HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH/ HELSINKI OVERVIEW
While the international community continued to pay lip service to human rights principles in the Helsinki region, 1996 was notable for the wholesale subordination of these principles to political objectives in certain key countries, especially by the United States and the countries of the European Union. With regard to Bosnia-Hercegovina, the international community preached respect for human rights, democratic pluralism and accountability for past abuses, but did not insist on these principles if it meant delaying blatantly unfree and unfair elections. Shortly after Russian forces initiated a new offensive in Chechnya with massive violations of international humanitarian law, the Council of Europe, one of the regional institutions with a clear human rights mandate, admitted the Russian Federation (hereafter ARussia@) as a member. By year=s end, the governments and institutions considered most likely to speak out against human rights abuses had lost much credibility.
Especially in the case of the former Yugoslavia, where the atrocities of the war had been so severe as to warrant the establishment of the first war crimes tribunal since Nuremberg (the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY), the rhetoric about accountability and justice proved largely hollow in 1996. By year=s end, officials at the tribunal questioned how long they could continue without the arrest of indicted persons. These developments, along with the fact that those responsible for Aethnic cleansing@ were still in firm de facto control of the region and that there was little prospect of accountability for gross abuses, had ominous implications for human rights, not only in the Balkans but throughout Europe.
Human Rights Developments
Among the gravest abuses during 1996 were those that occurred in the context of the armed conflicts in Bosnia-Hercegovina and in Chechnya. In both cases, civilians were the victims of executions and Adisappearances,@ torture and other mistreatment in detention, and other gross violations of international humanitarian law.
In Bosnia-Hercegovina, Bosnian Serbs carried out a highly organized campaign of Aethnic cleansing@, murder and rape in northwestern Bosnia even as diplomatic efforts toward a peace settlement intensified. The Dayton peace agreement, which went into force in December 1995, brought an end to the most severe of these abuses. Despite the successful implementation of the military provisions of the Dayton agreement, however, at the end of 1996, hundreds of thousands of civilians remained displaced, many with little hope of ever returning to their homes; ethnically and politically motivated killings, arbitrary arrests and detention, and the physical mistreatment and harassment of minorities by local authorities remained common; and those responsible for gross violations of human rights maintained power with little fear of being called to account for their crimes.
In Chechnya, civilians continued to suffer from indiscriminate and disproportionate fire until the August 1996 cease-fire. Russian forces routinely razed whole apartment blocks and heedlessly shelled residential areas throughout Chechnya, killing untold numbers of civilians.
Government forces were not the only ones to disregard international legal standards for the protection of civilians. Armed opposition groups in Chechnya, Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, Northern Ireland, Tajikistan, and Turkey also committed severe violations of international humanitarian law.
Torture and other forms of mistreatment remained routine during interrogations in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Georgia, Kosovo (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), Russia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, abusive officials were rarely held accountable, and confessions procured under torture were often admitted as evidence. Poor prison conditions and horrendous overcrowding also contributed to numerous deaths in detention in Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Georgia, Russia, and Turkmenistan. Excessive use of force in dealing with prison disturbances led to at least fourteen inmate deaths in Turkey.
Respect for human rights and democratic principles deteriorated dramatically in Albania, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, where government leaders, intent on maintaining political power, severely restricted the independent media, used the police and other state agents to restrict free assembly and association, and often resorted to fraud and electoral manipulation. The crackdown on political dissent was especially prominent in the period leading up to elections in Albania, Armenia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. Respect for human rights in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Greece, Kazakstan, Slovakia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan remained poor.
Government officials recognized and feared the power of free expression and repeatedly tried to control or restrict critical speech. A journalist was beaten to death in detention in Turkey; journalists were arrested and prosecuted for their peaceful expression in Albania, Croatia, Russia, and Turkey. In Belarus, Bosnia-Hercegovina, the FRY, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, government monopolies of the media limited citizens= access to diverse views and information. Throughout the region, vaguely worded laws that prohibit inciting public violence, defaming state institutions, and publishing state secrets, were used almost exclusively to punish peaceful, albeit critical, expression. The press also came under attack in Chechnya, where clearly marked press vehicles were shot at by Russian forces; in Chechnya, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, journalists were killed by unknown assailants or in crossfire.
