Everyone Fiddles while the Roma Burn

01 February 2006

Dianne Post1

The solution to the lead poisoning in three camps for internally displaced Roma in Kosovo is complicated by differing agendas. Local government does not want to give Roma prime land to replace the destroyed village. Some Roma originally from Kosovo but now in Western Europe do not want the Roma Mahalla rebuilt because it might mean they are forcibly returned. Serbs do not want the move to be successful because it will be one more step toward Kosovo independence. Local Roma do not want to move twice from the current camp to another and then finally to the Mahalla. Further, some believe that if they move to yet another "temporary" camp and the health effects are ameliorated, the international spotlight will be turned off, and they will spend another six years or forever before the Mahalla is built. Some Roma "leaders" are making public statements that there is no lead poisoning contrary to all scientific information. Women in the camps who desperately want to move for the health of their children are being ignored by local and international communities alike and often by their husbands. UNMIK claims that lack of money is stalling the rebuilding of the Mahalla. In all these political machinations, individual Roma, especially children, are becoming sick and dying or suffering irreversible brain damage.

Everyone fiddles while the Roma burn

This situation presents difficult issues for a legal resolution because the law, while very useful, is not a precision tool, and lawyers must represent the desires and best interest of their individual clients yet from a political standpoint, no one wants to injure the interest of the community at large. Therefore, after careful consideration, ERRC plans a multi-prong legal strategy. However, every option is fraught with factual and legal difficulties.

First, the ERRC has asked the Secretary General of the UN to remove UNMIK immunity so they, as the main responsible organ, can be sued. The blanket immunity granted by their own laws has already been heavily criticised by the Kosovo Ombudsperson and OSCE as being in violation of international law.2

Second, on behalf of individual clients who have lost property in the Mahalla, claims can be filed under the UNMIK claims commission. However, this commission will only adjudicate disputes between two persons claiming the same property or perhaps, as in one case, issue a decision that in fact the person did have property in the Mahalla that was destroyed. No compensation, restitution or rebuilding can be ordered from the commission so the remedy is not a very practical one. However, the Civil Rights Program has now been contracted by UNHCR to gather documentation regarding the property claims in the former Mahalla.

Third, local authorities retain jurisdiction under certain laws, e.g. anti-discrimination, public health and environment. Their actions – or more properly inactions – clearly show a pattern of discrimination, failure to apply the public health law to Roma and failure to enforce the environmental law when it negatively impacts Roma.

In at least two cases, facts suggest a malpractice action against the hospital. Unfortunately, many of those affected still fear using the local courts because of harassment and violence. A request for a criminal investigation against "unknown perpetrators" was filed 2 September 2005 in Pristina asking the general prosecutor to investigate and bring appropriate charges. If those identified have immunity because of local or international law, waiver can be sought.

An international complaint is being researched should other actions prove unsuccessful. Provisional remedies will be sought for interim measures to protect the health of those affected. The research and drafting is much assisted by Cynthia Rollings, an attorney from New York sent by the International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP), and ERRC interns Jane Shvets, Rosa Curling and Esther Farkas.

The Trepca mine, original polluter of the entire area, is a very valuable asset in the region and its ownership is contested by several companies and governments. The possibility of a lawsuit against the mine is being investigated.

The best solution would be to reach an agreement with the various parties as it would be faster and could be more creative than a court action. Of course the overall goal is to get the endangered Roma out of the toxic site and get them health care. For that, the international advocacy by NGOs must continue to put the spotlight on the continuing environmental and human disaster. Governments, the corporations that will benefit from the mine and the UN must be pressured to find the money to act immediately. The children cannot wait six more years.


  1. Dianne Post is Legal Director of the ERRC.
  2. See for example, Ombudsperson Institution in Kosovo, Special report No 1, ?On the compatibility with recognised international standards of UNMIK Regulation No. 2000/47 on the Status, Privileges and Immunities of KFOR and UNMIK and Their Personnel in Kosovo (18 August 2000) and on the implementation of the above Regulation?.


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