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21 June 2010
Distinguished President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe,
Distinguished Chairman of the Committee of Ministers,
Distinguished Secretary General of the Council of Europe,
Distinguished members of the Assembly,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is my immense privilege and pleasure to address today the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The reasons for that are manifold.
I have assumed the office of President of the Republic of Croatia less than four months ago with a clear message and commitment of the Croatian people to the completion of the process of transformation of the Croatian state, particularly its public administration, so that they can fully meet the needs of the new age. Croatia wants to be a consolidated democracy in which values such as democracy, human rights, freedom and justice are promoted and fully respected. These were at the same time the fundamental parts of my election program, and today they are my main goals during my term of office.
As you are aware, my life and professional career are based on the firm human conviction that democracy is currently the only way for the creation of conditions for the full respect of human rights and freedoms of each and every citizen, and that rule of law is the way to ensure such rights. I believe that such values cannot be measured or have a price. This is why I have opted professionally - along with my artistic career - for a legal career as well, with emphasis on international law and practice. In social terms I have been active through the civil society in order to support my convictions in practical implementation.
This is why my visit to the Council of Europe and my address before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council were my priorities, which I am now fulfilling with a feeling of particular pleasure and privilege.
Distinguished members of the Assembly,
Croatia has drafted its transition into a modern European state through two strategic objectives - membership in EU and NATO, the latter having been achieved, and a number of multilevel objectives which are complementary and instrumental in the fulfilment of the first two objectives.
The first complementary objective is the promotion and ensurance of fundamental values such as democracy, human rights and the rule law, on which modern Western civilization is based and which are built into the foundations of the European Union to which we aspire.
At the same time we are intensively promoting cooperation with our neighbours in order to close the painful chapter of recent history and ensure lasting peace and security in the region. This is a condition of our progress, but also of the progress of our neighbours with whom we share an increasing number of interests and with whom we are gradually closing open issues. The ultimate objective of all states in the region is membership in the European Union. The prospect is open to all of them, and the way to achievement is taking its course depending on the context in which reforms and the process of enlargement are under way.
An equally important and consistent objective is the completion of the international transformation of the state and society in line with European standards and with the model of countries with democratic traditions, and that may be the greatest challenge facing us. Transition of a society based on planned economy into a democratic and free society distinguished by rule of law and the free market is a project of major scale and distant horizons. It calls for the effort of all social structures, all citizens and of every individual regardless of his position on the social ladder.
The realization of all these objectives will fulfil the promises we gave ourselves eighteen years ago, when our sovereign and independent state was created, and attain the hopes of all the citizens who invested everything they had into the process of creation of our state, from their ideals, strength and physical strength to their most valuable resource - their own lives.
Distinguished members of the Assembly,
Allow me to position Croatia in the process of integration in somewhat greater detail, because that is inseparable from the themes within the domain of action of the Council of Europe which engage your attention on a daily basis.
Let me express with pleasure the conviction that the Republic of Croatia is in the final stage of negotiations for accession to the European Union, as well as the hope that we shall very soon become its twenty-eighth member. There is a lot of effort behind us, but we are likewise still faced with quite a few challenges we are resolving in order to complete the process. Three chapters still have to opened in the negotiations, the major one being No. 23, Judiciary and Fundamental Rights, the substance of which you are also following closely.
First a few words about the context, that is, about our point of departure. Croatia inherited a very imperfect and inappropriate legal system reflecting the accepted values of the time and of the regime. Transformation started as the state was founded, but it gained the essential momentum with the start of negotiations with EU and the process of adjustment of Croatia’s legal system to the European system. The judiciary was not free and it was influenced by politics, it was not adequately organized, and corruption was firmly ingrained in society as a modus operandi. The concept of freedom and human rights in terms of access to justice for everyone did not exist.
In the meantime, we experienced the tribulations of war and were faced with war crimes committed by individuals in the name of the people. We are still faced with the clearing up of the consequences. The horrors of war upset the relations in the region and led to a large scale refugee crisis. Part of Croatia’s citizens are still exiles in other countries, but there are also persons who left such countries and have not yet returned. War created an atmosphere of instability and insecurity in the region, providing fertile ground for the spread of corruption and organized crime.
