news 12 Aug 14

Croatia Court Vetoes ‘Anti-Cyrillic’ Referendum

Court says referendum on minority rights - effectively centring on Serbian Cyrillic signs in Vukovar - may not take place as the proposed changes would undermine constitutionally guaranteed human rights.

Sven Milekic

Croatia’s Constitutional Court on Tuesday ruled that a proposed referendum on amending the country’s Law on National Minority Rights is unconstitutional.

The call for a referendum centres on the question of whether language rights should apply only where minorities make up at least half the local population - as supporters of the referendum suggest – or one-third, which is what the current law demands.

Opponents of the proposed change said it was targeting the country’s Serbian minority, the principal beneficiaries of the law.
Parliament sent the referendum question to Croatia’s Constitutional Court for a ruling on July 15.

The Court found that although enough signatures were duly collected to call a referendum, the question itself is unconstitutional, as the proposed change would undermine minority rights.

The Court said that no ban existed in principle on raising the necessary percentage of a minority in a given administrative unit for the provisions of the minority law to apply.

It also said the people have the right to change their own legal framework
However, it added that changes “must be reasonably justified for reasons that spring from a democratic society based on the rule of law and protection of human rights”.

The initiative for the vote was started by a campaign group called the Committee for Defence of Croatian Vukovar.

It was mainly composed of veterans of the independence war of the 1990s, angered by the installation of bilingual signs in Latin and Cyrillic in the eastern border town.

Vukovar was besieged and overrun by the Serbian forces in the war, and endured massive destruction and bloodshed before it fell in 1991. The subject remains sensitive among many people in Croatia.

The Committee was founded in January 2013 and led a campaign against the erection of bilingual signs in Vukovar, where Serbs make up just over one-third of the population.

When the first signs were installed in September 2013, the veterans smashed and removed them, causing conflicts with police.

The group started a campaign to collect signatures for a referendum on 18 November 2013 and within two weeks had collected 650,000.

This was 200,000 more than the number needed to trigger the referendum, the threshold being 10 per cent of all voters. The group received help both from veterans’ associations and the Catholic Church.

The group handed the signatures to parliament in December 2013 and waited until April 2014 to get a first reaction from the parliamentary committee on the constitution.

In July, parliament decided to send the referendum question to the Constitutional Court.

Ivan Novosel, from the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, one of the organizations that objected to the referendum, said he was satisfied with the decision.

“The Court did what we [human rights NGOs] asked - declared the referendum question unconstitutional and rejected it,” he said.

Novosel added that decision was a call to the people of Vukovar to solve the problem locally, through tolerance and dialogue.

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