Police brutality remained a serious concern in many countries in the region and was often justified by the growing crime rate. In Bulgaria, efforts to control organized crime were the pretext for the routine beating of citizens, destruction of property, and the complete disregard for due process by police forces. In Russia, a crackdown on crime resulted in the harassment, brutal mistreatment and arbitrary detention of persons from the Caucusus, especially Chechens.
Accountability for past abuses continued to be illusory in most of the region. In Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia, the FRY and Tajikistan, those who had committed serious abuses during times of armed conflict often showed total disregard for human rights and the rule of law in times of peace. Another devastating cost of the continued political influence exerted in the region by persons responsible for past abuses was the large number of refugees and internally displaced persons who remained displaced long after the military conflicts ended.
In refugee-receiving states such as the member states of the European Union, the rights of refugees were increasingly under attack and asylum seekers faced severe limitations on the right to appeal, detention for long periods, and, in some cases, refoulement.
Domestic violence, rape and other crimes of violence against women were seldom treated seriously by law enforcement officials in the region. Female victims of violence continued to be denied justice, including by the criminal justice system itself, in countries such as Albania, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Russia.
Ethnically motivated violence and discrimination against Roma continued to be pervasive in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Romania, and the Slovak Republic. In one positive development, Roma appeared increasingly willing to seek legal recourse for human rights abuses.
The death penalty continued to be invoked in Albania and many of the countries of the former Soviet Union, including Georgia, Kazakstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan. In Bulgaria a move was underway to lift the 1990 moratorium on the death penalty. Routine denial of due process and the admission into evidence of confessions extracted under torture in many of these countries made the use of the death penalty all the more troubling.
The Right to Monitor
Although human rights groups made important contributions by documenting and opposing human rights abuses during 1996, a number of governments tried to interfere with their work. In countries such as Albania, Bosnia-Hercegovina, the FRY, Turkey, and Uzbekistan, human rights activists faced systematic harassment and surveillance by police and other government agents. Although the government of Uzbekistan tolerated some human rights monitoring to an unprecedented degree for that country, it continued to obstruct the registration efforts of independent human rights groups and to harass human rights activists. Turkmenistan remained one of the few countries in the world that, due to crushing government repression, could not boast a single in-country human rights monitor.
The Role of the International Community
Many European institutions play an important role with regard to human rights: the Council of Europe and its attendant institutionsCthe Parliamentary Assembly, European Commission of Human Rights, European Court of Human Rights, and European Committee for the Prevention of Torture; the European Union, the European Commission and European Parliament; and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its Permanent Council. However, these institutions had a mixed record on human rights in 1996. On the one hand, European institutions condemned abuses in Belarus, expressed concern over the state of democracy in Slovakia and, after some delay, criticized electoral violations in Albania. The Council of Europe=s foreign ministers, in a surprise move, postponed consideration of Croatia=s application for membership in mid-May due, in part, to Croatia=s poor human rights record. However, despite Croatia=s continued non-compliance with the human rights provisions put forward by the council, Croatia was admitted as a full member in October. However, the European Union, the OSCE and the Council of Europe remained silent on the pervasive repression in Turkmenistan and the deterioration of respect for human rights in Kyrgyzstan.
In Bosnia-Hercegovina, where the OSCE was responsible both for organizing elections and monitoring respect for human rights, elections quickly became the primary focus of the mission, due in large part to the U.S. government=s insistence that elections in Bosnia-Hercegovina be held before the U.S. presidential elections. European diplomats acknowledged that the time line created at Dayton had been unrealistic from the start because it had been determined largely by U.S. domestic considerations. However, the most powerful European governments were not willing or able to formulate a unified policy to counter that so forcefully pursued by the Clinton administration.
The European Union continued efforts to create a unified and increasingly restrictive asylum regime for its member states, leading in 1996 to increased detention, expulsions, and other measures that, in some cases, violate international standards and increase the risk of refoulement.
The United Nations
United Nations monitoring missions in Croatia (Eastern Slavonija), Georgia (Abkhazia), Macedonia and Tajikistan were able to contribute significantly to regional stability. However, these missions often remained silent with regard to human rights abuses, opting instead to emphasize their security role. The UNHCR assisted in protecting vulnerable populations in Bosnia-Hercegovina, but failed to promote the safe return of refugees to Abkhazia and placed undue pressure on Tajik refugees in Afghanistan to return to their homes prematurely.
