The new priorities of the Croatia’s foreign policy as it pertains to human rights are based on the protection of the rights of religious persons, the right to religious belief and the protection of the family. Croatia will devote special attention to the promotion and protection of the traditional family, based on the marriage between a woman and a man, as the “natural and fundamental unit of human society”. The notion of sexual and reproductive health and rights has no consensual definition at the international level, or even at the EU level. “Taking this into consideration, Croatia opts to interpret this notion as excluding the right to abortion”. Croatia maintains the right to promoted the above positions in all multilateral for a that it is a member to. These are statements taken from the Croatian comments to the Draft Council Conclusions on EU Priorities at UN Human Rights Fora in 2017. The contents of the document were published in print by Novi list on February 24.
The above are parts of a document dated February 22 2017; interestingly, the only comments to the Draft Council Conclusions came from Croatia, Hungary and Poland. Croatia’s position has had a particular impact, since Croatia became a member of the UN Human Rights Council in Fall 2016, thanks to a membership campaign endorsing some drastically different values, as is still evidenced by the website of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs.
The quoted document is in accordance with the theses proposed by the Croatian Minister of Foreign and European Affairs and chief Government Coordinator for Human Rights Issues, Davor Ivo Stier. The necessity of promoting religion and the dangers of secularism, the importance of the influence of Catholic worldviews on institutions and Stier’s own understanding of human rights, including the right of women to choose – all of these issues feature prominently in Stier’s recent interview given to Catholic news portal Bitno.net. In the interview, Stier confirms that the appointment of Ladislav Ilčić to the post of his Special Advisor for Human Rights is entirely in line with the new Croatian state policy, as Faktograf had already reported.
When inquired by Novi list about when the change in Croatian policy positions on human rights came about, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs offered an interesting reply: “The upgrade of Croatian foreign policy occurred on September 11 2016, when Croatian voters expressed their support for an option of Christian Democratic and Popular values in the elections”.
The reply, however, does not hold true. Regarding the right to abortion, it should be stated that none of HDZ’s key people had dared publicly express support to banning abortion, Stier himself included – this was not an election-winning platform for HDZ. Some parties in Croatia (such as HRAST) do base their programmes around these positions, but they have never gained substantial parts of the vote on their own.
Plenković spoke differently during the election campaign
As proof that this was not what the ruling party had promised voters, we will start with Stier. In the pre-election debate on N1 Television, when inquired about abortion, he said that he would not focus on banning abortion but would instead focus on education.
Prime Minister Andrej Plenković stressed the same message prior to the elections. In the last pre-election debate between party heads Zoran Milanović and Andrej Plenković, Plenković had stated: “Our attitude is that life begins at conception, but banning abortion is not within the spirit of Croatian law. Women who find themselves in unwanted pregnancies should be helped. Abortion is an evil that should be avoided to the highest extent possible”. When Milanović commented that he was glad to hear so because some HDZ members would ban abortion altogether, Plenković had replied that he does not pay attention to the fact and that his statement was “HDZ’s position”.
After the elections, in October 2016, Večernji list received the following statement on abortion from HDZ: “Abortions on demand should not be banned because this occurrence cannot be reduced through prohibitions, but through education. The 1978 Law on health measures for ensuring the right to free decision about childbirth should be modernized and the existing legal gaps on abortion regulation filled, such as ensuring psychological support for women, banning abortion when it is performed in order to select the child’s sex and regulating conscientious objection on part of doctors”.
The first signs of this turn in human rights policies are not evident from the programme of Andrej Plenković’s Government, which stresses the importance of families and family values and demographic policy, implemented through improving living standards and conditions for parents, not by banning abortion.
Interestingly, some of the more prominent HDZ members have consistently stressed the importance of education, while at the same time ultra-conservative civil society organisations such as In the Name of the Family, Vigilare and Grozd, who have influenced the new Government, oppose health education. Recently, the new Human Rights Coordination, headed by Stier, rejected the National Anti-Discrimination Strategy, mostly due to disagreements with the provisions on the protection of LGBT persons, but also due to objections to the proposed educational programme, thus jeopardizing Croatia’s access to EU funds.
