Excerpt from IVth Report by the Ombudsperson Institution in Kosovo: The situation of non-Albanian communities in Kosovo
The situation of non-Albanian communities in Kosovo
The most fundamental of the standards to be introduced in Kosovo is the guaranteed right of members of minority communities in Kosovo to live, travel and work freely throughout Kosovo, in other words the right to live a normal life in dignity under peaceful and undisturbed conditions.
Even before the violent attacks in March 2004 against members of the Non-Albanian communities, the living conditions for the Serbian, Roma, Ashkali, Egyptian, Bosniak and Gorani communities were very difficult, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on each community.
Since the conflict in 1999, it has not been possible for members of certain non-Albanian communities, in particular the Serbian and Roma communities, to move freely in Kosovo. Instead, they have been confined to their homes, relying mostly on escorted transport for occasional visits to other places in Kosovo populated by minority ethnicities or to the administrative border with Serbia proper.
The confinement of the above persons to restricted areas has far-reaching practical implications such as extremely limited access to employment, education and to most other aspects of normal life. At the same time, Serbian enclaves often do not have sufficient means of communication, ordinary forms of communication such as a proper postal service or telephone lines are often non-existent or interrupted.
Unemployment in Kosovo in general is very high, but in areas largely populated by non-Albanian communities, it reaches up to 70 – 80 %. The representation of non-Albanian communities in the Kosovo civil service in general is still far from satisfactory. In many cases, it is also impossible for persons of minority ethnicities, in particular if they are farmers, to exercise any kind of entrepreneurial activity, mostly because large parts of their agricultural land are inaccessible or occupied by Albanian neighbours. Even if certain goods are produced, there is hardly any access to the respective markets in and outside Kosovo.
Throughout the last few years, the Kosovan Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has begun implementing educational reforms with a view to adapting the school system in Kosovo to the educational standards of most other European countries.
Unfortunately, these reforms did not take into account the specific interests of those non-Albanian communities that speak Slavic languages. There has also been a complete disregard of the stage of the reform processes in neighbouring areas such as Serbia proper, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) respectively. Due to this situation, the children of some of these communities, in particular a number of children of the Bosniak and Gorani community, have almost lost the entire 2003/2004 school year and have only been able to make up for this by following certain “catch- up courses” during their summer vacations. It was only recently and very much due to the insistence of both the Ombudsperson and UNMIK that the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology began to contact similar ministries in neighbouring countries with a view to reaching agreements in this matter.
The access of members of no n-Albanian communities to courts and to any form of legal protection remains severely curtailed. In certain municipalities, persons wishing to visit the next court need to rely on the UNMIK Local Community Office, which assists in contacting the local police station to arrange transport. In other municipalities, the UNMIK Department of Justice has arranged court liaison offices. In the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, all courts are located in the predominantly Serbian Northern part of town. UNMIK Police operates a shuttle to transport parties and witnesses from the Southern part of town to the courthouses in the north.
Even though Serbian remains one of the three official languages in Kosovo, in practice it is almost completely absent from public life. Even though the Constitutional Framework provides for the official use of both Albanian and Serbian, the central government of Kosovo, as well as some municipalities, has so far not followed these provisions at the required level. Communication between the different central governmental bodies and municipalities populated largely or exclusively by Serbs is conducted almost entirely in Albanian, which renders the communication between these bodies difficult if not hopeless. The Ombudsperson raised this issue with the Prime Minister of Kosovo several times in the beginning of March and in May 2004 and urged him to ensure that the respective provisions of the Constitutional Framework be applied without any further delay. The Prime Minister’s Office answered and stressed that both the local and central levels of the PISG respect and implement the relevant provisions of the Constitutional Framework and that despite the low salaries in the public sector, translation units operate on a regular basis. As if to prove the Ombudsperson’s point, however, this letter was only formulated in Albanian.
In March 2004, the more or less latent discrimination and selective acts of violence against those members of the non-Albanian communities, in particular Serbs, who had decided to remain in Kosovo after the conflict in 1999, turned into a brutal explosion of violence against almost anybody who was not of Albanian ethnicity.
The main victims of these attacks were members of the Serb, Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities – in Vushtrri/Vucitrn alone, around fifty Ashkali families were forced to leave their homes and are for the most part currently still staying at a French KFOR base. In isolated incidents, Serbs were brutally lynched by a hysterical and angry mob. Albanians who refused to take part in the mass destruction of properties, churches and of public facilities were threatened.
