UNMIK and lead-poisoned Roma IDP camps: suffering contaminated by racial prejudice

By Bernard Rorke

In a bluntly critical report published in April this year, the Human Rights Advisory Panel called on the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) to publicly acknowledge its abject failure to comply with applicable human rights standards and apologise to Roma, Askali and Egyptian IDPs placed in lead contaminated camps, and to compensate victims for material and moral damage.

Families were forced to flee and abandon the Roma Mahala in Mitrovice in the face of attacks by Albanian extremists who looted and burnt down the entire neighbourhood in June 1999. According to the statement of the Ombudsperson Institution in Kosovo in 2004, the Roma Mahala was still the largest area of destroyed houses in Kosovo.

The victims of the pogrom were resettled in camps which were highly contaminated. This appalling situation, intended to be temporary, lasted for about a decade under UNMIK’s tenure and during this time the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian IDPs were stranded in hazardous living conditions and without badly needed medical attention. The Panel found UNMIK responsible for discriminatory inaction and neglect, which caused IDPs to suffer inhuman and degrading treatment.

The Panel deemed the living conditions in the camps to be “sub-standard”, “particularly distressing”, and “appalling”; and rejected the argument of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for UNMIK (SRSG) that undue suffering was not caused, in light of the fact that prior to the conflict, Roma historically lived in substandard conditions. This comment was slammed as “discriminatory and debasing,” since it suggested that social exclusion and deprivation of Roma is “based on race and on their own actions and, as such, may be perpetuated without responsibility.”

Inhuman and degrading treatment

With respect to UNMIK’s obligations under Article 2 of the ECHR, the Panel considers that UNMIK did not take adequate steps to remove the complainants from a situation where they suffered inhuman and degrading treatment in fulfilment of its obligations under Article 3 of the ECHR.  

The level of UNMIK’s willful neglect was laid bare by the UN panel’s findings. The panel noted that:

  • UNMIK was fully aware of the extent and scale of lead contamination, and that the main source of exposure to lead was the proximity of the camps to the Trepca smelter and complex.
  • As a result of UNMIK’s inactivity, the health risks stemming from lead contamination in the camps persisted and likely increased due to the prolonged exposure of the IDP population to lead and the continued lack of access to basic services such as adequate food, hygiene and medical care.
  • UNMIK provided far from adequate medical care to the affected IDPs, including those found to have elevated lead blood levels. Basic medical services, as well as the administration of chelation therapy to those IDPs severely affected by lead contamination, was initiated only in January 2007 and was discontinued, a few months later, in October 2007 without any alternative care being offered to the IDPs.
  • UNMIK did not disclose or communicate to the IDPs affected or their family members the results of the blood tests conducted by WHO in 2004 and 2005.

Prima Facie Discriminatory

The Panel found UNMIK’s actions in placing the Roma in contaminated camps and later failure to relocate them to a non-contaminated area and to provide access to living conditions commensurate with human rights standards, was prima facie discriminatory.

  • “Only RAE IDPs were accommodated in those areas of northern Mitrovica known to be highly contaminated, and the consequent humanitarian and health crisis affected disproportionately the RAE minority.”  
  • “The reconstruction of the destroyed Roma Mahala, and thus the displacement of the RAE, was delayed for much longer than the reconstructions undertaken in favour of other communities of IDPs.”
  • The Roma complainants have also established a prima facie case of discrimination with respect to UNMIK’s failure to initiate any investigation following the filing of a criminal complaint by the ERRC concerning the suspicious deaths, including of children, in the camps. 

The suffering of women and children

From the outset UNMIK was aware of the high health risks posed by lead poisoning to pregnant women and children. This was why the former SRSG Bernard Kouchner decided to stop the operation of the Trepca complex in August 2000. But this measure hardly benefited the IDPs since they continued to be exposed to lead poisoning in highly contaminated camps.  

  • The Panel noted that on two occasions in 2004, WHO highlighted the particularly serious situation of pregnant women (and children) in the camps, warning UNMIK that they needed to be urgently evacuated from the camps and that their cases amounted to medical emergencies.  
  • UNMIK was obliged under the CEDAW to adopt positive measures to adequately respond to the particular disadvantage of pregnant women in the camps.
  • The Panel concluded that while all complainants had their rights violated, the female complainants were also “subject to multiple discriminations in the enjoyment of their fundamental rights, as women, as IDPs and as members of the RAE community.”  

Perhaps the most harrowing aspect is that it was children who suffered the most, and in an irreversible manner, from the situation in the IDP camps, including the lead poisoning and the poor living and hygiene conditions. The Panel’s findings on this should stand as a permanent mark of shame for UNMIK

  • The Panel considered that the lives and health of children should have been the overriding consideration guiding UNMIK’s response to the situation. UNMIK did not explain (nor provided any documentation in this respect) how the best interest of the children in the camps was considered, assessed and determined when deciding and enacting measures in response to the situation in the camps.   
  • Consequently, the Panel finds that, through its actions and omissions, UNMIK was responsible for compromising irreversibly the life, health and development potential of the complainants that were born and grew as children in the camps, in violation of Articles 3, 6, 24, 27 and 37 of the CRC.  

Conclusion: UNMIK “tainted by racial prejudice”

The Panel noted that no objective and reasonable justification was offered by the SRSG to explain why no action whatsoever was taken by UNMIK as a follow-up to this criminal report filed by ERRC.  

The excuses made by UNMIK for a decade of damaging neglect where give short shrift by the Panel. The UNMIK suggestion that the health crisis in the camps was generated by the “unhealthy” life-style of the RAE IDPs was deemed to be “tainted by racial prejudice”, contradicted by scientific evidence, “and certainly not objective or reasonable justification.”

The excuse that UNMIK could not move the RAE IDPs to an alternative, safe, location that was “acceptable” to all local stakeholders was rejected on the grounds that “such political considerations and discriminatory attitudes of local stakeholders should not in a democratic and pluralistic society take priority over the life, health and well-being of those in a vulnerable situation.” 

In a statement following the publication of the report, UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Rita Izsák-Ndiaye called for a public apology and compensation to be paid to the victims, and added, “I am glad that justice is being now delivered to one of the most deprived communities who had to suffer conflict, displacement and negligence.”

Justice has been delayed for so long, but delivery is not yet complete. We call on UNMIK to act on the Panel’s recommendations and issue a full public apology to the victims and their families, and take prompt steps to pay adequate compensation to the victims to cover the human rights violations, moral damage, and medical costs they have incurred. Nothing can ever fully compensate for the losses and suffering endured at the hands of UNMIK, but if justice is delivered then maybe the UN moves closer to saying “Never again!” with added conviction.

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