Tag Archives: EU

Reconciliation, or getting over losing to win in the Balkans

by Rhodri C. Williams

For several years now, I have provided periodic technical advice to a European Union funded program to aid refugees and displaced persons in Serbia. Although the deck has been stacked pretty heavily against the program’s clients and the rest of the world’s attention long since wandered from their plight, it means a lot to me to be able to continue participating in picking up the pieces from the conflicts that shocked me into political consciousness back in the distant 1990s.

My most recent trip came last week, for a training in Belgrade. Much on the way to Serbia was bracingly familiar, beginning with the blithe surliness of the nicotine-raspy JAT stewardesses who make you eight again and dealing with the cafeteria ladies as they slap a canned sandwich down on your bobbling tray. Belgrade itself was indecently unchanged, with its steady throng of cheerful and careworn pedestrians wandering amidst canyons of faded glory. Of all the Eastern European places I return to, Belgrade seems to change the least, not resisting so much as ignoring the tsunami of Benetton gentrification that rages all around it.

This is not to say that the politics haven’t changed. In many respects, its been a banner year for the West Balkans. As Besar Likmeta recently pointed out in Foreign Policy, the accession of Croatia to the EU on July 1 capped a sequence of breakthroughs ranging from the belated election of a true reform candidate in Albania to the political galvanization of Bosnia and most notably, the power-sharing agreement arrived at between Belgrade and Pristina. At first glance, the only parties that seem bitterly divided or incapable of applying the rule of law at all these days are within the Tribunal that was meant to fix all that (on which, see Eric Gordy’s latest ruthlessness here).

However, an atmosphere of palpable unease remains over issues like the delicate détente over Kosovo. The lawyers I met with last week exemplify the paradoxical nature of post-Yugoslav normalization. On one hand, there they are, Serb lawyers representing Serb clients in Serbian, working the Kosovo courts every day. The first time I went to Kosovo in early 2000, the idea was unimaginable (‘suicidal’ would not be out of place) and its realization gives some hope for a viable multi-ethnic future.

On the other hand, the lawyers had a laundry list of shenanigans, underhand, bureaucratic and worse. In many senses, the uprooted and impoverished clients they represent are the most easily dispensable part of a veritable mountain of irregularities and grievances accumulated during a decade of international administration. Property claims remain a significant issue, but must be viewed alongside unresolved disappearances, highly contested privatizations, potentially massive liability to the former employees of state firms and other pending calamities.

That said, the lack of trust remains striking. After dinner one evening, the conversation revolved around plots. Is this a blocking maneuver meant to distract us from that or wedge us out of there? There was some ironic laughter but an undertone of real worry. For Serbs living and working in Kosovo, a sort of elemental uncertainty that long since evaporated from more settled former war zones like Bosnia still clings.

Continue reading

Svaka čast Croatia

by Rhodri C. Williams

And let me say how honored I am that you chose my birthday for accession to the EU! I’ve had a pretty complicated relationship with you in the past, I have to admit. On the positive side, I used to flee to you when the narrow valleys of Bosnia got me feeling fenced in and I needed to pop over that last rise after the Metkovic border crossing and let that view – the burnished expanse of the Adriatic – seep physically into me. We also used to pile out to the north, going hell for leather from Slavonski Brod along the ex-Highway of Brotherhood and Unity, anything just to hit Zagreb before the only Mexican restaurant in the West Balkans announced last call.

Beyond my personal enjoyment of your charms, I was also impressed in a grim way by your ability to stick it out as a small country in a historically tough neighborhood. The sort of existential problems you faced in the 1990s were unlikely anything I could imagine, having grown up in the protected suburban vastnesses of the 1970s US midwest. The problem, in my mind, was not (only) that you didn’t have clean hands (nobody did). The problem was that you couldn’t come clean about it. Of course, nobody else could either, but you, unlike the others, just galumphed right over your historical indiscretions like so many speed bumps on the boulevard to European integration.

