption and organized crime, prompted a visit in January of the civil society organization Southeast European Media Organization (SEEMO). Croatian parliamentarian Josip Djakic filed defamation suits against AleksandraStankovic from the public television station HTV in July and Goran Gazdek, journalist and editor of Virovitica.net, in September, following their critical reporting on alleged corruption in the Association for Croatian War Veterans.
In October a judge ruled that Gazdek had not committed defamation, stating that Gazdek’s reporting on the association was truthful, and that he was not required to reveal his sources. First hearings in the case against Stankovic were held in Zagreb in October.
In December 2010, 12 individuals were arrested in the June 2008 attack of Dusan Miljus, an investigative journalist for Jutarnji List newspaper covering corruption. However, the state attorney dropped charges against suspects in June, citing insufficient evidence. No other suspects have been arrested in the case.
Human Rights Defenders
In October the Croatian parliament passed a law merging all five of its national human rights institutions into one central body, citing the need for cost-saving and efficiency. The merger affects the Human Rights Center as well as the four ombudsperson offices (the General People’s Ombudsperson and the Ombudspeople for Disabilities, Children, and Gender Equality). The ombudsperson offices had opposed the change, arguing it would overstretch the capacity of one office to deal with all these human rights issues. The law will go into effect in July 2012.
Key International Actors
At the end of June Croatia closed negotiations for entry into the EU. Despite ongoing concerns about corruption, war crimes accountability, and freedom of expression, amongst other human rights issues, Croatia received a tentative entry date of July 2013 but will continue to be monitored by the EU until that time to ensure compliance with membership requirements.
In November the EU progress report on Croatia cited progress on tackling war crimes impunity and corruption but expressed concern at the limited progress in investigating prior cases of intimidation of journalists, slow progress on deinstitutionalizing people with disabilities, and ongoing discrimination against Roma.