The Youth Initiative for Human Right Croatia was founded in 2008 as a non-governmental, youth-led human rights organization based in Zagreb, with the mission to contribute to the realization of justice for war crimes, reconciliation within Croatia and with the region, and strengthening of democracy.
Since then, we have achieved a lot. We monitored key war crimes trials and promoted court-established facts, making sure to hear and bring forward the voices of victims– to the public and to the institutions. We’ve ensured that thousands of young people from the region meet, learn about the region’s past and are given opportunities to take action towards building a truly peaceful future; and we have done this as part of the YIHR Regional Network with sister organisations in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro. We’ve consistently pushed for a “clean up your own backyard” approach to dealing with the past, whereby we’ve consistently called out the Croatian state and society to face its own share of responsibility for what happened in the 1990s. To that end, we have undertaken major regional efforts over the years: we’ve played a key role in advocating for the institutionalisation of regional youth exchanges, which culminated in the ground-breaking establishment of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO). We also coordinated the regional signature collection campaign in support of the establishment of a regional truth commission.
Within Croatia, we’ve been consistently fighting against corrosive nationalist narratives which teach young people to glorify war criminals, stay in ethnic-based bubbles and exclude those who are different instead of inspiring them to think critically and to build a truly democratic society based on human rights values. In swimming against the tide, we’ve managed to break taboos. Through our advocacy, including the Isprika [Apology] campaign, we contributed to humanizing all victims, regardless of their ethnic background. For the first time in 2020, the government paid its respect to all civilian victims fallen during Operation Storm. In 2021, we saw our long-term advocacy bear fruit with the Zagreb authorities finally taking steps to honour the memory of the Zec family, who was brutally killed in 1991 by Croatian forces. In recognition of our efforts and our ability to inspire human rights activism across the Western Balkans, the YIHR Network was awarded the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize in 2019, the first non-governmental initiative to receive this prestigious distinction. In the same year, we received the “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” medal from the French Republic, for our work in enabling young people to build shared narratives about the recent past.
However, our work on reconciliation remains gravely needed. Since Croatia joined the EU, progress on transitional justice and dealing with the past has stalled in several areas instead of progressing, accession coinciding with insufficient pressure made to resolve human rights and transitional justice issues and enabling Croatia to distance itself from the region. Crises such as the pandemic, earthquakes, and now the devastating reality of a return of war in Europe are further fragilizing post-Yugoslav countries and exacerbating the risk of renewed tensions in the region. And yet, we refuse to be discouraged. Young people in Croatia and in the rest of the region continue to have limited opportunities to fulfil their full potential and for genuine political participation. They deserve change and nothing but our continuous engagement and activism to make it happen.
It is with these remaining challenges in mind that we embarked in a thorough strategy development process in 2021. We analysed our context to update our vision of the change that is needed in Croatia. We collected the feedback and ideas of thematic experts, partners and members of our Assembly and Board. Most importantly, we talked to young volunteers and participants to hear about their ideas and what they wish we’d do differently. As a result of this strategic reflection, we have decided to:
- Pursue our vision and mission with renewed focus. We experience every day the consequences of the unresolved legacy of the past and will stay the course in trying to address it. Feedback collected during the process and our context analysis show that our efforts are both needed and experienced as valuable by those we serve.
- Build on what we do best and expand our offer in transitional justice and human rights education, ensuring that it fosters increased regional mobility and evolves methodologically with the needs of the new generation
- Ensure that the opportunities we make available are not concentrated in Zagreb but are available to local communities particularly at risk of marginalisation and exclusion
- Double down on our advocacy efforts towards relevant national institutions, especially to fight against impunity
- Strenghten our efforts to encourage and inspire young people to engage in human rights and memory activism
More specifically, we will pursue the following strategic goals:
- Encourage and enable youth to shift attitudes and combat rising nationalism stemming from the 1990s and its consequences
- Ensure that key institutions take steps to responsibly deal with the past, including through the effective implementation of transitional justice mechanisms
- Empower youth in developing critical thinking, self organising and enacting positive social change with a special focus on youth in risk of marginalisation and youth from war-affected communities
We trust that this direction builds on the unique voice and positioning we developed over the years and we are grateful to every single person who shared their insights with us during this process and gave us new inspiration and courage. As we pursue our goals, we will be honored to work with youth, partners, donors and initiatives who share our values and our vision and want to contribute to making it a reality.
Morana Starčević, Executive Director
If we have decided to reaffirm our commitment to our vision and mission, it is because the reconciliation, human rights and democratisation challenges which face Croatia call for this steadfast focus.