According to the Report on UNMIK issued by the UN Secretary-General on 30 April 2004, this onslaught was an organised, widespread and targeted campaign. Properties and churches were demolished, public facilities such as schools and health clinics were destroyed, communities were surrounded and threatened and residents of these communities were forced to abandon their homes. Minority areas were targeted, sending a message that minorities and returnees were not welcome in Kosovo. The Secretary-General saw this as a targeted effort to drive out Kosovo Serbs and members of the Roma and Ashkali communities and to destroy the social fabric of their existence in Kosovo. It also showed a lack of commitment among large segments of the Kosovo Albanian population to creating a truly multi-ethnic society in Kosovo.
The conclusion reached by the UN Secretary-General supported the viewpoint of many persons in and outside Kosovo regarding the March events including the Ombudsperson himself, namely that they amounted to nothing less than a concerted attempt to conduct ethnic cleansing in parts of Kosovo.
After the violence, the pledge of local politicians to reconstruct the destroyed buildings has so far not led to the expected tangible results. It still remains to be seen how and when these promises will be fulfilled and whether the perpetrators of the violent crimes of March 2004 will be brought to justic e. For the moment, around 2 000 people continue to be displaced. One can only hope that they will be able to return to their homes before the winter.
Contrary to before the March events, it has now become increasingly difficult to maintain any form of pretence that there is a reasonable possibility of creating a real multi-ethnic society in Kosovo in the foreseeable future. In particular Serbs are in many places again obliged to resort to armed escorts if they wish to travel outside their settlements.
Inexplicably, before and even after the March events, KFOR decided to remove checkpoints in certain villages populated mainly by Serbs, in spite of protests from the local inhabitants. In January 2004, the Ombudsperson asked the competent KFOR authorities for reasons for this removal of checkpoints. The KFOR Legal Advisor answered on behalf of the KFOR Commander, stating that KFOR’s decision had been based in particular on improvements in the security situation throughout Kosovo. Only two months later, the violent events in March 2004 showed that these considerations did not entirely correspond to reality.
Little more than two months after the March violence, Swedish KFOR decided to remove a checkpoint situated at the entrance of the Serbian village of Gracanica/Graçanicë. Two days later, a car drove into Gracanica/Graçanicë at midnight.
Two persons stepped out and opened fire on a group of Serbian teenagers, thereby killing a 16-year-old Serb. This incident again proved that the assessment of the security situation made by KFOR was not necessarily accurate.
The above are only a few examples of the continuing problems faced by non-Albanian communities in Kosovo. Such a situation should not be tolerated by the international civil presence in Kosovo, nor by the Kosovan leaders, who need to commit openly and operate effectively, not only verbally, in order to ensure the protection of the human rights of all inhabitants of Kosovo, in particular people who are ethnic minorities in this province.
Missing persons and the lack of investigation into serious crimes
Unfortunately, the fate of thousands of Kosovans who went missing before and during the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, or after the arrival of UNMIK and KFOR, is still unclear.
While the reporting period has seen the identification of a certain number of bodies and remains as belonging to such missing persons, progress in this respect has not been satisfactory. As regards the unsolved cases of persons who went missing after the arrival of first KFOR and later UNMIK and, mostly Serbs and other members of non-Albanian communities, the international authorities in Kosovo, first military and then civilian, failed to investigate these cases properly right after the time when the persons in question went missing. As time passes, it will become more and more difficult to collect evidence allegedly leading to the fate of these missing persons.
The failure of the UNMIK Police to achieve proper results when investigating into other serious crimes that occurred since the beginning of the international presence in Kosovo was already criticised in previous reports and the situation has not improved since, in particular in cases where such crimes were allegedly politically or ethnically motivated.
In certain cases, the victims of such crimes and their families have been waiting for the results of police investigations for over three years now, frequently without even having been duly informed on any new developments in their respective cases. As noted in the Third Annual Report, one of the main reasons for this failure of the UNMIK Police to effectively investigate into such crimes continues to be the constant and swift turnover of investigative staff. The often invoked lack of cooperation from local communities and witnesses cannot serve as a valid excuse for this inability of the law enforcement authorities to achieve the expected investigatory results, in particular in cases involving the most serious crimes.