So what is my beef? Well, I worked on property restitution in Bosnia. So I watched as the ‘international community’ in Sarajevo turned the screws on the Bosnians until they extended restitution to cover not only all private houses but also all socially owned apartments (with a few fateful exceptions of course). And I watched as the same international community in Zagreb gradually conceded points that we had gone to the wall over in Sarajevo and started to purge terminology like ‘tenancy rights’ from documents like EU accession progress reports.

I also worked on the OSCE and ICHR friend of the court briefs in the ill-fated Blecic case before the European Court of Human Rights, and assisted the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s attempt to push for uniform restitution standards in Europe. I marveled both when the ICTY condemned the uncompensated confiscation of 30,000 socially owned apartments as part of a broader plan to remove Serbs from Croatia, and when that ruling fell on a seeming technicality. And I am left to conclude that the relatively prosperous and self-confident Croatian political elite was simply not held to the same rigorous standards still being applied to their poor and less organized cousins in Bosnia.

The bottom line is that the country that declared independence in 1991 had a 12.2% Serb minority while the country that joined the EU today has a 4.4% Serb minority, and that little statistic patches over a lot of ongoing misery and unredressed violations. Now I know its still not an easy time for you what with sliding EU support and all the commentators cracking wise about how you fought your way out of one oppressive, economically troubled confederation twenty years ago only to fling yourself into another today. So I’ll say only this. It is entirely to your credit that you have entered the hallowed precincts of the EU but it is troubling that you did so with a certain number of skeletons clanking around in your luggage.

Of course, one might as easily find fault for this state of affairs in Brussels as in Zagreb. But pressuring countries that are already in to observe such niceties as the Copenhagen criteria and the rule of law is not the EU’s traditional strong suit. In any case, that is nothing that should prevent you from finding that it lies in your own best interest to engage sooner rather than later with your past. And doing so in a clear-eyed way would, at a stroke, remove many of the excuses holding back your EU-aspirant neighbors from doing the same. And maybe leave both the EU and the western Balkans in better shape as a result. So, congratulations, and good luck as part of the European project of building a future worthy of the sacrifices and suffering of the past.

A happy ending for Eurovision?

by Rhodri C. Williams

I promise that this will be my last ever word on the Eurovision song contest. There are any number of good reasons for me to move on, not least the fact that Eurovision seems to move me to rant, which is honestly not my strongest genre. However, the best possible reason was handed to me on a plate by fresh-faced Emmelie de Forrest, who took all the honors and moved them conveniently from one peaceful Nordic democracy to another one a forty minute commute away.

And there were moments, as Azerbaijan nudged within a few ‘dix points’ of Emmelie’s comely heels, where I saw an alternative, dystopic future – a future in which I would once again be compelled to wander the darkened streets of the blogosphere, bitterly denouncing the capricious demolitions of homes in Baku, casting aspersions upon the political naifs of the European Broadcasting Union, and railing against the hypocrisy of ostensible guardians of democracy such as the Council of Europe, long since tamed by a steady diet of inflated per diems and caviar. Thank you, Emmelie, for sparing us all that.

But before I bow out of the debate about Eurovision and human rights fully, a few observations. First, despite the welcome contrast between Azerbaijan’s structural aversion to human rights (universality notwithstanding, how is one honestly to go about applying them in a dynastic autocracy fueled by oil patronage?) and Sweden’s imperfect but earnest efforts, the human rights did emerge once again as a background issue in this year’s contest.

Continue reading

Breaking news – Dissident arrests, police abuse and mass evictions in downtown Malmö by Swedish Eurovision hosts

by Rhodri C. Williams

Okay, that was the first completely bogus headline I have ever run in TN. But I bet it got your attention. You were probably skeptical, and rightly so, about connecting the phrases ‘dissident arrests’ and ‘mass evictions’ with adjectives like, well, ‘Swedish’. Unthinkable, right? However, if ‘Eurovision’ seemed similarly ill-placed in such unseemly company, that’s where things get interesting.

