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UN Should Reconsider Refusal to Compensate Kosovo’s Victims

Roma Afflicted with Lead Poisoning in UN-Run Camps

Roma children play in the Cesmin Lug Camp outside Trepca mine, on the outskirts of Mitrovica, June 22, 2009. © 2009 Reuters

The United Nations may be undermining its own efforts to promote human rights, at a time when rights are under threat worldwide.

That’s the view of a UN panel of experts, which investigated complaints of human rights violations by the UN mission in Kosovo after the 1998-1999 war – including widespread lead poisoning at UN-run camps. Displaced members of the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian minorities lived there for more than a decade, and hundreds of them got sick, with many still suffering health consequences today.

The UN Human Rights Advisory Panel (HRAP), which conducted the investigation, recommended last year that the UN apologize and pay lead poisoning victims individual compensation.

However, last month UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ press office suggested a different – and watered-down – plan. It announced that the UN was creating a voluntary trust fund for community assistance projects to help “more broadly the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities.” In other words, UN member states would choose whether to donate to the fund, which could be used to provide services that do not specifically target those affected by lead poisoning.

Victims’ lawyers, Roma rights organizations and UN accountability advocates criticized the UN’s decision. Human Rights Watch urged Guterres to follow the HRAP’s recommendations.

Now the former HRAP members have called on the UN to change course. In a June 8 letter to Guterres, they argued that the trust fund fails to provide compensation for violations of the right to life and the right to health. They also warned Guterres that “at a time of backlash against human rights it is vital that the UN be seen to live up to the promise of the [UN] Charter and the obligations it has promoted.” If the UN does not hold itself accountable, “the human rights system as a whole is weakened,” they wrote.

It is high time for the UN to make amends for the suffering inflicted on hundreds of families from Kosovo who were exposed to toxic lead in camps – and who the UN failed to relocate until well after the health effects became clear.

Guterres, who inherited this problem, has promised to build a culture of accountability. But the UN’s refusal to take responsibility here undermines its ability to press governments to remedy their own human rights abuses. 

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