The application by Croatia for membership of the Council of Europe

Doc. 7534
23 April 1996

OPINION[1]
Rapporteur: Earl of DUNDEE, United Kingdom, European Democratic Group


Introduction

            Croatia applied for membership of the Council of Europe on 11 September 1992, having obtained special guest status with the Parliamentary Assembly on 4 May 1992.

            The Assembly rapporteurs have paid several visits to Croatia in the past few months. The Committee on Relations with European Non-Member Countries was to hold a plenary meeting in the country from 15 to 17 May 1995, but this had to be postponed because of the military action launched by Zagreb in Western Slavonia at the beginning of May. The committee had also to cancel the meeting it was to hold in Zagreb and Western Slavonia from 6 to 8 September 1995, due to the Croatian army's offensive in Krajina at the beginning of August and its human rights consequences.  The Croatian special guest delegation has renewed its invitation to the committee, which hopes to be able to give a favourable reply in 1996.

            I should like, first of all, to pay a tribute to the efforts and the efficiency of Mr Van der Linden, Rapporteur of the Political Affairs Committee on Croatia's application for membership, and congratulate him on the quality of his report (Doc. 7510).

            The Republic of Croatia declared its independence when the Yugoslav Federation broke up in 1990-91, and secured international recognition in 1992. This was followed by a war with Serbia, the occupation of a quarter of the Republic's territory, and substantiated involvement in the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

            The purpose of this opinion is to analyse developments in the country in terms of inter-ethnic cohabitation, domestic policy and human rights.

I. Uneasy inter-ethnic relations

            The 1991 census established that the population of the Republic of Croatia was 4 700 000 (77,9% Croats, 12,2% Serbs and small minorities of Slovenes, Hungarians, Italians, Albanians, etc.). Since then, war has caused major demographic dislocation and a considerable influx of refugees, particularly from Bosnia.

            Having declared its independence together with Slovenia on 25 June 1991, Croatia was attacked by Serbia. The ensuing war lasted several months, killing thousands of people, destroying towns such as Vukovar in the east of the country, and displacing tens of thousands of inhabitants.

            The cease-fire, signed on 3 January 1992, sanctioned the de facto occupation by the local Serbian authorities of 25% of the territory in Slavonia and Krajina. It was at this stage that the United Nations decided to demilitarise these areas under UNPROFOR supervision.

            Germany recognised the Republic of Croatia on 19 December 1991, and the other European Union countries followed suit on 15 January 1992. The country was admitted to the United Nations on 22 May 1992.

            In July of the same year, the "Serbian Republic of Krajina" (SRK) proclaimed its independence, but it has remained unrecognised by any other state.

            1992 also saw the outbreak of the inter-ethnic conflict in the neighbouring Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Even though it long officially denied any involvement, Croatia did provide military support for the local Croat forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina against the Serbs and Muslims.

            On 18 March 1994, after several changes of alliance, the Croat authorities and the Muslims signed the Washington Agreements, which provide for the creation of a Croat-Muslim Federation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and pave the way for a possible confederation with Croatia.

            Having lost 25% of their territory, the Zagreb authorities have naturally tried to recover it. The lost territory is the (self-proclaimed) "Serbian Republic of Krajina" (capital: Knin), which includes in particular Northern Dalmatia and Western Slavonia, with a total population of 140 000 to 160 000 ethnic Serbs.

            On 22 January 1993 the Croat forces launched "Operation Maslenica" with a view to restoring the communication routes linking Zagreb and Dalmatia. Although the operation was a military success, it did not achieve its political goal of reintegrating Krajina, which was still under Serb control, protected by UNPROFOR.

            Western Slavonia had also been a United Nations protected area since 1992. A cease-fire agreement was concluded there on 29 March 1994.

            On 1 May 1995, the date on which the four-month truce in Bosnia expired, the Croatian army marched against the Serb militia lines in the Pakrac region, Western Slavonia. The aim of this operation was to regain control of a stretch of motorway between Zagreb and the east of the country. A few days later the Croat forces had taken over all the strategic areas of Western Slavonia. The Serb separatists were not long in riposting, and Zagreb was bombarded several times.