Croatia has made little progress on human rights and transitional justice issues that should have been addressed prior to its EU accession. It has in fact used accession to distance itself from other post-Yugoslav countries and in some instances misused EU negotiations to approach unresolved bilateral issues from a position of unequal power. The state of transitional justice and fact-based treatment of the legacy of the 1990s remains very concerning in Croatia and in the region as a whole. In Croatia, judicial institutions are slow in prosecuting war crimes, particularly those committed by members of Croatian armed forces. The Act that sets out the rights of victims of wartime sexual violence and law on civilian war victims can de facto prevent non-Croatian victims from exercising their rights. Although 2020 saw a shift in the government’s commemoration of Operation Storm, much remains to be done to systematically foster an appropriate culture of remembrance. Political elites continue to often demonstrate sympathy and/or explicit support to convicted war criminals. When it comes to cooperating with neighbouring countries, collaboration is at best limited. Croatia has for example ultimately decided against joining RYCO, thereby depriving its youth of meaningful opportunities for exchange and intercultural learning. In relation to Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia denies participating in Joint Criminal Enterprise (JCE) between 1992-1994 (despite court-established facts) and has in 2015 decided it will not cooperate with Bosnian prosecutors in any case that alleges Croatian participation in a JCE. This means that numerous victims (or the family of victims) of egregious crimes continue to wait for basic accountability.
Minorities’ rights remain fragile as we continue to see documented cases of physical violence, hate speech, discrimination and property damage against minorities, especially Serbs. No significant progress has been made in the implementation of the Constitutional Act on the Rights of National Minorities. Hate speech remains very present both online and offline, and primarily targets national minorities, refugees and LGBTQ persons.
Across the region, there is limited space for meaningful youth participation in decision-making and progressive political engagement. Education systems teach history based on one-sided nationalist narratives and tend to relay ‘absolute truths’ instead of enabling critical thinking, which leads to a situation where young people often struggle to engage with analysis and filtering of information. Mainstream and social media tend to perpetuate polarisation and nationalist narratives and it is therefore not surprising that different studies in Croatia and the region have documented youth attitudes as being increasingly conservative. We assess that youth from war-affected areas of Croatia and/or economically deprived communities are even at more risk of narrow nationalism, xenophobia and racism, as compared to their peers in other parts of Croatia, in part because they have even more limited access to informal education and activism opportunities. These trends were worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic, economic turmoil and national crisis caused by the 2020 earthquakes. As more people are plunged into increased precarity and a ‘survival mode’, grievances across ethnic lines can fester and increase conflict risks. At the same time though, we know that many young people thrive and start to advocate for positive social change when they are actually provided with the opportunity to fulfil their full potential, experience meaningful interactions with those of different backgrounds, and develop an interest and skills for activism.
One of the reflections underlying our strategy is that the non-recurrence of conflict in our region cannot be taken for granted. We held that conviction when we started our strategy process in 2021 and hold it even more firmly now in 2022, as the news are dominated by Russia’s aggression of Ukraine. The confrontation between Russian Federation and Western European countries could evolve in a way that makes post- Yugoslav countries even more of a fertile ground for geopolitical competition or conflict spill-over, with different countries and ethnic groups potentially falling on different sides of the divide. This shocking reality of another war raging in Europe has left us shocked, but even more determined to continue our peace-building efforts together with and for the youth from Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia not to allow all the progress made to fall victim to overwhelming nationalistic rhetoric. We will double down when it comes to combating regional divisions and enabling young people to stand up against divisive actions. We will consistently hold our political leadership accountable, including for their denialist reading of history and transitional justice failures. In case the war in Ukraine prompts EU to re-evaluate its priorities and actually move towards enlargement in the Western Balkans, we will consider adapting our advocacy accordingly to make sure accession negotiations are used to progress on transitional justice and human rights.
Vision: Society in Croatia has learnt lessons of the past and strives towards a positive future based on the respect of human rights, civic values and the rule of law.
We envision a future in which institutions of the Republic of Croatia implement transitional justice and human rights mechanisms and collaborate effectively at the regional level on war crimes trials and the search for missing persons. We strive towards building a society in Croatia which fosters an inclusive culture of memorialisation where civilian war victims have obtained symbolic and material reparations and where young people are equipped to think critically about the past and are active advocates for human rights, and change-makers in their local, national, and regional environment.
We envision Croatia as a part of a peaceful region in which facts about the 1990s have been established and acknowledged by states and citizens, and in which justice and accountability around war crimes has been achieved.
