Kosovo's Serbs must return

Published on May 6, 2009, Guardian

Category: Growing International Opposition to Imposed Solution

Ian Bancroft

Ongoing demonstrations by Kosovo Serbs against the reconstruction of Kosovo Albanian houses in the neighbourhood of Brdjani, in north Mitrovica, have been answered by Eulex police through the use of tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. While pockets of protest by Kosovo Serbs have been a constant since Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence, these latest confrontations are distinctive for their underlying motivations; with the grievances of the Kosovo Serbs deriving in part from the international community's persistent failure to ensure the safe and sustainable return of about 220,000 Serbs and other non-Albanians expelled from Kosovo since 1999. Despite stern disagreement about Kosovo's status, however, the issue of property rights and reconstruction has the potential to facilitate dialogue and compromise between the competing parties to the conflict.

Though a Declaration of the Presidency on behalf of the EU reiterated that it "defends and supports people's right of return to houses and property that they legitimately own, regardless of their ethnic origins", the situation in Kosovo demonstrates the hollowness of such commitments for non-Albanian communities claiming such a right. As the last report on Kosovo by UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, emphasises, "returns statistics for 2008 show a dramatic decline in the number of voluntary minority returns to Kosovo compared to earlier years"; with estimates by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (pdf) (UNHCR) revealing that "only 582 minority community members returned to Kosovo in 2008, as compared to 1,816 in 2007 and 1,669 in 2006".

In addition, Ban's report talks about "non-implementation by the Kosovo authorities of the reintegration strategy for the forced returnees, in particular of those belonging to vulnerable sections of society". The UN's own statistics and conclusions – with UNHCR data showing that only about 16,500 displaced persons have returned to Kosovo since 1999 – demonstrate how the international community has failed to honour and uphold the 2006 Protocol on Voluntary and Sustainable Return (pdf).

Establishing the rule of law and guaranteeing the security of all citizens, particularly with respect to freedom of movement and the provision of basic necessities such as electricity, remain key prerequisites for stimulating the returns process. In each of these areas, however, significant deficiencies remain due to a failure of both will and conception. The OSCE Mission in Kosovo has previously been highly critical of the Kosovo government for its lack of progress with respect to the return of displaced persons, highlighting a range of factors – including inadequate financing for returnee-related projects; a lack of access to property, primarily because of unresolved property claims; an unfavourable political and security situation, including a lack of political will; insufficient access to education and limited opportunities for employment because of poor economic development – that have negatively impacted on the process of return.

Regardless of differences over the issue of Kosovo's status, the international community, which regularly proclaims Kosovo's supposed multi-ethnic character and minority rights provisions, has a responsibility to ensure that the necessary conditions exist for the safe and sustainable return of all displaced persons. The experience of Bosnia and Herzegovina in this regard provides many valuable lessons which must be applied with greater vigour and determination to Kosovo. Without sufficient steps to tackle the sources of simmering inter-ethnic tensions and perpetual grievances, particularly with respect to the issue of property rights and the precarious position of minority communities, Kosovo will remain susceptible to sporadic outbreaks of violence and instability that will inhibit the transformation of conflict and the achievement of long-term peace and security throughout the region. Reinvigorating the returns process also provides a crucial opportunity to engage both Kosovo's Serbs and Albanians in dialogue over an issue of mutual and tangible concern.


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