The U.N. Security Council condemned Croatia during the year for ongoing abuses against ethnic Serbs in the Krajina region of the country and for the government=s failure to cooperate fully with the ICTY. However, it lifted sanctions against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian Serbs on October 1, following what it considered Asuccessful@ elections in Bosnia-Hercegovina without mentioning the parties= failure to cooperate with the tribunal, as required by the U.N.=s own resolution 1022, or the ongoing repression of ethnic minorities in Sandjak, Vojvodina and Kosovo.
In Bosnia-Hercegovina, the U.N. International Police Task Force (IPTF) often underplayed its mandate, especially with regard to the protection of vulnerable civilians. It did, however, cooperate with the International Implementation Force (IFOR) to remove checkpoints and, in some areas, individual IPTF units actively patrolled villages where ethnic minorities were being threatened. The IPTF also had the important task of vetting the local police forces, but at the end of 1996, this process was only beginning in the Bosniak-Croat Federation and had not yet begun in the Republika Srpska, while persons indicted for war crimes worked as Bosnian Serb police as late as October.
The United States
The U.S. government=s human rights policies in the Helsinki region were particularly disappointing in 1996. The Clinton administration continued to tout the importance of democratic principles in the countries of Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, but it ignored electoral violations and fraud and remained silent about other human rights abuses to ensure that certain friendly governments remained in power.
The Clinton administration played the leading role in bringing about an end to hostilities in Bosnia-Hercegovina at the end of 1995 and thereby contributed to the single most significant human rights improvement in the region. However, the administration was willing to jeopardize the long-term success of the peace process because of short-term considerations. Although the administration paid lip service to the need for free and fair elections in Bosnia-Hercegovina, it insisted that the elections take place before they could be free and fair, largely because of Clinton=s own reelection agenda.
The administration backtracked on its stated commitment to accountability. The U.S.-dominated IFOR refused to arrest persons indicted for war crimes, downplaying the extent of its authority and claiming that indictees would only be arrested if Aencountered in the normal course of business.@ The IFOR did everything it could not to encounter indicted persons, however, and did not arrest such persons even when, on several occasions, it came face to face with them.
In Russia, the Clinton administration refused to condemn massive humanitarian law violations in Chechnya during the Russian election campaign, clearly having decided that it would support President Yeltsin=s reelection bid no matter what. Although the administration did criticize the abuses in Chechnya from time to time during the year, it failed to use the most important opportunities, such as the summit meeting between Clinton and Yeltsin in April, to press for improvements.
Similarly, the U.S. government disregarded numerous signs that the Albanian government of Sali Berisha was becoming increasingly intolerant of political opposition in the months leading up to the May elections in Albania and was noticeably slow to respond to widespread abuses during those elections. After some delay, however, the U.S. government took the lead in calling for a new vote. And the Clinton administration de-emphasized human rights concerns in Turkey, in part because of its concern about political stability, given the electoral success of the Islamist Welfare Party, and also because of regional security concerns related to the internecine Kurdish fighting in northern Iraq.
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki
While maintaining broad coverage of and engagement in human rights developments throughout the Helsinki region, during 1996, a primary goal of the Helsinki division was to monitor and influence the human rights policies of the international community with respect to the former Yugoslavia. This emphasis was due to our recognition that the failure of the Dayton peace processCto achieve a peace built on respect for human rights and justice for the victims of gross abuses and to prevent the Asuccess@ of Aethnic cleansing@ by insisting that refugees and internally displaced persons be able safely to return to their homesCwould have devastating implications for human rights and the safety of ethnic minorities, not only in the countries of the former Yugoslavia but in every country in the Helsinki region.
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki continued systematically to document human rights abuses by all sides in the former Yugoslavia. However, the dramatically changed situation in Bosnia-HercegovinaCthe presence of some 60,000 NATO troops, the influx of other international representatives into Bosnia-Hercegovina to monitor and enforce the peace agreement, and the potential for reconstruction aidCgave the international community new leverage over the parties. A priority, therefore, was to ensure that that leverage be used to obtain real human rights improvements. The Helsinki division kept the profile of human rights abuses high on the agenda of the international actors in Bosnia-Hercegovina and repeatedly reminded them of the human rights implications of policy options. We opened an office in Sarajevo and maintained a presence in the country throughout 1996.
