Croatia gets cold shoulder for human rights abuses

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The Independent Online
Parliamentarians from across Europe warned Croatia yesterday that it must clean up its record on democracy and human rights if it wants to join the Council of Europe, the continent's leading organisation for promoting political and civil liberties. The council's parliamentary assembly, grouping representatives from 39 countries, passed a resolution that criticised Croatia's right-wing nationalist government for taking repressive measures against the media and for not co- operating with the United Nations war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia.

The assembly's action was a slap in the face for Croatia, which has sought membership of the Council of Europe as a way of establishing its credentials as a properly functioning democracy. Since 1990, most former communist countries in central and eastern Europe have been admitted to the council.

The resolution on Croatia was adopted unanimously by a standing committee which has the power to speak for the parliamentary assembly. There was no doubt that the tough language reflected a swing of the European mood against Croatia over the past month.

The full assembly voted by a substantial majority on 24 April to invite Croatia to join the council, but only a few days later the Croatian government closed down one opposition newspaper, Panorama, and brought charges against journalists working for another. The parliamentarians were also disturbed by the Croatian government's dissolution of the Zagreb city assembly, which had voted to install an opposition politician as mayor.

Finally, the UN tribunal in The Hague pointed out that Croats and Bosnian Croats indicted for war crimes were still at large, and that no proceedings had started against Croats alleged to have committed crimes during the recapture of rebel Serb-held areas last August. The conclusion reached by the parliamentarians was that Croatia was reneging on the very commitments it had made in order to win acceptance of its bid for council membership.

A Croatian delegate, Zarko Domljan, told the parliamentarians yesterday that he accepted their criticisms, but added: "I have the feeling that sometimes Croatia is looked at too rigorously, more rigorously than other countries."

He observed: "Believe me, Croatia is a democracy. We lived for 70 years in Yugoslavia and 45 years under communism, and we know very well the differences between the communist regime and the regime today in Croatia."

However, many at the Council clearly felt their organisation would lose credibility if they failed to give Croatia a public warning. "We have to react if the commitments are not fulfilled," said Rene van der Linden, a Dutch member who compiled a critical report on recent events in Croatia.

Diplomats said Britain, France, The Netherlands and Nordic countries were particularly concerned about endorsing the assembly's invitation to Croatia to join. In contrast, Germany and Austria have been keen to send encouraging signals to Croatia as an incentive to improve its performance. Russia, which joined the council early this year, has also been critical of Croatia. This appears to reflect pro-Serbian sympathies among Russian politicians.