News 11 Apr 14

HRW Backs New Kosovo War Crimes Tribunal

Kosovo’s parliament should approve the establishment of a special court, located abroad, to try alleged war crimes and other grave crimes left over from the Kosovo conflict, Human Rights Watch has urged.

Marija Ristic

“The proposal to establish a special court and extend the EU law mission is Kosovo’s chance to advance justice and individual accountability for very serious crimes,” Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch said in a press release issued on Friday.

According to Leicht, parliament should agree to extend the mandate of the European Union Rule of Law Mission, EULEX, as it needed to continue investigating and prosecuting sensitive crimes in Kosovo.

“Parliament should vote yes, to show that it takes the rule of law seriously and is committed to justice for serious abuses,” she added.

BIRN reported earlier this week that the Dutch Foreign Minister, Frans Timmermans, had informed the Dutch parliament last week about the request for Dutch assistance that will be required once the EU’s Special Investigative Task Force, SITF, finishes its investigation into alleged war crimes and other allegations. These are contained in the December 2010 Council of Europe report compiled by Dick Marty.

The European Union and the United States are currently negotiating with Kosovo on the mandate of the new court, which BIRN sources within the EU said would be integrated into Kosovo’s own legal system, with special status.

However, tribunal sessions would be held abroad, and the judges, prosecutors and other staff would be international.

If the Kosovo parliament approves the court, it will still need to adopt new legislation and perhaps amend the constitution to allow for the establishment and operation of the special judicial chambers.

According to Human Rights Watch, despite progress, the justice system in Kosovo remains weak, with inadequate security for judges, court staff, prosecutors, and plaintiffs.

The lack of adequate measures to protect witnesses is of particular concern and makes the need for an EU-based chamber pivotal, it said.

“The establishment of this special court outside Kosovo is critical for the integrity and credibility of the process,” Leicht said.

“Given the known record of witness intimidation and deaths, it’s likely anyone with information would feel unsafe to testify in Kosovo,” Leicht added

Human Rights Watch also referred to a letter of 17 EU judges, which BIRN has obtained, who said international lawyers should retain the lead role in war crimes, organised crime and corruption cases in Kosovo, rather than handing over powers to local judges this summer, as had been proposed.

“Kosovo has come a long way in the 15 years since the war. But when international judges there say the justice system is not ready to handle sensitive cases, Kosovo’s parliament needs to listen and to act on behalf of Kosovo’s people to advance protection and justice,” she continued.

The head of EU delegation in Pristina, Samuel Zbogar, on Thursday, described the proposed special court as the fastest way for Kosovo to move beyond the Marty report.

"I am aware that many fear for the image of Kosovo with such a court. I would argue, however, that clarifying these accusations will remove a dark cloud that has engulfed Kosovo. It would take away the argument that continues to feed prejudice about Kosovo," he said.

"We understand that this is a difficult decision for Kosovo, and for the Kosovo Assembly. It requires a lot of honesty, courage and trust in the rule of law and justice," he added.

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