Serbs, once a constitutive people of the Socialist Republic of Croatia, became a minority with much reduced rights after Croatia became independent. Their position was additionally worsened by the war, since they mostly lived in areas directly affected by war destruction. In this situation many of them fled Croatia during the first years of war (some 200.000 of them), and the process was further enhanced by the fact that many Serbs who lived in the bigger cities were characterised as the ultimate culprits for the war and were as such exposed to harassment and physical assaults. The greatest exodus of Serbs took place in August of 1995 during the Storm offensive when some 200.000 people fled from the then ‘SAO Krajina’ (Serbian Autonomous Region) area.

Those who decided to remain in their homes, especially in parts which were directly affected by war, were in physical danger. Apart from devastation and theft of Serb property, Croatian military forces were, with the tacit blessing of the then authorities, killing members of the civilian population in war affected areas. Because of reluctance on the part of the Croatian judiciary, those responsible for the majority of crimes never faced justice, and so far, only one final verdict has been registered for crimes committed during and after the operation Storm and Flash.

Because of the mentioned events, the ethnic make-up of Croatia has significantly changed. The proportion of Serbs in the total population, which was 12,16 percent according to 1991 census, decreased by 2001 to 4,54 percent. According to the latest census in 2011, number of Serbs in Croatia decreased by another 15.000 persons (Serbs now make 4,36 percent of the population).

Apart from the fact that the young are not returning to Croatia because of the underdevelopment of areas where most Serbs used to live (average age of Serbs in Croatia is 53, while for the rest of population it is 42 years of age), numerous administrative obstacles have contributed to the negative demographic trend. Many who fled are still encountering problems in their attempts to obtain documents, or as they try to exercise rights to reconstruction or return of their tenancy rights, because of which the return process has almost become extinguished over the last couple of years.

Following a stagnation in improvement of our position at the end of the last and the beginning of the current decade, negative trends during recent years are obvious, as well as the deterioration of our position and reduction of rights. Also visible is loss of interest in the position of Serbs on part of the international community and it is evident that regardless of clear differences in intentions, neither of the leading political options in Croatia has shown a well thought out and satisfactory position towards our role in the society.

As a part of the Constitutional Law on Rights of National Minorities, special rights and special ‘positive’ measures are guaranteed, which are aimed at active and efficient participation of minorities in public affairs and life at all levels. The Law stipulates additional guarantees of equality – it provides for national minority members to be guaranteed proportional participation in state administration bodies, judiciary and the police. It is also stipulated that minority members have advantage under the same conditions in filling workplaces in the mentioned bodies. However, exercising this right has proven to be extremely problematic.

As data shows, the number of Serbs in public administration dropped from 2,4 percent in 2009 to 2,35 percent in 2013. On average, Serbs make about two percent of employees in Croatian ministries. The situation is the same in state administrative organisations, while according to the latest available information, there are none at all employed in state offices. It is especially concerning that Serbs are pronouncedly under-represented in public administration bodies in return areas where Serbs make up more than 10 percent of the population. Thus, for example, in Lika-Senj county, Serbs make 13,65 percent of population, and only 3,35 percent are employed in state administration. Exactly the same negative trend of employing Serbs was registered within the police. Over the past six years, the number of Serb policemen dropped from 3,13 to 2,86 percent.

Hate speech has also been on the rise in Croatia over the past several years. Although in public, i.e. in media, at concerts, stadiums and protests chauvinistic attitudes are regularly expressed, no strategic, public or educational campaigns have been initiated to this day that would work on the prevention of such phenomena. Although the Croatian judiciary decided to sanction hate speech and the state has signed international conventions against it, hate speech has so far passed unpunished and without stronger social condemnation. Also, from the Ministry of Interior data, it is visible that the number of victims of criminal acts motivated by ethnic hatred has been on the rise over the past several years and that such acts most often involve Serbs.

Over the past years there has been a noticeable increase in the number of attacks against religious and cultural institutions and desecrations of Orthodox cemeteries and monuments related to the history of Serbs in Croatia and/or those of the antifascist character. As a special aspect of violence against remembrance and historic memory of the Serb minority, we experienced the local government’s decision to ban holding commemoration to victims of Ustasha terror at the place of their suffering in Glina. This decision, voted on at the City Council session on 21 October 2014, is only one among many revisionist moves of the Glina local government. Namely, at the location of the Orthodox Church at which Ustasha killed almost 1000 local men, Memorial Home has been built in 1969. In 1995, soon after operation Storm, this institution, which held archive materials about crimes that were committed, was renamed to Croatian Home, the name it bears today. In the same year a memorial was destroyed, which contained names of 1564 victims from Glina and its environs, and regardless of activists’ efforts, it still has not been renovated. Because of these moves, the Antifascist League of Republic Croatia with which the SNC actively cooperates, in 2014 decided to mark the International Human Rights Day (which is celebrated on 10 December) in front of the Memorial Home in Glina. Simultaneously with our gathering, which tried to appeal to the authorities to return the Home its original name, a counter-gathering took place, which is unfortunately a predictable reaction seen throughout Croatia. Similar situations happened in Srb where we mark the Uprising Day or a commemoration in Jadovno as remembrance of victims of the concentration camps Gospić-Jadovno-Pag 1941.

Problems are also visible in exercising the Law on the Use of Languages and letters of National Minorities, in Croatiain communities where minorities make more than 33 percent of population. Although it was passed in 2000, up until recently this law has been applied only to smaller extent.

The intention of a more thorough exercise of the law (placing bilingual plaques on state institutions in Vukovar) at the beginning of 2013, caused strong resistance (forcible removal of plaques) by the Vukovar veterans’ association (Headquarters for Defence of Croatian Vukovar). Their protest soon grew into a movement and spread throughout the country. Thus bilingual Latin-Cyrillic plaques were forcibly removed or destroyed also in the areas and from the institutions where they had been standing for a number of years (Vojnić, Udbina, Krnjak). The Headquarter at the end of 2013 also initiated calling a referendum under which the Constitutional Law on National Minorities would stipulate that minorities can exercise right to equal official use of their language and script in communities where they make more than a half and not the current one third of the total population. Although a sufficient number of signatures was collected, the referendum was never held because the Constitutional Court declared it contrary to the Constitution. Veterans’ protest ultimately developed into a protest against the rights of Serbs, which can be proven by the increased levels of hate speech (for example in Dubrovnik, Zadar and Zagreb chauvinist graffiti appeared).

The anti-Cyrillic campaign has finally been legalised by changing the Statute of the Town of Vukovar (17 August 2015) which prevents placing of bilingual plates on the buildings of Vukovar institutions. Apart from The Constitution of the Republic of Croatia, The Constitutional Law on National Minorities and The Law on the Use of Languages and Letters of National Minorities in Croatia, this also violates a number of international conventions (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and The European Charter of Regional and Minority Tongues...).

Because of the systematic discrimination that Serbs are faced with almost on daily basis, the Serb National Council has since its inception worked on the protection of human and ethnic rights of the Serb community in Croatia. Our Legal Department assists to citizens from all over Croatia in their fight to exercise their guaranteed rights. Our lawyers’ activities are directed towards assisting Serbs, who because of various obstacles, still have not returned to Croatia. In cooperation with other organisations and institutions we are fighting for improvement of the status of civilian victims of war and we are working to suppress discrimination on ethnic grounds. We participate in the advocacy process to change individual laws and practises that harm our community members.

Minority Return to Croatia-Study of an open Process

Amnesty International Report 2014/2015

The report of the UN committee on the state of human rights in Croatia