by Guido van Heugten
Guido van Heugten graduated from the ‘NOHA’ masters program in International Humanitarian Action at Uppsala University). He wrote his thesis on ‘Post-Conflict Property Restitution in Kosovo’.
Even over a decade after the violent conflict of 1999, Kosovo is often still referred to as a ‘hot potato’ that has been passed on from the UN to the EU, which is currently desperately searching for ways to find a resolution for the dispute between the governments in Belgrade and Pristina. The recently elected Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic has stated that Kosovo Serbs are currently living under threat of genocide and that he would not rule out a partition between ethnic Serb and Albanian regions. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, on a visit to Kosovo, tried to focus more on common challenges and opportunities and made another attempt to stress the importance of dialogue in order to find resolution to the regions issues.
The population of Kosovo is indeed still much divided between the lines of ethnicity and identity, fuelling a volatile security situation, especially in the Northern provinces surrounding the divided town of Mitrovica. Together with resolution of the political problems relating to Kosovo’s continuing status as a UN protectorate, it is crucial that serious efforts are being made by all stakeholders to finish the property restitution process and ensure respect for housing, land and property (HLP) rights in the context of conflict resolution efforts in the region.
Due to the 1990s trends toward increasing displacement and internal conflicts and the decreasing will of Western states to provide asylum, voluntary return (as opposed to resettlement) became the preferred policy when dealing with displaced populations in post-conflict contexts. This is also expressed by the development of international policy around that time, culminating in the adoption of the ‘Pinheiro Principles’ on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons in 2005.
The 1998-99 conflict in Kosovo caused immense damage to property, which the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights determined was not solely an act of vandalism, but an attempt at wiping out signs of the presence of entire populations, including their national and cultural identity. In most UN peacekeeping missions, HLP rights usually do not play a very central role, even though land and property issues are often an underlying cause of conflict. Kosovo however, has been one of the few places where the UN has decided to give property restitution an important role in the peace-building process.