Human rights in Kosovo/a – Not so simple

By Jan Oberg

TFF PressInfo 45 – August 27, 1998

Originally published here.

“To understand a conflict – and, thus, help solve it – we need to know something about at least three things: Attitudes, Behaviour and the root Causes of the conflict. That’s the ABC. Most media simply report on behaviour and ignore the two other dimensions. This is why people in general feel that they don’t understand much of it all, in spite of watching and listening carefully to news reports. And when media cover conflict behaviour, many seem to use the KISS principle – Keep It Simple, Stupid. What you have heard about human rights in Kosovo/a is a good example of KISS journalism,” says Jan Oberg, head of TFF’s Conflict-Mitigation team upon returning from yet another mission to Belgrade, Prishtina and Skopje.

“I want to make it clear that I consider the Serb government guilty of extremely serious and systematic human rights violations in the Kosovo province. Over the years, the Serb leadership has pursued an absolutely immoral and self-defeating policy of repression. Having listened to hundreds of personal accounts of human rights violations, I know that. Numerous human rights organisations offer overwhelming documentation.

During our missions, TFF’s team has been stopped repeatedly on the roads, interrogated at police stations for hours, and deprived of written Albanian materials. I have seen the blood on the sidewalk after a young Albanian shot dead close to the Grand Hotel one morning in peacetime Prishtina. And, undoubtedly, when a people is this strong and this united in its desire for freedom, repression of its fundamental rights must be a basic explanation – however not the only one.

This, however, can not explain” – continues Dr. Oberg – “why so many human rights advocates, columnists, experts and diplomats ignore the fact that the rights of all, also the Serbs, are violated in this province. It takes two to create a segregation such as the one in Kosovo – unique as it is in Europe. Nationalist attitudes, expansionist ideologies, chauvinism, stereotyping, hate, propaganda, misuse of history, and victim psychology can be found on both sides. Furthermore, it is part of the Kosova-Albanian political strategy to refuse to take advantage of the human rights they have had and do have according to the constitution. Thus, they refuse to take part in elections, in spite of the fact that that participation could probably have changed the political scene in all of Serbia. It is true that the autonomous status was reduced in 1989 but contrary to what is stated in even expert reports and serious media it was not abolished. This type of self-repression needs to be taken into account. And we must not forget that there are also Montenegrins, Roma, Turks, Muslims in this province whose human rights are violated too.

Advocates of minority rights focus almost exclusively on the Albanian community. There is little international human rights attention to the minorities living in the self-proclaimed independent Republic of Kosova; they have not voted for that independence and many will tell how they feel abandoned even by Belgrade. The appearance and war-fighting of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA/UCK, will not exactly help Serbs and other non-Albanian citizens feel more confident about their future as minorities in the Albanian-dominated Kosova.

There are excellent independent centres in Serbia proper, such as the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade, which analyse and monitor human rights violations by the Serb and the Albanian side. But there is little reporting from the Kosovo-Albanian side on human rights violations committed by e.g. the Kosova Liberation Army. I want to make it clear that this is not a plea for ’50/50 guilt;’ human rights violations must not be quantified. But what I am saying is that people who struggle for human rights should be concerned about ANY human rights violations and sympathise with ANY victim irrespective of what may seem politically correct. Which leads to my next points.

The concern of the international governmental and non-governmental human rights community about the repression of Albanians in Kosovo borders on “political correctness” when compared with their lame reaction over the years to the human rights violations against the Serb minority in neighbouring Croatia that peaked with the military ethnic cleansing in 1995 of some 250 000 legitimate Croatian citizens of Serb origin.

Furthermore, according to UNHCR, Serbia today hosts 650 000 registered refugees from other ex-Yugoslav republics; that is three times more than those who have become internally displaced in the Kosovo province in recent fighting. For years it’s been the largest refugee problem in Europe, on the soil of an impoverished country whose innocent ordinary citizens are victims of the international community’s ill-conceived sanctions. But it makes no headlines anywhere and does not seem to merit any major humanitarian assistance. The negligible humanitarian and human rights concern about Serb refugees, also victims of war, makes one wonder whether all human being ARE considered equal even by human rights advocates.

When between 10 000 and 15 000 Krajina Serb refugees were settled in Kosovo, President Rugova, the Kosova government and Albanian media called this ‘colonisation.’ Thus, the leadership that says it is committed to give Serbs all thinkable rights in independent Kosova missed a great opportunity to build confidence and trust with local and refugee Serbs by not receiving such a small number of Serb refugees with open arms. I have mentioned this to Kosovo-Albanian leaders and intellectuals and they don’t seem to acknowledge that this reaction undermine their credibility as modern democrats and their commitment to humanity and multi-ethnicity,” says Dr. Oberg.

“I probably don’t have to tell you that the role of women in the Kosovo-Albanian society leaves very much to be desired in terms of human rights and democratic participation. Neither is the constitution of the independent Republic of Kosova genuinely multi-ethnic; it distinguished between the Albanian people and terms all others ‘national minorities.’ I believe it is reasonable that all states – also self-proclaimed states – are judged by the same criteria.

