COMMITTEE ON RIGHTS OF CHILD EXAMINES REPORT OF CROATIA ON OPTIONAL PROTOCOL ON CHILDREN AND ARMED CONFLICT

Committee on the Rights of the Child
18 September 2007

The Committee on the Rights of the Child today reviewed the initial report of Croatia on how that country is implementing the provisions of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.

Presenting the report, Branko Soèanac, Chargé d'Affaires of Croatia to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that the substance of the Protocol had been harmonized with the existing domestic legislation before its ratification. The Defence Act of 2002 included the key aims of the Protocol, notably, the minimum age of 18 years for conscription and participation in direct hostilities. Furthermore, the recent amendments to the Defence Act, adopted in July 2007, provided – at the proposal of the Government and with the prior approval of the Commander-in-Chief – the Croatian Parliament with the possibility to decide not to call recruits to compulsory military service. Consequently, only recruits who opted for service could be called to voluntary military service. Those new provisions were a step forward towards fulfilling the aspiration of Croatia to professionalize its Army in accordance with NATO standards. Moreover, they represented a real contribution towards the practical implementation of the Protocol in Croatia, ensuring that the country stayed on track to achieve the best possible level of comprehensive protection of children in armed conflict.

In preliminary concluding observations, David Brent Parfitt, the Committee Expert serving as Rapporteur for the report of Croatia, acknowledged and appreciated the answers provided by the delegation to the Committee's questions. Croatia was complying with the Protocol on most questions. However, with respect to its international law commitments, there might be a need to ensure that those were translated into domestic law to give them more strength. It would also be appreciated if more information could be forthcoming on rehabilitation measures for child victims of armed conflict in Croatia.

Other Experts raised a series of questions pertaining to, among other things, whether the Protocol had been applied in the courts; more information on the military schools for children; and what prohibitions existed against the production and sale of small arms and light weapons in Croatia. Noting that there was 17 per cent unemployment in Croatia, an Expert was concerned that young people might try to enlist in the Army, and asked whether there was such a risk in Croatia. A number of Experts wondered whether Croatia would consider extending its extraterritorial jurisdiction, as it appeared that it only extended to crimes under Croatian domestic law, and therefore did not apply to the recruitment of child soldiers, which was criminalized in the context of Croatia's international commitments.

The Committee will release its formal, written concluding observations and recommendations on the report of Croatia towards the end of its three-week session which will conclude on Friday, 5 October.

The delegation of Croatia also included representatives from the State Attorney's Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Faculty of Law of the University of Zagreb, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration.

As one of the 193 States parties to the Convention, Croatia is obliged to present periodic reports to the Committee on its efforts to comply with the provisions of the treaty.

When the Committee reconvenes this afternoon at 3 p.m., it will take up the initial report of Lithuania under the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict.

Report of Croatia

The initial report of Croatia (CRC/C/OPAC/HRV/1) under the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict says that Croatian law prohibits the enlistment of minors (persons who have not reached the age of 18). Conscripts (who have reached the age of 18 and are enlisted according to the legal procedure regulated by the Defence Law) cannot be deployed to peacekeeping operations or the other activities abroad according to law. There is no provision in Croatian law authorizing lowering of the age of conscription in exceptional circumstances. Croatia has no high schools operated by or under the control of the armed forces within the meaning of article 3 of the Protocol. Nevertheless, pursuant to the Law on the Service in the Armed Forces of the Republic of Croatia, a conscript is also a cadet who is defined as a “person educated at a military school under a contract of education”; but the point here is that a person of age is educated at university for the requirements of the Croatian Armed Forces. In addition, there are no armed groups operating on Croatian territory, so there is no child recruitment on Croatian territory.

Every member of the armed forces acquires a basic knowledge in international humanitarian law and in the law of armed conflict, including children’s rights, during regular training activities. The education curricula of the officers of the Croatian Armed Forces include topics relating to the treatment of civilians in armed conflicts. Moreover, the rights and special needs of children in armed conflicts are an integral part of the training programme for Croatian peacekeeping personnel, which is conducted in the International Military Operations Centre of the Croatian Armed Forces. Croatian ministries, government offices and State administrative offices, as well as professional groups working with and for children in Croatia, including non-governmental organizations, also undergo specific training according to their role in the national implementation of the Protocol.

During the war in Croatia approximately 1 million children were exposed to the conflict, and estimates indicate that the war affected the development of 400,000 children who were directly exposed to bombardment, or who saw their parents and beloved ones die or be wounded, while 50,000 children were directly exposed to war. This wartime suffering of children left other long-term consequences such as post-traumatic stress disorder, somatic and psychological symptoms. As a result, special attention has been provided to child victims through the national programme led by the Ministry of the Family, Veterans Affairs and Intergenerational Solidarity.