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki repeatedly pressed for the arrest of persons indicted for war crimes by the ICTY, including through a June letter organized by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki to European and U.S. heads of state and government, which was signed by 204 organizations and prominent individuals in the U.S. and Europe. The Helsinki division also testified before the U.S. Congress and participated in a variety of international fora to urge international actors in Bosnia-Hercegovina to respond more assertively to ongoing human rights violations. In cooperation with the Human Rights Watch Women=s Rights Project, we urged that human rights concerns of women be promoted and that any human rights training for Bosnian police include special training on responding to and investigating crimes of violence against women. We engaged in a concerted campaign prior to the September elections calling for the international community not to hold elections until conditions for free and fair balloting had been created. In June we released ABosnia-Hercegovina: A Failure in the Making and the Dayton Process,@ which concluded that the parties to the Dayton agreement had failed to comply with significant human rights provisions, that the international community had failed to insist on compliance with the legally binding obligations created by the Dayton accord and numerous Security Council resolutions, and called for the international community to use the means at its disposal to insist that the highest standards of human rights be upheld as prerequisites for economic aid and assistance. We also pressed the IPTF, responsible for overseeing the process of creating a new police force in Bosnia-Hercegovina, to assure that those responsible for gross human rights abuses are eliminated from the force.
Staff also exposed systematic abuses by the Croatian government against the ethnic Serb minority in the Krajina region after AOperation Storm.@ In April, we called for a delay, which was subsequently granted, in Croatia=s admission into the Council of Europe and pressed for Croatia to be denied political and financial rewards until it cooperated with the ICTY. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki also condemned restrictions on freedom of expression in Kosovo, conducted investigations in Kosovo, Sandzak and Vojvodina, and repeatedly urged the U.N. Security Council not to lift sanctions against the FRY until it also cooperated with the tribunal. A report released in June documented violations of civil and political rights in Macedonia.
In Chechnya, we employed a three-pronged approach: documenting violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by both sides to the conflict, briefing international bodies on our most recent field research and formulating specific recommendations for their action, and pressing for accountability. We continued to document massive violations of the laws of war in Chechnya during missions to the region in January and October and released our findings in three reports during the year. Staff briefed the OSCE and the Council of Europe on atrocities committed by Russian forces and Chechen fighters and urged the Council of Europe, to no avail, to use the opportunity of Russia=s application for membership to condemn such abuses. We also raised concerns regarding Chechnya at the fifty-second session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki opposed an amnesty for serious violations of the laws of war and pressed for accountability to be on the agenda of multilateral and bilateral meetings on Russia.
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki also conducted fact-finding missions to Stavropol and Krasnodar to expose the escalation of state-sponsored xenophobic violence, condemned the discriminatory implementation of anti-crime measures in Moscow, and worked to combat violations of the rights of refugees in the CIS. We played an active role in the UNHCR-IOM-OSCE conference on forced migration in the CIS held in Geneva in May, emphasizing the degree to which human rights abuses often cause migration and formulating recommendations to improve chances that refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) will be able to return to their homes in safety. Our Moscow office worked with the Women=s Rights Project to oppose violence against women in Russia and to press for needed legislation on domestic violence (see section on the Women=s Rights Project) and raised these concerns before the fifty-second session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
In an effort to prevent a further deterioration in the human rights situation, during 1996 significant resources were devoted to exposing the alarming spread of serious abuses in several countries in the region. In June, the division sent its first mission to Belarus to document growing restrictions on the political opposition. In Armenia, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki protested against police violence in the wake of September 25 demonstrations following the elections and the ensuing crackdown on the political opposition and worked closely with Armenian human rights activists to bring international pressure on the government to address these concerns. Following the March release of our report AHuman Rights in Post-Communist Albania,@ Human Rights Watch/Helsinki focused on the electoral fraud and post-electoral violence in Albania. Staff testified before the U.S. Congress on three occasions during 1996 regarding human rights in Albania and held numerous meetings to raise our concerns with the Clinton administration.
In 1996, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki intensified its efforts to engage the government of Uzbekistan in a dialogue on its human rights record and to exploit the government=s desire for diplomatic and financial recognition by pressing the E.U., the U.S. government and other influential actors to insist on concrete improvements from the Karimov government. In May, Helsinki representatives met in Toshkent with senior government officials to discuss the findings of our November 1995 mission to Uzbekistan. A report entitled AUzbekistan: Persistent Human Rights Abuses and Prospects for Improvement@ was released in May. Throughout 1996, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki staff campaigned for the release of political prisoners in Uzbekistan, to obtain the registration of independent local human rights organizations in the country, to condemn widespread censorship, and to oppose impunity for state-sponsored abuses. To further its efforts in Central Asia, the Helsinki division opened a regional office in Toshkent in July and successfully pressed the government of Uzbekistan for its formal registration. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki also pressed the government of Turkmenistan for improvements in its human rights record during meetings in Ashgabat in June.
