Turtle Bay

New U.N. human rights advocate defends his record

New U.N. human rights advocate defends his record

Ivan Simonovic, the Croatian justice minister who was recently appointed as the United Nation’s top human rights advocate, offered a strenuous defense of his human rights record while serving in a government that committed massive war crimes during the Balkan wars.

Simonovic’ s diplomatic career began as the modern Croatian nation was forged during the traumatic breakup of the former Yugoslavia — an era defined by civil war, moral compromise and ethnic cleansing. His association with the government of the late Franjo Tudjman, which engaged in massive human rights violations during the war, has raised concerns among human rights advocates about his commitment to human rights. More recently, Amnesty International released a report criticizing the Croatian justice system’s handling of war crimes investigations, saying it is biased against Serbs and noting that few Croatian military officers are prosecuted for their role in war-time atrocities.

In a lengthy interview with Turtle Bay, Simonovic said he has been a leading advocate for human rights within the Croatian government, establishing the foreign ministry legal division’s first human rights department and promoting accountability for war crimes. Simonovic acknowledged Croatian responsibility for war crimes during the Balkan conflicts, but said he has sought to pursue justice for perpetrators and that that he never "made any moral compromises" while serving in the Croatian government.

"I didn’t choose to be Croatian; I was born in Croatia. I didn’t choose that my country faced horrible things," Simonovic said. "I was trying to do good to the best extent that I could and that I knew how. There were areas where I could, with different governments of Croatia, find niches for my activities without leaving aside any of my values."

Simonovic’s emergence as a leading candidate for the U.N. post became public just weeks after Amnesty International released its report alleging Croatian bias in war crimes investigations. Simonovic acknowledged that Croatia has engaged in selective prosecution of Serbs: "There is very little doubt about that," he said. But he argued that the bias had faded since he took over the Justice Ministry in 2008. 

Simonovic began his own professional career as a legal scholar, entering government in the early 1990s as the collapse of the Soviet Union helped trigger political upheaval in Yugoslavia. He said that while he was eager to leave the "academic ivory tower" to play an active role in the country’s struggle for independence, he was frequently torn by the moral costs of serving the war-time government. "I had my moral grounds; for some time they enabled me to participate in government, sometimes not."

Simonovic said that he left the government in 1993 over unspecified political differences with the leadership and lectured at Yale University. He returned after the 1994 Washington Agreement set the stage for a peace process. Simonovic served as legal advisor in the Croatian government’s delegation to the Dayton peace talks, which ended the war. Tudjman appointed him as his envoy to the U.N. from 1997 to 2003.

Simonovic criticized the U.S.-brokered peace deal, which was negotiated by Richard Holbrooke. He said the pact failed to invest enough power in the international high representative, who was given responsible in the accord for guiding Bosnia through its post-conflict transition. "I do think we all who were in Dayton share a certain portion of the guilt for the mistake of Dayton," he said. "There was not sufficient authority invested in the high representative at the outset. He or she should have had more extensive authority to hammer down basic democratic institutions and start the economic recovery." If that had occurred, he added, "I think Bosnia would now be in much better shape than it is."

In his new job, Simonovic will serve as the chief liaison between the Geneva-based U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and U.N. headquarters. The U.N. General Assembly created the post last October in an effort to ensure that human rights be given greater prominence in internal discussions on the major political issues before the United Nations. "That’s how I see my role," Simonovic said. "If we do not understand what are the realities of the political process in New York we cannot influence them from Geneva effectively enough." Simonovic said he would begin his new job in late July or early August.

Human rights groups and some Western governments have privately criticized the United Nations’ procedures for hiring Simonovic, citing concern that prominent candidates with strong human rights backgrounds were not even interviewed for the job. After Ban settled on a short list of foreign candidates last month, representatives of the United States and other European governments raised concern with Ban’s staff about the hiring process, which was conducted in secrecy, and urging the United Nations to open the field to a broader list of candidates.

Simonovic said the selection process was as mysterious a process to him as to anyone else. "The first news that I got came from Foreign Policy," he said. "My government learned about it when it was published in Foreign Policy."