European Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks
Photograph: By Saeima [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks says in his report on Croatia that the country should do more in prosecuting war crimes, ensuring the exercise of returnees' rights, promoting media freedoms and fighting hate speech and preparing for the integration of migrants.

Muiznieks and his delegation visited Croatia on 25-29 April this year and held talks with senior officials, including cabinet ministers, nongovernmental organisations and minorities' representatives.

The CoE commissioner hopes that the new government will demonstrate political will and address the legislative deficiencies noted in his report, in an attempt to reinforce the legal and institutional framework for human rights. He warns that the failure to address those problems at the state level will be manifested at the international level.

Many of the problems I noticed in Croatia are similar to those in other countries in the region, such as impunity for war crimes, searching for missing people or compensation for victims. There has been progress in those spheres, but a lot of work is yet to be done, the commissioner said.

The 33-page report on Croatia welcomes the importance which Zagreb attaches to cooperation in prosecuting war crimes committed during the 1990s.

"Whilst welcoming the importance rightly attached by Croatia to regional co-operation in the prosecution of wartime crimes committed during the 1990s, the Commissioner notes with serious concern the recent reported regression of this co-operation in the region," reads the report.

"He is gravely concerned about the lack of accountability in Croatia for certain serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law and the reported bias in the selection of such cases for prosecution.

"Although he welcomes the enactment of the law which provides for reparation for the victims of wartime crimes of sexual violence, the Commissioner urges the authorities to address the identified shortcomings in the law and in its implementation," the report says.

The report urges the authorities "to ensure that all victims of war-related crimes and their families are provided with effective access to justice and adequate reparation."

The report praises the steps Croatia has taken to create conditions for the return of people who fled the country during the 1991-1995 war, but it points to obstacles such as economic, social and cultural hindrances, including the exercise of the right to the official use of their language and script.

The report provides figures collected by the UNHCR showing that "as of June 2015, 32 855 refugees from Croatia remained registered in the region, the majority of them in Serbia (about 26 000). As of December 2015, the authorities and UNHCR had registered 133 242 Serb minority returns to Croatia - more than half of those who fled the country before 1995."

The commissioner is concerned about the statistics showing that over 2,800 people, primarily Roma, remain stateless or at risk of statelessness in Croatia. Nonetheless, he praises Croatia for having "improved the legislative and institutional framework for the protection of national minorities and the fight against hate crime, and the legislation pertaining to the media. Since 2008 Croatia has adopted two national human rights action plans, with the current one covering the period 2013-2016."

In his interview with Hina, Muiznieks said he was impressed by how the minorities in Croatia were organised, represented and funded.

I am surprised by a high degree of minority civil society, he said in the interview. It would be a pity if this very vibrant and strong civil society among the minorities was weakened, he added.

Muiznieks called on the Croatian authorities to fight against the trend of rising ethnic intolerance and hate crime and to halt their negative impacts on the country's social cohesion.

Muiznieks commended "the authorities’ humanitarian approach in dealing with migrants and the solidarity shown by NGOs and ordinary citizens."

"The Commissioner has noted that from September 2015 to March 2016, 658 729 migrants transited through Croatia. According to UNHCR, no instances of refoulement or ill-treatment of migrants were detected during these transits."

He also warned that a more difficult challenge was lying ahead of Croatia once it turned from a transit country into a destination country for migrants and asylum-seekers.

"The Commissioner’s attention was drawn to a draft Law on Amendments to the Aliens Law (the draft Aliens Law) that contains certain positive provisions, such as an expanded list of alternatives to detention and the broadening of the scope of vulnerable persons. However, the Commissioner regrets that the draft law contains provisions which criminalise assistance to irregular migrants and that no exception is made with regard to humanitarian assistance, despite his suggestions to the authorities to refrain from this approach."

The Commissioner assessed that media freedoms in Croatia were on the decline.

"The Commissioner is concerned that despite the existence in Croatia of a sound legal framework for the protection of media freedoms, an adequate environment for the work of the media has not yet been created."

In this context, he drew attention to criminal provisions against defamation, physical attacks against reporters, recent managerial and editorial changes taking place in public media services, and allegations about censorship. "The authorities are urged to refrain from any action that could lead to censorship and threaten editorial independence."

The commissioner regrets that the authorities decided to abolish state subsidies for non-profit media.

According to the report, "for the last ten years Croatia has been evaluated by international media actors as being partly free as concerns freedom of the press. In 2016 it fell to 63rd place in the World Press Freedom Index, from 58th place in 2015. These rankings indicate that an adequate environment for the free work of the media has been lacking for many years. However, certain recent steps taken by the government in this field have put Croatia under the international spotlight, and prompted the expression of serious concerns by many stakeholders."

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