News 07 Sep 17

UN ‘Must Compensate All Kosovo Lead Poison Victims’

The UN’s failure to compensate victims of lead poisoning at UN-run camps for people displaced by the Kosovo war left families struggling to care for sick relatives, says a Human Rights Watch report.

Marija Ristic
BIRN
Belgrade
A Roma camp in northern Kosovo. Photo: Atdhe Mulla/BIRN.

In a new report published on Thursday, Human Rights Watch calls on the United Nations to pay individual compensation to Kosovo Roma victims affected by lead contamination in the UN-run camps for war-displaced people in Kosovo.

This would allow the victims to address the long-term impact of lead exposure, the report says.

“The UN should follow the recommendations of its own experts and give victims and their families the individual compensation they rightfully deserve,” said Katharina Rall, environment researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“How can the UN expect to effectively press governments to take responsibility for their abuses if it won’t do the right thing for the harm it caused?” Rall asked.

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

They were only intended to provide temporary accommodation for up to 90 days for people displaced by the Kosovo war in 1998 and 1999, but they ended up operating for several years.

The UN established a human rights panel in 2016 to examine calls to hold the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) accountable for leaving Roma families exposed to lead poisoning in the camps.

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 the camps, and to compensate victims for both material and moral damage.

However, the UN only pledged in May this year to create a voluntary trust fund for community assistance projects to help “more broadly the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities” in Kosovo.

In its report, Human Rights Watch says that the UN promise of community assistance projects alone “means that at best, any money paid into the fund will provide general services that do not specifically benefit the people affected by lead poisoning and will not directly offset the harm caused”.

According to Human Rights Watch, which spoke with victims of lead poisoning and family members, medics, lawyers, and organisations supporting the Roma, “many of those affected, including children, are experiencing myriad health problems, including seizures, kidney disease, and memory loss – all common long-term effects of lead poisoning”.

The report says that many Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian families it interviewed in northern Kosovo need financial and social support. While some parents said that they cannot afford medicine or healthy food for their affected children, other families expressed despair about the lack of support services for children struggling at school with learning difficulties related to the lead contamination.

Medical experts also voiced concern about the lack of continuous lead testing and support for then affected communities.

In its final report in July 2016, the UN human rights panel set up to address the issue said that although UNMIK commissioned a report in 2000 which found extremely elevated levels of lead in the blood of people living in camps for war-displaced people, 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 also urged UNMIK in 2004 to immediately evacuate children and pregnant women from the camps, warning of the chronic irreversible effects of lead on the human body.

UNMIK did not provide any documents indicating what specific actions were taken in response to these findings and recommendations.

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