Brussels, 15 February 2008 – A floral display of sorts was being assembled to greet diplomats entering one of the key European Union institutions Friday morning. Rows of multi-coloured cardboard flowers, all bearing smiley faces, were starting to throng the courtyard of Justus Lipsius, the building where meetings of the EU’s 27 governments are held. In their plastic holders, the fake flowers kept swinging from side to side like hyperactive pendulums.

The frivolity behind this alleged work of art was a world away from the deadly serious business being prepared inside.

When the Union’s foreign ministers gather here Feb. 18, their discussions will more than likely be dominated by one theme – Kosovo. The disputed region is expected to make a formal declaration of independence from Serbia the day before the EU meeting.

Superficially, the EU’s member states have been able to present a reasonably united front on Kosovo lately. None of them, for example, is objecting to the planned deployment of a 1,800 strong law-and-order mission there to assist with building a properly functioning judicial system and related matters. In Brussels, this work is perceived as helping to prepare Kosovo for eventual membership of the EU.

Yet four of the Union’s governments — Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia and Romania — are opposed to recognising a declaration of independence. Spain is also not enthusiastic about the idea, fearful that it could be a source of encouragement to Basque politicians who wish to sever their region’s links with the Madrid government.

Like Serbia, Slovenia won its independence thanks to the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia. Today, Slovenia holds the EU’s rotating presidency and faces the unenviable task of preparing the response to Kosovo’s declaration.

A senior Slovene diplomat indicated that there will be no immediate reaction from Ljubljana. “The presidency will first have to prepare the discussions of the 27 and any statement before that will be premature,” he said. “What is necessary is that we have a good discussion that will produce a common platform. After that will come the question of how to express it.”

The diplomat also acknowledged that all EU governments recognise that the status quo in Kosovo — currently administered as United Nations protectorate — is not sustainable. Steps need to be taken to ensure a transition towards a “democratic multi-ethnic Kosovo, committed to the rule of law and the protection of minorities,” he said.

But in a new report, the organisation Human Rights Watch queried if the EU’s own member states have the best interests of Kosovo’s minorities at heart.

Some 250,000 people left Kosovo as a result of a campaign of intimidation and arson in 1999. Most of these were ethnic Serbs and Roma (who are commonly referred to as gypsies).

Although discrimination against minorities remains rampant in Kosovo, a number of EU countries have forcibly returned members of the persecuted communities there. Last year, 2,054 people were expelled from other parts of Europe to Kosovo, according to data collated by the UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Many of these expulsions were from Germany, France and Scandinavia.

Ivan Ivanov, director of the European Roma Information Office in Brussels, said that expelled Roma can face increased hardship after their return to Kosovo.

“It is very difficult for them to go back,” he told IPS. “If their children grew up in Germany, for example, they speak the local language and have settled into life there. So it is almost like sending them back to a foreign country.”

Ivanov said he was aware of cases where Roma have been “sandwiched” between the ethnic Albanian community, which makes up 90 percent of Kosovo’s two million-strong population, and Serbs.

“When they go to places they used to live, they are not registered immediately,” he added. “When they go to an Albanian districts, they are sent to a Serb part. And when they go to a Serb part to register, the Serbs send them to the Albanian parts. So they remain in the middle. They don’t have their ID documents. The consequences are huge. Single mothers, for example, are not entitled to social support.”

Human Rights Watch is urging a moratorium on forced returns of Roma and of members of other minorities from the EU to Kosovo until the situation there stabilises. Any expulsions in the longer term should be made conditional on each case being assessed individually to ascertain if the person involved is likely to be at risk upon return, Human Rights Watch said. It is seeking guarantees, too, that financial assistance will be offered to returnees.

The organisation has recommended that the EU adopt a comprehensive human rights agenda for Kosovo.

It argues that there is a culture of impunity for grave offences — including war crimes — in Kosovo, stemming partly from the absence of an effective judicial system.

Widespread intimidation of witnesses has meant that those who have information about crimes are wary of coming forward, Human Rights Watch says. A programme to move witnesses out of Kosovo for their own safety is urgently needed, it believes.

“The EU’s decision to focus its efforts on the justice system is the right one,” said Holly Cartner, director of Human Rights Watch’s division for Europe and Central Asia. “But unless EU states are willing to relocate witnesses at risk, it will be next to impossible to deliver justice for some of the most serious crimes.

“Building a new Kosovo requires a whole new approach to human rights. That will only happen if the government and the EU put tackling Kosovo’s human rights crisis at the top of their agenda for change.”

Author: David Cronin

Source: IPS