Mission: Our work addresses the legacy of the 1990s, aims to prevent the recurrence of conflict, and build a society based on the respect human rights. We do so by enabling young people to become tolerant citizens who think critically about the past and who actively hold institutions accountable through effective advocacy and activism.
In a national and regional context where dominant narratives about the past are nationalistic and one-sided, we are dedicated advocates for the recognition of court-established facts and the fight against war-crimes denial and impunity. We are inspired by young people and see them as the generation who can bring about change and build a society that is characterised by its celebration of human rights values rather than by its ethnic divides. We work with and for youth and our commitment is to provide young people with the space, opportunities, and informal education they need to thrive and initiate change on their own terms.
We practice internally what we advocate for externally. Our approach is focused on the following key values and ideas:
- Responsibility: We hold the institutions accountable and societies responsible to uphold the right to the truth
- Antinationalism and antifascism: We stand against oppression and reduction of human beings based on their characteristics.
- Inclusion: We practice inclusive dialogue and cooperation by creating points of connection across divides on the local, national and regional level. We consider young people as active agents and co-creators of the future, which is why we also consistently practice horizontal inclusion against strict hierarchies both within our organisation and towards society.
- Courage: We continue to challenge mainstream revisionist narratives and will stay true to our activist identity.
- Solidarity: We believe in society based on the sense of community, cooperation and reciprocity in supporting the common goal: respect of human rights and the rule of law
OUR 2022- 2025 STRATEGY
In the next 4 years, we will pursue three ambitious strategic goals:
⮚ Encourage and enable youth to shift attitudes and combat rising nationalism stemming from the 1990s and its consequences
⮚ Ensure that key institutions take steps to responsibly deal with the past, including through the effective implementation of transitional justice mechanisms
⮚ Empower youth in developing critical thinking, self organising and enacting positive social change with a special focus on youth in risk of marginalisation and youth from war-affected communities
These objectives are underpinned by our conviction that meaningful change regarding dealing with the past can only happen if:
- Enough young people in Croatia and in the region critically understand what happened in the 1990s and are inspired to actively challenge nationalist narratives and ethnic divides perpetuated by political elites;
- Glorification of past violence no longer dominates public spaces and discourses and is replaced by a living culture of remembrance that is both victim-centred and inclusive;
- The Republic of Croatia is consistently and effectively pushed to acknowledge its share of responsibility for past human rights violations and its role in preventing their recurrence;
- Reconciliation efforts are mindful of Croatian socio-economic realities and actively try to reach and tangibly benefit local communities and young people vulnerable to marginalisation by giving them agency.
Encourage and enable youth to shift attitudes and combat rising nationalism stemming from the 1990s and its consequences
Why we pursue this goal
The rise of nationalism manifests itself in specific ways in Croatia and the Western Balkans, where it is both a result of the unaddressed legacy of the past and a potential cause for future conflict. We believe that there is a direct causal connection between the wars of the 1990s and continued inter-ethnic hatred and prejudice against those who are considered to be “other”. The official policy towards the wars of the 1990s sees the role of the Republic of Croatia exclusively as defensive and liberating which prevents the acknowledgment of the suffering and rights of non-Croat war victims. Although the Government of Croatia took some initial steps in 2020 to commemorate victims on all sides, an inclusive and fact-based culture of remembrance remains sorely lacking: Ustaša symbols and graffiti tend to be ubiquitous in public spaces and war criminals continue to be celebrated as heroes. For example, in 2021, the local authorities in the City of Karlovac named a bridge after a military unit whose member was convicted for war crimes on the day of the 30th anniversary of the crime. As mentioned above, school curricula are skewed and foster nationalist attitudes rather than critical thinking. These dynamics are of increasing concern and require sustained action because of the way they marginalise the young generations across the region, which bear the burden of unresolved conflicts and relationships from the past while being provided with scant factual knowledge about what happened during this time and being continuously exposed to nationalist narratives in the mainstream and social media and the formal education system. Limited opportunities for youth to meet their peers across divides within their own country and across the region, and the fact youth is disproportionately hit by unemployment and fear for their future (which can trigger an exclusionary reflex vis à vis ‘competing’ groups) also contribute to shaping these attitudes.
