On the 1st of December 2023, a conference for the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on the 10th of December 1948, was organized by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister of Croatia in the National and University Library in Zagreb.
The conference focused on exchanging views of different members of the Croatian society and European Union representatives. Those attending the conference were members of the Croatian authorities including the Deputy Prime Minister, the Ombudswoman, the Ministry of Labor, and the judge of the Constitutional Court. It also presents representatives of civil society. European Union (EU) was represented through the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) whose representative was Eva Esther Sobotka who participated by videoconference.
To open the conference, speakers focused on the importance of reminding us of „the horrors that happened during the Second World War“ as Anja Šimpraga, Deputy Prime Minister of the Government of Croatia said during her opening speech and „putting the idea of the Declaration in practice“ while “finding partners that cooperate with us (Croatia)“.
The second speaker Tena Šimonović Einwalter, Ombudswoman of the Republic of Croatia, reminds us of the universality, inalienability, interdependence, and indivisibility of the Declaration which means that human rights are applicable to all people and cannot be lost. She focused on the fact that “states have to agree on an international level and then, apply the compromise or decision in their national law “.
During speakers’ interventions, they all encourage the promotion of human rights and cohesion between institutions.
The conference was held to show the progress of Croatian institutions and focused on two subjects: the Human Rights protection system in Croatia, in the first part, and the protection of the rights of elderly people, in the second part of the conference.
Discussion on Human Rights Protection in Croatia
During the introduction of the first theme, speakers recalled that the “Universal Declaration was a step forward for all humanity in 1948”, a step that should be followed by all the world. Indeed, it's the first document to settle human needs and rights that appeared in many documents after its adoption, such as the Constitution of the Republic of Croatia. For instance, the right to work in Article 23 of the UDHR and included in the Croatian Constitution states that gender equality should be respected. However nowadays, it's not the case because inequalities remain, so institutions should fight for this right according to the Constitution. Thus, the Constitutional Court has a huge role in the human protection field because it can recognize their violation.
The moderator highlights the fact that the court’s role is important in human rights protection because they are entitled to respect international conventions and contracts. However, she mentions that “sometimes lower courts are not trained and don't respect these texts”. To this question, Madame Bagić answers that, on one hand, lower courts are applying national law and international documents in their work. Nevertheless, she mentions the principle of proportionality – the principle of proportionality is set out in Article 5(4) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and aims to set the actions undertaken by the institutions of the EU within defined limits.
In other terms, it means that Croatia, even if she is part of the EU, regarding her principles, traditions, and cultures has the right to apply her national Constitution over EU law, if the EU law is going against the Constitution. Thus, to answer the question of the moderator, yes sometimes lower courts will not apply international documents due to a conflict of norms – laws are norms.
On another hand, article 14 of the Constitution of Croatia recognizes human rights protection as essential in Croatian society. Bagić also adds that today there are more young judges and those are taught about human rights by the Judicial Academy, which should bring a stronger promotion and defense of human rights regarding modern issues such as immigration and representation of ethnic minorities in Croatia. Later in this panel, Tena Šimonović Einwalter, Ombudswoman of the Republic of Croatia mentioned that the next biggest challenges in the human rights field will be dealing with the bad use of new technologies such as social media networks that can spread hate speech or fake news quickly, such as AI, that we need to understand to live in harmony with. She equally mentions, new challenges, climate change, discrimination, and immigration.
Regarding the immigration issue, Ivan Novosel, Director of programs of Human Rights House in Zagreb, mentions his concern on the next parliamentary elections and the certain “hate speech spread in media during this period against Roma, LGBTQ+ and migrants”.
The other challenge for the 2024-year mention is the way police officers treat migrants on Croatian borders. To stop this illegal treatment, those issues should be discussed and treated by relevant institutions.
Klaudija Kregar Orešković, Deputy Director of Office Human Rights, explained that their work was and is “focused on Serbs or Roma minorities” and a comprehensive integration of migrants in Croatia. She mentions that the Office of Human Rights is taking measures, such as improving the situation of the de facto segregation against Roma children since 45 percent of Roma children who go to schools are part of segregated classes. She equally mentions that the number of Roma University students is increasing.
On another hand, Klaudija Kregar Orešković mentions that their next objective by 2025 is to reduce justice delays to a minimum: an issue also mentioned, later in the first panel, by Tena Šimonović Einwalter saying that national courts should provide a „fair trial in a reasonable period of times “.
The third speaker, Eva Esther Sobotka, is a member of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). She mentions that the issue reported in Croatia is corruption in services. “Thanks to a report from 2019 we know that 24 percent of people think that is normal to give a gift to politics or head of department for advantages”.
Protection of the rights of elderly people
Anica Ježić, chief of the Sector for the Development and Improvement of Social Services, Ministry of Labor started her speech by mentioning that “pensioners (elderly people) are a vulnerable group that need support to integrate them in society”, and that the public services should be provided to them regardless where they live. She highlights that the problem in Croatia is the unequal development of services in rural areas.
In addition, Tatjana Vlašić, Deputy Ombudswoman of the Republic of Croatia, highlights that their research is done on statistics collected with institutions where seniors are living (retirement housing), the employees they are in contact with, and their relatives.
The second issue mentioned by all the speakers is the existence of abusive contracts on lifetime support – a life assistance contract is an agreement whereby one person undertakes to provide assistance or care to another in exchange for material or financial benefits, often for the lifetime of the beneficiary – should be illegal. Due to digitalization of the society and the lack of knowledge about the use of the Internet, elderly people are targeted by scams and in many cases do not know about their rights.
Moreover, another subject mentioned by the moderator is the case of people in retirement wanting to pursue their previous work. The first issue here is that elderly people are discriminated on their age during the selection process for a job. The second is that they are protected by national laws stating that they should work fewer hours than a non-senior person, but sometimes employers are abusive and make them work more than they should.
“Human rights equal human dignity” Deputy President of the retired Persons’ Trade Union of Croatia (SUH). “Inclusion should come with a value of respect with the value of their experience and knowledge”:
All speakers focus on a main goal: to remain at home as long as possible to elderly people and instead of sending them to retirement houses, while services are provided to them at home. In addition, when elderly people want to go to retirement homes they should not wait too long before being placed in one and neither be placed in a house far from their original home and relatives.
The challenges for the next year will be first, the support of elderly people with the digitalization in Croatia which risks putting more and more seniors excluded from society. The second biggest challenge is that healthcare workers are in short supply and those who are currently working should be trained on how to listen and understand the needs of elderly people who are a vulnerable group of society that we should protect.