The event provided an opportunity for the participants to engage in a fruitful discussion on the conclusions featured in the European Commission’s 2021 Rule of Law Report and to identify systemic challenges and obstacles at the intersection of the rule of law and fundamental rights as well as an opportunity for learning and mapping out the potential opportunities for progress.

Hosted by the Human Rights House Zagreb, online round table “Rule of Law in Croatia: Challenges and Recommendations in the Areas of Legislature and Checks and Balances from a Human Rights Perspective” took place on 1 December 2021, following the publication of the European Commission’s second annual rule of law report on the situation in the EU and the individual member states. Aiming at facilitating public debate on the rule of law challenges in Croatia, especially those in the areas of legislature and checks and balances, it gathered the representatives of the NGO sector, the public administration and the European Commission. The Office of the Ombudswoman was represented by Ombudswoman Tena Šimonivić Einwalter and Deputy Ombudswoman Tatjana Vlašić, who moderated the discussion.

Along with human rights and democracy, the rule of law represents one of the values the EU was founded on, said Ivan Novosel, Human Rights House’s program director, welcoming the Commission’s Report as a new mechanism signaling the EU’s intention to systematically monitor the state of the rule of law in its member states and act accordingly – both reactively as well as preventatively.

EC’s policy officer Jože Štrus, provided a short overview of the EC Report’s conclusions in the areas of justice and of checks and balances. These reports have been conceived as a regular annual mechanism aimed at both preventing the shortcomings in the area of the rule of law and providing a learning opportunity for the member states, stressed Mr. Štrus. When it comes to Croatia, challenges are related to the still inadequate level of the efficiency and the quality of the court proceedings as well as the low levels of the perceived judicial independence. Furthermore, the national policy aimed at creating an enabling environment for the development of the civil society for the 2021-2027 period has not been adopted yet, many participants in the public consultations conducted as part of the legislative procedures feel as if their inputs are treated as a mere formality and the Ombudswoman is still encountering obstacles in receiving the information necessary for the performance of her mandates.

Juro Martinović, state secretary for the Ministry of Justice and Public Administration, recounted the successes the Republic of Croatia has achieved over the years when it comes to the rule of law, noting that this process has not ended with its accession to the European Union and announcing the adoption of a series of legislative acts aimed at strengthening judicial independence and combatting corruption set to follow the publication of the Commission’s 2021 Rule of Law Report.

Lana Barberić, aide to Croatia’s representative before the European Court of Human Rights, presented the data on the cases against Croatia before the Court. According to these statistics, by the end of 2020 more than 16 000 applications against Croatia were submitted and 437 judgements reached, 80% of which established the violation of at least one of the human rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. Many of the applications cited the right to a fair trial. Legislative changes, notes Ms. Barberić, are not the only possible avenue for changing the problematic practices; this can also be achieved via changes in the behavior of the courts and the public administration, for which examples of good practice already exist in Croatia. Finally, for the implementation of the Court’s judgements to be as effective as possible and for them to contribute to the rule of law in Croatia, the implementation of the measures ordered by the Court, the cooperation between various state institutions and public awareness raising on the importance of the Convention, the principles it enshrines and its implementation are crucial.

Constitutional Court judge Goran Selanec, provided the Court’s perspective in the area of the rule of law, stressing the fact that the judges in the Republic of Croatia have several different guarantees and mechanisms they can utilize to protect their independence. At the same time, judiciary in Croatia is facing various problems, such as the lack of harmonization when it comes to case law, as well as the lack of transparency in their work manifested in the low numbers of the published judgements. Public critique of the judiciary must be allowed, as this is the only form of civil monitoring over the work of the judiciary currently available. The freedom of expression and of the media are important mechanisms for the monitoring of the respect for the rule of law. In that context, the rising numbers of law suits targeting journalists (SLAPP suits) represent a worrying trend.

Ombudswoman Šimonović Einwalter discussed the rule of law from the ombudsman and the NHRI perspectives. “To a large extent, the recommendations in our annual reports to the Croatian Parliament are similar to those contained in the last Commission’s report,” stressed the Ombudswoman and provided an overview of some of the rule of law and checks and balances related issues visible both from the citizens’ complaints as well as from our activities related to the monitoring of the state of human rights in the country. These include deficiencies in the free legal aid system, insufficient transparency of court decisions, the citizens’ lack of knowledge of their rights and the mechanisms available for their protection, including the rights and protection mechanisms available to whistleblowers, as well as the high level of citizens’ distrust of the institutions. Independent judiciary, independent institutions, as well as the media and the civil society play a crucial role in upholding the rule of law, underscored the Ombudswoman.

“The ombudsman institutions play an important role in upholding the rule of law by providing a comprehensive and objective overview of the situation, promoting the human rights and the rule of law culture, pointing to the necessary changes, including via constructive criticism, as well as by encouraging the cooperation between various stakeholders. However, in order for us to be able to perform all of these functions, our independence must be preserved and the necessary conditions for our work ensured, in line with the international standards,” concluded Ombudswoman Šimonović Einwalter.

2021 Rule of Law Report’s Country Chapter for the Republic of Croatia is available here.