In the next few weeks, Kosovar survivors of wartime sexual violence are expected to receive long awaited recognition and reparations for the harm they received during the Kosovo war. A Human Rights Watch report from 2000 identified that during the war, “rape and other forms of sexual violence were used as weapons of war and instruments of systematic ‘ethnic cleansing.’”
Now, nearly 20 years later, activists and officials are about to finalize preparations, and the application process to receive the legal status of a victim of war is set to start in February 2018. Verified survivors will be entitled to monthly compensation of 230 euros, paid for from the state budget.
It was only in March 2014 that the right of survivors to reparations, predominantly in the form of monthly monetary compensation, was recognized in amendments to the existing law that covers the status of victims of war. It took three more years for the Verification Commission, the body responsible for reviewing applications, to be established in April 2017, and another eight months for a budget to be allocated to pay reparations.
In its report published in December 2017, Amnesty International wrote that since 1999, both UNMIK and the Kosovo government had failed in their obligations to survivors, who had instead received support and assistance from NGOs. The report also notes that the legislative changes still fall far short of international standards for reparations and the needs of survivors, who will continue to be denied access to free health care and adequate rehabilitation.
Before the application process officially begins, K2.0 looks at who will likely undertake the process, how their confidentiality will be protected, and how state recognition can help fight stigmatization — as well as the shortcomings of the legislation.
The application process
The Verification Commission that will review applications consists of nine members, with five representatives from the government sitting alongside a lawyer, a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a representative from civil society who has experience of supporting victims of sexual violence.
Survivors can choose to apply in three different ways, the first being through four specific NGOs that are authorized by the government — the Kosovo Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims (KRCT), Medica Kosova, Medica Gjakova and the Center for Women’s Rights Promotion – Drenas.
Feride Rushiti, the Executive Director at KRCT explained to K2.0 that the authorized NGOs, who have been working to support survivors from different regions, will help applicants with any logistical issues during the application process, and will be in charge of taking the application to the Verification Commission.
Survivors can also apply individually and directly to the Commission through a government established office in Prishtina, as well as through the Regional Offices of the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare’s Department for Families of Martyrs, War Invalids and Civilian Victims of the War.
The applicant will get a response within 30 days of the day of application, and granted compensation on the same day that she/he receives recognition. If the status is denied, applicants have the right to appeal the decision within 15 days.
There is also a deadline for applications — five years from the moment the process is functionalized. Amnesty International have raised the issue that this deadline may be too short, stating that many survivors are uncertain over whether to apply and will potentially make a decision based on the experiences of early applicants, a process that seems likely to last more than five years.
Who will apply?
Although it is estimated that there are around 20,000 persons that have suffered sexual violence during the Kosovo war, activists say that the exact number will never be known. The four designated NGOs have documented and identified around 1,000 persons who have told their stories of sexual violence during the war.
Representatives from these organizations believe that during the first months of the process being open, the Commission will mainly receive applications from survivors whose family members have been supportive — a process that has been reflected in their own empowerment. However, as a result of societal stigmatization, many survivors have never told their stories to their families, which activists believe will impact on their decision to apply.
“Many women will have their family as an obstacle when it comes to applying,” says Veprore Shehu, the executive director of Medica Kosova. “This is a permanent pension, and they might have permanent anxiety if family members aren’t aware of the reparations [that they are receiving].”
Shehu adds that reparations in the form of a monthly income could also encourage men who suffered sexual violence to come forward and exercise their right to reparations. She says that the social stigma is even greater for male survivors of sexual violence during the war, in part due to their exclusion from the public debate.
However, while some groups may be emboldened, others are excluded from the application process. The current legislation — which uses June 20, 1999, as a cut-off date for the eligibility of potential victims — does not address the needs of those who suffered sexual violence in the aftermath of the war, when fighting had technically ended, denying them the right to recognition and reparations.
There also issues of compatibility with previous legislation for financial reparations as a result of the Kosovo war. Citizens already receiving a pension under the Law on the Status and the Rights of the Martyrs, Invalids, Veterans, Members of the Kosova Liberation Army, Civilian Victims of War and their Families, are ineligible to receive any other pension applicable within Kosovo.
Shehu believes this may dissuade many survivors from applying. “For example, there is a woman whose husband is a martyr and she receives his pension,” she says. “She doesn’t dare to go into the [application process] for recognition of her status because her pension will be thrown out.”
Applicants are able to fill in a handwritten application at the offices of one of the four authorized organizations, without having to go in front of the Commission, which Rushiti believes is an important measure to aid confidentiality. She adds that during the design of the application procedure, experts from the Agency of Data Protection were consulted in order to provide the best practices.
Once the application is completed, the document will be immediately regarded as classified. If applying through the organizations and the Commision needs extra information before giving the decision, they will obtain further information through the organization.
The applicant will only be obliged to appear in front of the Commission if the documentation of the experiences contains many unclarities. In that case, three members of the Commission will interview the victim, and the participation of a psychologist will be obligatory. The applicant also has the right to be accompanied by any person of their choosing to provide support during the interview.
Rushiti says that all members of the Commission have also signed a confidentiality document, which will also extend to the four organizations’ staff members. Any disclosure will be considered a criminal act.
She stresses that the system was designed so that all declarations are only for the purpose of verification, rather than as part of the justice process. In this sense, the system differs from that employed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where for a long time the declarations were also sent to the state prosecutor in order to investigate war crimes. Activists specializing in the field have said that this deterred many survivors from applying for reparations in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
However, despite all the measures taken to ensure confidentiality, there may be a gap in the system. Appeals regarding decisions of the Commission will be conducted through the Basic Court of Prishtina, where, Rushiti is concerned, the same measures may not be in place.
Removing the stigma
Veprore Shehu from Medica Kosova believes social stigma was the main reason less and less survivors spoke about their experiences to NGOs and activists in the years following the war, especially in contrast to to its immediate aftermath when survivors were more ready to talk. However, in more recent years, this process has started to be reversed.
According to Shehu, the creation in 2015 of the National Council for the Survivors of Sexual Violence during the War, led by former president Atifete Jahjaga, as well as her public support for survivors, to some extent helped challenge the stigma and has led to survivors feeling more supported by the state. Both Shehu and Rushiti believe that the reparation provisions will add to Jahjaga’s initiative, and reinforce governmental support.K
Any survivors of wartime sexual violence seeking recognition or reparations can contact the following organizations:
Kosovo Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims
Center for Women’s Rights Promotion – Drenas
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0