In the first post-war period all that made transformation processes to which I referred in the beginning of my address rather difficult. In certain moments, unfortunately, it even almost completely blocked them. Along with the usual difficulties of transition - and some of you have also directly experienced transition - we suffered from additional difficulties caused by the tragic conflicts in the first half of the nineteen-nineties. I am not stressing this in order to seek justification for what has not been done or has been done more slowly or less thoroughly. We could have achieved more and in a better way. However, when one speaks about Croatian transition and the consolidation of democracy, we must nevertheless bear in mind these additional difficulties because only then we shall be able to grasp the magnitude of the challenge which faced us, and still faces us in a certain sense.
And now, distinguished members of the Assembly, allow me to say also a few words about our success on that way. Today I can confidently claim that a great part of the tasks we were supposed to realize for our own benefit but also in order to complete the negotiations has been dealt with completely or is nearing completion. Since we are also dealing with identical questions within the context of our cooperation with the Council of Europe, I shall devote more attention to certain specific questions of your particular interest.
First, a few words about the judiciary and the rule of law. We have started a major reform of the judiciary which is still under way. We have reorganized the court system through improved efficiency and computerization, professionalized the dispensing of justice through permanent judge training, reorganized the procedure for judge appointment, improved the independent character of judicature, qualified the courts and the state attorneys for the successful prosecution of war crimes and, through the already relatively long practice of cooperation with ICTY in The Hague, demonstrated that we are completely ready and willing to cooperate with that institution of international justice. We have overcome the political and legal obstacles which stood in the way of such cooperation for a time.
However, in evaluating the reform of the judiciary it should always be borne in mind that this is a long process which is not yet completed and which will continue to require Croatia’s efforts for some time to come. What is important is the fact that we are demonstrating that changes do occur, that we are not losing momentum in this effort, and demonstrating the will and the strength to carry on in the same manner.
In the field of judicature Croatia has accomplished major progress in the fight against corruption and organized crime. In the fight against organized crime we have achieve strong cooperation with the respective institutions of states in our region. Organized crime has gathered momentum in Southeastern Europe, and Croatia is sparing no effort in trying to eradicate the evil in close cooperation with other countries. We are aware that one of the reasons underlying the evil also lies in the insufficient force and qualification of the state apparatus as well as in the earlier hesitation of states affected by it to cooperate more firmly and efficiently in the fight against organized crime. We are trying to change this. We have streamlined our laws and signed a number of bilateral agreements with neighbouring countries in order to facilitate the exchange of data and evidence in the fight against organized crime. The Croatian and Serbian police have established a joint office for the fight against organized crime, the structuring of which is its final stage. A newly enacted penal law envisages the seizure of property in cases of demonstrable criminal offences. It is also applied to corruption cases. By cooperating with its neighbours and reinforcing its administrative capacity Croatia contributes not only to the security of its own citizens and of citizens of other countries in the region, but also to European and global security. You may be sure that we shall continue to persevere in the future.
Due mention should be made of the fact that the amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Croatia, adopted last week, included the incorporation of the article on the European arrest warrant, which will contribute even more to the fight against corruption and organized crime.
The Croatian Government has proclaimed a policy of zero tolerance to corruption, which at one moment had seriously penetrated even the state structures and business practices. This political decision was supported by all political options on Croatia’s current political scene, and a very significant contribution was also provided by civil society organizations. We have established USKOK (Bureau for combating of corruption and organized crime), a body comprising specialized police units, state attorney office and special court departments for the fight against corruption and organized crime. We have thereby set up an efficient, flexible and particularly motivated structure focused on the detection, prosecution and punishment of perpetrators of these criminal offences. I have in mind particularly the sphere of public procurement and budget expenditure. The attention of anticorruption actions is focused especially on public companies controlling the greater part of resources as major state investors.
The results have been significant, and several large scale corruption scandals have been detected along with a large number of suspects, some of them even in high political positions. We are now entering the trial stage and awaiting the results. However, even now we can say that there is an increasing awareness of the importance of comprehensive struggle against corruption in the Croatian public. I am convinced that we are on a good track in this field as well, and I shall continue to support the selected road with my own authority.
The reform of the judiciary has entered its decisive and final phase. The main challenges refer to the continued strengthening of the independence and efficiency of judicature. The just adopted amendments to the Constitution are an important step in the continued consolidation of the independent judiciary and, hence, enhanced responsibility of judicial authorities for conditions in the administration of justice. Croatian citizens must have equal rights, be equal before the law and enjoy access to justice.
