One-on-one | Human Rights

Sian Jones: Institutions have done nothing for survivors of sexual violence — now it’s their chance to do something

By - 09.10.2017

Amnesty International’s researcher for Kosovo talks to K2.0 about war crimes, missing persons and failed justice.

As a researcher for Amnesty International for 17 years, Sian Jones is one of the strongest voices in addressing human rights violations in Kosovo. In recent years, Jones and Amnesty have been particularly vocal in urging the Kosovo Assembly to adopt the legal amendment that gave legal recognition and acknowledgment to the victims of war crimes of sexual violence.

From her homeland in England or on the ground in different parts of Kosovo, Jones has been involved in human rights activism in Kosovo for more than two decades. Amid the climate of double oppression toward women during the ’90s by the Milosevic regime on one side and their families on the other as part of international women’s NGOs, Jones helped to provide funding and humanitarian assistance to Motrat Qiriazi and the Centre for the Protection of Women and Children: two leading women’s rights organizations of that time.

Since 2000, Jones has been a Balkan Researcher at the Amnesty office in London, where she has been covering war crimes and other crimes under international law, including enforced disappearances and abductions, and she also monitored the justice system under both UNMIK and EULEX.

Among other things, her work has helped Amnesty’s reporting on the impunity of the international community, including KFOR and UNMIK, in the context of the trafficking of women and girls for forced prostitution. She also pays attention to the rights of minorities, including Serbs, Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, as well as the LGBTI community.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

K2.0 caught up with Jones during her recent visit to Kosovo to discuss the priorities that need to be tackled by the new government, obstacles in solving cases of enforced disappearances and ensuring the rights of survivors of conflict related sexual violence.

K2.0: What are the main human rights issues that the new government under Ramush Haradinaj need to address?

Sian Jones: I think the biggest issue is access to social and economic rights. There is no comprehensive health insurance here. Establishing that should be an absolute priority — so that people have health insurance and access to primary and hospital care. This week, I met a woman who sold all her land in order to have dialysis. That’s just wrong.

In a way, what they need to tackle first, priorities — [and] I think it is very hard for the government to do this is to tackle those big things like an effective health service and social services for the protection of children. The government needs to ensure that everybody can have a reasonable standard of living and can access basic services. The unemployment rate is extremely high, and so another priority is meaningful employment.

Who would you consider as the groups that face the highest level of discrimination and that live on the margins of society?

In this region, one of the groups facing discrimination, but that have probably moved forward faster than others, are LGBTI people. There is a movement based on activism, young activists, who are more willing to speak out. Even though it has always been a very small number speaking out, they made tremendous strides. I remember the first pride in Belgrade in 2001, and then in 2010 how people were attacked, and now in Serbia, having a Pride Parade is quite normal.

I know there is going to be a pride here in Prishtina [on Tuesday, Oct. 10] and in a way that is the first step.

However, many of those changes are just on the surface. One of the EU’s priorities for accession has been the promotion of LGBTI rights; so countries want to tick the box and say, “We had a Pride.” But when you look under the surface, even countries with hate crime legislation don’t prosecute hate crimes against LGBTI people. There is no point in constructing yourself as a progressive country, if you don’t actually guarantee rights.

"The fundamental indicator of LGBTI rights is the prosecution of hate crimes, and I haven’t seen any effective prosecutions for hate crimes in Kosovo."

In Albania, a recent survey on the employment of LGBTI people showed that the number of companies with progressive policies is tiny, and in government institutions, it is even worse. There has to be a comprehensive commitment to human rights, because the human rights framework demands that you guarantee rights to all, without discrimination.

In the two past LGBTI marches in Kosovo, we have seen the presence of politicians but there isn’t a political party in Kosovo that has come forward in support of the LGBTI community. Is it a telling sign that their presence in the marches is mainly for the international community?  

It can be. At the first Pride in Montenegro, there were more ambassadors than local politicians. I think the fundamental indicator of LGBTI rights is the prosecution of hate crimes, and I haven’t seen any effective prosecutions for hate crimes in Kosovo, including the attack on Kosovo 2.0 in 2012.

Still, the legislation in Kosovo is quite progressive when it comes to respecting rights regardless of differences, but the implementation is very low. What do you see as an obstacle? The unwillingness of institutions?

Amnesty International has been concerned about the lack of progress in guaranteeing the rights of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians in Kosovo for a very long time. I have seen many Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian strategies; I have seen many action plans. And yet, nothing seems to change.

