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Failure to Protect: UNMIK and KFOR’s Inability to Protect Serbs and Other Minorities

The widespread attacks by ethnic Albanians on Serbs, Roma, Ashkali (Albanian-speaking Roma) and other non-Albanian minorities, documented below in this report, are a cause for grievous concern. Of equal concern, however, are the near-collapse of the international security organizations in Kosovo when confronted by the violence and unrest of March 2004, and the inability of KFOR, UNMIK international police, and the local KPS to provide effective protection to Kosovo’s minority communities during the two days of violence.

In community after community, Serbs and other minorities—a disproportionate number of them elderly and infirm—were left for hours at the mercy of hostile ethnic Albanians rioters, waiting for KFOR and UNMIK to rescue them. A summary of the protection failures shows just how severely the international community failed Kosovo’s minorities in its time of greatest need: 

  • French KFOR troops refused to come to the assistance of the Serb residents of Svinjare, even though their main base is located just a few hundred meters from that village. The entire village of Svinjare—all 137 homes—were burned to the ground within viewing distance of the main French KFOR base.

  • In nearby Vucitrn, located in between two main French KFOR camps, Albanian crowds burned sixty-nine Ashkali homes without a response from either French KFOR or international UNMIK police.

  • In the southern city of Prizren, German KFOR commanders refused to honor requests to come to the assistance of their international UNMIK police counterparts, and Albanian crowds destroyed all remaining vestiges of the centuries-old Serb presence in the city, including several religious buildings dating back to the fourteenth century, burning one Serb man to death in his home and leaving all remaining Serbs in Prizren homeless.

  • In the large town of Kosovo Polje, only a few UNMIK police and no KFOR personnel came to the assistance of the besieged Serbs, leaving a handful of local KPS officers to protect more than one hundred Serb families scattered around the city. One Serb was beaten to death, and at least one hundred Serb homes were burned, as was the main post office, the Serbian school, and the Serbian hospital.

  • In the capital Pristina, Serb residents of the YU Program apartment buildings—an apartment complex originally built to house Serb refugees from Bosnia and Croatia—were besieged for hours by ethnic Albanian crowds who set their apartments on fire and shot at them before they were rescued by KFOR and UNMIK international police.

    Even where UNMIK and KFOR were present, they often proved ineffective and outnumbered: 

  • In Djakovica, a few dozen Italian KFOR troops attempted to protect the last remaining Serbian Orthodox Church until they were overwhelmed and had to evacuate the five remaining Serb residents of Djakovica, all elderly women.

  • In Belo Polje, Italian KFOR and international UNMIK police were unable to hold back a massive crowd of Albanians marching from Pec, who burned down the thirty-two homes that had been built to house returning Serbs who were once again displaced.

  • On the outskirts of Prizren, German KFOR troops abandoned the fourteenth-century Monastery of the Archangels almost as soon as the Albanian crowd attacked it, evacuating the monks and allowing the Monastery to be burned down.

  • In the absence of KFOR and UNMIK, the dire security situation was often left in the hands of the recently trained and under-equipped Kosovo Police Service (KPS), whose performance was mixed. Some KPS officers performed with great courage and professionalism during the crisis, working tirelessly to protect or evacuate Serbs from their homes and doubtlessly saving lives. Many other KPS officers stood by passively, refusing to take steps to protect ethnic Serbs and other minorities, or participate in their evacuation. In a number of cases, KPS officers showed a bias against minorities, arresting Serbs or Ashkalis who tried to defend their homes while ignoring the criminal actions of Albanian rioters. Some KPS officers took an active part in the violence, allegedly participating in the burning of homes in Vucitrn, Obilic, and Kosovo Polje.

    The failure—almost collapse—of the security institutions in Kosovo during the March 2004 violence is beyond dispute. What is more difficult to analyze is why the security institutions in Kosovo failed so miserably during the March violence. It is crucial that such an analysis takes place, in order to reform the institutional set-up of the security institutions in Kosovo and to prevent a similar collapse in the future. However, it appears that both UNMIK and KFOR are resistant to such a comprehensive review of its failures. Most of the UNMIK and KFOR officials with whom Human Rights Watch met painted an inaccurately rosy picture of their response to the March 2004 violence,53 or blamed each other for the failures.

