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The criminal justice system continues to fail victims in Kosovo, despite almost seven years of international administration, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Kosovo’s future status is currently the subject of intense negotiations mediated by the international community.

The 74-page report, “Not on the Agenda: The Continuing Failure to Address Accountability in Kosovo Post-March 2004,” focuses on the criminal justice response to the March 2004 violence in the province. At that time, widespread rioting across the province, involving more than 50,000 people, left hundreds of minorities injured and thousands displaced from their homes.

“Right now, accountability for past crimes isn’t on the agenda for Kosovo,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But resolving Kosovo’s status without fixing the justice system will poison its future.”

Progress on prosecutions related to the March riots has been limited, despite being given priority in the justice system. More than two years later, only 426 individuals have been charged in connection with the violence, mostly for minor offenses such as theft, with just over half resulting in final decisions.

The criminal justice response to the March 2004 violence provides a useful yardstick by which to measure progress on accountability efforts in the province generally. After almost seven years of international administration, the authorities should have had sufficient time to address the shortcomings in the legal framework, the police, the prosecuting authorities and the courts. Moreover, in the wake of the March violence, there was an unequivocal commitment from the international community that those responsible would be brought to justice.

Yet the report analyzes the failure to bring to justice many of those responsible for the violence. Key factors include:

  • Inadequate preparation and training for the impact of major reforms to the criminal justice system introduced three weeks after the March riots. For example, the reforms gave prosecutors a central role in investigations, a shift in responsibility for which none of the players were adequately prepared.
  • The creation of a special, separate international police operation to investigate March cases, which was inadequate, de-linked from the mainstream investigation process and ultimately failed.
  • Ineffective policing, including lack of follow-up, poor coordination between international and national police, and inadequate collaboration with prosecutors.
  • Inadequate witness protection measures.
  • Inadequate oversight and prioritization of the criminal justice system by the United Nations administration in Kosovo.

“No one should pretend that building the rule of law in Kosovo is easy,” said Cartner. “But there are plenty of basic steps – like making sure that prosecutors are properly trained and institutions work together – that can make a big difference today.”

The inadequate criminal justice response to violence in March 2004 symbolizes one of the greatest problems faced by Kosovo today: rampant impunity for crime, particularly where it has a political or ethnic dimension. The track record on investigating and prosecuting war crimes and inter-ethnic crimes prior to March 2004 is also extremely poor.

The result is the continuation of a cycle of impunity and the reinforcement of the belief in all communities in Kosovo – majority and minority alike – that the criminal justice system is neither reliable nor in the service of the people. Minorities, particularly Kosovar Serbs, have less faith than ever that they can live safely in Kosovo.

“Not on the Agenda” also highlights the absence of an effective outreach strategy to inform affected communities about the outcome of investigations and prosecutions arising from the March 2004 violence, and the lack of transparency in the system. This makes it difficult for people to obtain basic information about the outcome of criminal cases and for groups to monitor the system as a whole.

The report calls on key actors in Kosovo, including the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the police and the provisional government in Kosovo, to take immediate steps to tackle the criminal justice system. These include: ensuring proper oversight of the courts; developing an action plan to establish a judicial police branch to work directly with investigative prosecutors; increasing collaboration between international and national police, prosecutors and judges; and establishing a more effective witness protection system.

The report urges the six-nation Contact Group and the European Union to prioritize accountability in their policies toward Kosovo, including by ensuring that a functioning criminal justice system is accepted by all parties as integral to the successful resolution of Kosovo’s status, and providing the material support necessary to enable the creation of an effective system for witness relocation and protection.

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