by Massimo Moratti
Since 2012, I have been informing the readers on some key developments in the field of property rights, as they emerged from the practice of a legal aid project in Serbia for refugees from Bosnia and Croatia as well as displaced persons from Kosovo*. The November 2011 – June 2015 phase of the project (which has been funded by the EU Delegation to Serbia since 2008) was implemented by a team of lawyers and barristers I had the privilege of leading.
Many of the blog readers might wonder what happened with the Project since the last post two years ago, and I am glad to use this opportunity to provide an update on subsequent developments. At that time, the project was due to end in June 2014, but received a one year cost extension from the EU Delegation to the Republic of Serbia. The project was financed under the Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA), the main fund to support countries that are in the EU accession process.
Under the terms of the IPA, a local public institution, in this case the Serbian Government’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija (the OKiM), was designated as beneficiary of the Project. Accordingly, the OKiM provided free legal aid to displaced persons from Kosovo via outsourcing to a consortium of private companies and NGOs, which in turn implemented the project under the EU flag.
This is the standard arrangement for EU funding, but in this specific case, where the divide between Serbia and Kosovo* institutions remains wide, it was crucial to make sure that a team of EU-funded lawyers could operate between the two legal systems, engaging in de facto conduct that I defined as “shuttle legal aid”.
For those not familiar with the practicalities of the issue, it is worth recalling that there are, according to the Serbian authorities, around 200,000 displaced persons from Kosovo. It is unclear how many of them have not yet solved their property issues. While displaced persons are mostly in Serbia, their properties and other assets are located in Kosovo, and any attempt at ensuring the protection of their rights needs to be conducted before the institutions of Kosovo*.
However, the two legal system do not recognize each other’s documents, and there is no functioning post or telephone system between Kosovo* and Serbia. Lawyers and legal aid NGOs from Serbia are often reluctant to travel to Kosovo, both because of logistical and security issues and due to lack of familiarity with the institutional setting of the former Serbian province. Lawyers from Kosovo do not seem interested in conducting any outreach to potential clients in Serbia and more important than everything else, displaced persons themselves do not have the financial means to pay for legal expenses.
The EU-funded legal aid programme presented a solution to these problems, since it could operate in both Kosovo and in Serbia. The positive aspects were numerous: the project bridged the institutional gaps between the two systems, it was staffed with an adequate number of lawyer and barristers familiar with national and international law, and its proceedings were completely free for the IDPs (including coverage of court fees and expenses).
Indeed, besides successfully representing thousands of persons in administrative and court proceedings, the Project generated valuable information, in that it could closely observe the workings of the courts of Kosovo* in the context of property cases. Most of these cases involved disputes about the possession of property where an inter-ethnic element was present, which raised the profile and the tension in many of these disputes.
The project had a unique point of view, namely that of the claimants and their legal representatives and it could accordingly witness how legal proceedings took place “from the bottom” and very often without other international observers present. This unique point of view allowed the project to use its cases to collect information on court practice and in this manner legal aid became a “fact finding” tool, regularly reporting its findings on its website and from time to time on this blog.
The topics covered were some of the most contentious in Kosovo. Moreover, they involved the issue of property rights, where, as consistently highlighted in the EU Progress Reports about Kosovo, progress was slow or non-existent.
In the course of its work, the Project successfully represented displaced persons who were trying to challenge the illegal occupation, and in some cases demolition, of their properties. In other cases, the Project initiated criminal and civil proceedings cases against persons who acquired property via “fraudulent transactions”, highlighting patterns indicating that the forgery of property documents and records was not just an act of few corrupt individuals, but in certain areas a concerted effort to grab land to be used for business purposes.
In several landmark cases before the Constitutional Court of Kosovo, it was also possible to highlight how an internationally funded mass claims mechanism, the Kosovo Property Agency (KPA) had itself violated the rights to property and fair trial by refusing to solve property disputes or to award compensation to claimants.
However, like all projects, this one too came to an end on 12 June 2015. Continue reading