    Although international officials have been outspoken in their criticism of the Kosovar leadership for its failings during the crisis, they have not shown a similarly critical attitude in evaluating the failures of their own organizations and institutions. For example, when Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Peace-Keeping Operations, briefed to U.N. Security Council on April 13, he criticized the Kosovar leadership for their “ambivalent” role during the crisis, but did not offer any critique of UNMIK and KFOR’s performance, arguing that “what was required now was concrete action by Kosovo’s leaders and its people to address the causes of the ethnically motivated violence [and] to implement measures to ensure the violence would not be repeated.” Adam Thomson, the U.K. representative at the U.N. Security Council, responded by congratulating UNMIK and KFOR for “restoring calm” in Kosovo.54  Such uncritical, self-congratulatory rhetoric ignores the reality of UNMIK and KFOR’s failures, and the urgency with which these shortcomings need to be addressed in order to prevent a repeat of the March 2004 events. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s own April 30 Kosovo report to the U.N. Security Council similarly fails to give a critical analysis of UNMIK and KFOR performance during the March violence, although it does analyze the response of Kosovar politicians and the KPS.55 

    NATO has instituted a “Lessons Learned” review of KFOR actions during the March 2004 violence, but it is unlikely that its findings will be made public.56 UNMIK police officials also carried out a review of their response to the crisis, according to a senior UNMIK spokesperson, but the results of that review have also not been made public, and UNMIK is not expected to institute major changes as a result of the review. On June 11, 2004, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Norwegian Ambassador Kai Eide to investigate the March violence,57 but it appears Eide’s mandate is to probe “the political implications of violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbs and recommending ways in which the province’s residents can live together again peacefully,” rather than focusing on UNMIK and KFOR security failures during the crisis. German officials conducted their own internal review of the actions of their troops, reportedly concluding that KFOR was unable to fulfill its mandated security tasks or effectively protect minority communities in Kosovo, and raising serious concerns about the failure of German KFOR troops to effectively respond to the anti-Serb violence in Prizren.58

    While this report addresses the failures of Kosovo’s security institutions, understanding why those failures occurred requires a level of access to UNMIK, KFOR, and KPS commanders and documents that Human Rights Watch was not able to obtain. Commanders and soldiers must be interviewed at all levels of responsibility, and documentation such as intelligence information, orders issued, deployment requests, and post-deployment assessments must be reviewed. However, even the limited access available to Human Rights Watch points to several conclusions about the reasons for the failure of Kosovo’s security institutions:

    1) The violence in Kosovo took the security institutions by surprise: There is no doubt that the violence took KFOR, UNMIK, and KPS by surprise, and that Kosovo’s security institutions were unprepared to deal with such massive violence. While no one predicted the violence in Kosovo, KFOR and UNMIK should have been able to better predict how the violence would develop: most international journalists, for example, were anticipating violence in Mitrovica on March 17, but French KFOR had not deployed at the obvious flashpoint, the bridge between the two communities. The lack of preparedness by UNMIK and KFOR points towards a lack of capacity in intelligence and analysis capacities.

    2) UNMIK and KFOR had insufficient capacity to respond effectively to the violence:  Almost every UNMIK and KFOR official interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that their troop levels were inadequate to deal with the widespread attacks that were taking place all over Kosovo, and called for an increase in troop and officer levels.

    3) KFOR and UNMIK troops were inadequately trained and equipped to deal with riot situations:  A major problem particularly with KFOR troops in Kosovo is that the troops tend to have limited or no riot control experience, and thus do not know how to effectively respond to riot situations. The lack of capacity of KFOR to respond to riot situations was sharply criticized by a senior UNMIK official in an interview with Human Rights Watch:

    We always knew that Kosovo would not be invaded. KFOR is in Kosovo to protect against civil violence, disturbances, and ethnic violence. They don’t need tanks but riot gear and shields, and soldiers trained in dealing with public disorder. If KFOR was not prepared for such civil disorder, then why the heck not?  What did they think they were in Kosovo for?59

    As shown by the effectiveness of a specialized British riot control unit deployed to Kosovo Polje on March 18, a small number of properly trained troops can have a greater impact than large numbers of ordinary soldiers without proper riot control training and equipment. KFOR, UNMIK, and KPS also should have the necessary riot control equipment—riot shields, protective clothing, tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons—to enable an effective and non-lethal response.

