ERRC/ENAR/ERIO Joint Statement: Roma Rights in Kosovo
19 September 2005
Joint Statement to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, 19-30 September 2005: Human Rights Situation of Roma in Kosovo
Warsaw, 19 September 2005. Three organizations today presented at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), convened in Warsaw, a statement detailing the need for justice for Roma in Kosovo, where despite six years of United Nations administration, extreme abuses prevail. The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), European Network Against Racism (ENAR) and European Roma Information Office (ERIO) tabled a document urging the international community to end the impunity for ethnic cleansing of Roma in Kosovo and to bring the perpetrators to justice. The statement also describes very worrying developments in the northern town of Mitrovica, where authorities have failed to date to move approximately six hundred displaced Roma currently living on a toxic waste site. The statement was brought before the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, an annual event addressing human rights concerns in the OSCE region. The full text of the joint statement follows:
It is now more than six years since the summer of 1999, when, in the wake of the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, the entry of NATO troops into the province, and the establishment of UN administration there, ethnic Albanians chased Serbs and Roma from their homes in Kosovo, using methods including torture in impromptu detention, rape, arson, targeted killings, and pervasive threats of mass violence. NATO troops looked on as mobs took to pieces Romani settlements in many cases several hundreds of years old, and plundered the possessions of the inhabitants wholesale.
For a number of years following the events which began in June 1999, Kosovo was a place where houses belonging to minorities regularly burned down; where the foundations of houses intended for minority returns exploded in the middle of the night; where violence and threats of violence against persons regarded as "Gypsies" were the norm; and where in general it was made known that minorities – viewed as "collaborators" with the previous regime – were not welcome.
NATO action against the former Yugoslavia was justified by human rights reasons; it was feared that, in undertaking "Operation Horseshoe" in Kosovo, Serbian forces aimed at a repeat of the massacres and other extreme abuses carried out by the Milosevic regime and its allies in Bosnia. Today, Kosovo is again under discussion, but not for human rights reasons. Rather, whispers of "final status" are heard in the halls of power. Other priorities around the globe have come to take precedent over resolving the very serious problems there.
Where Roma, Ashkalia, Egyptians, and others regarded as "Gypsies" are concerned, Kosovo is a human rights vacuum. Roma and others regarded as "Gypsies" were a late human rights priority of the international community, and have never been viewed as meriting action on the scale of previous human rights actions in Kosovo. Justice in matters related to the ethnic cleansing and other serious human rights violations affecting these groups has been denied and/or severely delayed.
In brief sketch, seen through the prism of Roma rights, this is Kosovo today:
- Ethnic Cleansing Not Yet Remedied: Roma, Ashkalia, Egyptians (RAE) and others regarded as "Gypsies" continue to be denied access to just remedy and due compensation for the violent crimes committed against them in the years which followed NATO action against Yugoslavia. In most cases, the perpetrators of such crimes have not been brought to justice. The ethnic cleansing of the RAE remains almost totally unremedied. Efforts to provide real possibilities for individuals to return to pre-ethnic cleansing property in safety and dignity have yet to provide significant, durable results.
- Racially Motivated Violence and Threats of Further Violence: After several years during which UN officials and others assured the public that the worst violence in Kosovo was over, the renewal of mass violence against minorities in Kosovo in March 2004 demonstrated that there are no effective barriers against the forces in Kosovo intent on expelling non-Albanian minorities. Several hundreds of Roma and Ashkalis were targeted for violent attacks; at least 75 houses belonging to Romani and Ashkali families were set on fire. In Vushtrri/Vucitrn alone, some 70 houses belonging to Ashkalis were burned and destroyed. Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptians in Kosovo today live in a state of pervasive fear, nourished by routine intimidation and verbal harassment as well as by racist assaults by Kosovo Albanians. Most of these incidents remain unreported to the authorities due to lack of trust and fear of retaliation, reinforced and affirmed by the awareness that there has been no justice delivered in connection with the massive wave of violent crimes committed against them, and because the persons primarily responsible for these crimes are the new powers in Kosovo.
