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ECRE/ICVA Reference Group on Former Yugoslavia: "Kosovo: humanitarian, refugee, and minority issues - past problems, future perspectives"

ECRE/ICVA Reference Group on Former Yugoslavia: "Kosovo: humanitarian, refugee, and minority issues - past problems, future perspectives"

28 January 2000


The title of this conference, which I am very pleased to be able to attend, especially in view of the number of participants from Kosovo and the region - a welcome change from many of these discussions - is Return, Reconstruction and Respect. These are all highly relevant issues in Kosovo: return has been our major preoccupation for many months; reconstruction remains a somewhat controversial notion; and respect, at least in terms of the rule of law and ethnic tolerance, is a continuing serious concern and challenge.

Within this broader context I plan to speak to you about humanitarian, refugee and minority issues in Kosovo today - with some perspectives (or speculations) about likely developments in the coming months.

There is no doubt that the Kosovo crisis has challenged all humanitarian actors in ways which are exceptional, even for this rather special region. It has raised fundamental questions regarding the nature and scope of humanitarian action and intervention, the relationship between the humanitarian agencies and the military following a declared "humanitarian war"; and the structures and methods by which support for post-war governance and aid is provided, even while the underlying conflict is still unresolved. Although the situation for the majority of Kosovars has undoubtedly improved in many ways since the entry of KFOR and the establishment of UNMIK (the United Nations Mission in Kosovo), complex and difficult problems remain to be addressed in all of these areas.

Past Problems

Before turning to the current challenges in Kosovo, allow me to give a brief overview of the major challenges in the past year, and then try and identify some lessons for the future.

Most of you know the basic facts too well: hundreds of thousands of displaced Kosovars in 1998 and 1999 prior to the bombing; in the course of 10 weeks, after the bombing began on 24 March, 900,000 Kosovars who fled or were expelled from the province; soon after, following the arrival of the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) in Kosovo on 12 June, the return of the large majority of them - at the peak of this movement at a rate of nearly 50,000 people a day. Overall, this has been one of the largest and fastest population movements - in both directions - that UNHCR has ever faced. It was also the highest profile refugee situation, both politically and media-wise, for decades.

Since we re-entered Kosovo with many of our NGO collaborators in mid-June, a massive international relief effort has taken place to assist those who returned to rebuild their lives. Per capita this has probably been one of the largest-ever international relief operations. In this, the combined efforts of the UN agencies, non-governmental and local humanitarian organisations have been exceptional, and generally well co-ordinated. It is these efforts which have avoided another humanitarian crisis in Kosovo this winter for the first time for some years, despite the problems, and which have supported the population in key areas before the real rebuilding which must start this year.

UNHCR and the humanitarian agencies went back into Kosovo on the second day of NATO's entry into the province. The humanitarian agencies were the only actors, apart from KFOR and the first UNMIK staff, to enter Kosovo in any numbers in the first days and weeks. There was - and there remains - an urgent need for other civilian actors - from technicians to administrators to judges - to support these sorts of efforts from the outset.

When the agencies came back, Kosovo was (and in many respects, still is) in a state of internal collapse - without a police force, a civil administration structure, or any legal or functioning judicial system. The key elements of functioning civil society were either missing or non-functioning. Mines and unexploded ordnance littered the countryside, and most crucially, there was a complete vacuum in law and order. Setting up an effective humanitarian operation in this environment posed enormous challenges. We all had to re-establish a province-wide presence from scratch: our offices had been looted or destroyed, and all basic equipment taken. For the first weeks we worked together out of the UNHCR warehouse, where all agencies came twice daily for co-ordination meetings. At this time the staff of our main local implementing partner, the Mother Teresa Society, were still mostly displaced, and the Society was not functioning.

The immediate priority was to set up humanitarian supply lines, mine clearance systems, and to assess damage to housing. The speed of the spontaneous return of refugees from Macedonia and Albania - which began within two days of our return - put additional pressure on the process of procurement of shelter materials before winter, even before the full extent of the damage to housing was known. Surveys carried out in following weeks confirmed that this damage was far greater than we had expected. The main priority became the major humanitarian effort to help tens of thousands of families who had returned to destroyed or damaged homes get through the winter. A massive emergency shelter programme was launched to help as many people as possible repair at least one room before the arrival of the cold weather, led by UNHCR with key donors, all working through NGO partners.

