Mr Mate Grani_
Deputy Prime Minister and
Minister for Foreign Affairs of Croatia
4 April 1997
Dear Mr Minister,
Please permit me to write to you regarding some developments which could have significant consequences for those ethnic Serbs who are Croatian citizens (hereafter referred to as Serb Croatians), who, after having moved to the former Sector East from various other parts of Croatia in 1995, now want to return home.
Information has reached me which seems to indicate that this category of Croatian citizens is presently classified as "internal migrants" and not as displaced persons. I am wondering what the consequences of this will be for their chances of returning to their places of origin. In your letter of 13 June 1996 to the Chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe you described it to be the aim of the Government of Croatia "to create conditions for the voluntary, safe, dignified and speedy return of all displaced persons and refugees, regardless of their nationality and ethnic origin". In the same vein, the Republic of Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, in Article 7 of the 23 August 1996 Agreement on Normalization of Relations between the two states, have i.a. undertaken the obligation to facilitate the free and safe return of internally displaced persons to their places of origin. The general assumption was that the assurances in your letter to the Council of Europe and the obligations undertaken in the Agreement I just quoted would also cover the Serb Croatians who came to former Sector East in 1995. I express the hope that, notwithstanding their classification as internal migrants, this assumption is still correct. It seems to me that this also follows logically from Article 15 of the Constitution of the Republic of Croatia which states i.a. that "Members of all nations and minorities have equal rights in the Republic of Croatia".
In earlier correspondence I referred to the Law on the Temporary Taking Over and Administration of Specified Property. I should now like to return to this subject having received information about the way the Law is being applied by local authorities.
In the first place, there are indications that local authorities are of the opinion that refugees presently living outside Croatia and presently not having Croatian citizenship can be authorized by them to occupy empty houses in the region, even in situations where the owners of these properties, after having overcome the administrative difficulties standing in the way of their return, are intending to come back to their places of origin in the near future. As those being allowed to occupy these houses cannot be removed from them before they have been offered alternative housing, and since housing in the region is scarce, it seems that such an interpretation of the Law (apart from cases of family reunification) effectively bars ethnic Serbs presently living in the former Sector East from returning to their places of origin. If this interpretation of the Law is not in conformity with official policy, I would hope that clear instructions will be sent to the local authorities who are clearly taking the view, in my view incompatible with the Law, that they can offer these houses to any member of the Croatian nation (irrespective of the question whether they have Croatian citizenship) who shows an interest in occupying them. In this connection I also note that, according to Article 5 of the Law, property can be put at the disposal of certain categories of Croat citizens, but that there is no obligation to do so.
As quite a number of the houses are in remote areas, the risk of them being illegally occupied is fairly great. In this respect I would recommend that the local authorities will end their present practice of refusing to give information to returning Serb Croatians regarding the question whether the present occupants of their houses have been given official authorisation to take possession of them.
Finally, I feel obliged to return to the question of the safety and security of the mainly elderly Serb Croatians still living in Krajina. Much to my regret, there are many indications that cases of harassment and illtreatment of them are not decreasing; the contrary seems to be the case. There have also been some efforts to intimidate the few Serb Croatians who managed to return to their places of origin, i.a. by throwing hand grenades in the houses they are living in. I hope that drastic steps will finally be undertaken to bring these practices, which have been taking place continuously since August 1995, to an end. I also recommend that the necessary steps will be taken to ensure that such practices will not be allowed in the former Sector East once Croatia has taken over the administration of the area.
Max van der Stoel
OSCE High Commissioner
on National Minorities