Friday, February 22, 2008

John Cerone: Kosovo a "Complex Case"

JURIST Guest Columnist John Cerone, Associate Professor of Law & Director of the Center for International Law & Policy at the New England School of Law, formerly a Human Rights Legal Advisor with the UN Mission in Kosovo, writes:
Even less clear is the question of whether Kosovo’s independence is justified. Those claiming that it is justified typically ground their position in a black-and-white view of the Kosovo conflict that tends to obscure a much more complex reality.

I have to admit that, upon my arrival in Kosovo in the summer of 1999, I had very much shared this simplistic view of the situation. Indeed, my work there on war crimes documentation was largely driven by a desire to secure accountability for the seemingly steady stream of international crimes being broadcast by the international media.

I was initially stationed in western Kosovo, where I, along with throngs of other international aid workers, was welcomed as a benefactor and friend of the Albanians; that is, until I questioned the acceptability of blowing up the town’s Serbian Orthodox Church. Any suggestion that Kosovo Serbs should benefit from the protection of human rights law was met with open hostility.

I later moved north to Mitrovica, the ethnically divided city bisected by the River Ibar, with Kosovo Serbs living to the north and Kosovo Albanians living to the south. Working regularly with individuals from all ethnic groups, I was one of very few people who crossed the Ibar on a daily basis. The few Kosovo Albanians who remained in the north lived in a state of continuous insecurity. Kosovo Serbs fared less well in the south. Shortly before I arrived in Mitrovica, a Kosovo Serb was discovered south of the Ibar, and was consequently beaten to death by an angry mob.

The work of documenting past abuses was quickly supplemented by the need to respond to the spike in crimes against ethnic minorities, including Kosovo Serbs. Over the course of the following 18 months, the killing and displacement of Kosovo Serbs, and other ethnic minorities, continued unabated, notwithstanding the presence of tens of thousands of NATO soldiers.

Further reflection was prompted once the percentage of the Kosovo Serb population that had been murdered or displaced surpassed the percentage of the Kosovo Albanian population that had been killed or displaced in the years leading up to the NATO intervention. While only a tiny percentage of Kosovo Albanians were directly responsible for the killings, the perpetrators were protected by the majority of the population who saw these crimes as unfortunate, but understandable. Even when these perpetrators killed an elderly Serb woman in Pristina – a woman who could have played no role in the conflict, and who had never left her apartment for fear of attack -- her murder was portrayed as forgivable in light of what ‘her people’ had done.

To the extent that prior abuses could serve as a “justification” for Kosovo to secede from Serbia, it could equally serve as a justification for the northern part of Kosovo, populated mainly by Kosovo Serbs, to secede from the rest of Kosovo.

Of greater concern, however, is that the portrayal of Kosovo’s secession as justified typically rests on a conception of independence as a much deserved reward for the Albanians and fitting punishment for the Serbs. This view of the situation makes it far too easy to disregard the plight of minority groups in Kosovo and feeds into the destructive mentality of collective responsibility.