As President of the Republic I shall closely monitor the continuity of the reform and take proper action in order to ensure appropriate progress.
Distinguished members of the Assembly,
In the context of the judiciary, law and justice Croatia was faced, as I have already noted, with serious consequences of war and war destruction in its territory. Along with the noble motive, defence from aggression and the legitimate defence of territory in order to realize the right to life in one’s own state and within its borders, with the respect of all rules of warfare laid down in various conventions, a number of individual crimes was committed against persons belonging to other ethnic groups, primarily ethnic Serbs in Croatia, or people upholding different worldviews and opinions. We are implementing of policy of zero tolerance towards all persons who have committed crimes, and we believe that the punishment of crime is an integral part of the transformation of Croatian to which I referred earlier. Croatian citizens suspected of war crimes are tried in our own state - quite successfully, in the judgment of relevant international bodies and particularly of ICTY.
However, the process is not over yet because, as we know, crime is not subject to the statute of limitations. Many proceedings, especially against Serbs during the first years after independence - for example in absentia or in an atmosphere which did not guarantee full court independence - are being reopened. In all cases involving dilemmas about the correctness of the proceedings we believe it would be just to have them repeated. Some of these trials, and those concerning ethnic Croats suspected of having committed crimes during the war as members of paramilitary units, are of sensitive nature. Such proceedings, and that is of particular importance, must be pursued on the basis of universal legal principles and in the spirit of human rights standards prescribed by conventions. The Croatian judicial system is investing enhanced effort into the improvement of its trial capability in this segment as well.
A major theme in Croatian accession negotiations in the field of the judiciary and fundamental rights is Croatia’s cooperation with the Tribunal in The Hague, where a number of Croatian citizens are being tried. Within the scope of accession negotiations cooperation with the Tribunal, and issues such as human rights, freedom and justice, are political criteria which are being followed very closely.
Before I turn to explaining in concrete terms how and where Croatia cooperates with ICTY, let me inform you that I was personally, before I entered politics, an ardent human rights advocate and activist, and, in that context, one of the earliest persons to argue for the establishment of the Tribunal in The Hague. I took part in the process of legal formulation of the Tribunal and, after its establishment, I was one of the most persistent advocates of Croatia’s cooperation with ICTY. In circumstances which did not always favour such cooperation I was the author of the Constitutional Law on Cooperation with ICTY. It was precisely the adoption of that Law in the Croatian Parliament that created the conditions for full cooperation, which I am advocating and wholeheartedly supporting.
The cooperation of the Republic of Croatia with ICTY has its history and its course. Support of such cooperation has not always been present in Croatian society. There were several stages of cooperation and non-cooperation, but they are now behind us. Today I can claim, with full responsibility, that Croatian citizens have accepted the fact that cooperation with ICTY is a necessity which contributes to clarifying crimes committed in the war and bringing them back to where they belong - to the sphere of individual perpetrators of offences and outside of the impermissible sphere of collective guilt.
No people in conflict during the early nineteen-nineties is guilty: it is the individuals, demonstrable perpetrators of crimes that are guilty, and they must be punished for it.
In this context the Croatian authorities, the administration and political factors place such trials in the judicial sphere and expect that all the cases will be dealt with in that sphere. I also expect that personally as a great advocate of human rights, freedom and justice, on behalf of all the citizens of Croatia but also because of the international legal order we are all creating.
As I have already emphasized, cooperation with ICTY will continue to be an essential element for the evaluation of the success of our accession negotiations, and I hope that the member countries will recognize both the efforts and the objective results of such cooperation, soon to result in the opening and, within a foreseeable and reasonable time, in the closing of negotiations on this chapter.
Distinguished members of the Assembly,
The war had many traumatic consequences for the citizens of the Republic of Croatia. They all indirectly or directly affected their human rights and freedoms. Refugees and displaced persons are among the most jeopardized categories of Croatian citizens.
As I have already noted, their problems are of ethnic and regional character, but we must never lose sight of the personal traumas which many of them experienced. During the war many citizens, ethnic Serbs, particularly those in the areas bordering on Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, which they traditionally inhabited, left the Republic of Croatia. Many citizens, Croats by nationality, were forced to leave their homes and settle throughout Croatia. Owing to the war in the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Croatian population in areas which are now part of Republika Srpska fled to Croatia. The problem of refugees and displaced persons who have not yet returned to their homes after eighteen years is a humanitarian issue of the highest significance, and the Croatian state has invested major organizational and material efforts in order to resolve the problem and ensure a voluntary and dignified return and life to these people. However, we are still faced with many challenges in this regard.