As part of our ongoing work on government destruction of villages in southeastern Turkey, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki released a report in June on the occasion of the U.N. conference on housing, Habitat II, documenting the failure of government programs to aid those forcibly displaced. We also protested the arrests of human rights activists during the conference, which was held in Istanbul. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki documented continuing torture of detainees, especially by Turkey=s Anti-Terror units and also focused on the government=s reprisals against victims of human rights abuse such as torture who seek recourse with the European Commission on Human Rights. ATurkey: Violations of the Right of Petition to the European Commission of Human Rights@ was released in April. Helsinki staff also raised these concerns with the European Commission on Human Rights during meetings in Strasbourg. Numerous urgent appeals were sent to the Turkish government on cases of Adisappearances,@ torture and restrictions on free expression, and we raised concerns regarding torture at the fifty-second session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. The Helsinki division, in cooperation with the Human Rights Watch Arms Project, also condemned the indictment of the publisher and translator of the Arms Project=s November 1995 report AWeapons Transfers and Violations of the Laws of War in Turkey@ for Adefaming and belittling the state=s security and military forces.@
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki remained actively engaged in documenting and holding governments accountable for violence and discrimination against Roma, through fact-finding missions to and reports on the Czech Republic, Hungary, and the Slovak Republic. In cooperation with the Children=s Rights Project, we also exposed the mistreatment of street children in Bulgaria, a large majority of whom are Roma (see section on the Children=s Rights Project). In Romania, we again urged the parliament to reject provisions of the criminal code that would continue to criminalize consensual sexual acts between individuals of the same sex.
Building on previous work on racism and xenophobia, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki launched an initiative to influence the asylum policies and practices of the states of the E.U., focusing in 1996 on Sweden, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, and efforts by the E.U. to harmonize the asylum policies of its member states. In September 1996, we published ASweden: Swedish Asylum Policy in Global Human Rights Perspective,@ which was released to coincide with the Swedish government=s introduction of a proposed reform of the asylum law in parliament.
Human Rights Developments
The Albanian government=s respect for human rights continued to decline in 1996. Police violence, politicized courts, electoral manipulation and control of the media were systematically used by President Sali Berisha and his ruling Democratic Party to eliminate rivals and consolidate power.
The most public violations occurred at the time of Albania=s third multi-party elections for parliament on May 26. Physical violence, ballot stuffing and voter list manipulation by state employees in favor of the ruling party occurred in numerous electoral zones. Opposition parties refused to recognize the results, which gave the Democratic Party 122 out of 140 seats in parliament.
The main opposition parties were denied permission to hold a protest rally in Tirana on May 28. Opposition leaders and demonstrators gathered nevertheless and were beaten by plain-clothed and riot police, including the deputy minister of the interior. Members of the international media, foreign election observers and human rights monitors watched the police attack and detain dozens of people, among them members of parliament and elderly protesters.
Electoral violations had, in fact, begun long before the vote. In late 1995, the so-called AGenocide Law@ established a government-appointed commission to review the files of the communist-era secret police. Those who held high-ranking positions in the communist government or were found to have Acollaborated@ with the former secret police were banned from holding public office until the year 2002. In the months leading up to the elections, the commission banned 139 individuals from participating in the elections, only three of whom were from the Democratic Party.
Before and after the elections, the government kept up its attack on the independent press. In January, the country=s largest daily, Koha Jone (Tirana), and the newspaper of the opposition Socialist Party, Zeri i Popullit (Tirana), were accused of collaborating with the Serbian secret police, although no supporting evidence was made public. Shortly thereafter, the police confiscated six distribution vans owned by Koha Jone. On January 30, Koha Jone journalist Altin Hazizaj was arbitrarily charged with assaulting two police officers and held in detention for two days. On February 16, another journalist, Fatos Veliu, was detained and beaten by police in Saranda, allegedly because he had written an article about corruption in the local police.
On February 26, police detained and questioned the entire staff of Koha Jone about a bomb that had exploded that morning in Tirana. In connection with the bombing, a journalist from the newspaper Populli Po (Tirana), Ylli Polovina, was later fined U.S. $300 for Ainciting public violence@ because of an article he had written about the assassination attempt on Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov in November 1995. On March 12, the editor of Populli Po, Arban Hasani, was fined $2,160 for two articles that the court found to be capable of Ainciting of national conflict@ and Adefamatory of the secret police@ (SHIK).
