Analysis 17 Jul 15

Kosovo MPs to Vote ‘Soon’ on Special Court

As pressure mounts on Kosovo to establish a war crimes court, the government is pushing for a new vote in parliament on the issue.

Rron Gjinovci BIRN Pristina
As pressure mounts on Kosovo to establish a war crimes court, the government is pushing for a new vote in parliament on the issue. Photo: Kosovo parliament

According to BIRN sources, the Kosovo parliament will hold an extraordinary session over the summer to vote on amendments enabling the formation of a controversial war crimes court.

Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci, some of whose party members have opposed the plan, appears confident that parliament will approve the changes in an upcoming session. “We will have the necessary votes to create the Special Court in the Kosovo assembly,” Thaci said on July 14.

He added that parliament won’t schedule a new session until the government is sure that the amendments will pass.

While opinion in Kosovo is bitterly divided over the creation of a court to try war crimes committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, the international community insists it must be established, with or without the approval of Kosovo’s own institutions.

The government has been repeatedly warned that the UN Security Council will form the court if Kosovo fails to do the job itself.

The most recent call for Kosovo to establish the court came from US diplomat Victoria Nuland on her visit to Kosovo on July 12.

“If you don’t create this court yourselves, if you don’t take your own steps for justice… the international community will do it instead,” she warned.

“When that happens, you’ll lose control over the way that it’s created… and frankly, your relationship with the international community could be put on hold while that process goes forward,” Nuland said.

Deputies failed to approve constitutional amendments aimed at paving the way for the establishment of the court on June 26.

Only 75 MPs voted for the amendments. Eighty were needed to reach the two-thirds threshold of all parliamentarians required for changes to the constitution.

Analysts say divisions in parliament merely reflect divisions in Kosovo society. Many suspect that the court will cast a shadow over the legitimacy of the Kosovo Albanian struggle for independence against Serbia’s repressive rule.

Those against the court also emphasize the potential threat to Kosovo’s sovereignty because the court will not be located in Kosovo but in The Netherlands, to ensure it can work independently.

While the trials before the Special Court will take place outside Kosovo, sentences will also be served outside the country and the judges and prosecutors will not be from Kosovo.

On the other hand, supporters of the court emphasize the issue of justice and Kosovo’s need to comply positively with the unambiguous request of the international community. They argue that the court will distinguish between ordinary fighters and war criminals.

The court is expected to hear cases arising from the recent EU Special Investigative Task Force report, which said unnamed KLA officials carried out a “campaign of persecution” against Serbs, Roma and Kosovo Albanians believed to be collaborators with the Belgrade regime.

The alleged crimes include killings, abductions, illegal detentions and sexual violence. The allegations are based on an initial report done by the Council of Europe rapporteur Dick Marty in 2011, which accused some senior former KLA leaders, including Thaci himself, of grave wrongdoings during and after the war.

The report also mentioned other close associates of Thaci. The new court was supposed to begin work in January 2015 but has been delayed because of the political disputes.

Public and expert opinion divided:

Ahead of the new vote expected this summer, political, expert and popular opinion remains divided. The opposition has called for national unity against the Special Court, deeming it anti-Albanian.

“The purpose and mandate of the Special Court is not about justice for victims; it is being created as an instrument to blackmail the local politicians,” political analyst Shpend Kursani told BIRN. He said the court would also serve the interests of international officials who have obligations and ties to Serbia.

Ramush Haradinaj, leader of Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK, the second largest opposition party, said the EU should have more trust in Kosovo’s own courts. “If they can trust judges who worked under the Milosevicregime, why can’t they trust our judges?” Haradinaj asked parliament during the session held on June 26.

However, the publicist and analyst Halil Matoshi denied that Kosovo’s sovereignty was being undermined. The fact that the international community wants the Kosovo government and parliament to set up the court, operating under Kosovo’s own laws, is “a classic confirmation of Kosovo’s sovereignty”, Matoshi told BIRN.

Another expert, Shkelzen Gashi, said the EU has legitimate reasons for doubting whether Kosovo’s institutions will ever deliver justice to the victims of war crimes.

“Not one local judge or prosecutor has had the courage to prosecute or sentence persons from the high ranks of KLA who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, so unfortunately we have shown that we need international judges and prosecutors,” he told BIRN.

Bekim Blakaj, from the Humanitarian Law Center in Kosovo, an NGO thaty monitors trials related to the 1998-1999 conflict, also says that Kosovo needs a specialized institution, such as the Special Court, as the country’s judicial system is still not ready to handle high-profile war crime trials.

“Local judges and prosecutors have not shown readiness to be part of these trials. It is not only about the professionalism but about the lack of willingness to deal with these cases,” he said. “Another reason is the failure to implement the law on witness protection,” Blakaj told BIRN.

Others doubt that internationally managed justice is the right way forward.

“How efficient and sucessful such a special chamber will be remains to be seen. Given that we already had both UNMIK and EULEX, I am not convinced that this was the best option,” Nora Ahmetaj, director of the Center for Research, Documentation and Publication, told BIRN.

“Dealing with the past is a long process and needs to be organic, not imposed externally or in a top-down approach,” she concluded.

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