Visa Exemption For Croatians Could Bring War Criminals : Border Agency

Visa exemption for Croatians could bring war criminals: border agency

By Jennifer Ditchburn
The Canadian Press
July 15, 2009

OTTAWA Border officials warned earlier this year that Canada would have to be on guard for war criminals trying to get into the country, after the Conservative government ended visa requirements for Croatian citizens.

The government in March lifted the contentious visa requirement after heavy lobbying by the Croatian government and Croatian-Canadian community.

It is feeling similar pressure from Mexico and the Czech Republic for suddenly slapping visas on their citizens this week, in response to the large volume of refugee claims from those countries.

In the case of Croatia, a visa requirement was applied in 1996 to counter the threat of war criminals coming to Canada after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

An internal intelligence report, prepared for the Canada Border Services Agency shortly after the visa requirement was ended, notes that Croatia passed an amnesty law in 1996 affecting approximately 14,000 people who had been involved in armed aggression and conflict.

“Notwithstanding this law, there will still be a need to screen Croatian arrivals at ports of entry to determine whether individuals are inadmissible for having committed or being complicit in war crimes or crimes against humanity,” says the report.

The document, dated April this year, was released to The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

Those concerns were echoed in the changes to immigration regulations published in March.

“The exemption may … result in increased costs to the government of Canada if suspected Croatian war criminals travel to Canada and must subsequently be prosecuted and-or removed.”

When Croatia moved to break away from the former Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991, ethnic tensions exploded between the Croat majority and the Serb minority. A war of independence ensued, with Serbs taking over about a quarter of the Croatian territory.

That territory was won back by the Croatian military in 1995. War crimes associated with ethnic cleansing were committed by both sides during that time.

The UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has been prosecuting cases of alleged top war criminals. It is still looking for fugitive Goran Hazdic, political leader of the Serb entity in Croatia during the mid-1990s.

The tribunal complained last year that the Croatian government had been stonewalling requests for documents on another key case before the court, involving Croatian army generals.

Amnesty International noted in its 2009 report that “there was a continuing failure to investigate war crimes committed by the Croatian army and police force” within Croatia.

But the Conservative government said in March that it had secured written assurances from Croatia that it would step up information sharing on war crimes, migration security and law enforcement.

“The government of Canada is confident that any strengthening in bilateral relations in these areas will help mitigate the potential for any factors to emerge that could subsequently lead to visa-imposition.”

That's cold comfort to some in Canada's Serbian community, who fear Croatian war criminals might leave Croatia to escape possible future prosecution there or in other countries in the region.

“Many Croatian war criminals who committed their crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for instance, fled to Croatia after the war and are currently fighting to avoid being extradited to Bosnia to face justice,” said Bojan Ratkovic of the Serbian Youth League of Toronto.

“The extradition process could be made that much more difficult if these war criminals decide to flee to Canada.”

The Croatian embassy in Ottawa was not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

Rene Provost, director of McGill University's Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, said war criminals are surely still circulating freely in Croatia and that it is plausible they could enter Canada.

But he noted that a Quebec court convicted Rwandan war criminal Desire Munyaneza this year under a new law that allows prosecutions for crimes committed abroad, a victory for the system.

The other tool at the country's disposal is intelligence that can be used to block alleged criminals before they enter Canada, and that takes co-operation with international bodies and states including Croatia itself.

But is the information provided by Croatia complete?

“It's a critical question, because those assurances are always sought and always given in those polite political exchanges,” said Provost.

A spokesperson for the Immigration Department emphasized that a traveller from a visa-exempt country is not automatically guaranteed entry into Canada. They must be screened at points of entry by trained border services officers.

The CBSA's Modern War Crimes Unit provides research support to border staff in Canada and across the country, and maintains a database with information on persons, events and organizations linked to war crimes and crimes against humanity.