“30 Years of Human Rights Protection in the Republic of Croatia: Past, Present and Future”
On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the international recognition of the Republic of Croatia and in the run up to the International Recognition of the Republic of Croatia and the Peaceful Reintegration of the Croatian Podunavlje Region Memorial Day, the Ombudswoman of the Republic of Croatia and the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Law organized on 14 January 2022 the conference “30 Years of Human Rights Protection in the Republic of Croatia: Past, Present and Future”.
Faculty of Law’s Dean Ivan Koprić, Ombudswoman Tena Šimonović Einwalter and Deputy Prime Minister in charge of social affairs and human rights Boris Milošević, opened the event. The conference took place in hybrid format and gathered a wide variety of participants: judges, including those from the Constitutional and the Supreme Court, members of the Parliament, heads of government offices, Ombudspersons and their Deputies, academics and Law Faculties’ professors, international experts, lawyers, representatives of the ministries, cities, civil society organizations, students, especially those active in the Faculty of Law’s legal Clinic project, as well as other interested public.
Giving an overview of the past 30 years of Croatian history, Ombudswoman Šimonović Einwalter underscored the importance of a comprehensive discussion on the topic of human rights developments up to date and the necessary improvements in the future. Recounting the difficult historical conditions in which Croatia was forged as a state, she especially focused on the development of the human rights protection system and the national and the international legal frameworks leading up to it, the still present consequences of the war, including a significant number of the persons still missing and unaccounted for, as well as the positive developments contributing to the strengthening of human rights protection in Croatia, such as our membership in the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the European Union.
“Annually, our institution works on more than 5 thousand cases, based on citizens’ complaints or opened on our own initiative and encompassing all areas of life – health care, labor and employment, law enforcement, environmental protection, discrimination, the protection of the rights of the persons deprived of their liberty and of the whistleblowers, and others. The Ombudswoman’s authorities include issuing recommendations, opinions, proposals and warnings aimed at preventing or changing the actions that have led or might lead to human rights violations. Additionally, we issue general recommendations to the public authorities in our annual reports to the Croatian Parliament. The stakeholders our recommendations are aimed at have the legal duty to implement them. However, not all of them do so in a timely and comprehensive manner, which indicates a certain level of disrespect for the institution in charge of detecting the problems and suggesting possible solutions for them,” stressed the Ombudswoman.
“When it comes to the functioning of the public administration, understood as a public service tasked with deciding on the citizens’ rights, the complaints we receive indicate that the institutions are both insufficiently accessible and that they do not always implement fully the legislation regulating their work – for instance, the deadlines set for administrative proceedings. Furthermore, they are not always physically accessible to everyone, such as, for instance, to persons with disabilities, or to the Roma population, 50% of which live in segregated settlements. Additional problems lie in the fact that their communication with the citizens is not always clear enough and they are not always willing to adapt their procedures and communication channels to the citizens’ actual needs and to provide them with guidance and support them in the realization of their rights. Instead, the citizens often see these institutions as a hindrance. Furthermore, the procedures are often unnecessarily complicated, prolonged and with uncertain outcomes. The protracted and slow-moving rebuilding process following the earthquakes in Zagreb and the Sisak-Moslavina County is an example of the latter,” said the Ombudswoman, discussing the current human rights situation in the country, as reflected in the citizens’ complaints received by her office.
“Certain groups of citizens in Croatia still do not enjoy full equality, despite the fact that the normative framework protects it. Roma children are still segregated in schools, members of the Serb national minority are facing hate and intolerance, LGBTIQ+ individuals are still experiencing both violence as well as various types of administrative obstacles, women are still targeted by gender-based violence and suffer inequality in various areas of life. There have been positive developments in the past 30 years when it comes to each of these groups. However, they are insufficient, inequality is still present and significantly affects the quality of life of many individuals and groups. Thus, unfortunately, we cannot speak of complete equality in Croatian society. Insuring the availability of social security and social rights, including labor rights and the right to health, with a special focus on the needs of older persons in the context of population aging and on poverty, which additionally exacerbates every rights’ violation, represent the main challenges to be addressed today as well as in the future,” noted the Ombudswoman.
Speaking about the challenges to be addressed in the future, the Ombudswoman recounted some of the issues shared both at the regional and the global levels, such as the necessity of providing a humane and sustainable manner of handling migrations, high levels of intolerance and inappropriate communication in the public sphere generally and especially on the Internet and the social media more specifically, challenges related to the use of new technologies, including artificial intelligence, as well as the issues caused by climate change, and emphasized the importance of better preparedness for emergency situations such as pandemics, earthquakes and floods. “These are the situations that cause high levels of uncertainty when it comes to human rights protection but also function as an indicator of the systems’ week spots. Thus, they should be used as guidance for the necessary improvements,” underscored the Ombudswoman.
To achieve more significant improvements in the future, we must enhance the citizens’ knowledge of both their rights as well as the available mechanisms for their protection, step up the work of the public institutions understood as a public service at the citizens’ disposal (which would consequently contribute to achieving higher levels of the citizens’ trust in the institutions), improve the normative human rights framework and our implementation of the regional and global human rights instruments and of the successful normative solutions. Otherwise, the latter will only function as a promise rather than reality, concluded Ombudswoman Šimonović Einwalter.
“One of the aims of this event is drawing public attention to the importance of human rights and of the rule of law more generally for the contemporary democratic political communities. It is precisely the rule of law, with human rights protection as its integral component, that integrates the modern political, legal and administrative systems and provides the political order with democratic legitimacy,” stressed Dean Koprić opening the event.
