27th Jan 2021

EU police in Kosovo must be subject to law, NGO says

Leading NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the EU and NATO to make its future peacekeeping operations in Kosovo subject to law, after a string of failures by existing "accountability" structures to investigate allegations of criminal behaviour by international personnel.

EU foreign ministers on Monday (18 June) are to push forward preparations for the new EU police mission and civilian authority, to be put in place after Kosovo gains independence. The team will take over from an existing UN police and civilian authority, UNMIK, which has helped keep a fragile peace since 1999.

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  • A Ukrainian KFOR soldier: who will police the police? (Photo: Wikipedia)

The EU effort - the biggest of its kind in the union's history - is to see 1,600 policemen and 72 civilian officials deploy in January, if UN talks on Kosovo's status end quickly. An EU preparatory office in Pristina - the EUPT - began work in April with 40 staff but has now grown to over 200 personnel, reports indicate.

The EU policemen will be supported by 16,000 soldiers drawn from 35 countries, including the US, Turkey and Ukraine, as well as most EU states. The military force - currently called KFOR - is under NATO command and has already been working alongside UNMIK since the end of the civil war eight years ago.

UNMIK and KFOR are in theory subject to oversight by a laundry list of unique institutions including: an Ombudsperson; a Human Rights Advisory Panel; a Human Rights Oversight Committee; an UNMIK Claims Commission; UNMIK police complaints departments; internal KFOR claims panels and OSCE monitors.

The structures have not lacked bite entirely. In 2000, an American KFOR soldier was sentenced to life by a US court for raping and killing an 11-year old girl. In less serious cases, soldiers have been stripped of rank for drunk driving. The Ombudsperson had in the past "done well" in pressuring UNMIK to expedite complaints.

But a fresh HRW report out Thursday (14 June) suggests the system is breaking down. In February 2006 the Ombudsperson lost his mandate to oversee international bodies. The human rights panel has not yet started work. The oversight committee last met in 2004. The UNMIK commission has been invisible so far.

The "accountability" gap saw in February 2007 a situation in which Romanian UNMIK police fired rubber bullets at ethnic Albanian protesters, killing two. An investigation into the case has all-but unravelled, with the Romanian officers shipped back home in March and with Bucharest fudging questions.

Making matters worse

Tensions in Kosovo are already running high: radical ethnic Albanian groups impatient for independence are widely suspected of orchestrating a series of non-fatal bombs in recent months. And the region's 100,000 ethnic Serbs are beginning to move from isolated villages to larger Serb enclaves in the north out of fear.

The February incident showed how international governance problems could aggravate the potential for instability. In the aftermath of the killings, a bomb in central Pristina damaged UN vehicles and a rocket-propelled grenade struck a Serb Orthodox monastery. An April poll showed that UNMIK's approval rating was just 24 percent.

The HRW study urges the EU to restore the international mandate of the Ombudsperson to cover its new police and civilian authorities, as well as NATO troops. It also calls for a new Constitutional Court - to be set up by the post-status settlement government - to have authority over EU and NATO staff.

"The EU should learn from those mistakes and allow real scrutiny of its human rights record from day one," HRW director Holly Cartner said in a statement. "The international community cannot...succeed in building democratic institutions in Kosovo if it is not prepared to subject its own record to independent scrutiny."

But privately, some HRW staff say the EU is becoming less open to criticism as it moves closer to taking over responsibility from the UN. "Before, they were happy enough to listen to problems with UNMIK. But they are less receptive these days."

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