A number of Albanian and foreign journalists were abused by the Albanian police during the May 28 demonstration in Tirana, including Gianfranco Stara and Spiro Ilo from Associated Press Television and Eduardo del Campo from El Mundo (Spain). Bardhok Lala from the Albanian newspaper Dita Informacion (Tirana) was abducted by the secret police after the demonstration, severely beaten and left for dead in a lake on the outskirts of Tirana.
Despite promises of reform, the Democratic Party maintained firm control of the state radio and television. Some private stations were tolerated, although there was still no legislation to allow for private electronic media. Most of the private stations avoided news or political reporting.
Throughout the year, the government continued to prosecute those it claimed were responsible for past crimes. At least thirty former communist officials were sentenced to high prison terms for various Acrimes against humanity,@ such as ordering the shoot-to-kill policy on the border. At the same time, some former officials with close ties to the current government avoided prosecution. On March 15, four people were sentenced to between two and four years of imprisonment for trying to reestablish the former communist party (Party of Labor), which was banned in 1992. On September 16, another four people were convicted on the same charges.
On October 16, four days before municipal elections, the police arrested fourteen people it claimed were members of a communist terrorist organization that sought to overthrow the government. No evidence was made public, raising speculation that the arrests were timed as a campaign move before the elections.
Women=s rights were another growing concern in 1996. Domestic violence was a serious and widespread problem that was virtually ignored by public officials.
The one area of improvement in 1996 was the status of the Greek minority in the south of the country. In August the Albanian government opened three Greek-language schools in areas where the Greeks had long requested minority-language education. Relations between Greece and Albania improved steadily throughout the year, although Albania=s Greek minority still complained about job discrimination and the slow return of church property.
The Right to Monitor
The main human rights organization in the country, the Albanian Helsinki Committee, was denied permission to monitor voting in Tirana polling stations during the May parliamentary elections. Six weeks before the elections, its telephone line was cut. Foreign human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, were free to investigate abuses in Albania during 1996, but were monitored by the secret police. Many foreign organizations observed the May 26 parliamentary elections without interference, although the government limited the number of monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that could observe the October 20 municipal elections.
The Role of the International Community
The international community=s attitude toward the government of Sali Berisha changed radically after the May elections. Since coming to power in 1992, President Berisha had enjoyed the strong support of the international community, most notably the U.S. government, despite clear signs that human rights violations were repeatedly taking place. A number of top-ranking western officials visited Albania in the weeks preceding the elections, thereby lending credence to the Albanian government. In return, Berisha opened up Albania=s ports and airstrips for NATO use and encouraged moderation among the ethnic Albanians in neighboring Kosovo and Macedonia.
After some delay, the U.S. government, the European Parliament and Council of Europe expressed their strong disappointment with the elections and encouraged the Albanian government to hold new elections as soon as possible. The U.S. State Department issued a number of statements that highlighted human rights problems and proposed possible solutions.
The OSCE sent two missions to monitor the parliamentary elections, one from the Parliamentary Assembly and one from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The report of the latter was substantially stronger than the report of the former and accurately documented most of the electoral violations. The Albanian government then accused some members of the ODIHR delegation of being communist sympathizers and limited the number of ODIHR monitors allowed to observe the October 20 local elections. Refusing to accept any limitations on mission size, ODIHR, as well as the Parliamentary Assembly, did not monitor the vote.
On April 20, the European Parliament criticized the May elections and urged the Albanian government to release political prisoners, a reference to Fatos Nano, leader of the Socialist Party, who has been in prison on political charges since July 1993. In June the European Parliament adopted a resolution urging European Union governments to make it clear to Tirana that closer cooperation with the E.U. is conditional on elections being held in full accordance with international standards. In September the European Commission released the second part of a $44 million E.U. financial aid package agreed upon in 1994. The Commission announced that the release was a result of Albanian authorities= introduction of a coherent set of political measures and economic reforms.
On October 2, the Albanian parliament ratified the European Convention on Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms, as was required by Albania=s accession to the Council of Europe in July 1995. However, the Albanian government failed to remedy other human rights concerns identified by the council, such as ongoing restrictions on freedom of expression and the lack of an independent judiciary.