“For the rule of law standards to be successfully implemented, all of the relevant stakeholders need to be brought together. It is my firm intention to transform the Faculty of Law in Zagreb into a hub for discussion and debate bringing together all of the legislative, state, public, academic and social actors working on achieving the legal culture based on the rule of law,” said Dean Koprić.
“Furthermore, we want to create an avenue for the inclusion of our students into the professional community focused on the strengthening of the rule of law standards and are working to provide them with both good quality theoretical education on the rule of law, its components and the preconditions for its realization, but also with practical learning by enabling them to analyze and work on cases and connect with their colleagues employed in the judiciary, public administration and the civil service, both at the national, but also the EU and the global levels. The internalization of our study programs, student mobility and participation at the EU level are a route our institution has chosen to take with the aim of ensuring high quality study programs and a high level of our students’ employability,” concluded Dean Koprić.
“In the past 30 years the Republic of Croatia has reached high human rights standards and has, thus, confirmed its dedication to human rights protection, both in the normative as well as the practical sense. Off course, not everything went on smoothly during this period: there were oversights, violations and discrimination taking place and this is the fact that needs to be acknowledged. However, we must utilize those negative experiences as motivation to indeed treat human rights promotion and protection as one of the fundamental political and social goals in the next 30 years,” said Deputy Prime Minister for social affairs and human rights, Mr. Boris Milošević in his opening speech.
Discussing possible room for improvement, he announced the adoption in 2022 of the National Plan for the Protection of Human Rights for the 2022-2027 period and of the National Plan for Gender Equality, as well as the commencement of the activities of the Government’s Human Rights Council, established in 2021. “I expect the Council to function as a space intended for the exchange of opinions and creation of public policies in the area of human rights and to enable better coordination and communication between all of the stakeholders in the human rights arena,” stressed Deputy Prime Minister Milošević, emphasizing that “we cannot achieve a democratic political culture and all of the goals we would like to achieve as a society without the awareness of the importance of human rights”.
In the first of the panels that followed, titled “The Importance of Human Rights Protection for the Recognition of the Republic of Croatia and Its Future”, moderated by Croatian Television journalist and member of the Ombudswoman’s Human Rights Council Barbara Vid, Professor Maja Seršić discussed the concept of the international recognition of the state. Neven Pelicarić, Adviser to the President of the Republic for Foreign and European Policy, recounted the events of the period around Croatia’s formal recognition by the international community, underscoring the fact that this process was facilitated by its adoption of human rights standards. Milorad Pupovac, head of the Parliamentary Committee for the Rights of National Minorities, spoke about the importance of upholding the rights of national minorities, stressing the impact of the adoption of the Constitutional Law on the Rights of National Minorities. Professor Ksenija Turković, former European Court of Human Rights judge and one of its Vice-Presidents, discussed the statistics and the examples of the cases before the ECtHR, underscoring the fact that this system’s intention is for human rights to be protected primarily at the national level and for ECtHR to intervene only when this is not the case.
The second panel, moderated by Ivan Novosel, Human Rights House’s program director, focused on the situation of the various vulnerable groups in Croatia. Deputy Ombudswoman Tatjana Vlašić discussed the topic from the viewpoint of the citizens’ complaints received by the Ombudswoman an through the equality and discrimination lenses, emphasizing the fact that both the institutions as well as the society as a whole can either take the route of creating inequality and causing vulnerability or of working on their prevention. Additionally, she provided some examples of good practice of the Office of the Ombudswoman aimed at empowering vulnerable groups, involving cooperation with the civil society and undertaking awareness-raising activities. Professor Aleksandra Korać examined the rights of children understood as one of the vulnerable social groups, while Professor Tijana Vokojičić Tomić expounded on the implementation of the measure aimed at employment of the members of the national minorities in the public administration.
In the panel moderated by Professor Elizabeta Ivičević Karas, Deputy Ombudsman Saša Rajić and Professors Mario Krešić and Sunčana Roksandić discussed the rights of the persons deprived of their liberty. Deputy Rajić provided an overview of the work of the Ombudswoman within the institution’s mandate as the National Preventive Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel or Inhuman Treatment or Punishment and within its activities aimed at the protection of the rights of the persons deprived of their liberty. Professor Krešić expounded on the right to dignity as the basic right of this category of persons, stressing the fact that from its very beginnings the Republic of Croatia chose to be a liberal democracy with human rights at its center, thus joining the global efforts to combat torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment. Professor Roksandić spoke about the concept of “deprivation of liberty” in its wider sense, with special emphasis on the challenges related to older persons in institutional care, to asking/providing informed consent, deciding for and being responsible for another person, to exercising the right to health care within the prison system as well as to the implementation of the right to informed consent and decision-making when it comes to the persons with mental health issues.
Mapping out the historical development of the concepts of the “state based on law” and of the” rule of law, Professor Dalibor Čepulo provided an introduction to the topic of the event’s final panel on the rule of law, moderated by Professor Đorđe Gardašević. In its continuation, Professor Anamarija Musa discussed the impact of independent institutions and the strengthening of their integrity and responsibility on the overall strengthening of the rule of law, whereas a practical example of this was provided by Deputy Ombudswoman Dijana Kesonja, who analyzed the role played by our institution in upholding and protecting the rule of law. Deputy Kesonja gave an overview of the Ombudswoman’s work on complaints, with a particular focus on the themes of protracted court proceedings and the accessibility of free legal aid. Speaking about the preconditions for achieving better protection of the rule of law, she emphasized the importance of providing education to all relevant stakeholders, transparency of the judiciary’s work achieved via the publication of the courts’ rulings, the consistent implementation of the case law of the European Court of Human Rights and other international courts, wider implementation of class actions as well as raising the capacities of the potential class action plaintiffs.
The recording of the event is available here. (in Croatian)
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