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If Kosovo is serious about its European future, whoever forms the next government faces a big job to improve its justice system and human rights record.

Kosovo took another step toward this European future on June 8, with its second general election since declaring independence.

The OSCE mission in Kosovo and the UN secretary general commended Pristina on a successful election, in which Serbs living in northern Kosovo participated for the first time in national polls organised by the authorities in Pristina. Political parties have been negotiating to form a government.

Kosovo still has a lot of work to do to comply with international human rights standards, though.

The inadequate progress on justice for serious wartime and post-war abuses is a black spot on Kosovo’s human rights record and needs the incoming government’s full attention and commitment.

To deliver a justice system capable of serving its people, the government must take steps to combat corruption among the judiciary and prosecution and strengthen its dismal witness protection program.

The recent agreement between the EU and Kosovo to establish a special court with international judges and located abroad to try serious crimes, including war crimes, committed in Kosovo during and after the 1998 war, is a step in the right direction, and needs to be carried forward by the new government. 

The government should also welcome a continued role for the EU rule-of-law mission (EULEX) to prosecute and try sensitive cases including inter-ethnic and organised crime.

 This needs to be coupled with a serious effort by Kosovo authorities to strengthen the country’s generally weak justice system. The fact that witnesses are afraid to take the stand in Kosovo courts speaks volumes about the inadequacy of the current program to guarantee witnesses that they will be protected.

Improving the lot of Kosovo’s most vulnerable minorities should also be a priority. Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities face everyday discrimination and difficulties in obtaining personal documents which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for them to get health care and social services and even to send their children to school.

The 2010 strategy for the integration of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians will remain an empty promise until the government is willing to allocate necessary funds to put it into effect properly and to press municipal authorities to act.

While Pristina and Belgrade are making some progress in their EU-brokered dialogue, ethnic tensions continue between Serbs and Albanians, particularly in the north.

In April, for example, an unidentified person in a car fired several shots at the car owned by the wife of the former Gracanica mayor Bojan Stojanovic. Luckily, no one was injured but such violent incidents are still commonplace between Serbs and Albanians and a reminder that the government needs to do much more to guarantee security and safety, law and justice for everyone in Kosovo.

Threats, particularly via social media, and stigmatisation of members of the LGBT community are widespread. Even though Kosovo has one of the broadest anti-discrimination laws in Europe, a December 2012 local survey showed that 62 percent of those interviewed believe that homosexuality is a threat to society.

Similarly, journalists face a hostile working environment, with their ability to report freely hampered by threats for critical reporting implicating authorities and high ranking public officials. If the Kosovo authorities are serious about their human rights commitment, they need to work diligently to create an environment conducive for independent media and human rights defenders.

The people of Kosovo have a right to expect justice for victims of war crimes and the immediate post-war abuses. They have a right to expect a justice system in which everybody is equal before the courts regardless of ethnic background or political connections. Kosovo’s Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian citizens have the right to expect treatment like anyone else in normal everyday life situations. Journalists and LGBT activists have the right to do their work without harassment. 

Kosovo’s new government should do its utmost to make that happen.  

Lydia Gall is the Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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