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Then-President of Kosovo Hashim Thaçi during a press conference in Kosovo capital Pristina on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019.  © 2019 Visar Kryeziu/AP Photo

While eyes were fixed on elections in the United States last week, a president in Europe resigned to face trial for atrocity crimes committed more than 20 years ago.

Kosovo’s Specialist Prosecutor’s Office formally charged President Hashim Thaci with war crimes and crimes against humanity related to the 1998-99 Kosovo war, along with three other senior members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, the rebel group that rose up after years of the Serbian government’s persecution and abuse.

Thaci promptly resigned and was taken to The Hague, where the Kosovo Special Chambers are based, and where he made his first appearance on Monday.

The court, funded by the EU with an American as chief prosecutor, was established in 2016 to try crimes committed during and just after the Kosovo conflict, many of which were also documented in a 2010 Council of Europe report. The court is formally part of Kosovo’s judicial system but is based in the Netherlands and employs international staff, as well as judges, prosecutors, and the registrar.

Critics of the court portray the effort as a one-sided, anti-Albanian campaign. But the charges include the murder of ethnic Albanians who were political adversaries of the KLA. Many of the roughly 100 Albanian, Serbian and Roma victims of the crimes prosecuted went missing after the war, so these crimes were unrelated to the hostilities.

Indeed, many of these crimes were not covered by the UN’s war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the ICTY, which only included crimes up to the war’s end in June 1999, while the Kosovo special court has jurisdiction up to December 31, 2000.

Three steps are essential now. First, the court, the EU and other supporters need to continue to ensure robust witness protection, the lack of which has undermined cases against other former KLA leaders, including at the ICTY.

Second, the prosecution and the court need to provide these and any future defendants with unerringly fair trials with all due process rights.

Third, the United States and European governments should use this development to advance justice in Serbia for crimes in Kosovo and across the former Yugoslavia for abuses in the wider war.

The overwhelming majority of war crimes in Kosovo were committed by Serbian and Yugoslav forces, for which no one has been held to account, including the organised transfer of hundreds of bodies to Serbia, where they were dumped in mass graves.

The ICTY prosecuted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and six of his senior officials for grave crimes committed in Kosovo, convicting five and acquitting one (Milosevic died during trial).

But the Serbian government’s own willingness to pursue justice for these crimes has been shamefully weak.

Domestic prosecutions in Serbia of atrocity crimes are painfully slow and have dutifully avoided high-ranking police and military officials. The government has welcomed as heroes those convicted by the UN tribunal who were released after serving their sentences.

By cooperating with the special court, Kosovo sets a praiseworthy example of respect for the rule of law and a willingness to grapple with the past. It also helps apply pressure on Serbia to end the culture of impunity that has reigned there since the war’s end.

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