In fact, it was only last year that Europe’s annual fiesta of pop-culture self-congratulation was hosted by Azerbaijan, a dynastically ruled pseudo-democracy where strategic location, deep oil reserves and self-interested support for the ‘global war on terror’ have bought the regime a near complete pass on human rights observance. Sound like Gaddafi’s Libya in late 2010? Well, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong there.

A key difference, one might argue, was that Gaddafi’s Libya was not eligible to join prestigious European regional organizations like the Council of Europe, which are meant to ensure mutual respect for human rights standards among their members. However, the performance of the Aliyev regime in Baku appears to indicate that Mr. Gaddafi’s problem was largely geographical.

In fact, last year’s Eurovision contest went boldly forward where no autocracy had gone before, bulldozing a shrill chorus of human rights criticism with Wagnerian pyrotechnics even as entire neighborhoods were razed to improve the view from an arena built with purloined money, protesters were roughed up by police and dumped at the edge of town, and political prisoners continued to rot in jail, unenlightened by Azerbaijan’s spectacular entrance into Europe’s vacuous pop culture scene.

Continue reading

The Human Rights Advisory Panel holds the UN in Kosovo responsible for failing to investigate forced disappearances – too little, too late?

by Massimo Moratti

In the uphill struggle to ensure the accountability of international organisations and in particular of peacekeeping missions, the recent decision in S.C. against UNMIK issued by the UNMIK Human Rights Advisory Panel (HRAP) can definitely be considered a landmark case.

The HRAP is the body tasked in 2005 with examining complaints of alleged human rights violations committed by or attributable to the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). In doing so, the Panel applies the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) as well as other key global Human Rights conventions, and makes non-binding recommendations to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) in charge of UNMIK.

UNMIK was established following the Kosovo crisis of 1999 with full legislative and executive powers for the administration of Kosovo. UNMIK was, tasked under UNSC Res 1244 with “promoting and protecting human rights in Kosovo” and it performed police and judiciary functions until 9 December 2008, when those competencies were handed over to the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX).

Disappearances in Kosovo and UNMIK’s inaction.

It is within this context that Ms. S.C. lodged her complaint. Ms. S.C. was the wife of Ah.C and mother of An.C. On the 18 July 1999 An.C and Ah.C. while working at their family business in Prizren were ordered by three uniformed Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) members to follow them to do some work. The KLA members said they would be back within half an hour. Their bodies were recovered one year later, in August 2000, by ICTY investigators near the Prizren cemetery. It was only in 2003 that M.C., the other son of the complainant, received the bodies of his father and brother after UNMIK had issued confirmation of identity certificates.

Ms. S.C. complained on several occasions, but the investigations conducted by UNMIK led to nothing. Although the bodies were recovered in 2003, the two persons were still considered as missing in the UMNiK investigation file as late as 2007. The complainants therefore alleged a violation of procedural limb of the Article 2 of the ECHR, i.e. the right to life, as well as a violation of the Article 3 of the ECHR for the mental pain and suffering allegedly caused by the situation.

Continue reading

Alternative history: The Nobel Peace Prize goes to Eurafrique!

by Rhodri C. Williams

As we all know, the European Union (EU) received the Nobel Peace Prize last week for “over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”. The award has been debated, not only because it comes at a moment when a largely self-made economic crisis is severely straining the very element of European solidarity that justified it, but also because it comes after a series of other controversial recipients – most notably Barack Obama in 2009, whose contribution to peace consisted, according to many commentators, of not being George W. Bush.

Although there has always been a perceptible undercurrent of skepticism about the extent to which the EU is built on a foundation of unalloyed idealism, it has rarely been expressed more concretely than in a fascinating commentary in the edition of the Swedish broadsheet Dagens Nyheter (DN) that appeared the day before the Nobel ceremony. There, the Linköping University researchers Stefan Jonsson and Peo Hansen give a preview of their forthcoming book, “Eurafrica: The untold history of European integration and colonialism”. For Europhiles well-versed in the use of Google translate, it will not make for comfortable reading.