Our impact by 2025
To effectively enable youth to shift attitudes and combat rising nationalism, we will focus on achieving the following key results by 2025:
- Young people from Croatia and the region have more opportunities to meet, share experiences with and learn from their peers, experts, activists and other stakeholders across ethnic lines and ideological divides
- Young people from Croatia and the region have factual knowledge about human rights violations and atrocities committed in Croatia and in the region during the 1990s, and are ready to recognise the role played by their own state
- Young people have the skills, knowledge and tools to combat ethnic-based discrimination and advocate for reconciliation at the local, national and regional level
- Young people internalise and/or generates fact-based narratives and inclusive memorialisation initiatives about the 1990s and encourage their local communities to participate in the process
How we will bring about change
Our approach to this strategic objective is based on the assumption that if young people from different ethnic and ideological backgrounds experience meaningful and constructive discussions about the region's past, then they will not only be more open to each other and more likely to be more tolerant and interested in future engagement with peers across (initial) divides, but they will also be more inclined to actively stand up for peace, reconciliation and inclusive memorialisation.
Therefore, our work under this objective will focus on the following main pillars:
- Quality education and exchange among youth across divides: We will create opportunities for youth from Croatia (16-30 years old) to learn about the past and to do so jointly with their peers from the different ethnic and ideological backgrounds, both in Croatia and through regional mobility. We will make sure that the educational materials we produce and use are fact-based, multi-perspective, interactive and not top-down nor incentivise rote learning but rather stimulate critical thinking and activism. In doing so, we will build on our track record while continuously adapting our approach based on feedback and ideas of the young people we are here to serve.
- Memory activism: In line with our educational model, we will organize actions focused on inclusive memorialization with youth. For the past not to repeat itself, it is essential to build an inclusive culture of remembrance built on the memory of all civilian victims rather than on the glorification of armed forces and individuals who inflicted suffering.
Ensure that key institutions take steps to responsibly deal with the past, including through the effective implementation of transitional justice mechanisms
Why we pursue this goal:
For systemic human rights violations never to occur again and for Croatia to recover from post-war traumas and inter-ethnic divides, it is essential for the institutions in Croatia to promote truth, justice and reparations for victims. There is still a need to establish criminal responsibility for war crimes committed during the 1990s, regardless of the ethnicity of perpetrators. Croatia is very slow in prosecuting cases, doesn’t collaborate effectively with neighbouring countries on criminal matters; and continues to celebrate Croat war criminals convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT). Insufficient criminal justice proceedings and the lack of alternative mechanisms (such as truth commissions, e.g. RECOM) slow down the realization of the right to truth for victims. Even when judicially established facts exist, they are often not publicly available and visible.
Croatia is not only doing little to advance knowledge and truth-finding regarding missing persons it is also using its institutions to go in the opposite direction, for example by channelling revisionist narratives through the Declaration of Homeland War and Declaration of Operation Storm, which permeate the formal educational curriculum as well. As mentioned above, the Act that sets out the rights of victims of wartime sexual violence still excludes people who were imprisoned, or who were not citizens of the Republic of Croatia at the time of the perpetration from exercising their rights. And while the Law on civilian war victims offers some hope that material reparations should become available, there is a need to carefully monitor implementation to ensure that reparations are available to all victims, regardless of their ethnic background.
We assess that Croatia’s transitional justice failings are currently most obvious and most damaging in relation to Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH). False and denialist narratives hide the aggressive nature of participation of Croatia in the 1992-1994 conflict in BIH and hinder the possibility to progress in justice and reparation for victims and prevent reconciliation as well as societal reckoning with the past. In this context, YIHR Croatia’s principled voice has become even more important than it was before.
Our impact by 2025
For the next 4 years, we will focus our advocacy towards reaching the following results:
- 1990s anti-war role models are visible and civilian war victims are publicly commemorated regardless of their ethnicity and national origin.
- There is increased public awareness of the responsibilities of institutions in dealing responsibly with the past through transitional justice mechanisms.
- Alternative fact-based narratives about the 1990s role and actions (including crimes) of the Croatian political and military leadership in the Republic of Croatia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina start being visible and accepted by the Croatian public and institutions.
How we will bring about change
We will focus our work on what we consider to be the most pressing transitional justice issues in view of how unaddressed they currently are and how relevant a shift of public and institutional attitude would be in terms of dealing with the past. Since institutions are unlikely to implement transitional justice mechanisms more effectively unless they face pressure from relevant actors and clear expectations from the public, we will focus on bringing marginalized topics to the fore through a mix of advocacy, education, and memorialization activities. Our action will be based on the following work strands:
- Transitional justice monitoring and influencing at the national level will be used as a tool to support raising awareness about the responsibility of institutions for the implementation of existing transitional justice mechanisms, including relevant legislative frameworks, and advocating on observed gaps and shortcomings. We will also lead our own memory activism and truth-seeking initiatives focused on civilian war victims efforts to generate good practices for inclusive memorialization which can be adopted by relevant institutions.