It is also not true that the Christian Democrats’ election victory necessarily means policy turns like these. Most governments in EU Member States are composed of Christian Democrats, and yet Croatia has only found like-minded ruling parties in Hungary and Poland, countries heading towards becoming illiberal democracies, already scrutinized by the EU due to rule of law breaches.
The EU is currently presided over by Malta, one of the most conservative Member States in terms of reproductive rights, but recently committed to the improvement of the position of LGBT persons. The Labour Government of Malta has made the issues of gender equality and freedom of sexuality its priorities for its term in presiding over the EU.
Europe vs. the new U.S. administration
According to unofficial information, European diplomats are quite shocked by the Croatian diplomacy’s turn in human rights policies. A new opportunity for siding with the right-wing might appear in the form of the She Decides Initiative, started by the Netherlands as a response to the actions of Trump’s administration, which was soon joined by Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Luxembourg, Finland, Canada and Cape Verde.
The new president of the United States has activated the Mexico City Policy (global gag rule) as one of his first moves in January 2017, suspending U.S. aid in the amount of about 600 million USD annually to reproductive health programmes used by millions of women in developing countries, including birth control programmes. Calling for a way to fill the financial void, Dutch Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Minister Liliane Ploumen, initiator of She Decides, stated that: “[We] cannot betray those women and girls. They must have the right to decide whether they want to have children, when they want to have them, and with whom”.
The Netherlands had ensured the first USD 10 million for the Initiative, which was then matched by Belgium and Norway.
On March 2, a conference of 50 countries, including Croatia, will take place in Brussels. The Conference will be attended by European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development Neven Mimica, who has published a powerful press release on February 1, endorsing development assistance for family planning and stating that the European Commission will continue to play a leading rule with respect to ensuring access to health and family planning services to women, because “gender equality is a global priority endorsed by the European Commission”. Around 225 million women worldwide have a need for modern birth control. More than 300,000 women die during pregnancy or childbirth each year, 99 per cent of whom in developing countries. According to the press release, this makes ensuring access to health services, including family planning education and birth control, crucial.
Croatia will not contradict Trump
At the same time, a civic initiative called One of us, which opposes assisted fertilization and abortion, started a petition against She Decides. One of us is a coalition of ultra-conservative movements across Europe, with ties to the Croatian NGO In the Name of the Family.
When inquired by Faktograf whether Croatia will be joining the conference in Brussels and what Croatia’s position on the She Decides fund would be, the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs sent us the following reply:
“The Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs considers that the EU should make its own autonomous decisions on development assistance, and not act in reply to U.S. policies. Croatia endorses a further development of partner relations between the EU and the United States”.
We did not get a clear answer on whether Croatia will be taking part in the conference. However, this reply suggests that Croatia does not wish to respond to Trump’s move, and possibly supports it.
Both family-planning and In the Name of the Family
Before his appointment to the ministerial post, Davor Ivo Stier headed the European Parliament’s Committee on Development – the exact committee in charge of the issues of assistance – and had received high praise from European diplomats. Stier was also the rapporteur for a highly progressive Report on the global development framework after 2015, which emphasizes the need for gender equality, sets forth ambitious goals for the well-being of women and girls, including their sexual and reproductive rights, stresses the need for a universal approach to health services, including family planning, and condemns the restrictions of humanitarian aid tied to bans on abortion. At the same time, during the campaign to hold the referendum on the Constitutional definition of the family in Croatia, Stier invited the head of the referendum’s initiator In the Name of the Family, Željka Markić, to the European Parliament.
When asked to comment upon the new approach in European institutions, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and MEP Dubravka Šuica have additionally confirmed that Croatia had indeed made a turn in how it understands human rights (N1). PM Plenković said he did not understand what the uproar was about, while Šuica confirmed that the anti-abortion stance was assumed.