Some may correctly counter that Serbia and Yugoslavia is not exactly a democracy either. I agree. It is deplorably far away from being so – and it is sliding even more in a repressive, authoritarian direction combined with increasing poverty and apathy. Corruption, racketeering and mafia methods is commonplace; politicians elected in so-called democratic elections have become rich fast. And a recent university law curtails academic freedoms to such an extent that many look nostalgically back on the freedom they enjoyed under Tito! So, unfortunately, it seems that this regime does not like people who think! However, those who call Serbia/Yugoslavia and its government ‘terrorist’, ‘dictatorship’ or compare it with Stalin’s Soviet Union or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq may wonder about these three things – at least:

a) How come that Yugoslavia is de jure and de facto the most multi-ethnic society among the former Yugoslav republics and why do other minorities not complain as much about their situation as the Albanians do? b) How come that hundreds of thousands of citizens and civil society organisations demonstrated for months last year in Belgrade, seemingly without fear? Can similar public outrage and protests be expressed in Zagreb or Sarajevo today?

And c) How come such a regime has, for years, tacitly tolerated what NO other government in ex-Yugoslavia, or in Europe for that matter, would probably tolerate, namely that an important minority has declared an independent state on its territory, has held elections, developed a parallel society, set up a government including (according to some sources) a defence minister, developed an international diplomacy headed by a President who is received worldwide as head of state. The Kosovo province hosts a number of US humanitarian organisations and a United States Information Service office. The Kosova leadership under Dr. Rugova has never been touched by the Belgrade authorities, they have received new Yugoslav passports, never been in house arrest or prosecuted for what elsewhere would probably be designated anti-state activity (as it was in Tito’s Yugoslavia but with markedly less international attention than today). Albanians walk the streets of Belgrade safely.

I agree that Serbia’s political system is authoritarian but – no – it is not a dictatorship and cannot be blamed for all evils in ex-Yugoslavia or Kosovo/a. There are not that many minorities who struggle for secession and independence around the world under similar conditions,” Jan Oberg points out. “In passing one may say that that shows the tremendous strength of a nonviolent policy as such: it is much more difficult to clamp down on than violent action. We shall return to that dimension in PressInfo 46.”

TFF’s director ends on a more general observation. “I think there is reason to discuss whether the human rights perspective threatens to monopolise the field of interpretation in conflicts such as the one in Kosovo. My view is that human rights violations in most cases should be seen as a CONSEQUENCE of mismanaged or ignored conflicts rather than a cause of them. But the handy thing about the human rights perspective is that it is so easy to (mis)use by moralists: ‘Watch your television and it is unacceptable what you see, isn’t it – so, let’s punish the evil perpetrators.’

Of course we must search for effective ways to stop human rights violations. But the underlying conflicts must be equally addressed and this is, in most cases, where black-and-white images become virtually useless. If, as in the case of Kosovo, Serb governments have repressed Kosovo-Albanians for decades my first question would be: Why do they do that, what are the Serbs afraid of – and I would ask the question both in Belgrade and in Kosovo.

Because it is so evident that Kosovo-Albanians ARE discriminated against, I would simultaneously try to find out what is real and what is exaggeration on their side. Only a very innocent, inexperienced or completely biased journalist, diplomat or human rights activist can overlooked the fact that quite a few leaders of de facto victimised people in conflicts around the world have a talent for exploiting suffering to legitimate their struggle for less noble or more problematic causes. Serb leaders have done it in the process of Yugoslavia’s breakdown and Albanian have done it in Kosovo – greatly helped precisely by Belgrade’s repression.

To put it crudely: yes, the Albanians in Serbia struggle for independence because they are repressed but they also have other goals and motives. My judgment is that even if they were offered (or had been offered) all human rights according to European standards and these were implemented, the Albanian nation would still desire to leave Serbia and – sooner or later – unify with their brothers and sisters elsewhere. If there is some truth to that hypothesis, we may begin to understand the depths of the common tragedy called Kosovo.

This is NOT to defend Serb policies or to legitimate or defend any human rights violations. But we will get nowhere if media and diplomats keep on pounding that Serbia and Serbs are the problem and deny that Serbs have a problem, too. Anyone interested in genuine conflict-resolution and not only more or less superficial solidarity must know the ABC of conflict-analysis and make an diagnosis of the problems as well as search for ways to treat the root causes that lead to human rights violations. Good conflict-resolution puts an end to such violations, but the forced ending of violations, however needed, does NOT automatically imply conflict-resolution.

Moralists to whom the world looks so simple point to human rights violations, identify superficially that A represses B – but seldom why – and advocate punishment of A, including bombings, coup d’etats, war crimes tribunals and sanctions against millions of innocent ordinary citizens. Too many humanitarian concerns dress themselves in military boots rather than ordinary shoes and sandals these days. We must begin to challenge such banal advocacy and address root causes of conflicts – before moralist action makes genuine long-term conflict-resolution and peace an even more remote hope” concludes Dr. Oberg.

August 27, 1998

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