Presentation of Report

BRANKO SOÈANAC, Chargé d'Affaires of Croatia to the United Nations Office at Geneva, giving some background concerning child issues in Croatia, observed that Croatia had presented its second periodic report concerning its implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child to the Committee in September 2004. The Committee's recommendations on that report had been widely disseminated in Croatia, and had become the key guidelines in drafting the National Plan of Activities for the Rights and Interests of Children, 2006-2012. On the international level, Croatia had become a member of the Executive Board of the United Nations Children's Fund for the period 2007-2009. Croatia had also prepared the "Plus 5" Review of the 2002 Special Session on Children and a World Fit for Children Plan of Action. Among international instruments that could partly concern the protection of children, Croatia had been among the first countries to sign the United Nations Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, the ratification process for which would soon begin, and had also signed and ratified the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The Defence Act of April 2002 had entered into force before the ratification of the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict. That was important to mention, Mr. Soèanac said, because the substance of the Protocol had been harmonised with the existing domestic legislation before its ratification. The Law included the key aims of the Protocol, notably, the minimum age of 18 years for conscription and participation in direct hostilities. Furthermore, the recent amendments to the Defence Act, adopted in July 2007, were very important. They provided – at the proposal of the Government and with the prior approval of the Commander-in-Chief – the Croatian Parliament with the possibility to decide not to call recruits to compulsory military service. Consequently, only recruits who opted for service could be called to voluntary military service. In time of war or an immediate threat to the country, the decision concerning the suspension of compulsory military service was not applicable. Voluntary military service could also apply to women, in which case they would be conscripted.

Mr. Soèanac stressed that the new provisions were a step forward towards fulfilling the aspiration of Croatia to professionalize its Army in accordance with NATO standards. Moreover, they represented a real contribution towards the practical implementation of the Protocol in Croatia, ensuring that the country stayed on track to achieve the best possible level of comprehensive protection of children in armed conflict.

In relation to article 4 of the Protocol (on the prohibition and criminalization of recruitment of children by armed groups), Mr. Soèanac mentioned that in Croatia there was no legal possibility for the operation of armed groups, and that no such activities had been reported in practice. The Criminal Code prohibited and strongly punished the practice of recruiting children in the National Armed Forces or using them in direct hostilities in time of war, armed conflict or occupation. In addition, Croatia was a party to the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, and had amended its Criminal Code accordingly, as set out in its report.

In relation to the recruitment issue in practice, Mr. Soèanac said that local recruitment offices, following the relevant data provided by the Ministry of the Interior, entered recruits into the registry and summoned recruits through general or individual summons to report personally. It was important to stress that the person who had been summoned was obliged to carry a personal identification card or other valid document that enabled the identification and especially the verification of the age of the summoned person. That provided a practical obstacle for persons under 18 who wished to join the Armed Forces from doing so.

Questions Raised by Experts

DAVID BRENT PARFITT, the Committee Expert serving as Rapporteur for the report of Croatia, commended Croatia for its efforts to implement the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict. He also welcomed the fact that Croatia had criminalized the prohibition on the recruitment of children under 18, that is, it had not only prohibited such recruitment, but had established legal sanctions for doing so, which was fairly rare in national legislation.

Turning to questions, Mr. Parfit said that, according to the report, it would appear that young persons of 17 years of age would in certain cases have to register for conscription in Croatia, and he would like clarification on that.

Croatia had established an Ombudsman for Children in 2003, accountable to Parliament in accordance with the Paris Principles on independent national human rights institutions. The Office monitored children's rights, including under the Optional Protocol, and the implementation of domestic laws on children. In that connection, Mr. Parfitt welcomed the presence today of the Deputy Ombudsman. Could the delegation confirm the scope of jurisdiction of the Ombudsman's office? In addition, in its 2004 concluding observations, the Committee had recommended that the Children's Ombudsman be granted appropriate funding and human resources to fulfil its obligations, in particular its monitoring functions; had that been done?

Croatia was providing assistance to child victims of armed conflict, including refugees, although it appeared such assistance was mainly provided by non-governmental organizations. Mr. Parfitt asked what resources and assistance were available for such children, in particular what Government assistance was available.

Regarding training for the military in human rights, Mr. Parfitt noted the information on training that was provided to officers, but was concerned to know what training was provided to regular soldiers, in particular on the Convention and the Optional Protocol.

Mr. Parfitt was aware that Croatia was a party to the European Union Code on the Conduct of Arms Exports, and wondered whether that Code, or other regulations in force in Croatia would prevent the export of arms by Croatia to countries that used child soldiers?

