Interview with Mr Shahzad Bangash, Head of the UNMIK Office of Communities, Returns and Minority Affairs (OCRM)

The ethnically motivated violence of March 2004 has considerably slowed down refugee returns to Kosovo. Insecurity surrounding Kosovo’s future status has further contributed to this process. Could you provide us with the most recent figures for 2007?

More IDPs have returned to Kosovo in 2007 than in 2006, thus reversing the declining trend of returns per year since 2003. UNHCR estimates that 1,685 minority community members returned in 2007 including 542 Serbs, 524 Roma, 308 Ashkali/Egyptian, 88 Bosniak, 215 Gorani, 8 Albanians, as opposed to 1627 returnees in the year 2006.

Do you expect any change after the solution of Kosovo’s status?

The future status of Kosovo can have a positive impact on the returns process. Those who have yet to make up their mind with respect to the returns options available to them, the determination of the status, it is expected, will enable them to take a firm decision.

In the course of 2007, your office has transferred a number of functions to the PISG (Provisional Institutions of Self-Government) and to the Ministry of Communities and Returns in particular. Which are the functions that have been transferred? Which ones remain with your Office?

In line with UNMIK’s policy of transfer of competencies to the PISG, which is also required by UNSCR 1244, most of the competencies in voluntary returns have already been transitioned to the Government, primarily to the Ministry of Communities and Returns (MCR).

The management of the Central Review Mechanism (CRM), which reviews all voluntary return projects and other initiatives by the Municipal Working Groups (MWGs), was transferred to MCR in 2006.

The Chair as well as secretariat functions of the Communities Outreach and Communication Group (COCG) were handed over to the MCR to implement outreach and communication strategy regarding returns related issues, projects and activities, and to enhance coordination between all information providers in the returns process.

MCR was also enabled to take over planning function and implementation of Community Development and Stabilization projects to facilitate equitable integration of all communities and their members currently residing in Kosovo.

Dual reporting line for the MROs (Municipal Returns Officers) to the Ministry of Local Government Administration (MLGA) and MCR was also established to strengthen the cooperation and coordination on returns and minority related matters.

UNMIK/OCRM shall continue to perform its oversight responsibilities, including monitoring and mentoring functions over MCR, while assisting and supporting the Ministry in meeting the future challenges in the area of integration of communities and returns. UNMIK/OCRM continues to provide policy guidance to the MCR in order to develop and implement strategy for sustainable returns. OCRM also ensures that programmed activities on returns are carried out in timely fashion by coordinating work in all relevant areas within the Mission and other organizations.

Your office continues to play an important role as regards to refugee returns. It provides policy guidance to the PISG and MCR and it monitors and mentors their work. Are the Kosovo institutions able and ready to play their role as regards to refugee returns and reintegration? What are the major breaks?

Yes, the Kosovo institutions continue to show their ability and readiness to shoulder responsibilities regarding returns and reintegration.

The Ministry of Communities and Returns (MCR) continues to provide good support and commitment to the minority returns. The Organised Returns project in Vushtrri/Vučitrn, which was completed in 15 November 2007, was directly implemented by MCR in partnership with the municipality of Vushtrri/Vučitrn – which demonstrates full ownership by PISG.

MCR also took new initiatives last year related to integration of communities, such as the planning and implementation of Community Development and Stabilization projects. The Ministry had approved 51 Community Development and Stabilization projects worth €2.08 million to facilitate equitable integration of all communities and their members currently residing in Kosovo.

The Ministry has appointed a Returns Information Coordinator (RIC) to work with the UNHCR on the returnee registration and database. MCR, together with the Ministry of Finance and Economy (MFE) has also been monitoring the implementation of Fair Share Financing (FSF) requirement by the Municipalities.

The Kosovo Government has taken the lead in creating a comprehensive returns and repatriation related policy and operational framework. Last year, the Government approved the readmission policy, including the operational procedures, while the updated policy for minority returns was introduced by UNMIK together with PISG in 2006, which has led to greater ownership of the returns process by the local institutions. The reintegration strategy was also adopted by the Government to manage and support forced returnees or persons repatriated to Kosovo from the host countries. 

