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Half-measures’ and delays leave Croatia’s minorities vulnerable

8 October 2003

Croatia’s minority groups remain vulnerable, lack citizenship rights, or are unable to return to their homes due to failure by the government to fully implement new laws on minority protection, concludes a new Minority Rights Group International (MRG) report, launched today. Eight years after the war, most ethnic Serbs from Croatia remain outside the country as refugees, while internally minorities still struggle for recognition of their rights. The report welcomes the new Constitutional Law on the Rights of National Minorities, however it stresses that responsibilities should be clearly defined and actions put in place in order to avoid further delays in implementation of these vital measures.

The MRG report recognizes that the difficulties of reconstructing relationships between communities are immense after the bloody five-year war with the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. However, it points out that progress has been unacceptably slow in ensuring the implementation of laws and in facilitating the process of refugee return. The government has faced pressure from the international community to end discrimination, facilitate return, and implement human rights standards. These standards should now include the 1993 Copenhagen Criteria provisions for minority protection, crucial to EU membership, as Croatia is a potential EU candidate country.

MRG’s report focuses on the situation of Serb and Roma minorities amongst numerous minority communities in Croatia including Albanians, Bosniaks, Czechs and Hungarians. The Council of Europe (CoE) Advisory Committee have highlighted their concern over these communities and criticised the regrettably slow implementation of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM). At the local level, certain authorities were reluctant both to remedy the consequences of past discriminatory practices, and to establish measures to ensure that they do not recur.

Refugee return remains a major minority issue following the war-time intimidation and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Serbs, forcing them to seek refuge in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. While ethnic Croats were also displaced, the process of return has proved far easier for them than for Serbs. ‘Fast-track’ procedures were introduced under the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) government of Franjo Tudjman for ethnic Croats to obtain citizenship, legal routes for reclaiming property, and the possibility of living in homes vacated by ethnic Serbs. In contrast, obstacles to return have been encountered by ethnic Serbs as highlighted in a 2002 report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which stated concern over discrimination, restitution of property, tenancy and occupancy rights, reconstruction assistance and difficulties for Serbs in obtaining citizenship rights.

Additional issues of international concern include Croatia’s apparent reluctance to arrest some indicted war criminals and send them to the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Action is required to protect and promote Roma and Serbs in the fields of employment, education, media portrayal and access, political participation and the judicial system. Implementation of existing legislation has been mixed, and while progress has been achieved, much remains to be done to fulfil both Croatia’s Constitutional Law commitments and minority rights obligations under international law. As MRG’s report suggests, these issues may fester for years if a change in approach is not forthcoming and resources are not dedicated to this end.

MRG calls on the Croatian government to devise and implement a well-financed programme, with clear, measurable targets, for the safe return of minority communities to Croatia. MRG has urged the EU to ensure that minority rights are an integral part of the partnership agreement with Croatia in adherence to the Copenhagen criteria on minority protection when considering Croatia’s accession. A strategy to promote inter-ethnic harmony is essential and should include major public education and information initiatives to address continuing prejudice and animosities.

Notes for editors

Click here to download the report.