- Systemic and Pervasive Racial Discrimination: Roma, Ashkalia, Egyptians and others regarded as "Gypsies" in Kosovo are subjected to exclusion and marginalisation as a result of systematic racial discrimination. Discrimination against RAE in the field of employment is massive. With the privatisation of the Kosovo enterprises, hundreds of RAE are excluded from jobs; other opportunities for access to income sources are also largely unavailable to them; RAE involvement in the civil service is token. Discrimination in employment condemns large numbers of RAE to degrading poverty. Severe impoverishment of RAE families is also a major obstacle for access to education and health care. For numerous families, housing is extremely substandard, in marked contrast to housing conditions of any other ethnicities currently in Kosovo. In a number of RAE neighbourhoods, located on the margins of towns, individuals are exposed to serious health risks due to lack of basic facilities and their access to employment, education and public services is severely restricted.
The above matters have been significantly complicated by the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the fact of immunity from prosecution – and therefore for true accountability – for members of the administration. These issues are evident in the matters leading to ERRC filing, on September 2 of this year, a request for criminal investigation into the long-term exposure to lead poisoning of hundreds of displaced Roma in the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica:
In June and July 1999, while NATO units looked on, mobs of ethnic Albanians destroyed the Romani quarter on the south side of the River Ibar in Mitrovica, chased out local inhabitants, and stole massive quantities of their possessions. Those Roma who did not flee Kosovo to other countries were placed in camps for internally displaced persons in Northern Mitrovica, called Chesmin Lug, Kablare and Zitkovac respectively. At the time, this arrangement was purportedly supposed to last for 45 days. It was known that these camps were in highly toxic areas, situated near the tailings of the Trepca mine complex. In the intervening years, security concerns – meaning the failure by any authority to guarantee that persons returning to the quarter would not be violently attacked – precluded return to the Romani quarter. There have been persistent rumours that the mayor of Mitrovica desired to develop the property and had no intention of assisting with the return of the Roma to their homes. Evidently, no action by any authority has garnered sufficient energy to see the Roma return to their homes in safety and dignity, and to see those homes rebuilt. Today, more than 6 years later, the Roma are still living at the contaminated sites.
In 2000, the World Health Organization (WHO) undertook a report on the issue, noting extremely high levels of lead in the bloodstreams of a number of camp residents. The WHO recommended to UNMIK officials that the Roma be immediately evacuated. No action was taken. In July 2004, WHO again tested a number of persons and subsequently stated that there was now a medical emergency and recommended immediate evacuation.
At least one death – that of Dzenita Mehmeti, a 2-year-old child -- can be directly attributed to lead poisoning. The deaths of several other persons living in the camps may also have been caused by or contributed to by toxicity arising from heavy metals in the camps. The health consequences of lead poisoning are irreversible, and the harms suffered by the remaining several hundred camp inhabitants mount daily.
In November 2004, the ERRC sent a letter to officials calling attention to the situation and urging immediate action. To date, despite expressions of good will, most of the persons concerned continue to live in the three toxic camps. On September 2, 2005, the ERRC and local counsel submitted a criminal complaint on the matter with the Kosovo Public Prosecutor's office. Previously, in July 2005, the ERRC sent a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, urging him to lift immunity for any persons culpable of crimes as a result of the negligent or malicious failure to move these several hundred Roma out of areas which seriously threaten their lives. To date that letter remains unanswered.
One matter has remained consistent throughout the episode: the Roma concerned have been excluded from participation in decision-making about their future. UN officials have repeatedly taken decisions without adequate consultation with the Roma. Full information concerning the health risks posed in the camps has not been provided.
Today, as discussions concerning a final status for Kosovo proceed, the issue of exclusion of Roma from participation in decision-making in Kosovo threatens to become magnified to the international level: it is not clear how, if at all, Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptians will be included in talks concerning Kosovo's future. In this regard, the organisations named above note that the European Roma and Travellers Forum (ERTF), a high-level pan-European consortium of Romani representatives, has recently addressed a letter to UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, urging him to ensure that RAE representatives are fully included in discussions of matters related to Kosovo's future.