Let me note that half a year ago a new initiative was launched attempting, at the regional level and in bilateral contacts, to deal with the remaining open issues and thus completing the process of return with the help of the international community and pursuant to international law and the provisions of relevant conventions.
The Regional Conference held in Belgrade set the principles for completing the process. Serbia and Croatia have intensified their cooperation in order to find an adequate solution for the voluntary return of the remaining Serbian refugees to Croatia, but also of other refugees in the region.
The work of bilateral groups has continued in line with the established regional framework. The Croatian and Serbian working groups are cooperating in a spirit of flexibility and seeking pragmatic solutions for actual problems of people still experiencing the tragic refugee distress. The Republic of Croatia believes that such questions have to be resolved step by step by proceeding from the most pressing cases, those related to the people in refugee centres in Serbia, which need to be closed as soon as possible. The next problem which is being dealt with relates to statistics.
We seek to identify the actual number of people wishing to return and to establish their actual status and needs. Discussions are under way about modalities which would provide the final solution for the problems of all the remaining refugees. This implies a range of solutions, from the realization of the right to the restitution of property to refugees who have opted for integration in their new homeland to the question of refugees who still want to return. Croatian welcomes the good offices of the UNHCR in the process and is grateful to all the member countries of the Council of Europe which have shown interest in providing financial support.
Let me use this occasion in order to point out my wholehearted support of the renewed process of regional and bilateral agreement which is under way in good faith. I expect that it will identify satisfactory solutions allowing the remaining refugees to organize their lives in their old or new homes, and that we shall thereby close this painful chapter in our common past.
Distinguished members of the Assembly,
Along with the question of return of refugees and displaced persons the Republic of Croatia is also seriously committed to the discussion and resolution of all other open issues in the relations with its neighbours. In assuming the office of President of the Republic I undertook to fulfil the pledges in my election program, in which visible focus was given to promoting relations with our neighbours and enhancing regional cooperation in Southeastern Europe.
With my past activities and together with the Government I have launched quite a few initiatives regarding cooperation. I have visited Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and I am planning to visit Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. In this way I am realizing my deep conviction that without good neighbourly relations there is no lasting peace and stability in the region and, consequentially, no promotion of development cycles setting off economic recovery and growth.
With its intensive regional cooperation the Republic of Croatia fulfils an important condition on its way to the EU. It is known that a bilateral problem, the border with Slovenia, slowed down the process for a while. However, after the citizens and politicians on both sides demonstrated their maturity, the problem was successfully resolved by agreement of the two Governments and the subsequent ratification of the Border Arbitration Agreement by both Parliaments. By our negotiating spirit and readiness to consensus we have demonstrated our conviction that talks are the only way to a solution. Good neighbourly relations with Slovenia are on the upswing, and several intergovernmental commissions are busy dealing with remaining questions regarding other fields of cooperation.
I am convinced that this example will be exceptionally beneficial in talks on possible open issues with other neighbours.
Croatia is deeply interested in Bosnia and Herzegovina (in which the Croatian people is one of the three constituent peoples) finding the best way for overcoming difficulties and accelerating the process of further consolidation. The modality of coexistence of the three peoples needs to be improved, and I have personally made a step which, I believe, ought to encourage anew the process.
During my recent visits I paid homage to all suffering and innocent killed persons, members of all the three ethnic communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, innocent persons who fell as victims of war crimes just because they belonged to another ethnic group. The insane war waged in this region should slowly become a historical category, and forgiveness and reconciliation are the first steps on that track. This needs to be followed up by a long process focused on building confidence and talks on identifying adequate and better solutions for coexistence, but as regards solutions the basic human and existential needs of all citizens the Republic of Croatia will sustain its constructive actions and participate, duly observing the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the realization of the ideals of an integrated and functional state of Bosnia and Herzegovina in attaining the highest standards of democracy, freedoms and rights on behalf and for the account of its citizens.