Other Experts raised a series of questions pertaining to, among other things, whether there was special training provided for Croatian peacekeepers on the rights of women and children in conflict situations; whether the legislative amendments that had been proposed by the Children's Ombudsman had been adopted, or when they were likely to be; what were the protection measures carried out by the Commission on Defence, set up to implement the Defence Law (and ensuring, among others, that children under 18 would not be recruited into the Army); whether the Protocol had been applied in the courts; more information on the military schools for children, in particular whether they were run by military or civilian personnel; and what prohibitions existed against the production and sale of small arms and light weapons in Croatia. Noting that there was 17 per cent unemployment in Croatia, an Expert was concerned that young people might try to enlist in the Army, and asked whether there was such a risk in Croatia. A number of Experts wondered whether Croatia would consider extending its extraterritorial jurisdiction, as it appeared that extraterritorial jurisdiction was only extended to crimes under Croatian domestic law, and therefore did not apply to recruitment of child soldiers, which was criminalized in the context of Croatia's international commitments.

Response to Questions

Responding, with regard to the issue of dissemination and publication of the Protocol, the delegation noted that, according to Croatian law, international agreements concluded, ratified and published in accordance with the Constitution and which were in force, formed a part of the internal legal order and had precedence over the laws in the hierarchy of legal acts. Therefore, provisions of international agreements and treaties which were not in accordance with the internal legislation in force became directly applicable by virtue of the Constitution. Since the Protocol had entered in force in Croatia in June 2002, the rights protecting children under the Protocol had been applicable. The Protocol could be invoked in the domestic courts. However, there had been no case brought before Croatian courts so far; but judges, attorneys and the public were made aware of the Convention and the Optional Protocols.

According to the National Plan of Activities for the Rights and Interests of Children, many new benefits had been extended for children, including the creation of a registry of children affected by war, and improving psychosocial care, the delegation continued.

As for extraterritorial jurisdiction on recruitment of child soldiers, the Croatian criminal law system did not have any special provisions applicable to such cases, because there was no legal possibility of recruiting children on Croatian territory and the criminal justice authorities had never encountered criminal recruitment or other such acts by armed groups or foreign States. Recruitment of children for a foreign State was an offence in Croatia under the Rome Statute, and was a war crime, the delegation noted.

On compulsory military service, the delegation noted that more and more citizens were opting to fulfil their military service obligation by opting for national civilian service. Military service lasted for six months, and civilian service for nine months.

Although the unemployment rate was high in Croatia, the delegation said that young people found the military an unattractive option and there was no problem in the country of children under 18 wishing to be recruited. For one thing, the salaries were low. The only attractive option was for peacekeeping missions, because of higher salaries and the possibility of travel.

Turning to the issue of military education, the delegation noted that there were no military schools. Military education was entirely carried out in the civilian sphere. Military education was also not available for those under 18.

Croatia had a military police platoon in Afghanistan, the delegation said. Other than that, the only Croatians serving in peacekeeping stations were doing so under the command of other governments. There had been no allegations against Croatian peacekeepers that they had committed any offences against women or children during their service.

The Ombudsman's role was to monitor and control children's rights and from time to time to amend laws, which passed through the Ombudsman's office before going to the legislature. The Ombudsman acted both with regard to individual and group rights. That would include the issue of child recruitment. Children could apply directly to the National Ombudsman, or one of the three regional ombudsman's offices, if his or her rights were violated. Courts, under the family law, were obliged to protect children in any case of the violation of their rights.

In terms of funding for the Ombudsman's office, the Government should improve the financial resources for that office so that it could have the possibility of carrying out the full scope of its mandate. The delegation was not sure of the exact budget of the Office.

Regarding the rehabilitation of refugee children who had been affected by armed conflict, the delegation said that, according to the Law on Asylum of 2003, asylum-seeking children and unaccompanied children, not seeking asylum, were appointed a special guardian to care for their rights by the centre for social care. Such children had the right to humanitarian help, and to all the rights and guarantees provided to Croatian children.

On small arms and light weapons, the delegation said that production, sale and possession of such weapons was regulated by the Law on Arms. Sale was based on application for a permit, which could not be granted to children. On export and production of arms, Croatia was working to harmonize its legislation with European requirements; it was also a party to the Wassenaar Agreement, and to the Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. There was no specific criminal offence in Croatia concerning the abolition of trade with countries where children might participate in direct hostilities. The delegation had no information that Croatia sold arms to such countries, but it was thought that certainly Croatia could not export to any countries against which the United Nations had imposed an embargo.

Preliminary Observations

In preliminary concluding observations, DAVID BRENT PARFITT, the Committee Expert serving as Rapporteur for the report of Croatia, acknowledged and appreciate the answers provided by the delegation to the Committee's questions. Croatia was complying with the Protocol on most questions. However, with respect to its international law commitments, there might be a need to ensure that those were translated into domestic law to give them more strength. It would also be appreciated if more information could be forthcoming on rehabilitation measures for child victims of armed conflict in Croatia.
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