- Proactive advocacy about the unresolved legacy of the past, with a focus on Croatia’s actions in BiH: While we will support any regional advocacy effort that might emerge in the next few years, we will focus our action on one issue of bilateral and regional relevance, namely the refusal of Croatia to acknowledge its participation in a Joint Criminal Enterprise in Bosnia & Herzegovina. We will target the political discourse that presents Croatia’s actions as purely defensive by issuing public statements, organizing campaigns, and adding content in our educational program that put forward alternative critical and fact-based narratives.
Empower youth in developing critical thinking, self organising and enacting positive social change with a special focus on youth in risk of marginalisation and youth from war-affected communities
Why we pursue this goal
We believe in the potential of politically and socially engaged youth putting their ideas and creativity in the service of human rights and democratic development. However, such engagement is hampered by the exclusion and marginalisation faced by many young people in Croatia. Today, many struggle to satisfy basic socio-economic needs. This is especially true of young people living in areas those war-affected areas that never fully recovered and remain economically disadvantaged. It is also particularly acute in local communities with a large minority population, which are not in the focus of government, private sector actors or civil society. For example, the Banija region is a case in point where what can be observed is the cumulative impact of the war legacy, recent earthquakes and under-investment.
This “survival mode” affecting many young people means that have limited opportunities and/or capacity to both think about and act on broader societal issues. They are less inclined to engage in informal educational opportunities when they are offered, and even if interested, they have limited or no access/opportunities for quality and consistent informal education. These patterns intersect with low political participation of youth, who are not sufficiently involved in decision-making and don’t have enough opportunities to take on a more active role in their communities. All these factors contribute to making these youth even more vulnerable to nationalist and conservative narratives than their peers in urban centres, who have more opportunities and access to alternatives.
Our impact by 2025
In the next 4 years we expect to see the following change:
- Young people from war-affected and/or economically deprived areas think critically and understand root problems in their communities
- Young people are motivated and have the skills and know-how to lead social change activities in their communities
- Young people are encouraged and enabled to fight the rising nationalism and build inclusive communities, including through local human rights advocacy
How we will bring about change:
Our work on this objective will mainly entail efforts in two strands:
- informal education focused on building skills, knowledge and attitudes needed for identifying and solving complex community problems: By providing youth with a comprehensive educational program and capacity building, coupled with apprenticeships and mentorship opportunities, we will support a development of a new generation of local actors, able to think critically about key social issues, create and initiate their own social and human rights activism. While we will continue to design programs that go beyond dealing with the past topics, we will make sure that the educational content we make available directly connects to human rights and provides young people with skills that are foundational for activism. Our activities will bring together diverse ethnic groups, as we want to enable youth to see their issues from another perspective and facilitate critical thinking through exposure to different local communities, not only in Croatia, but also in the Western Balkans region and post-Yugoslav countries.
- capacity-building, encouragement and mentoring for youth-led initiatives and youth organizations As a result of this approach, we expect to see an increase in skills, know-how and attitudes for identifying and problem solving on an individual level, and a greater capacity for self-organizing and enacting positive social change on a level of youth-led initiatives and local communities.
INSTITUTIONAL PRIORITIES & ORGANISATIONAL APPROACH TO CHANGE
We are aware that maximum impact can only be achieved if we continuously invest in our organisational foundations. As we pursue our impact-oriented strategic objectives, we continue to live our values and strengthen organisation internally as well. During this strategic period, we will intensify our efforts to keep YIHR a youth-led and youth-driven organization with a strong activist base. We will double down on our regional efforts and utilize the YIHR Network collective know-how and resources to maximize impact at a regional scale. We will ensure that the impact of our work is easily demonstrated, well documented and all the more visible to broad and wide audiences, so as to further fuel and support our advocacy efforts.
As our objectives build on each other and work in synergy, we will continue to employ several horizontal approaches across the board:
- Regional dimension – we ensure the content of our activities covers the regional lens and strive to have regional activities and participants
- Recognition and strengthening of young people’s agency through all activities – we will design our activities and their follow up in such a way to build and/or strengthen young people’s sense of agency and activism skills
- Linking up with relevant partners and initiatives – we will continue to build synergies with other actors by connecting with them and providing support when we recognize potential of joint impact and by building strategic partnerships which increase efficiency and impact of our work across all three objectives
- Ties between our advocacy and education work – we will ensure that our memorialisation advocacy is based on youth-led activism and initiatives and that our own advocacy and memory campaigns serve to provide alternative sources of information for the young generation.