The relations between Croatia and Serbia are a specific mainstay of cooperation, lasting peace and stability in the region. The advancement of our relations is of vital importance for the prosperity of our citizens. Over the past eighteen years the process of rapprochement has seen its ups and downs. Bearing in mind primarily the interest of our citizens, the promotion of our relations and confidence building as a condition governing this process are today one of my priorities.
In this sense I have already met several times with the Serbian President Mr. Tadić and thereby opened the way for concrete activities which are currently under way. Today Croatia and Serbia are cooperating constructively, flexibly and pragmatically in eliminating concrete obstacles. Through a structured dialogue at government level the two states are discussing questions such as borders, refuges, displaced persons, missing persons, minorities, property, elimination of obstacles in the way of mutual investments and a host of other items. I am convinced that we have chosen the right track and I shall personally work hard to support the continuation of the process.
The Republic of Croatia also cooperates intensively with other countries regardless of possible leftover open issues. Our relations with Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania are exemplary, and our cooperation continuous and fruitful. Finally, talking about the region I would like to highlight a fact which, in my belief, is of the highest importance for its prosperity. Ten years ago the European Union offered the region the European prospects. At that time this implied an offer helping the states in the region to pull away from the past with the assistance of the European Union, resolving their relations and creating conditions for turning to the future by boarding the potential train for Europe.
I believe that the offer in question was the most signification demonstration of EU policy with respect to the then still unsettled and incomplete region of the Western Balkans. All the states have designated accession to the EU as their most important strategic goal, and embarked on reforms meaning the consolidation of the state and society, each at its own pace and depending on its own capacity. All the current positive developments in the region are indivisible from its road towards the EU, and their effects are visible in gradual consolidation, promotion of dialogue and concrete resolution of open issues. I find the recognition and verification of these actions by our European partners and the international community at large to be essential.
Distinguished members of the Assembly,
I would now like to dwell on other segments regarding the accomplishment of the principle of democracy, freedoms and human rights in the Republic of Croatia.
I truly believe that man as an individual and as a citizen can fully find fulfilment only in an environment permitting the realization of all, repeat all human rights. It was precisely because I recognize the role of the Council of Europe that I have actively participated in this process.
Since its foundation the Republic of Croatia has accomplished significant progress on that track, to as large extent also because of the institutional and substantial role of the Council of Europe in that process. All the high standards permitting the integral respect of human rights and freedoms have predominantly been built into the Croatian legislative and legal system thereby creating the framework for their effective implementation. I dare say that the process of legislative adjustment, based among other things on positive EU practice, and international conventions and associated documents, is almost completed. What still remains to be done is the final implementation of this legislative framework in practice. The Republic of Croatia is intensively engaged in this process, and will sustain its engagement, so that every citizen of Croatia could use all his rights available to him and live in democracy, freedom, peace and prosperity. In this field I shall also personally use both my knowledge and my political role in order to support the still missing implementation.
In spite of the war, Croatia began to adopt and implement the most important documents for the protection of human rights immediately after attaining independence. Through notification of succession the Republic of Croatia became a party to all the seven major UN treaties concerning the protection of human rights.
In order to reinforce and promote democracy, rule of law and protection of human rights the Republic of Croatia became a party to a number of conventions of the Council of Europe concerning the protection of human rights, and has signed and ratified them. Among them particular mention needs to be made of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the European Social Charter, the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.
In every modern democratic society state authorities are particularly important for creating and practically implementing legal principles concerning human beings. This is why it would be very important for state administration bodies to have sufficient administrative and professional resources for the efficient implementation of standards for the protection of human rights. I could not say that we have attained this objective, but in actual circumstances we are also progressing in that segment. Basic offices such as the Office for Human Rights, the Office for National Minorities, the Office for Gender Equality and the Office for Associations have been founded, and the Government of the Republic of Croatia has also set up an interdepartmental body - the Commission for Human Rights - charged with the analysis of the efficiency of the system for the protection and promotion of human rights.
The Government has also adopted another significant document, the National Program for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights from 2008 to 2011, which is being intensively implemented.
In addition to state administration bodies dealing with the protection and promotion of human rights, in the Republic of Croatia there are also independent national institutions for the protection and promotion of human rights such as the ombudsman, the ombudsman for children and the ombudsman for gender equality, and the newly-established ombudsman for persons with disabilities. They all protect and advocate the respect of human rights in line with their competencies.
