News 27 May 17

UN Fails to Compensate Poisoned Kosovo Roma

UN plans to finance community projects instead of compensating Kosovo Roma, are incurring criticism from human rights organisations.

Marija Ristic
Roma camp in Mitrovica. Photo: BIRN archive

Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres’s spokesperson, said on Friday that the body is “keenly aware” of the plight of Kosovo Roma who suffered poisonings under the UN administration of the former Serbian province, as a direct consequence of forced relocation to internally displaced person (IDP) camps in northern Kosovo.

Spokesman Stephane Dujarric added that he wished “to express the organisation’s profound regret for the suffering endured by all individuals living in IDP camps.”

Last year, a UN advisory panel formed to examine complaints made against the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), called on the UN to hold UNMIK accountable for leaving Roma families exposed to lead poisoning in camps for people displaced by the Kosovo war in 1998 and 1999.

IDP camps were established close to the Trepca mining and smelting complex, known to be the cause of lead contamination and other forms of toxins in its surrounding areas since the 1970s.

The camps, which were intended to provide only temporary accommodation for up to 90 days, operated for several years.

The panel urged UNMIK to publicly acknowledge its failure to comply with relevant human rights standards in response to adverse health condition caused by lead contamination in IDP camps, and to compensate victims for both material and moral damage.

However, the UN decided to merely launch a trust fund which will facilitate community-based initiatives to finance “assistance projects”. These are primarily expected to take place in North Mitrovica, South Mitrovica and Leposavic, but according to the UN, will more broadly benefit the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities.

“The assistance projects will focus on the most pressing needs of those most vulnerable communities, including with respect to health services, economic development and infrastructure,” said a statement from Dujarric.

The move was criticised by human rights organisations which have stated that “by creating an unfunded Trust Fund for community assistance projects, instead of individual compensation for victims of its own negligence.” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the UN is “selling the victims of lead poisoning at its camps in Kosovo short.”

“Dodging responsibility for the suffering of lead poisoning victims, only serves to undercut attempts to make the UN more accountable for its own failures. And in turn refusal to take responsibility for harm caused by the UN undermines the organization's ability to press governments and others to remedy their human rights abuses,“ Louis Charbonneau, UN director at HRW said.

Since November 2007, the panel has reviewed more than 500 complaints in the context of United Nations peacekeeping missions. In several cases, the panel concluded that there had been failures to uphold human rights standards. The panel completed its work on the Kosovo case and subsequently provided a final report in July 2016.

In its final report the panel said that although UNMIK commissioned a report in 2000 which found extremely elevated levels of lead in the blood of people living in IDP camps, it did not make the report public and failed to take sufficient action to address the risks of lead exposure in the camps.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also warned of chronic irreversible effects of lead on the human body in 2004, urging UNMIK to immediately evacuate children and pregnant women from the camps. UNMIK did not provide any documents indicating what specific actions were being taken in response to these findings and recommendations.

The poisoning was further documented in 2009 by HRW, which urged Kosovo authorities to work with international donors to close lead-contaminated camps occupied by internally-displaced Roma without delay, relocate their inhabitants, and provide medical treatment for lead poisoning.

UNMIK was established by the UN Security Council (UNSC) in 1999 “to help ensure conditions for a peaceful and normal life for all inhabitants of Kosovo and advance regional stability in the Western Balkans”, according to its mandate.

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