Indeed, to the extent external powers have been involved in matters related to Kosovo and Roma, these have frequently been to work with UNMIK officials to forcibly expel Roma from western European countries. Leading in this matter is Germany, which, following talks with UNMIK officials on April 25 and 26, 2005, concluded an agreement with UNMIK on the "forced return" of certain categories of persons regarded as "Gypsies" and therefore targeted for attack or other exclusionary treatment in Kosovo. A number of countries in Europe have indicated that they follow Germany's approach on these matters, in part because persons threatened with forced expulsion from Germany may flee to other countries. The message now being sent to UNMIK officials and others locally is that human rights issues in the province may now be secondary to the requirement to forcibly return persons to Kosovo.
At issue now are:
- Tens of thousands of persons still in Kosovo, either in their place of origin or displaced within the province, including approximately 600 Roma living daily in inhumane conditions in Northern Mitrovica on land that is killing them and their children;
- Tens of thousands of persons displaced in rump Serbia and Montenegro, living in extreme conditions and in a very large number of cases excluded from one or more goods and services required for the realisation of fundamental human rights, including goods and services such as employment education, housing, health care and social support; this number of persons reportedly grows, as Roma are expelled from other countries and, unable to settle in other countries, flee to Serbia and Montenegro;
- Approximately 2000 de facto refugees in Macedonia whom the Macedonian government to date has refused to provide any form of durable status and who therefore live under permanent threat of forced expulsion from the country;
- A number of hundreds of Romani refugees from Kosovo in other countries of the former Yugoslavia, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina;
- Tens of thousands of persons displaced throughout Western Europe, under regular and permanent threat of forced expulsion to Kosovo.
The organisations joining this statement urge the following minimum measures:
- Prompt and impartial investigations into all acts of violence to which Romani, Ashkali and Egyptian individuals and other persons regarded as "Gypsies" in Kosovo have been subjected are carried out; all perpetrators of racially-motivated acts of ethnic cleansing are brought swiftly to justice and victims or families of victims receive adequate compensation; justice is done and seen to be done.
- Sustained efforts are undertaken by all authorities in Kosovo and involved in the administration of Kosovo to ensure that no discussions of Kosovo's final status are embarked upon until such a time as all stakeholders achieve durable and lasting consensus in practice that Kosovo is a multi-cultural society in which all individuals can freely exercise in practice all of their fundamental human rights;
- Without any further delay, the inhabitants of camps for internally displaced persons in and around Mitrovica are evacuated from their highly toxic environs; in the very near term, return to their homes in the Mitrovica settlement is facilitated and adequate funding made available for the reconstruction of their houses; security is guaranteed by relevant authorities and all relevant infrastructure provided; long term health care is made available, such that the effects of the extreme toxicity to which they have been exposed for long periods of time can be ameliorated, to the best extent possible; all persons concerned are involved in discussion of decisions taken about them, and compensation is provided for the harms already suffered.
- Any forced returns of Kosovo Romani, Ashkali or Egyptian individuals to Kosovo, or to the rest of Serbia and Montenegro are rendered impossible and impermissible until such a time as authorities in Kosovo are able to demonstrate durable and lasting security and freedom from racial discrimination and violence for all in all parts of the province.
The European Network against Racism (ENAR), a network of European NGOs working to combat racism in all the EU member states, is a major outcome of the 1997 European Year Against Racism. ENAR is determined to fight racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, to promote equality of treatment between EU citizens and third country nationals, and to link local/regional/national initiatives with European initiatives.
ENAR, European Network Against Racism
43 rue de la Charite
Tel: +32-2-229 35 73
Fax: +32-2-229 35 75
The European Roma Information Office (ERIO) was founded in 2003 with the aim to establish and maintain a Romani presence in Brussels. ERIO aims to contribute to the political and public discussions surrounding Roma by providing factual and in-depth information in order to counteract discrimination and exclusion which the Romani communities have been suffering from for centuries and to contribute to their equal representation and participation in political decision-making. Further information about ERIO is available at www.erionet.org.
European Roma Information Office
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Tel + 32 27333462
Fax +32 27333875
The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) is an international public interest law organization engaging in a range of activities aimed at combating anti-Romani racism and human rights abuse of Roma, in particular strategic litigation, international advocacy, research and policy development, and training of Romani activists. For more information about the European Roma Rights Centre, visit the ERRC website at http://www.errc.org.
European Roma Rights Centre
1386 Budapest 62
P.O. Box 906/93
Tel.: ++ (36 1) 413 2200
Fax: ++ (36 1) 413 2201