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Commission Hearing Surveys State of Ethnic Relations in Kosovo

Volume 35 Number 16

By Bob Hand,
CSCE Staff Advisor

The Helsinki Commission held a hearing June 19, 2002 on the prospects for ethnic harmony in Kosovo amidst recent reports of ongoing human rights abuses against minority groups.

Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) chaired the hearing. Commissioner Senator George V. Voinovich (R-OH) also participated.

“Vandalizing or bombing churches is not just wrong, it is beneath the dignity of any Albanian who suffered under the Milosevic regime,” Smith said, stressing that “revenge is not justice.” He condemned the inexcusable acts of repression brought upon Albanians during the former Yugoslav President’s rule.

Co-Chairman Smith appealed for cooperation among all parties involved and called for fostering a climate of tolerance. Leaders within Kosovo, within minority communities, and in the Yugoslav Government have a crucial role to play, Smith noted.

Senator Voinovich expressed alarm over the human rights situation in Kosovo. He cited a joint report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on continuing areas of concern.

Quoting from the report, Voinovich said, “I could not agree more with a statement made in that report: ‘Only when Kosovo’s minorities feel confident in their long-term future and when all of Kosovo’s displaced persons are able to exercise the choice to return to their homes, feeling assured of their safety and confident in their ability to assess institutions and participate in social, economic and political life in Kosovo on a nondiscriminatory basis will it be possible to say that the situation of minorities in Kosovo is successful.'”

Based on his observations during a trip to Kosovo earlier this year, Voinovich underscored the continuing need for U.S. engagement. He concluded that the situation in the divided city of Mitrovica, where ethnically-motivated attacks persist, and along the Kosovo-Macedonian border need to be resolved through cooperation and discussion.

Testifying before the Commission were Dr. Alush Gashi, representing President Ibrahim Rugova’s Democratic League of Kosova in the Kosovo Parliament; Rada Trajkovic, leader of the Kosovo Serb “Return” Coalition within the Parliament; Valerie Percival, the Kosovo Field Representative for the International Crisis Group (ICG); and Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia Nebojsa Covic.

Dr. Gashi expressed gratitude for the United States’ leadership and promised to work with the international community to ensure that all Kosovars have equal national and human rights. He noted that Serbs currently participate in all levels of government and institutions.

Further integration, however, is hindered by a Serb population that has so far refused to distance itself from Belgrade’s brutal assault on Kosovar Albanians, which included numerous atrocities and 650 mass graves not yet exhumed.

“The reality is that Kosovar-Albanians cannot get from Belgrade even the dead bodies of their members of families, and at this same time we are asking them to welcome live Serbs,” Dr. Gashi testified in an emotional plea.

Dr. Gashi acknowledged the right of Serbs to return to their homes in Kosovo. He also voiced strong opposition to “Belgrade’s interference in [the] United Nations mission administration [UNMIK] in Kosovo.”

Dr. Trajkovic addressed a primary concern of the Kosovo Serb population, describing the fundamental unresolved issue as “the wish of the Albanians that Kosovo be exclusively their state and the wish of the Serbs that Kosovo remains part of their state.”

Dr. Trajkovic detailed a situation whereby the Albanian majority seeks the “Albanization and not multi-nationalization” of Kosovo. In this way, Kosovar Albanians dominate the hospitals, the universities, the media, and even the transportation sector, creating a highly segregated and polarized society. Islamic extremists, who go unpunished, are attempting to “wipe out the foundations of a civilization” by destroying churches, headstones, and cultural monuments, Trajkovic added.

Ms. Percival discussed the ICG’s recently released report on Kosovo, noting that Mitrovica is a “frequent flashpoint for confrontation and a source of instability.” Attacks and reprisals are commonplace.

Offering a multi-track plan of action, Percival recommended that the international community take four specific steps: pressure Belgrade to end its policy of incitement and continued support for parallel institutions; encourage the rule of law; establish a specially administered area in the north where Kosovar Serbs live; and promote UNMIK’s transparency.

Deputy Prime Minister Covic defended the right of Serbs in Kosovo to be free from “inexcusable persecution”. “In Kosovo and Metohija, whatever the final solution might be, our desire is to have a strong and successful multi-ethnic society,” Covic asserted.

Covic said ethnic Serbs continue to flee Kosovo, in response to worrisome figures on the number of killings of Serbs, attacks, and missing persons. Kosovar leaders have shunned a bi-lingual society, inter-ethnic tolerance, unbiased police and an independent judiciary in favor of extremism, Covic maintained.

Co-Chairman Smith, concerned about reports of pervasive criminality in Kosovo, raised the issues of missing persons, human trafficking, and perpetuation of parallel institutions.

Ms. Percival said that UNMIK, in cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), continues to exhume bodies from mass graves and is making efforts to account for missing persons. Though UNMIK established a trafficking and prostitution unit, the witness protection program is very weak.

Mr. Covic responded that Yugoslav authorities are working hard to identify remains and find missing persons, noting the wide disparity between estimates of missing Albanians and Serbs. He added that Yugoslavia takes the issue of human trafficking very seriously and that anti-trafficking legislation is pending in Belgrade.

Dr. Gashi labeled Yugoslav support for parallel institutions as an attempt to sabotage UNMIK’s institutions. To calm the psychological insecurity, the Serbs have to demonstrate the will to work with us, Gashi testified.

Mr. Covic stressed that parallel institutions were not created by the current Yugoslav authorities and once the Serbs’ basic human rights in Kosovo are met, there will be no need for parallel institutions.

Dr. Gashi reiterated his commitment to equal rights, an open civil society, and cooperation. In response to concerns raised, he indicated that a strong consensus exists among Kosovars opposing the destruction of Serb property and violence against Orthodox nuns and lay people in Kosovo.

In light of the OSCE/UNCHR report, all witnesses agreed to its generally accurate portrayal of the situation and reasonable recommendations. Urging all parties to move forward, Senator Voinovich pressed for more information on allegations that Belgrade is “meddling” in the governance of Kosovo.

Commissioners Smith and Voinovich pledged to continue their support for U.S. and international engagement to help resolve pressing issues in Kosovo. Any perpetrator of a human rights violation in Kosovo needs to be held accountable, Smith concluded.

The hearing came to a close after Co-Chairman Smith recognized Daniel Serwer of the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) for a few closing remarks. Serwer stressed the need to support the creation of an infrastructure in which the next Kosovo parliament can effectively operate. USIP had recently hosted in Virginia a session on inter-ethnic cooperation among Kosovo parliamentarians. Thirty of the participants attended the hearing.

An un-official transcript of the hearing and written statements submitted by Members and witnesses are located on the Helsinki Commission’s Web site, http://www.csce.gov.

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives, and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, Commerce.


United States Helsinki Commission intern Derek Politzer contributed to this article.

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