It looked like justice for Kosovo’s lead-poisoning victims was finally within reach. Former United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson convened a meeting in December 2016, just as he and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon were preparing to hand the reins to a new UN administration.

Internally displaced Roma children play on lead contaminated land near the Zitkovac camp in Zvecan. The camp was closed in 2006 and its inhabitants voluntarily relocated to Osterode camp.

© 2006 Andrew Testa

The meeting was to examine how the UN could make amends for the pain and suffering the UN Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) had inflicted on hundreds of families from ethnic minorities who were exposed to toxic lead after being forced to live in UNMIK-run camps in northern Kosovo after the 1998-1999 war.

A Human Rights Watch investigation showed the long-term lead exposure that camp residents were subjected to. While the UN eventually closed the camps, irrevocable damage had been done. Lead is highly toxic and can impair the body’s neurological, biological, and cognitive functions. Children and pregnant women are particularly susceptible.

According to an account of the December 2016 session just published in the New York Times, the outcome of Eliasson’s meeting was a draft apology – a first step toward compensation for the victims, who were from Kosovo’s Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities. The draft appeared to be in the spirit of a report by the UN’s own Human Rights Advisory Panel, which recommended last year that UNMIK pay compensation and issue a public apology to victims and their families.

But last month, the Times reported, the new UN chief, Antonio Guterres, convened a high-level meeting at which the UN Office of Legal Affairs recommended not to accept responsibility or commit to pay victims individual compensation, even though the tragedy was clearly the UN’s fault.

By refusing to acknowledge its own abuses, the UN seriously undermines its ability to press governments on their human rights violations. This is especially true considering the UN’s own tribunal clearly advised them of the right thing to do.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told the Times that discussions were ongoing and that Guterres will make a final decision “very soon.” The victims in this case clearly want the UN to take its tribunal’s advice, and their long-overdue payment of adequate individual compensation cannot come fast enough.