Not just a number: Croatia’s national experience of casualty recording

This article is based on the presentation given by Ambassador Vesna Batistic Kos at a webinar on human rights and casualty recording, on 4 February 2021.

Croatia suffered the direct impact of conflict during the Homeland War of the 1990s. From this experience we have learnt the importance of casualty recording, and its role in the effective realization of many fundamental human rights, as well as reconciliation efforts. Today, we would like to share some of these lessons, which center on establishing timely national institutional and legislative frameworks.

COMMISSION FOR DETAINED AND MISSING PERSONS

In 1991, already in the midst of war, the government of Croatia began developing an institutionalized response to the increasing number of casualties and missing persons. Legislation adopted that year established two important commissions. The first commission, in cooperation with the ICRC, was responsible for recording casualties and missing persons from war-affected areas. The second commission was tasked with repatriation and prisoner exchange. As the majority of prisoners of war had been exchanged by 1993,[1] the two commissions were incorporated into a single Commission for Detained and Missing Persons. Cooperation with international organizations for data collection and recording, in particular the ICRC, was of key importance. The government also established the Office for Victims of War in order to protect the rights of victims of war and their families. Its activities included organization of psychosocial support and other health related matters for participants and victims of the war.

The work of the Office for Victims of War and the Commission for Detained and Missing Persons was later incorporated into the mandate of the Ministry of Croatian Veterans. The Ministry organizes exhumations and identification of casualties found in individual and mass graves. Casualty records that are accurate, verified, comprehensive and consistent have been a first step on the path to success in this search. Today, the Law on Persons that went Missing during the Homeland War regulates the keeping of casualty records, based on the guiding principles within the ICRC Model Law on the Missing.

While thousands of cases have been resolved, the search for 1,868 missing Croatian citizens and their remains is ongoing, regardless of their ethnicity. This fact underlines the complexity of the issue as well as the importance of early recording of cases.

NATIONAL CASUALTY DATABASE

In June 1991, the Ministry of Health (Department for Information and Research) started recording casualties on a daily basis, acquiring records from all hospitals through computer and radio connections wherever possible. At this stage, the government organized casualty recording mainly to ensure proper care of victims and their families. However, these records later proved essential in developing a database of detained and missing persons.

The Croatian Memorial-Documentation Center is a public scientific institution that collects documentation and archives related to the Homeland War. In 2019, the Center consolidated all available death toll data in a single database of around 19,500 entries, of which approximately one third were civilians. These efforts were conducted as part of the scientific project ‘Direct demographic losses of the Republic of Croatia in the Homeland War’. Using a scientific methodology approach the Center began verifying the circumstances of each death, as in some cases it was uncertain whether the death was a result of war actions. Although this scientific approach is lengthy and painstaking, it is the only way to ensure the credibility of casualty data. This is essential to prevent the manipulation of numbers or the mis-interpretation of the circumstances that led to a death. For this reason, ad hoc casualty recording, although sometimes the only immediate option, should not stay unverified indefinitely.

Croatia has found that casualty recording can also be an important reconciliation tool once conflict ends. However, since the data in question are of an extremely sensitive nature, it is crucial that casualty records are credible, fact-based and verified.  Together with the ICRC, the Department for Detained and Missing Persons published a Book of Missing Persons on the Territory of the Republic of Croatia in 2006, 2010 and 2012. The listings in the book were cross-checked by the ICRC, the Croatian Red Cross and the Commission for Missing Persons of the Government of Serbia and, thus, the latest edition is the result of a joint effort of these stakeholders. By encouraging the wider public to provide any additional information on the fate or whereabouts of victims, such projects aid general reconciliation efforts.

A verified and reliable system of casualty records is also crucial for future accountability processes and can help determine if crimes against humanity or war crimes have taken place. For example, upon the request of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Croatia provided data in different cases. This data included casualty records and a list of individual and mass graves which were used to identify the gravity of the crimes. Casualty records were also used at the International Court of Justice when Croatia filed an application against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia for violations of the Genocide Convention.

LEGISLATIVE DEVELOPMENTS

In Croatia, casualty recording has helped people be identified as victims of war, and subsequently claim specific rights granted to victims of war under legislation adopted and amended since the early 1990s. Croatian legislation defines a ‘victim of war’ as a person who died or went missing during the Homeland War, a family member, a person disabled as a result of the war, and detained or repatriated persons. Legislation adopted in 1992 granted civilian victims and their families access to personal and family disability allowance, additional special benefits, access to scholarships and vocational rehabilitation services, employment advantages, and exemption of burial costs. (It should be noted that religious and other burial ceremonies have a significant impact on family members, and are an essential part of the mourning process.)

This legislation has been revised repeatedly over the last three decades, but it is still not complete. New draft legislation on civilian casualties, aimed at ensuring a truly comprehensive approach to victims of war, is currently before the Croatian parliament and is expected to be adopted this year. The proposed legislation recognizes civilians who died, went missing or were disabled during the Homeland War as civilian casualties, and grants them and their families rights and reparations based on social solidarity and justice.

These developments show that, despite the fact that the war ended almost three decades ago, its consequences are still felt to this day. Throughout these years, the Government has developed and strengthened a comprehensive legal framework that covers missing persons, victims of sexual violence that occurred during the conflict, war veterans, civilian casualties, and persons with disabilities. These systematic Government efforts have enabled victims and their families to claim specific rights and services. Since no legislation is perfect it is still a work in progress, aided by consultations with relevant NGOs.

CONCLUSIONS

One of the most important lessons of Croatia’s experience is that casualty recording is not just about documenting the number of casualties but rather about acknowledging each person’s identity and fate. Done properly, casualty recording relieves families from the torture of not knowing the fate of their loved ones. In this context, sharing of information, including from State archives, is of the utmost importance. Where parties to armed conflict are unwilling or unable to exchange information, many cases of missing persons may remain unresolved. Casualty recording offers important information for prevention and reconciliation efforts. It can help during monitoring of armed conflict and it can foster compliance with international humanitarian law and human rights law. Although primarily under the responsibility of, and led by, the Government, casualty recording often requires cooperation with international organizations and relevant NGOs who contribute importantly to this process.

To conclude, casualty recording enables fulfilment of various fundamental human rights and gives context to the nuances of each conflict. The need for wider recognition of the impact of casualty recording, not only for human dignity but also for the fulfilment of human rights and accountability processes, seems undeniable. Ultimately, we must remember that behind every number there is a person, and behind every person there is a story that deserves to be told in the hope it might contribute to reconciliation efforts and the peaceful coexistence of people.

Personal photographs of victims of the Homeland War, Croatia
Victims of the Homeland War, Croatia

[1] By 1993, 80% of a total number of 7,713 prisoners of war had been repatriated from Serbian detention camps.