Civil society plays a compelling role in the promotion of human rights in the Republic of Croatia. The numerous civil society organizations registered in the Republic of Croatia see their role in promoting the rule of law, involving citizens in the public sphere and enhancing public awareness. In this way the actions of these associations favour the promotion of tolerance and positive action with respect to particularly vulnerable and minority groups.
It can be said with all reason that the realization of the human rights principles in the Republic of Croatia is not possible without the active role of civil society organizations. Civil society organizations operate free from hindrance. They are partly co-financed from public funds and their influence is reflected in the increasing mobilization of citizens in the realization of their rights. Civil protests against phenomena and decisions which are not transparent and contrary to the citizens’ interest are becoming increasingly common, and are beginning to operate as a relevant and serious form of corrective action with respect to the state and its administration.
Distinguished members of the Assembly,
Rule of law and the degree of tolerance of a specific state are also measured in terms of the attitude of the majority towards members of minorities. Therefore, for Croatian society it is extremely important to provide to national minorities the conditions for the successful realization of all their rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic of Croatia and international documents. Croatia has twenty-two national minorities, the Serbian one being the largest. The very recently adopted amendments to the Constitution mention all the minorities in the Preamble. Today Croatia is the state of Croats and of the members of all minorities, and they are all citizens of the Republic of Croatia.
Minority rights in the Republic of Croatia are guaranteed by the Constitutional Law on the Rights of National Minorities. The provisions of the Law guarantee to all members of national minorities a number of rights ensuring their cultural autonomy. Moreover, the Law also regulates the rights of members of national minorities with respect to their participation in public life and representation of their interests in local and regional self-government bodies, and proportional representation in judicial and state administration bodies. The progress achieved in the realization of these rights is also evinced by the fact that 8 seats in the Croatian Parliament are guaranteed for members of national minorities. However, the full implementation of the rights under the Constitutional Law still requires additional effort. The representatives of minorities in the Parliament, but also in the Government because the Serbian party is its coalition partner, and the entire administration are doing their best to realize some rights which still await implementation such as the participation of minority members in judicial authorities and administrative bodies, and due attention needs to be given to sustaining such efforts.
In speaking about minorities I would particularly like to mention the Roma as a specially sensitive minority in Croatia. In order to achieve the equality of Roma as a particularly vulnerable minority group, not only in the Republic of Croatia but also at the global level, the Croatian Government has adopted the National Program for the Roma. Its goal is to help the Roma, in a systematic and comprehensive way, to improve the quality of their living, and to become integrated in social life and decision-making processes while preserving their identity, culture and tradition. The Program also envisions more active involvement of local and regional self-government bodies in actions focused on improving the life of the Roma minority. The Roma are encouraged to participate in public and political life, and it gives me particular pleasure to note that a Roma representative is also a member of the Parliament of the Republic of Croatia.
In order to provide for the full integration of the Roma minority the Croatian Government has also adopted the Decade Action Plan for Roma Integration 2005-2115 focused - through the achievement of a number of goals in education, health care, employment and housing - on Roma integration in political, economic, social and cultural life in the Republic of Croatia. Mr. Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, recently visited Croatia and became acquainted with all activities intended to improve Roma status in Croatia. We shall consider his recommendations with particular care and recognize them as relevant for the improvement of the Roma status.
Let me add a few words about the rights of a particularly vulnerable group, persons with disabilities. Croatia has already achieved considerable progress in realizing their rights and creating an environment for their active participation, on an equal footing, in society. However, additional efforts are required in order to provide the highest level of protection and the realization of all their rights without any discrimination. In 2005 the Croatian Parliament adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, confirming the rights of all citizens to equal participation in all segments of society and unhindered use of all their legal and constitutional rights.
The Republic of Croatia has also ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Optional Protocol to the Convention.
In order to attain further progress and reinforce the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities and of children with developmental disabilities, and provide for the implementation of the fundamental human rights principles such as the principle of non-discrimination and the principle of interdependence and indivisibility of all human rights, Croatia has adopted the National Strategy of Equal Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities from 2007 to 2015. The latest step towards the better protection of the rights of persons with disabilities is the recent foundation of an independent institution, the office of the ombudsman for persons with disabilities, and the appointment of the ombudswoman whose activity will additionally improve the position of persons with disabilities in the Republic of Croatia. Let me note with pride that Croatia is one of the rare countries with such an institution.