    4) The lack of a coordinated response from KFOR, UNMIK, and KPS hampered its efforts. It is well known that tensions exist between the various security organizations in Kosovo, and that coordination between KFOR, UNMIK, and KPS is minimal. Even within KFOR, coordination between the various multinational brigades is minimal, and the command structure between the multinational brigades and COM-KFOR is not unified. A senior UNMIK official succinctly described the lack of a unified KFOR command to Human Rights Watch:

    KFOR lacks command and control structures. Lt-Gen. Kammerhoff is the commander in theory, but this is ceremonial. Practically speaking, daily decisions are made by the national contingents that take instructions from their capitals, and Kammerhoff’s instructions are secondary.60

    Distrust and lack of cooperation between Kosovo’s security institutions must be addressed and rectified. NATO itself had recognized the structural command and control problems faced by KFOR, vowing at its December 2003 Defense Minister’s meeting that KFOR “will be restructured but will not be reduced below 17,500 troops for the time being.”61 However, little progress had been made towards the restructuring process by the time the violence broke out in March 2004.

    5) Kosovo’s international institutions—including UNMIK and KFOR—were themselves under attack and needed protection, drawing resources away from protection of minorities. While this report focuses on the failure of UNMIK and KFOR to protect minorities during the March violence, it is important to recognize that UNMIK and KFOR also had to divert resources towards protecting themselves. UNMIK offices throughout Kosovo were themselves targeted for attack. More than one hundred UNMIK vehicles were burned or seriously damaged during the violence. Among the wounded were a significant number of security officers: sixty-five UNMIK international police, fifty-eight KPS police officers, and sixty-one KFOR soldiers suffered injuries.

    6) KPS training, equipping, and proper provisioning must be prioritized: KPS officers will play an increasingly important role in Kosovo as it moves towards resolving its final status. Many KPS officers served with courage during the riots, under extremely difficult circumstances. While KPS officers who participated or remained passive during the violence must be brought to account, it is equally important to recognize those who served with distinction and courage. The training and equipping of KPS officers must be upgraded, and KPS officers should earn salaries that are appropriate and competitive with the private sector.

    [53] For example, KFOR officials repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that KFOR had to chose between protecting minority lives and protecting minority property during the March violence, and had chosen to focus on protecting minority lives. Such a characterization is misleading, as it ignores the reality that KFOR played only a minor role in protecting minority lives in many communities affected by violence, as shown in this report.

    [54] U.N. Security Council press release, “March Violence in Kosovo ‘Huge Setback’ to Stabilization, Reconciliation, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Tells Security Council,” April 13, 2004, U.N. Doc. SC/8056.

    [55] United Nations Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo,” April 30, 2004, U.N. Doc. S/2004/348.

    [56] See International Security Information Service, Europe, “NATO Notes,” Vol. 6, No. 2, April 2004 [online], (retrieved June 28, 2004), p.6.

    [57] UNMIK News, “Kosovo: Norwegian envoy to head UN probe into March violence,” June 11, 2004 [online], (retrieved July 6, 2004).

    [58] Renate Flottau et al., “Deutsche Soldaten: Die Hasen Vom Amselfeld,” Der Spiegel (Germany), May 3, 2004.

    [59] Human Rights Watch interview with senior UNMIK official, June 16, 2004.

    [60] Ibid. KFOR spokesperson Lt.-Col. James Moran similarly described the relationship between Lt-Gen. Kammerhoff and the Multinational Brigade Commanders: “COM-KFOR cannot give brigade commanders orders, but the brigade commanders receive guidance from COM-KFOR.”  Human Rights Watch interview with KFOR spokesperson Lt-Col. Moran, Pristina, April 19, 2004.

    [61] NATO Defense Ministerial, “Final Communique,” December 1, 2003.

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