New Croatian law to provide compensation and assistance to victims of wartime sexual violence

Apr 14, 2014


Public debate underlines the need for urgent action after 20 years of indifference

Twenty years is too long to wait – more than two decades after the Homeland War, it is high time for Croatia to ensure that victims of wartime rape and other sexual violence are granted recognition, status, compensation and support. This was the conclusion of a roundtable discussion co-organized by the Ministry of Veterans Affairs and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on 14 April 2014 as part of the public debate on a new law designed to deliver justice to victims of wartime sexual violence. Participants in the discussion agreed that the law should take a holistic approach and provide both financial and symbolic reparations for the injustice suffered, along with appropriate social support and health and psychological treatment. 

“With the law, we want primarily to encourage the victims to talk about their trauma and then to provide them with adequate medical and psychosocial support, legal assistance and ultimately, with a dignified and appropriate financial compensation,“ said Minister of Veterans' Affairs Predrag Matic.

Research conducted by UNDP to assist in preparations for the draft law concluded that an estimated 1,500-2,200 people in Croatia experienced rape and other severe forms of sexual abuse during the 1991-95 armed conflict. But police, prosecutors and civil society organizations have on record only 147 cases, involving 126 women and 16 men (and 5 cases where the gender of the victim is not known). Experts noted that rape is among the least-reported crimes even in peacetime, with the number of actual crimes understood to exceed the number reported by a factor of up to ten.

The new law would extend to victims to a range of support services, including medical and psychological assistance (to which victims’ families would be entitled as well);  mandatory and supplementary health insurance; medical rehabilitation; placement in veterans’ centers in the event of prolonged illness or infirmity; and free legal aid. In addition, victims of sexual violence would be entitled to a lump-sum compensation payment of an amount still to be determined.

The scale and form of compensation proved to be the most controversial topic of discussion at the roundtable, particularly since the draft law envisages the payment of compensation through a new foundation, rather than directly from the state budget. Creation of the foundation would require a new law, prompting criticism that this approach would further prolong the victims’ wait for compensation. Some participants argued that the economic crisis was an insufficient justification to rely on contributions from donors to fund compensation payments that are rightly a state obligation.

Crucially, the new law would grant the status of “victim” without requiring legal proof of a crime in the form of a court verdict; instead, an independent committee composed of qualified professionals from the fields of social work, health and justice would review submissions and determine eligibility. ”The aim of the law is to use an administrative approach to determine if a person is a victim of sexual violence and thus prevent re-traumatization,” stressed Bojan Glavašević, Assistant Minister of Veterans' Affairs. Nonetheless, the draft law would still require that statements from victims that could serve as evidence of a crime would have to be referred to police and prosecutors, regardless of the wishes of the victims. This provision also provoked criticism from some participants, who pointed to the limited success of law enforcement in capturing and prosecuting perpetrators over the past 20 years, even where victims had come forward and identified their attackers.

The period of public discussion of the draft law extends until 17 May 2014. In incorporating feedback from the public and the expert community, the Ministry – and later the Croatian parliament – will need to balance conflicting options. UNDP Resident Representative Louisa Vinton pointed to two main tensions: first, between the imperative of compensating victims for the injustice they have suffered, and the prosaic constraints of the state budget, and, second, the need for a process that will award the status of victim where there is insufficient evidence to reach a court verdict.

As input to this process, the discussion reached a firm consensus on a number of points:

- The law should be crafted to prevent any further victimization of survivors.

- Determining the status of victim should be separated from any criminal proceedings.

- The provisions of the law should take effect as rapidly as possible, but the timeframe for eligibility should be long enough to allow survivors to gain confidence to come forward.

- Some form of symbolic recognition – such as a letter of recognition from the President – should be considered alongside more material provisions for compensation and assistance.

- Additional effort needs to be devoted to sensitizing both the general public and the expert and law enforcement communities, since sexual violence remains a taboo theme.

- Measures need to be undertaken to facilitate the full reintegration of the victims into society, such as access to the labor market and job skills training.

- Whatever the form, whether lump-sum or monthly payment, financial reparations should be provided at a dignified level reflecting the suffering and injustice victims have experienced. 

The roundtable was organized as part of a broader joint project of the Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs, the Association of Women in the Homeland War and UNDP, which aims to ensure that victims of sexual violence during the 1991-95 armed conflict are granted the status, recognition, compensation, and support that they deserve. The project is financially supported by Switzerland and UN Women.