Introduction and Historical Background

Processing genocide is difficult enough, establishing legal protections that reconcile with a prior warring adversary is another. Croatia serves as a distinct example of a country that has used constitutional legislation to protect its national minorities and overcome its war-torn recent historic past. Croatia’s Constitutional Law on the Rights of Minorities enacted sweeping, comprehensive reforms to protect the Croatian Serbs, Croatia’s most prominent national minority.  These reforms are markedly impressive, considering Croatian Serbs initiated a hostile military takeover supported by Serbia a decade earlier, creating lingering tensions.

A brief recount of Croatian history contextualizes the Croatian Parliament’s intended practical effects behind its minority legislation.  Croatia historically belonged to Yugoslavia, an Eastern European country comprising five other Balkan republics including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia.  Yugoslavia encompassed a melting pot of ethnic Slavic people with a variety of nuanced spoken and written languages and faiths from Orthodox Christianity to Islam. Communist leader Joseph Broz Tito served as a unifying figure that brought peace and stability to the region of overlapping ethnicities throughout the 20th century.

In the early 1990s, a push for independence swept through Eastern Europe. Tito’s death in 1980 and reemerging nationalism created a desire for these Balkan republics, including Croatia, to break away from Yugoslavia and form their own countries.

To formulate distinct, independent identities, Balkan political leaders chipped away at a Yugoslav identity with divisive, nationalistic rhetoric favoring their primary ethnicities and excluding national minority groups. These republics’ growing sense of independence placed them at odds with one another, with Croatia and Slovenia accusing Serbia of relying too heavily on Yugoslavia’s governmental resources including their finances and the Yugoslav People’s army.

On June 25, 1991, Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, promptly spurring an outcry from the Croatian Serbs who strongly desired to form their own state.

Under the leadership of far-right nationalistic leader Slobodan Milošević, Serbia led a Greater Serbia movement to enlarge its borders. Milošević provided the Croatian Serbs with significant military support and superior fire power, initiating an out-right war and siege of Croatia in 1991. Croatian Serbs asserted control of approximately one third of Croatia and, with Serbian assistance, committed wartime atrocities against the Croatians. This brutal ethnic cleansing campaign involved an intense aerial bombing of Dubrovnik and near complete destruction of Vukovar, culminating in the massacre of the city’s ethnic Croats.

Vukovar, 1991.

National Memorial Cemetery of the Victims of the Homeland War, Vukovar, visited by the Author in 2018.

Vukovar Mass Grave Monument, Ovčara (est. 1991), visited by the Author in 2018.


Croatia ultimately regained its territory in Fall of 1995, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, an international court of law, was formed to investigate, try, sentence, and imprison combatants for war crimes and human rights violations, thus bringing Serbian wartime atrocities to light.

Constitutional Law on the Rights of National Minorities

The horrific ethnic-centered conflict of Yugoslav Wars served as a clear backdrop for Croatia’s efforts to make their newly formed Parliamentary Democracy more democratic through an institutionalized reconciliation with national minorities.

Croatia emerged from the Yugoslav Wars as a country committed to democratic principles and to repairing the understandably tense relationship between the Croatian majority and the Croatian Serb minority.  The early 2000s represented a positive shift in public opinion towards stronger anti-discrimination legislation to greater protect national minorities’ rights. Croatia’s willingness to fully ally itself with the Western World, pursue a path to European Union membership, and establish domestic peace drove Croatia’s Parliament to enact a more robust constitutional law and framework to protect and preserve its national minorities.

The Constitutional Law of Minorities established systematic reforms, providing fundamental cultural, political, economic, and social protections. This landmark legislation outlines its overarching purposes of respecting and protecting the rights of national minorities and prohibiting discrimination based on race, language, religion, political belief, national and social background, and association with a national minority while protecting human rights of all of Croatia’s citizens.

The law’s first substantive section ensures the protection of cultural identity, freedom of expression of national minority identity, and equal legal protection under the law.  Later sections grant Croatian minorities the right to use their language and written script in private, public, and official spheres, and to study language and script through bilingual schools in tandem with the national Croatian language.  Notably, the legislation safeguards traditional minority names and signs of places, streets, and squares, protects historically and culturally significant “insignia, symbols, and celebration of holidays,” and guarantees official use of minority language in areas where minorities comprise at least a third of the population. Finally, this constitutional law establishes minority rights to freedom of expression of ethnic languages, press, and religion.

In addition to ensuring cultural rights, the Constitutional Law ensures political representation of national minorities at the national, regional, and local levels. The Act establishes a threshold of a minimum of five and a maximum of eight minority Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Croatian Parliament. Any national minority encompassing greater than 1.5% of Croatia’s total population is guaranteed a minimum of one and a maximum of three seats in Parliament.  Most crucially, Croatian minorities reserve the right to self-organize and form local and regional self-government units that act in accordance with their best interests and advocate for the resolution of minority-specific issues.  In that vein, the law creates the Council for National Minorities, a minority interest group created to ameliorate participation of minorities in “public life” and direct state bodies’ attention to important minority policy issues.

Finally, the law includes a crucial judicial enforcement mechanism in enabling any minority represented in a self-government organization to request “a competent government body” to determine whether the law has been properly applied or file a discrimination action with a Constitutional Court when minority rights and freedoms have been violated.

Evaluation of Croatia’s Constitutional Law Approach:  Implementation and Structural Obstacles

As Croatia’s only minority anti-discrimination legislation since 2002, Croatia’s Constitutional Law approach has largely been successful in addressing minority-based discrimination and promoting equal protection under the law in every facet of daily life.

Despite this robust framework, however, discrimination continues towards Croatian Serbs and Roma national minorities, with a resurgence of Croatian nationalism detrimentally harming Croatian Serbs in “heavily affected post-conflict areas” like Vukovar, a city with a history of protests against the law’s implementation of Serbian Cyrillic script on street signs in 2013.

The Council of Europe’s Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and vocal minorities have indicated the law’s reliance on census data weakens its protections given the dramatic population decrease in Croatian Serbs from under 187,000 in 2001 to under 124,000 in 2021.  Since the blatant hostility to the imposition of bilingual signs in Vukovar, the new census count indicated the Serb minority falls short of the one third legal requirement, prompting Vukovar’s city council to pass a statute abolishing bilingualism and the representation of the Serbian language.  As Croatia becomes increasingly ethnically homogeneous, the remaining smaller group of Croatian Serbs will be less likely to meet the required threshold to obtain significant local political representation, as the law is designed for minority representation in state, regional, and local political entities to be proportional to their total percentage of the Croatian population.

Efforts to reconcile between Croats and Croatian Serbs have resulted in successes at the national level, however. In 2020 the Croatian Deputy Prime Minister, a Croatian Serb himself, engaged in a remembrance of the Yugoslav war that included a grieving of specifically Serb victims of the war.  While Croatia’s legislative approach still faces implementation barriers, Croatia’s direct legislative approach remains a direct, effective way to improve seemingly irreparable majority-minority relations by establishing cultural and political rights, making its system measurably more representative.