Securing property rights continues to remain a big challenge. Many persons in Kosovo do not respect the property rights of others, a fact which is demonstrated by the ever growing number of new buildings and of annexes to existing buildings regardless of the construction laws applicable in Kosovo. Persons engaging in such illegal construction practices clearly do not feel obliged to follow these laws and this blatant disregard of the rule of law is not seriously and adequately checked by the central and municipal authorities. Too frequently, the local courts are similarly reluctant to issue interim-measure orders to stop illegal constructions. The Ombudsperson raised this issue in a letter to the Prime Minister in November 2003 and asked him to take adequate steps to put an end to such an open and apparently permissible disrespect of the existing laws on construction.
After the conflict of 1999, a large number of ethnic Albanians illegally took into possession land belonging to Serbs and members of other non-Albanian communities.
This land is currently being worked by these illegal occupants, leaving the actual owners no possibility of exercising their property rights. The situation is even worse for internally displaced persons inside and outside Kosovo, for whom their land is as good as lost – they can neither access it, nor do they have any effective way of finding out what happened to their properties.
Even in cases where land belonging to persons of non-Albanian ethnicity was not illegally occupied, the security situation in Kosovo often prevents the owners of this land from accessing their property. Thousands of Serbs and a number of other members of ethnic minorities are thus not able to work their land because this would involve a considerable danger for their life and safety. In many cases, this prevents people from working their land at all, in some areas this affects 70 – 80 % of the land.
The illegal occupation of apartments and houses still constitutes a wide-spread practice, despite attempts by UNMIK to repossess people deprived of their property. In November 1999, UNMIK created the HPD in order to treat claims of natural persons who were the owners, possessors or occupancy right holders of residential real property prior to 24 March 1999. The HPD has had a painfully slow start caused by chronic resource shortages, poor management and inter- institutional struggles. After 2002, the situation improved, but as there are apparently still not enough funds to employ a sufficient number of lawyers to work on the backlog of cases, the complaints against the HPD have not grown less. In many cases, claimants have been waiting to regain possession of their property for over three to four years now.
Most of the complaints concerning the HPD involve the length of proceedings before the HPD Claims Commission, the significant delays in the delivery of decisions taken by the Claims Commission and the slow or ineffective execution of such decisions.
The execution of the decisions of the HPD is often delayed for security reasons. In many cases, illegal occupants of apartments or houses that were then evicted following a decision of the HPD later came back to threaten the rightful owners, or in the worst cases to burn or destroy the apartments or houses. UNMIK Regulation 2000/60 on Residential Property Claims and the Rules of Procedure and Evidence of the Housing and Property Directorate and the Housing and Property Claims Commission does not provide an adequate solution to this problem. Apparently, when drafting this and other laws concerning the procedure before the HPD, UNMIK did not anticipate that the execution of HPD decisions would be thwarted in such a tenuous and lawless manner.
This inability to efficiently enforce decisions of the HPD jeopardises the effectiveness of the entire mechanism of repossessing the rightful owners of their property. Currently, not enough attention is being paid to this untenable situation, where a UN body which was specifically set up in order to repossess persons illegally deprived of their property has for the last three to four years had neither adequate financial means nor the power to fulfil the expectations placed in it.
With regard to the property of members of Non-Albanian communities in Kosovo, the violent events in March 2004 involved the systematic burning and destruction of ma ny of these persons’ homes and belongings. Directly after these events, the Prime Minister and other leading Kosovan politicians publicly announced that the houses would be rebuilt within a few months, in order to allow all these persons to return to their homes as fast as possible. Now, more than three months after the March events, there has still not been much progress with respect to the rebuilding of these houses. Apparently, the assessment of damages is also taking place in the absence of the rightful owner of the destroyed property. On the other hand, there is no legal appeals mechanism in place by which these assessments may be challenged. At the same time, the damage assessment hitherto undertaken only concerns damages inflicted on immovable property. Assistance linked to the loss or damaging of moveable property has been very limited and has not paid any regard to each individual situation. Up to now, the public authorities in Kosovo do not appear to feel any sort of legal obligation towards the victims of the events of March 2004 for their losses. The competent authorities appear to consider that the events in March 2004 happened exclusively due to some sort of force majeure and have therefore only felt obliged to provide certain forms of humanitarian assistance.
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