Brussels, 16 December 2008 – The European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, which began its work across Kosovo on December 9, 2008, should urgently investigate and prosecute longstanding cases of ethnically motivated crimes and remedy the major structural deficiencies in the justice system, Human Rights Watch said in a letter (http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/12/16/open-letter-key-priorities-justice-system-reform-kosovo ) issued today.

In its letter to Yves de Kermabon, chief of the mission, Human Rights Watch suggests priorities for the mission, known as EULEX, to carry out its mandate to help bring the rule of law to Kosovo. The recommendations include: progress on prosecutions linked to March 2004 riots and prosecutions for war crimes during the conflict that ended in 1999; enhanced cooperation between the international and national elements of the justice system; relocation of protected witnesses to outside Kosovo (EU states have so far proved reluctant to take them); and human rights scrutiny of the mission’s work.

“Fear still reigns in Kosovo, and the first thing the EU can do to break that cycle is to convince witnesses in these longstanding cases to come forward by offering them shelter in EU countries,” said Benjamin Ward, associate director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “Showing people that the rule of law can operate effectively will help to change that poisonous atmosphere.”

The EU Rule of Law Mission was deployed across Kosovo following months of delays caused by political wrangling among authorities in Kosovo and Serbia, the United Nations, and the EU over the mission’s mandate and authority. The decision to focus the mission on the rule of law reflects wide recognition that the justice system is Kosovo’s weakest institution.

The limited progress in bringing to justice those responsible for ethnic violence in March 2004 attacks against ethnic Serbs and Roma in northern Kosovo is one of the justice system’s most glaring failures. As Human Rights Watch has documented (http://www.hrw.org/en/node/11308/ ), few perpetrators have been brought to justice for the most serious crimes in that episode, even though these cases were declared a priority by the UN mission that administered Kosovo from 1999 until early 2008, when it declared independence.

“Progress on these cases has virtually ground to a halt,” said Ward. “Reinvigorating these investigations and prosecutions should be a priority for the new mission.”

Progress in bringing accountability for war crimes has not been effectively addressed in Kosovo, with international judges and prosecutors exclusively focusing on a small number of less controversial cases, often involving lower-ranking Kosovo rebels accused of committing crimes against fellow ethnic Albanians and non-Serbian minorities. The record of domestic war crimes prosecutions in Kosovo compares poorly with progress elsewhere in the region, notably in the war crimes chambers in Sarajevo and Belgrade.

The new EU mission should design and carry out a strategy to prosecute war crimes as a matter of urgency to ensure that the most serious cases are prioritized, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch also urged the new mission to put pressure on Kosovo authorities to investigate recent credible allegations that Serbs and other prisoners were transferred to Albania in 1999. While the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has begun an inquiry, Kosovo authorities have categorically refused to investigate, despite the gravity of the accusations, and are unlikely to act without a clear signal from the EU that they should proceed.

The letter calls on de Kermabon, the mission chief, to subject his mission to the jurisdiction of the Human Rights Advisory Panel and to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Ombudsperson Institution of Kosovo allowing the institution to investigate any complaints against the mission.