Despite the logistical difficulties which hampered this effort, including the well-publicised bottlenecks at the Macedonian border at Blace, overall the programme has met its basic objectives. All Kosovars have been accommodated for the winter through a variety of measures, including house and roof repair, prefabricated units, winterised tents, community centres and - most importantly - host family support. But as predicted, and especially with the problems in the supply of basic utilities, of electricity and water, the winter has still been extremely difficult and uncomfortable for many families. The impressive quantities of shelter material, food aid, stoves, firewood, winter clothes, blankets and tents provided by the agencies have done as much as was logistically possible to help this process.

The other major preoccupation in Kosovo over the past seven months has been the widespread harassment, murder, and eviction of non-Albanian minorities remaining in the province. This has tragically created a new Balkan exodus - for example, the number of Serbs and Roma now remaining in Kosovo is probably less than half the original population (in Pristina alone, the Serb and Roma population has decreased from 20,000 to 500). In July last year, there were up to six killings of non-Albanians every day. While there has been a substantial reduction in these rates, the violence and attacks on minorities still continue each week, whether ethnically or criminally provoked. Most Serbs and many Roma live in a virtual state of siege, under heavy KFOR guard or in mono-ethnic enclaves, without access to public services and at risk of physical attack. Until this violence is contained, and the prevailing culture of revenge and impunity is somehow overcome, efforts to promote reconciliation or the large-scale return of Serbs and other minorities to Kosovo will continue to be premature. The protection of minorities remains one of the most pressing concerns for UNMIK, KFOR and for all humanitarian agencies in Kosovo today.

The tragic lack of effective law enforcement in the province over the past months has regrettably allowed this cycle of violence to go largely unchecked. KFOR has certainly provided basic security, and there is no doubt that the loss of life would have been higher without their efforts. But soldiers are not trained to be, nor do they want to be, policemen. The international police force - at a strength of some 1,800 out of a hoped-for 5,000 - is highly inadequate to impose effective law and order. Just as important is the absence of any experienced, fully trained local police - with less than 200 so far - and a largely non-functioning judicial system. Arrests have been made, but proper investigations and prosecutions have not yet been conducted, and are urgently needed. This requires a substantial investment in more international and properly trained local police, supported by an independent and professional judicial system.

For many of us this has been - and remains - probably the most crucial single gap in Kosovo today. Until the current lawlessness and culture of impunity - which extends to organised crime as well as ethnic attacks - is brought under control, it will be extremely difficult for UNMIK to achieve its basic mission, or for real development, both political and economic, to move properly forward in Kosovo. The protection of minorities remains at the front of the ongoing conflict in this part of the Balkans, as it has throughout the wars in the former Yugoslavia. The added tragedy is that now it is the former victims - and refugees - who were so strongly supported by us all, who in some cases have been allowed to perpetuate the violence and refugee cycle.

Current and Future Challenges

The coming months will be a key period of transition in Kosovo in a number of areas.

On the political level, the assumption of shared responsibility by local Kosovars in a joint interim administration structure with UNMIK is one transition that has already started. While it has clear political risks, it has been necessary in order to jump-start the administrative and political process and to attempt to overcome parallel administrative structures throughout the province. The slow start in this area has been partly due to the in-built ambiguities of SCR 1244, which prescribes substantial autonomy short of independence for Kosovo, while recognising FRY sovereignty: at the same time the Kosovars themselves have clearly demonstrated their resistance to reverting to any provincial status within Serbia. The new joint arrangements by UNMIK are an attempt, prior to the elections, to incorporate local structures without ceding ultimate authority.

The next months will be critical in terms of maintaining the new political involvement of Kosovars and carrying out more effective UN administration of the province. The Serbs have yet to agree to participate in this revamped process, and their involvement will also be key. Only once this administration is effectively functioning can UNMIK hope to move actively forward in key areas, including registering the population, preparing for elections, improving the economy, paying local salaries, providing basic services and restoring law and order and supporting an effective judiciary.

In the humanitarian area, a parallel transition process is taking place. The level of humanitarian aid which has flooded into the province over the past months should not be needed after the winter, (barring unforeseen refugee movements) and neither can it, or should it, be sustained. Most of the humanitarian agencies have agreed that there should not be the need for a prolonged, large-scale humanitarian role in Kosovo, and are themselves focusing on the transition from humanitarian emergency to longer-term rehabilitation and development. The humanitarian component of UNMIK is proposing to phase out of its activities by mid-2000, with many of the leading UN humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR and WFP, planning parallel reductions to their programmes. The interim joint administration, led by the EU and Civil Administration components of UNMIK, will take over many of the activities in the humanitarian co-ordination area, particularly in respect to social welfare and housing reconstruction and in the area of the protection of minorities.