            As Mr Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the former special rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights points out, the Croat forces thereby committed a violation of the cease-fire agreement signed on 29 March 1994.

            On 4 May 1995, the European Union Presidency, while condemning the reprisals, deplored "the initiative taken by the Croatian authorities, in violation of the cease-fire agreement of 29 March 1994, to launch a large-scale operation in Western Slavonia, thereby compromising the efforts currently being made under the auspices of the international community to promote a peaceful solution in Krajina, at the very time when the new United Nations force is being deployed to restore confidence in Croatia".

            According to Mr van der Linden, Rapporteur of the Political Affairs Committee, who visited the region in June 1995, there are reports that the Croatian military operation was accompanied by major human rights violations.

            In this connection we should note that the United Nation's role in Croatia changed in spring 1995. Given that UNPROFOR's mandate was to expire on 31 March 1995, President Tudjman had threatened to block its renewal on the grounds that UNPROFOR, stationed on the front line between the Croat and Serb forces, was simply protecting the Serbs' 1991 conquests. In the end, after intensive diplomatic activity, the United Nations forces remained in the country, under the name of UNCRO (United Nations Confidence Restoration Operation in Croatia).

            On 4 August 1995, following unsuccessful negotiations between the Croats and the Krajina Serbs and the signature of a military agreement between Zagreb and Sarajevo, the Croatian army launched its attack.  By the end of July, after an offensive of the Bosnian Serbs against the protected zone of Bihac, it had already reintegrated Bosansko Grahovo, an important road transport junction located south-east of the Bihac enclave, and the town of Glamoc, which resulted in retaliatory bombardments on the part of the Bosnian and Krajina Serbs.  Within a few days, the Croatian forces invaded the Krajina from which more than 100 000 Serbs left, some of whom were sent to settle in Kosovo; according to the European mediator, Carl Bildt, this event would be the biggest humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in the former Yugoslavia.  Furthermore, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, which visited the Krajina on 17‑19 August 1995, accused the Croatian army of looting and systematically destroying Serbian villages in Krajina.

            On 23 February 1996 the President of the UN Security Council stated that "the number of human rights violations has decreased considerably".  He nevertheless remained "deeply concerned by the situation of the refugees from the Republic of Croatia who want to return home", and urged "the Croatian Government to ensure that all the applications made by the refugees are examined rapidly".

            Turning to Eastern Slavonia, the third of the territories occupied in 1991, a region situated in the east of the country on the border with Serbia, a peaceful solution would appear to be possible following the Erdut Agreement of 12 November 1995 between representatives of Belgrade and Zagreb.  The region was placed under the temporary administration of the United Nations (UNTAES) for a maximum period of two years.  Inter alia, this agreement provides eventually for Zagreb to recover its sovereignty.  This was confirmed in Rome, in February 1996, by President Milosevic in his talks with President Tudjman.

            Generally speaking, the Council of Europe has every right to expect the Croatian authorities, both before their country's admission to the Council of Europe, and especially afterwards, to make a determined contribution to the establishment of peace in the Balkans.  Croatia must therefore make every effort to further the implementation of the Dayton Agreement on the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina signed on 10 November 1995, particularly those provisions concerning the town of Mostar.

II. The political situation in the country

            On 22 December 1990 the Croat Parliament ("Sabor") unanimously adopted a new constitution, which lays down that the Republic of Croatia is a democratic and social, unitarian and indivisible state. The Serb community, which represented 12% of the population, thus lost its status as a "component nation of Croatia", a fact which helped trigger the Serb rebellion.

            General elections were held in Croatia on 2 August 1992. The Parliamentary Assembly delegation which monitored the elections considered that "despite minor irregularities, the elections were free and fair". The "Croat Democratic Community" (HDZ) won, taking 43,72% of the vote and 85 of the 138 seats in the Sabor (the Chamber of Representatives). On the same day Mr Franco Tudjman was re-elected President of the Republic with 56,73% of the vote.