Already today, people belonging to minority communities in Kosovo complain that the Kosovo institutions are biased. International surveys have documented a lack of accountability for ethnically motivated crimes? What are the safeguards for returnees in terms access to civil and political rights and property returns in the event of Kosovo becoming independent?

The protection of fundamental rights in Kosovo will require the continued assistance and supervision of the international community, if satisfactory results are to be achieved. The EU provides guidance to the Kosovo institutions on reform priorities through the European Partnership Action Plan (EPAP), a broader and longer term platform for institutional reforms. The protection of human rights and security of returnees, as well as broader minority rights enforcement, constitute key short- and medium-term priorities under the EPAP.

Under Kosovo’s constitutional framework for provisional self-government, the main international human rights and fundamental freedom instruments are directly applicable in Kosovo. While application of this legal framework remains weak, we believe that the EPAP represents a realistic platform for reforming Kosovo institutions and strengthening the implementation of these key safeguards. This process, as the EPAP indicates, will occur regardless of any change in Kosovo’s status.

However, should a determination regarding Kosovo’s status occur which allows Kosovo to directly ratify the human rights instruments already enshrined within the constitutional framework, the implementation of these international obligations shall likewise be monitored directly by the relevant international fora as well as by the EPAP. Thus, the EPAP foresees, as part of medium-term responsibilities, not only the reform of Kosovo institutions so as to better comply with the international standards contained in the constitutional framework, but also the actual implementation of those treaties upon ratification. This would require the compliance of Kosovo institutions with all attendant monitoring, reporting and enforcement mechanisms. In short, any such change in status would result in better enforcement of international standards and increase the accountability of Kosovo institutions in upholding them.

Additionally, the Ombudsperson Institution has a mandate to address issues concerning alleged human rights violations or abuses of authority. While there are currently gaps in the implementation of many of the key human rights protections enshrined in the constitutional framework, we feel confident that with continued international assistance and supervision, most crucially as set forth in the EPAP, the capacity – and accountability – of Kosovo institutions in realising these fundamental safeguards shall continue to be strengthened, regardless of future status outcomes.

Your office has also had an important role as regards to forced returns in particular in terms of “screening” the requests submitted by the governments of the host countries of refugees. In some cases, your office refused to give clearance to the forced repatriation of rejected asylum seekers from Western Europe, in particular, for people belonging to one of the categories covered by the UNHCR’s position on the continued protection needs of individuals from Kosovo.

Aren’t you afraid that concerns over their security and the sustainability of their return may be sacrificed – and returns rushed – against the background of some higher political priorities, i.e., the wish of the Kosovo authorities to gain trust and support from the international community and Western governments? Already two years ago, former UNMIK staff members warned, that the withdrawal of UNMIK might induce a massive wave of forced returns to Kosovo.

Kosovo has an obligation to accept the repatriation of Kosovars, who have no legal status in host countries, in accordance with the UNHCR recommendations on the Continued International Protection Needs of Individuals from Kosovo. The host countries are obliged by international law to take such recommendations under consideration and to ensure that persons still in need of international protection are not forcibly returned to their country of origin.

The argument that Kosovo authorities may agree to more involuntary returns to gain trust and support from the international community and Western governments is not valid, as Kosovo shares similar issues as other countries in the region and is certainly more developed than post conflict situations in Africa, Asia and even the Caucasus.

What will happen with your office after the departure of UNMIK? Will there be a transfer to the new EU mission in Kosovo or will it completely go over to the PISG?

UNMIK has transferred and is transferring competencies to PISG in accordance with the Article 11 (d) of the UN Security Council Regulation 1244 (1999), which calls for “transferring, as these (provisional) institutions are established, (UNMIK’s) administrative responsibilities while overseeing and supporting the consolidation of Kosovo’s local provisional institutions and other peace-building activities”.

All issues beyond Regulation 1244 will be decided by the Security Council.

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