We have still some way to go in this transition, and this will be a major challenge in the coming months. But we must seize the opportunity to do what we have often been urged to do, to move quickly from relief to development and rebuilding, in all areas, while at the same time not leaving any gaps for the most vulnerable populations. There will continue to be a tremendous role for international and local NGOs to play in this process, given the level of social and institutional damage in particular, as well as the lack of immediate capacity to assume many of these functions. The area of community services, for example, is expected to require substantial resources from the humanitarian community. Here as in other areas the operational capacity and links to local communities which NGOs provide, and which UNMIK does not necessarily have, will be critical.

Our priority will be to ensure that as humanitarian activities are phased out and absorbed by the longer-term programmes and actors, we provide adequate overlap and coordination support to avoid any gaps. We are working with the various UNMIK components and with NGOs to ensure that this vital capacity is fully utilized by and provided by the local administration. Our NGO partners who are on the ground in Kosovo - some of whom are represented here - will need to have some patience in working with these new joint structures, and the Humanitarian Pillar of UNMIK will do everything possible to support this process.

As we move into the rebuilding phase, equal attention must also be given to the continued issue of minority protection and related key areas, such as the need to rebuild the rule of law and foster tolerance in Kosovo. It is tragically clear that Kosovo has not yet exhausted its period of revenge and retaliation. The fact that the transformation of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) into the Kosovo Protection Corps has been slow, and thousands of former fighters still need alternative employment, is also a potential problem, both in terms of lawlessness and minority protection.

The difficulties confronting UNMIK in this and similar areas are enormous. Kosovo was a highly expensive and hugely resourced war, but as so often seems to be the case, the post-war investment - both politically and economically - has been minimal by comparison. UNMIK continues to struggle to get a few thousand international police; it has a limited budget to meet widespread costs of administering the province, or to properly repair basic infrastructure - such as power and water; and lacks the essential staff to run everything from education to customs collection. A major investment in the resources needed to establish a basic system of law and order and governance is also urgently needed.

A key area requiring support is the establishment of a functioning investigating capacity and judicial process. Unless arrests (of which there have been several thousand over the months by KFOR) are followed by prompt and fair trials, there is no real deterrence for the perpetuators of the current atrocities. Albanian judges are inevitably under heavy pressure to release those arrested for crimes against minorities and there are virtually no witnesses on any occasion willing to testify to even the most public crimes. Until a fair and independent judiciary is functioning there is, in my view, a clear need for international judges to investigate and try particularly ethnically related crimes.

We also need enhanced efforts to promote dialogue with and within minority groups, such as the Roma. An international conference organised by OSCE to celebrate human rights day in Pristina last December, showed that there was considerable potential in this area, which needs to be capitalised on and taken forward. Reconciliation in such contexts is a complex and little understood area, and will require significant and consistent international support if it is to succeed.

A related issue which also needs to be actively addressed is the question of those Kosovars "missing" or detained in Serbia. The understandable grief and rage of their relatives results in an ongoing smouldering of ethnic tension which fuels the desire for revenge. Similarly, accountability for war crimes is an important prerequisite in persuading the ethnic communities to start to live together again. Apart from the Serb militias and paramilitaries, some Serb and Roma civilians undoubtedly took part in the atrocities, for which they should be held accountable. UNMIK is considering establishing a national war crimes tribunal, supported by international personnel, which could be a valuable complement to the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in this area.

While sustained international efforts, led by the UN and KFOR, are certainly needed in this difficult period, they will not succeed unless the rhetoric of the political leadership of Kosovo, in favour of tolerance and co-existence, is translated into serious and concrete action at the community level - stopping the school-aged children from stoning elderly Serbs with impunity, for example. In my humble opinion, unless the lawlessness and culture of impunity are more effectively addressed, undertaking any form of elections could be highly problematic. We can only hope that the period of transition which is currently taking place in Kosovo will result in more direct, active and responsible engagement of all Kosovars in the whole process of administering the province, in the political, law and order as well as the rebuilding areas. Undue expectations that "the internationals" will do it all must be replaced by a proper sense of reality and shared responsibility, if these major and pressing challenges in Kosovo are to be met.

Following the winter months, it is expected that there will be larger scale returns of refugees and others from Western Europe to Kosovo, including in some cases probably by deportation. (Some 95,000 voluntary returns have occurred so far, at up to 1,000 per day, even without direct access to Pristina airport). Some host governments have indicated that they plan to step up their return programmes as early as possible this year.

