Belgrade, Pristina and UN sign protocol on return of displaced people
PRISTINA, June 9 (UNHCR) - Representatives of the United Nations, Serbia and the provisional self-government authorities in Pristina have signed a protocol aimed at easing the way for the voluntary and sustainable return of tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to the province of Kosovo.
Serbian official Milorad Todorvic, the representative from Pristina, Dardan Gashi, and Special Representative Søren Jessen-Petersen, who heads the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, signed the protocol during a brief ceremony in Pristina on June 6.
"UNHCR considers the signing of the protocol a great step forward in addressing obstacles to return and welcomes the consensus that has been established between Pristina and Belgrade on common principles and on a series of technical issues concerning the return process," said UNHCR official Gottfried Koefner, who chairs a working group that drew up the protocol on returns.
The working group - one of only four working groups under the Belgrade-Pristina direct dialogue process - met for the first time in May last year. Its task has been to deal with the technical and practical issues of the return process in a bid to facilitate the return of Serb, Roma and other IDPs.
Serbia and Montenegro together still host more than 225,000 internally displaced, mostly Serbs and Roma who fled from Kosovo in 1999. The return of IDPs has been painfully slow and only 14,000 returns have been registered so far.
With the protocol, the parties to the direct dialogue process have given themselves essential tools to make sustainable and voluntary return possible. The protocol provides for the return of IDPs in a manner that respects both their rights and those of the communities to which they are returning.
UNHCR has also stressed the need for increased focus on the reintegration of returnees in Kosovo. For that to become possible, generous and increased support will be required from donors.
Jessen-Petersen expressed his satisfaction with the agreement and stressed that the protocol had broadened the scope of returns. He said the parties concerned must now be fully committed to the return process.
"The new returns policy showed the commitment and seriousness of the Kosovo government towards ensuring the return of displaced persons and allowing them to make a free and informed choice about the return options," he added after the signing ceremony.
Both parties praised UNHCR for its chairmanship of the working group and for its instrumental role in helping the sides reach agreement on the terms of the protocol. The working group will continue to meet, alternating between Pristina and Belgrade, and UNHCR will focus discussions on practical issues related to the implementation of the protocol.
By Myrna Flood in Pristina