            In February 1993 the HDZ (President Tudjman's party) won the provincial and municipal elections. In some provinces, however, including Dalmatia and Istria, some separatist sympathies were expressed. In Dalmatia the elections were won by the Croat opposition united behind the Social-Liberal Party, and in Istria, which has an Italian minority, the Istrian Democratic Alliance secured 67%, and the HDZ only 16% of votes.

            New general elections were held on 29 October 1995.

            According to the delegation sent by the Parliamentary Assembly to observe the elections (see Doc. 7430 Addendum I), "The elections followed democratic rules and, with some reservations, the voting as such can be considered to have been free and fair [...].  However, there are grounds for concern, concerning mainly the pre-electoral stage (electoral law and electoral campaign), as well as voter anonymity".

            Since his election as President of the Republic Mr Tudjman has considerably reinforced an authoritarian style of government. Of course, a period and context of military strife and secession do not create the ideal conditions for democratising a country which has recently emerged from communism, but the current regime in Zagreb does seem to be showing increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Firstly, the Croat Democratic Community (HDZ) holds power at all levels (presidential, parliamentary, provincial and municipal, with a few exceptions) and the opposition has virtually been silenced. Some attempts have also been made to gag the press, which has little freedom as it is (see the "Feral Tribune" affair). Lastly, there is definite discrimination in the treatment of those Serbs who continue to live alongside the Croats. Some members of the HDZ have protested about the regime's drift into authoritarianism and threatened to split the party. For the time being, however, President Tudjman is apparently still in a strong position: as the father of Croatian independence Croats see him as the embodiment of the will to reunite the country.

III. Human rights and local democracy

            In their report submitted to the Bureau of the Assembly on 24 January 1995, Mr Franz Matscher, judge in the European Court of Human Rights, and Mrs Gro Hillestad Thune, member of the European Commission of Human Rights, concluded that the Croatian legislation which they had examined was "essentially consistent with the principles of parliamentary democracy, protection of fundamental rights and rights of minorities and the rule of law".

            However, they did note a number of lacunae regarding the implementation of the fundamental principles of human rights. Mrs Thune stressed the following points:

            In the course of the different visits I have made to Croatia, I was able to establish with the other rapporteurs of the Assembly that in the field of human rights and fundamental freedoms progress remains to be made in Croatia, in particular with regard to freedom of the media (Croatian state television still holds a monopoly on programmes at the national level), the independence of the judiciary and local democracy.

            On this last point, the Bureau of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe issued a statement on 26 February 1996 in which it "deeply regretted that the Croatian President had twice refused - without giving any reason - to confirm in office mayors successively elected by the Zagreb regional and municipal council.  It said that it was a flagrant contradiction of the principles of pluralist democracy and local autonomy upheld by the Council of Europe, especially as the only possible reason for the action is their political affiliation."  It is interesting to note that on 21 March President Tudjman vetoed the appointment of a third candidate to the post of mayor of Zagreb.

CONCLUSIONS

            Having been the victim of armed aggression in 1991 following its declaration of independence, and after recovering a good proportion of its occupied territories, Croatia now lives in peace and wants to join the European democratic community represented by the Council of Europe.  Accession to the Council of Europe would certainly help to encourage the Croatian authorities to contribute to the peaceful settlement of the conflicts in the region, in Eastern Slavonia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, through the implementation of the Dayton Agreements.

            In the human rights field, several causes of concern subsist, particularly with regard to the return of refugees to Krajina, freedom of the media, the independence of the judiciary, and local democracy.

            Consequently, the Parliamentary Assembly intends to follow very closely the commitments entered into on 15 March 1996 by the President of the Republic and the President of the Parliament of Croatia, as set forth in the draft opinion on Croatia's application for membership adopted on 19 March last by the Political Affairs Committee.

            Under these conditions, the Committee on Relations with European Non-Member Countries is in favour of Croatia's accession to the Council of Europe.


Reporting committee: Political Affairs Committee (Doc. 7510).

Committee for an opinion: Committee on Relations with European Non-Member Countries

Reference to committee: Doc. 6726 and Reference No. 1836 of 1 February 1993.

Opinion approved by the committee on 23 April 1996.

Secretary to the committee: Mr Dufour.


[1]. by the Committee on Relations with European Non-Member Countries