Last year, UNHCR urged states to return only those Kosovars who volunteered to go home and to refrain from forcing people back until the spring, when the situation would be reviewed. After spring, in principle most Kosovar Albanians - except for those with special protection needs - should be able to return. It is important, however, that this is a carefully managed and humane process, to avoid any humanitarian consequences.

There is still massive damage to housing, which the joint administration and the EU will be hard-stretched to repair before the next winter; there is a vacuum in law and order, with consequent high levels of violence and crime; and social welfare and health systems are not yet fully functioning. In addition, the economic effects of such a return could have other serious consequences, as many Kosovars continue to depend on remittances from relatives living and working abroad, given the severely depressed state of the local economy.

It is important that the emphasis on return - which is not new - should also look at the ability of Kosovo to accommodate returnees safely and sustainably.

The conditions for large-scale return of some 200,000 Serbs, Roma and other minorities who have fled to Serbia and Montenegro clearly do not yet exist. Except in the Serb enclaves, their basic security cannot be assured, unless it is with constant KFOR protection. The Belgrade government pressed UNHCR to promote these returns of Serbs last year in particular, and this pressure will probably be renewed after the winter. But so long as non-Albanians continue to face threats to their security and their basic rights are violated, it will not be possible for those displaced to return in a safe or sustainable way. Hence the effective protection of those minorities remaining in Kosovo has a direct link to the prospects for repatriation of others.


Finally, I would like to turn to some of the broader themes which have emerged from Kosovo. One of the first lessons from the international response to the crisis has been that the lessons from previous similar crises have not necessarily been learned. In the humanitarian area, there are several issues which I believe need to be addressed further.

First, Kosovo has again shown that the relief frontline needs to include other civilian actors - national and international - from the outset, if key systems such as law and order, are to be quickly re-established. The humanitarian agencies were the only ones to enter Kosovo with the military in any numbers in the first days and weeks. Humanitarian relief after war is a necessary but clearly inadequate response. Equally needed from an early stage are police, judges, technicians, and administrators. How to address this is not an easy question, but it urgently requires greater attention.

Second, Kosovo has shown the need to clearly define the limits of "humanitarian action" itself: what does it properly include and exclude? In Kosovo, it covers the protection of minorities and at least the partial rebuilding of damaged houses. This invokes important human rights considerations as well as an obvious link to future developmental activities. Despite pleas from humanitarian agencies for international support for early planning for the reconstruction/development phase, at least until winter's end, the humanitarian sector will still be leading a broadly defined "rehabilitation" effort. If humanitarian action is not to be unduly prolonged in Kosovo, as it has been in Bosnia and elsewhere, active reconstruction and development efforts must replace this role as soon as possible, with proper international backing.

Third, Kosovo has also demonstrated that collaboration between humanitarian and military actors in such operations may, in some areas or situations, be inevitable, but this needs to be carefully reviewed and refined. In the aftermath of a declared "humanitarian war", we have had to regularly re-draw the lines to ensure that humanitarian action maintains its strictly civil and non-partisan approach. This is likely to remain, in different ways, a major challenge for UN and other agencies- and particularly humanitarian ones - in the future.

Fourth, fundamental issues regarding the effectiveness of multilateral coordination and the impartiality and independence of the international humanitarian response have been raised by Kosovo. The international response to the crisis in Kosovo has been one of the most bi-lateral we have seen in recent times. The willingness of the international community to invest in a multilateral response capacity clearly has a direct impact on the success of multilateral efforts. Some of the emphasis on bi-lateral responses, seen particularly in the early phases of the crisis, tended to undermine the effectiveness of multilateral action.

And finally, in return to shattered states such as Kosovo, patience is required on the part of countries hosting refugees and others until the conditions for sustainable development and return are in place. This is a lesson already learned in Bosnia, which we must apply in Kosovo. The understandable anxiety of asylum countries to see early returns must be tempered by the realisation that premature returns can work against stability and development. Refugee returns can certainly help the rebuilding process, but they should not move too far ahead of the essential security and economic base of the home country.

The challenges in all these areas in Kosovo in the coming months remain enormous: not in the impoverished third world sense, but in a depressed, ethnically complex and politically volatile part of Europe, which is still not yet in the "post-conflict" phase. Further open conflict in the immediate region, especially in areas such as Montenegro, also cannot be excluded (and, some argue, is inevitable). The return of refugees, pressures on minorities and population stability generally will remain at the centre of this fragile process. The sustained involvement and support of donor governments, UN agencies and NGOs in these areas will certainly be critical to the success if any longer-term stability is to be achieved in Kosovo this year.