Distinguished members of the Assembly.
In providing for the implementation of human rights the Republic of Croatia devotes particular attention to another under-represented group - women. It is my personal conviction that the full implementation of standards for the protection of human rights is attained only after a society realizes full gender equality. The Republic of Croatia has reinforced its legislative framework in promoting gender equality through special national policies focused on implementing gender equality and reinforcing women’s rights. The umbrella document in this regard is the National Policy for the Promotion of Gender Equality in 2006-2010, which makes quite a few bodies of state administration responsible for implementing objectives in the promotion of gender equality in the Republic of Croatia. In considering gender equality it should be remembered that the realization of equality is also considerably influenced by the family situation. In this context due attention needs to be focused on the fact that any form of violence against women makes the realization of equality impossible, and such behaviour should not be tolerated or excused.
Violence as a behavioural phenomenon is on the increase in the world but also in Croatia. What we need is preventive action in terms of influencing all social strata and groups, and improved awareness of the problem by the public, groups and individuals. Vulnerable groups are particularly exposed to violence, in most cases women and children, but also people upholding different attitudes and views or of different appearance.
Major changes in the Croatian legislation have also been introduced in providing its conformity to international regulations guaranteeing third generation human rights - the right to healthy life and a healthy environment, the right to be informed, freedom of speech and expressing one’s view etc.
Distinguished members of the Assembly.
The so far presented information on the many laws, policies, strategies and measures adopted in the Republic of Croatia over the past eighteen years in order to create an integral system of human rights protection visibly show that Croatia has been very successful, comprehensive and efficient in adopting international standards in the protection of human rights.
Of course, that does not mean that the Republic of Croatia faces no new challenges in protecting human rights and adopting relevant standards. We are aware that the full implementation of an integral system of human rights protection is a long and continuous process requiring the joint efforts of representatives of all institutions and sectors, starting from state authorities through local and regional self-government to civil society organizations and, in particular, the media. I shall endeavour to contribute as much as possible to the process in order to avoid any delays.
On this occasion I would like to refer to two additional segments in the cooperation between the Republic of Croatia and the Council of Europe - Croatian cooperation in the multilateral environment of the Council and cooperation with the European Court for Human Rights.
Ever since it became a member of the Council Croatia has been actively involved in its work. Initially we were engrossed in improving our conditions and transforming our state built, also with your help, from the very foundations. Gradually we became involved in the work of all Council bodies dealing with universal and individual issues of democracy, human rights, justice and freedoms.
Today I can confirm with pleasure that cooperation with the Council of Europe is one of the top priorities of Croatia’s foreign policy. The role of the Council in promoting human rights is indispensable, and Croatia endeavours to contribute to its reinforcement. Therefore, we support the efforts of Mr. Jagland, the Council Secretary General, and of his reform team, focused on implementing the reform package intended to enhance the identifiability and political relevance of the Council of Europe in the European architecture.
We also support all the political priorities which will result from the reform. Within the reform scope we also support the stronger capacity of the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner, as well as the re-consideration of the existing control mechanisms, the improved efficiency of all Council offices in member countries, and the review of the Convention on the Council of Europe.
In this context the Republic of Croatia highly appreciates the work of the European Court for Human Rights, indispensable for the implementation of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms.
Since the start of its regular work in 1998 enough time has passed for the full consideration of its function and operation. We expect the reforms of the European Court, started with the Interlaken conference, to produce significant improvements of its efficiency and the dispensing of justice for 800 million people.
Today, after the entry of Protocol 14 and the Lisbon Treaty in force, the door has opened for the accession of the European Union to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, which will round off the system of human rights protection in the European legal space.
Distinguished members of the Assembly.
With this address I have tried to present a comprehensive cross section of the condition of democracy, human rights and freedoms in the Republic of Croatia. Since I am addressing this distinguished body for the first time in my new capacity, I have tried to cover the majority of questions of importance for the Council of Europe, but also those which are important from the standpoint of the national interests of the Republic of Croatia and all its citizens.
Finally, let me assure you that I shall do my best, in accordance with my commitment and dedication to human rights, to ensure the progress of the Republic of Croatia towards the acceptance of full European values to the benefit of all my fellow countrymen.
Thank you for your attention. I am ready to entertain your questions.