A United Nations independent expert Monday welcomed the Croatian Government's efforts to uphold and protect the human rights of women by signing and ratifying relevant international human rights conventions, and through numerous other initiatives at the national level.
Speaking out at the end of her first official visit to Croatia, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, also encouraged the authorities to adopt a human rights-based approach when dealing with violence against women in post-conflict situations.
"Violence from the wartime period tends to become privatized and takes on new forms as it manifests itself in the private and family sphere, where women are the victims of such violence in the vast majority of cases and the perpetrator is usually the husband or partner," Manjoo said.
"The current focus by state actors on preserving the unity of the family is manifested in the welfare/social approach and not a human rights-based approach," she added. "It does not take into consideration the nature of relationships based on power and powerlessness; of economic and emotional dependency; and also the use of alcohol and other substances as a defence for abusive behaviour."
During her ten-day mission to the country, Manjoo visited the capital, Zagreb, and the Zadar and Vukovar regions. She met with Government authorities, national human rights institutions, and representatives of UN agencies and Croatia's civil society. She also visited shelters, psychiatric institutions and a women's prison, and met with individual victims of gender-based violence.
In a news release from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur also referred to the discrepancy between the provisions of the laws and the effective implementation of the State's responses to family violence.
She noted, for example, that judicial measures often ignore the protection needs of the victim, who is left at the mercy of the perpetrator and often has to flee with her children from the family home.
"Prosecutors from the State's Attorney Office have the authority to decide under which category to investigate and prosecute a case of family violence, and the power to ask for a variety of protective measures for the victim," she said. "However, I have been informed by victims that often the only measure requested is psycho-social rehabilitation treatment for the perpetrator - a measure which is often not followed and which has proven to be ineffective in most cases."
The Special Rapporteur recalled a number of recurrent complaints she heard from victims during her visit to Croatia. These included the low sentencing of perpetrators, the suspension of their sentences, and the use of protective measures such as psychosocial therapy that do not benefit victims directly, but rather aim to change perpetrators' behaviours through counselling or treatment.
On the issue of conflict-related sexual violence, Manjoo noted that it is crucial for Government authorities at all levels to recognize the existence of civilian women victims of a range of violations, regardless of their active participation in the conflict, and to ensure that they are entitled to the same benefits as war veterans.
"More than 20 years after the end of the armed conflict, the deep trauma is still present in many of the survivors with whom I had the opportunity to meet," she said. "Their perpetrators have not been sanctioned for these crimes and the impunity surrounding such perpetrators was seen as a further insult to numerous victims."
"I call on the Government to make justice, accountability and substantive redress a priority in the near future," the independent expert noted, underscoring that the lack of accountability further perpetuates a sense of distrust in the ability of national courts and processes to address the justice and redress needs of women victims effectively.
Noting that her mandate is broad and looks at all forms, causes and consequences of violence against women, the Special Rapporteur also highlighted that she had heard "very little" from interviewees during her visit on the situation of minority women including Roma women, and lesbian, transgender and inter-sex women, as well as on the issue of women victims of trafficking, sexual offences including rape, and sexual harassment.
Independent experts, or special rapporteurs like Manjoo, are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back, in an unpaid capacity, on specific human rights themes. Manjoo is expected to present a report with her final findings and recommendations to a forthcoming session of the Council.