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Anti-minority referendum in Croatia to go to the Constitutional Court for review

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Minority Rights Group Europe (MRG) is concerned that the recent demand for a referendum to limit the use of minority languages in public life in Croatia could, if successful, lead to an infringement of key rights. It would disproportionately affect, in particular, the Serbian minority. The referendum claim initiated by a group of Vukovar citizens led by some war veterans should be assessed by the Constitutional Court before any further action is taken, says the international human rights organization.

The Committee for the Defence of Croatian Vukovar, a group of citzens and war veterans in Vukovar, Eastern Croatia launched a petition for a referendum in November 2013 and demanded that minority language rights, including installing bilingual public signs, should be granted only in local self-governemnt units where at least half of the population is from an ethnic minority. Under the current legislation in Croatia, this ratio is one third. The Serbian minority community in the city of Vukovar meets the current requirement.

After having collected the necessary number of signatures, the request for the referendum was submitted to the Parliament on 16 December 2013, which is meant to measure whether it complies with national and international minority rights standards and the country’s Constitution. The Parliament is expected to consider whether to send the referendum claim to the Constitutional Court for review of its constitutionality.

'Curbing the rights of minorities will not address the complex legacy of Croatia’s past. The mutual respect of language and identity should encourage local communities to enter into dialogue with each other,' says Neil Clarke, Director of MRG.

Croatia is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual country, home to minorities such Albanians, Bosniaks, Czechs, Hungarians, Italians, Roma, Serbs and Slovenes, with Serbs being the largest ethnic minority group. The Serbian population of Vukovar exceeded one third according to the 2011 Croatian census, which was a prerequisite to implement the Constitutional Law on the Rights of Ethnic Minorities in Croatia. This entitled the Serb minority to official and public use of their language there in speech and in writing, including the Serbian Cyrillic script.

Local organizations such as Center for Peace Vukovar are criticizing the call for the referendum. The aspirations of the referendum were also criticized by some leading politicians in Croatia.

'This initiative takes us some 20 years back. It is not taking into account the values that we as a society, by accessing the relevant international treaties and adopting high national standards for the protection of national minorities, undertook to respect,' says Ljubomir Mikic from Center for Peace Vukovar. 'Furthermore, it suggests that the rights of national minorities deserve to remain high on the list of national policy priorities even after the EU accession.'

The referendum has the potential to substantially curb the current scope of minorities to use their language, in speech and in writing, in public life. MRG is concerned that the aspirations of the referendum, if passed, could lead to a violation of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, which guarantees the protection of the use of minority languages and to which Croatia is a party.

MRG encourages President Ivo Josipovic to support measures to protect the language rights of minorities in Croatia and to facilitate talks between different communities. MRG is concerned that so shortly after acceding to the EU, which required Croatia to realize certain standards with regard to the rights of minorities, these achievements may be discarded. It is also worrying that this referendum could set a precedent leading to a greater retraction of minority rights in Croatia and will set a negative example for other countries currently in the accession process.

Notes to editors:

Interview opportunities:

• Ljubomir Mikić, Legal Advisor of Center for Peace Vukovar (Croatia)
M: +385 98 346 119
E: centar-za-mir@vk.t-com.hr 

• Neil Clarke, Director of Minority Rights Group Europe (Hungary)

• Minority Rights Group International is the leading international human rights organization working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples. We work with more than 150 partners in over 50 countries.

To arrange interviews, please contact MRG’s Press Office:
Bernadett Sebály
M: +36 70 217 2601
T: +36 1 327 7032
E: press@minorityrights.org

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