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Kosovo: New War Crimes Court Approved

(Aug. 7, 2015) On August 3, 2015, the Parliament of Kosovo approved the establishment of a special court, a prosecution office, and financing for defense lawyers in connection with trials of people accused of war crimes during the 1998-1999 war between Kosovo and Serbia. In June, the same body had voted against setting up such a tribunal, viewing it as an attempt to tarnish the war record of Kosovo in winning independence from Serbia. (Emelina Perez, Kosovo Approves New War Crimes Court, PAPER CHASE (Aug. 5, 2015); Fatos Bytyci, Under Western Pressure, Kosovo to Put War Crimes Court to New Vote, REUTERS (July 31, 2015).)

The steps taken by the Parliament included passage of a constitutional amendment to permit the creation of the court and of the legislation to set it up and to cover defense costs for those in need. (Kosovo: Special Court Step Toward Justice, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (Aug. 4, 2015).) The court will be located in the Netherlands, even though it will operate under the laws of Kosovo. The funding will be supplied by the European Union, and both judges and prosecutors will come from outside Kosovo. (Emelina Perez, supra.)

Background

In the late 1990s, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), made up largely of ethnic Albanians, fought to separate the region from Serbia. The KLA has long been accused of war crimes, including allegations that its members removed organs from Serbians who were captured, sold the organs on the black market, and killed the captives. (Bytyci, supra.) Although the KLA is now disbanded, many former KLA members are active in Kosovo’s government. (Id.) While Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, Serbia does not recognize it as a separate nation, and tensions in the area remain high. (Perez, supra.)

The EU established a Special Investigative Task Force in 2011 to look into the allegation of war crimes in the region. As of July 29, 2014, the lead prosecutor of that body, Clint Williamson, stated that there was sufficient evidence to try some former senior KLA officers for “an organized campaign of abductions, illegal detentions, unlawful killing, and sexual violence” that targeted Serbs, Roma, other minorities, and Kosovo Albanians seen as political opponents or as collaborators with the Serbs. (Kosovo: Special Court Step Toward Justice, supra.)

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has already prosecuted some alleged perpetrators of war crimes from the Kosovo/Serbia conflict; others have been tried in Serbian courts, including nine Serbs convicted in February 2014 of genocidal acts against ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. (Perez, supra.)

After the Kosovo Parliament failed to pass legislation establishing the special court this spring, the EU and the United States, both of which have been supporters of Kosovo’s independence, urged the country to create a mechanism to address the war crimes accusations. (Bytyci, supra.) Speaking before the August vote, Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Isa Mustafa, stated, “[w]e have to be aware that we cannot build and develop this country if we are isolated by friendly countries. … Voting for these changes in the parliament will bring long-term benefit for Kosovo.” (Id.)

Reaction to the Vote

The non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said that the steps Kosovo has taken represent progress toward justice. Lotte Leicht, EU director at the organization, added however, that “[n]ow it’s important to take the next step and promptly establish the court, so allegations of serious crimes can be addressed by an impartial, independent and secure body.” (Kosovo: Special Court Step Toward Justice, supra.) Noting that witness intimidation has been an issue in previous war crimes trials, HRW stressed the importance of “a strong, international mechanism for witness protection.” (Id.)