Without denying the pacific effect of early economic integration measures such as the European Coal and Steel Community, the authors note that their primary motivation may have been a last ditch attempt to shore up the European colonial project. Faced with an increasingly assertive global anti-colonial movement and the humiliation of the Egyptian nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956, the EU was founded in no small part as a means of economically integrating not only Europe but also its remaining African possessions. Consider, for instance, a curious passage in the foundational 195o Schuman Declaration:

Continue reading

Post-conflict property restitution in Kosovo: A continuing challenge

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.[1] 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.[2]

Continue reading

Is the European Commission sweet on land grabbing? Trade benefits, sugarcane concessions and dispossession in Cambodia – UPDATED

by David Pred

David Pred is co-founder and managing associate of Inclusive Development International (IDI), an association working to make the international development paradigm more just and inclusive.

Before you reach for that Tate and Lyle sugar packet to sweeten your coffee, you might want to think twice.  While most Tate and Lyle sugar packets carry the Fair Trade label, Cambodian farmers who were displaced and dispossessed by their suppliers say that if you are buying this product, you are buying their blood. Earlier this month, representatives of affected communities called for a consumer boycott of companies selling sugar grown on stolen land, including Tate and Lyle Sugars.

Over the past several years, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians have been uprooted from their homes, farmlands, and forests by companies that have been granted concessions for the development of agro-industrial plantations.

The sugarcane industry has been one of the worst offenders in this land-grabbing crisis. In the last five years, land concessions totaling tens of thousands of hectares have been granted to private companies for industrial sugarcane production.  These concessions have led to the destruction of protected forests and the pollution of water sources. Local farmers’ crops have been razed and their animals shot. Homes have been burned to the ground. Thousands of women and children have been left destitute.  Some have been thrown in jail for daring to protest.

Despite the abundant evidence of these crimes, none of the responsible individuals and companies have been held to account. As if that wasn’t scandalous enough, this ‘blood sugar’ is being exported to Europe, where it receives special trade benefits under the EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) initiative.  Through this preferential trading scheme, the world’s least developed countries are able to export goods to the EU with zero tariffs or quotas, and in the case of sugar, at a guaranteed minimum price.

It should be a crime to peddle goods produced on stolen land, but instead the land-grabbers are awarded special trade privileges.

Continue reading

Mainstreaming IDP principles in capacity building efforts: A chance missed in Kosovo

by Milica Matijevic and Massimo Moratti

Although more than a decade has passed since the end of hostilities in Kosovo, the process of post-conflict property restitution is far from complete. Apart from the cases still awaiting adjudication before the Kosovo Property Agency (KPA), the mass claims mechanism dedicated to post-conflict property repossession, the local judiciary also deals with a significant number of conflict-related property claims that fall outside of the mandate of the KPA. These cases concern issues crucial to durable solutions for internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Kosovo, such as illegal occupation of property, forged contracts of sale, exchanges under duress, and illegal demolition of property.

The project “Further support to IDPS and Refugees in Serbia” has recently published a report on the difficulties faced by IDPs in accessing the court system in Kosovo and how a number of bureaucratic requirements, apparently of a merely technical nature, in reality have a significant impact on access to justice for IDPs, potentially violating their right to fair trial. The report argues that for these cases to be effectively resolved, the justice system needs to take into account the fact of displacement and the difficult position of IDPs.

According to international fair trial standards, access to justice should be granted for everybody, regardless of one person’s status. In the context of Kosovo this would mean that the local laws and institutions should enable effective access to courts, not only for the resident population but also for those who were displaced as a consequence of conflict (who are nevertheless considered as habitual residents of Kosovo). This obligation becomes even more compelling when IDPs are predominated by the largest single ethnic minority group, as it is the case in Kosovo.

Continue reading

Europe, stop voting now! (The Eurovision contest returns to a democracy)

by Rhodri C. Williams

“Europe stop voting now!” shouted the well-scrubbed hosts of the Baku 2012 Eurovision finals last night after a dizzying round of 26 acts featuring babushkas, boats, bread ovens and backflips. And with that, the first truly free and fair exercise of democracy on Azerbaijani soil was completed. Too bad it was not a real election, but the results for Azerbaijan’s politics remain somewhat unpredictable.

