Lack of cooperation between Pristina and Belgrade has impeded accountability for war crimes and other serious abuses and impeded free movement. Both governments also need to do more to protect the rights of minorities, ensure full guarantees of the rule of law throughout both Serbia and Kosovo, and improve media freedom.
“The normalization agreement between Belgrade and Pristina is a positive step toward peace and reconciliation in the region,” said Lydia Gall, Eastern Europe and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch. “With commitment from both governments and support from their EU partners, it could help improve human rights for everyone in Kosovo and Serbia.”
On April 19, 2013, Serbia and Kosovo signed the EU-brokered First Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalization of Relations. It was approved by the Kosovo parliament on April 21 and is expected to be approved by Serbian parliament later this week.
The 15-article agreement relates primarily to the status of Serb-controlled parts of Northern Kosovo. It provides substantial autonomy for the four Serb-run municipalities in Northern Kosovo -- North Mitrovica, Leposavic, Zvecan, and Zubin Potok, but elections there will be held under Kosovo law.
The agreement also gives Serbs the right to elect a regional police commander and ensures that a majority of judges in courts in the north will be Serbs. But the police and courts will be integrated into the Kosovo police and justice system. That would eliminate the separate Serb-controlled institutions linked to Belgrade that have operated there since 1999, when Kosovo was placed under United Nations administration.
On April 22, the European Commission recommended to EU member states that, on the basis of the agreement, Serbia should be allowed to start formal EU membership talks and Kosovo should be given a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first step toward eventual membership. Respect for human rights and the rule of law are key requirements for EU membership.
Despite their EU aspirations, Serbia and Kosovo still struggle with serious human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said. In Kosovo, prosecutions for war crimes and serious post-war abuse are progressing slowly and the rule of law is hampered by witness protection problems and backlogs in the courts. Serbia’s domestic war crimes prosecutions have slowed.
Lack of cooperation between Belgrade and Pristina hampers accountability and has impeded free movement across their shared border. Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptians―an Albanian-speaking minority group―in Kosovo face discrimination in housing, education, and employment, and Roma in Serbia experience discrimination and forced evictions. LGBT people experience discrimination in both Serbia and Kosovo. Media freedom is a concern in both places, including threats to journalists. Serbia’s asylum system lacks adequate capacity or protection against unsafe returns.
“If Belgrade and Pristina are committed to moving towards EU membership, they need to show that they take their human rights obligations seriously,” Gall said. “That means working together for accountability for war crimes and serious post-war abuses, and improving their domestic rights records, in line with European standards.”
Kosovo declared independence in February 2008, following 9 years of UN administration backed by a NATO-led peacekeeping force. Serbian forces withdrew from Kosovo in June 1999. Kosovo’s independence is formally recognized by more than 90 countries, including the United States and 22 EU member states, but not by Serbia.