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Croatia: Unfulfilled Promises to Persons with Disabilities

Two Years after Landmark Treaty, Many Remain Institutionalized


People with disabilities in Croatia still face violations of their basic human rights two years after a groundbreaking treaty on disability rights came into force, Human Rights Watch said today.

Croatia was among the first countries in the world to agree to be bound by the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which will have its second anniversary on May 3, 2010.

"Croatia was a leader in taking on the obligations of the Convention, but since then it hasn't done enough to improve people's lives, particularly those with intellectual and mental disabilities" said Amanda McRae, fellow with the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

The Disability Rights Convention, which is now binding law for 85 countries, requires states to take positive steps to respect and promote the rights of persons with disabilities.

The right of persons with disabilities to live in the community rather than in institutions is an important aspect of the convention, Human rights Watch said. Yet at least 7,000 persons with intellectual or mental disabilities in Croatia remain in long-term residential institutions. While the trend across Europe is toward community-based care and support, the number of persons in institutions is growing in Croatia.

Placement in these overcrowded institutions strips residents of their dignity and creates potential for physical and mental abuse, Human Rights Watch said.

Croatia has promised to work on deinstitutionalization in the context of its efforts to become a member of the European Union. In practice, though, it has done little to address the problem.

"The trend in Croatia on institutionalization is in the wrong direction," McRae said. "Croatia needs to step up its efforts as a matter of urgency."

The Disability Rights Convention also requires states to move away from depriving people of the right to make their own decisions, known as legal capacity, and instead to assist them in making their own decisions. Croatia has done nothing to move in that direction.

At least 8,300 adults with disabilities in Croatia are deprived of their legal capacity. This process takes away an adult's ability to make important life decisions and to exercise basic rights, such as the right to vote, get married, sign an employment contract, or choose where and how to live.

"When legal capacity is taken away, adults with disabilities in Croatia end up being treated like young children," McRae said. "The system also makes it easy for people to be institutionalized and hard for them to get out."

Croatia is required to report to the United Nations this month about its progress in implementing the Disability Rights Convention and is also expected to report to the European Commission over the summer about a range of human rights issues, including the rights of persons with disabilities.

The Croatian government should take the opportunity of the upcoming United Nations and EU reviews to set out concrete plans to reform institutionalization and legal capacity, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.