The worst case scenario will be a return to repression as usual, but with the additional alibi of having ascended to the ranks of Eurovision-hosting countries. The rest of Europe, in other words, is free to resume voting periodically in meaningful elections, while Baku will continue to exercise its own discretion in the matter. On the other hand, the fact that the honors fell in this case to Sweden’s Loreen may help to ensure that the contest does not simply move on, allowing a free hand to the Azerbaijani authorities to crack down in its wake.

The Swedes are one of the few countries in ‘old Europe’ to still take the contest seriously; this is their fifth win, placing them second behind Ireland in overall trophies. When we opened the window at midnight yesterday, the air veritably shook with lusty Viking voices “going up-up-up-up-up”. The Swedes also have a sense of fair play and a streak of impatience with countries that fail to live up to Nordic standards of democracy and rule of law, particularly where they are forced to cohabit the same European institutional spaces with them. Local reactions to the skeletons in Baku’s human rights closet were late in coming but strong. Last Thursday, for instance, the foreign policy spokesman of one of Sweden’s ruling coalition parties called for EU sanctions against Azerbaijan of a similar nature to those applied against other post-Soviet failed democracies like Belarus.

However, the latter piece raised at least two Swedish negative points on this issue. First the author explicitly noted that cooperation between an affiliate of Swedish telecoms giant Telia-Sonera and the regime in Baku is likely to make it easier for the latter to track down dissidents. Second, and implicitly, the relatively low level authorship of the piece emphasized the near-silence on this topic from the actual Foreign Minister, the ordinarily loquacious Carl Bildt, who could only be troubled to give recent mention to Eurovision 2012 as something of a distraction from regional security issues in his prolific blog (though he had expressed hopes the contest would improve the country’s human rights record a year ago – while at the same time praising Telia-Sonera’s investments there).

Nevertheless, on Friday night, the Swedish public television’s evening news was refreshingly well-informed about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan – and even stumbled onto a demo where grim-faced plain-clothed heavies didn’t let the rolling cameras crimp their style as they hustled protesters into waiting minivans (see minute 43 and onward of the broadcast). The Swedish reporter also took the time to visit a squalid home for IDPs from Nagorno-Karabakh (she swoons visibly while pronouncing “27 families to a single toilet”) just minutes away from the ‘crystal hall’ built for the contest, as she notes, by the President’s own shell company. She also reports on disappointment in Baku over the passive approach of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and risks to activists (who have been ostentatiously filmed by the police) once the contest is over.

The segment ends with the former Swedish ambassador to Azerbaijan, Hans Gunnar Aden, who gives a candid take on the caviar diplomacy recently described by the European Stability Initiative (ESI), stating that the country is sliding toward dictatorship while demonstrating a marked ability to “deceive – or bribe” Western observers such as those in the Council of Europe. In other words, awareness of Azerbaijan’s appalling human rights record and its successful campaign of obscuring these abuses in order to retain membership in prestigious European institutions has sunk in here in Sweden. Of perhaps the most practical use to Azerbaijan’s dangerously exposed democracy activists is the fact that the new Queen of Eurovision, Loreen, took the trouble to meet them personally and will no doubt remain interested in their fate. As reported by the BBC last week:

The Swedish singer Loreen, one of the favourites to win this year’s Eurovision, has already had a meeting with local human rights activists, much to the annoyance of the Azeri authorities.

The return of Eurovision to a country that consciously seeks to live up to European standards on human rights and democracy rather than to undermine them will make for a refreshing change. However, last night’s jamboree in Baku has both helped to legitimize an undemocratic European regime and to tarnish the reputations of both the Council of Europe and the European Broadcasting Union. Having won the battle for Eurovision last night, Sweden must now consider how it can contribute to winning the war for the assertion of core European values in countries that aspire to European membership.