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
Yesterday, 55 Members of the European Parliament wrote to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, expressing dismay at the UN’s failure to remedy harm inflicted on ethnic minorities in northern Kosovo following the end of the war in 1999. The letter urges the Secretary General “to ensure that the victims of widespread lead poisoning at UN-run camps in Kosovo receive individual compensation, adequate health care and educational support.”

The letter could offer hope to the Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptian communities in Kosovo who are experiencing long-term health impacts of lead poisoning and have been waiting for justice and support for more than a decade. When I interviewed affected families in Kosovo in 2017, many parents told me they can’t afford necessary food and medicine for their children suffering from lead poisoning. One mother said: “I am not asking for much, I just want [my children] to be healthy and happy.”

Yesterday’s letter has strong support. In 2016, a UN investigation of human rights claims against the UN Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) recommended that the UN individually compensate lead poisoning victims and called on the UN and Kosovo authorities to protect the [Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian] communities living there. In July 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics wrote to the Secretary General, echoing the need to compensate poisoning victims on an individual basis. In November 2018, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the UN “to swiftly deliver the necessary support to the victims.”

So far, the secretary general’s response has been nowhere close to matching the seriousness and scale of the violations. In 2017, the UN established a voluntary Trust Fund, falling short of offering individual compensation and other forms of support that would address specific health and educational needs of individual victims and their families. If states begin contributing to the Trust Fund, it is essential they insist the funds be used to address specific needs of individual victims.

It’s not too late for the secretary-general to demonstrate leadership and heed the call of the EU parliamentarians’ letter and recommendations of other experts. It is time he insisted on individual compensation for the victims and ensured they receive long-term health and educational support. The EU and its member states should work with the UN and Kosovo to ensure that lead-poisoning victims finally get the support and justice they deserve.