I think there has been a problem in Kosovo because a lot of work on Roma rights has been carried out with international funding. Now this funding is beginning to dry out and there are not so many externally funded initiatives. So, the government has to make priorities and fund them from the Kosovo budget. The unemployment rate for Roma was around 90 percent in 2016; so the government has to create some meaningful employment, not some scheme run by an NGO that won’t be here next year. Many Roma are living in situations of absolute poverty, and their number continues to increase as Germany and other countries continue to return Roma to Kosovo, where they receive little meaningful assistance.

The government has to make sure that there is something for these people to come back to. Otherwise, they are just going to get back on the bus, and try to get back into the EU. Kosovo needs to have a population that doesn’t want to leave, and that is not just [regarding] Roma.

In 2015, when thousands of people left Kosovo, it wasn’t necessarily because of the political situation, it was because of levels of poverty. In a detention removal center in Hungary, I met families who had sold their house, sold their land, sold anything that they had, in order to leave, only to be arrested at the Hungarian border, put in a detention center and returned, or — in other cases — pushed back over the border without any consideration of an asylum claim.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

When visa liberalization comes, it is a real possibility that thousands of people are going to get on the bus again and try to go to Europe, unless things change. It comes back to what I said at the beginning: The government needs to provide employment or social welfare, and access to health and adequate housing.

They [the government] can say, “We have addressed the Montenegrin border issue,” or, “We have created a Ministry of Innovation,” but how is this going to affect the lives of the majority of the population. The government’s responsibility is to look after its citizens. A war was fought for Kosovo to become independent, but what independence do people have when they are living in poverty?

The obstacles in solving cases of enforced disappearances are something that Amnesty has been emphasizing since the end of the war, and in every annual report.

Amnesty International has worked on enforced disappearances since ’99. We interviewed many people who had lost their family members in 1999 in refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia, Over the past 17 years, we focused on 25 missing people, as “emblematic cases” 20 of them were Albanian, three were Serbs and two were Roma. Out of all those cases, less than half of the bodies have been found, and although there were prosecutions of the Serbian leadership in relation to Kosovo at the Trinbunal [International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY], few individual perpetrators have been prosecuted.  

From our interviews with the families, and other evidence, including the work of the UNMIK Human Rights Advisory Panel, it is clear that UNMIK failed to investigate enforced disappearances when the evidence and the witnesses were available [and] the stories were fresh in people’s minds. And when bodies were returned to their families from the mass graves in Serbia, they just closed the case. They didn’t understand that although it was very important for the families to have the body of their relative returned, it is also important to get justice.

Over the last seven years, the exhumation process has slowed down considerably, just over 160 bodies have been recovered since 2010, and [around] 1,665 people are still missing. [On September 18] there was an exhumation in Albania and now one family will have their relative back.

"I think that is one of the most painful issues left over from the war, and the family’s feel that the institutions have forgotten about the missing."

But there are still bodies buried in Kosovo, and they are not being found, except maybe one or two a year. This is one of the issues where there has to be better cooperation not just between Serbia and Kosovo, but also from organizations who were here at the beginning, including KFOR. Without any police force present immediately after the war, people went to KFOR bases to report people missing. They have a lot of information, which the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] has continued to ask them to provide; but for most countries — [based on] security grounds or military grounds — that information hasn’t been given.

In some cases, KFOR found bodies and reburied them elsewhere. The Tribunal [ICTY] also conducted exhumations and reburied the bodies. There is still some confusion from that early period — there must be bodies of Albanians, Serbs and Roma buried all over Kosovo and either nobody knows where the graves are, or if they do know, they are not telling.

The [Kosovo] Forensic Institute has tried very hard, using quite complex technology, to identify where these gravesites are, but haven’t really met with much success.

It will soon be 20 years after the war: relatives of the missing are getting old and afraid that they will die without knowing what happened to their loved ones. I think that is one of the most painful issues left over from the war, and the families feel that the institutions have forgotten about the missing.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

Do you think missing persons need to be part of the dialogue in Brussels?

I think it should be, and I don’t see why it can’t be. I have been told that it is too political an issue, that it is too difficult. But in the end there was a war and this is how in the end you resolve at least part of the “post-war conflict,” because families in both Serbia and Kosovo still feel the pain and loss, which is never going to be resolved, until the bodies are found.

In an imaginary situation where Kosovar institutions, Serb institutions and the international community are at one table to discuss the issue — what do they need to do?

On a political level, they need to establish an agreement that both sides in the armed conflict will make  evidence available to the other side. In the first instance, this would mean providing the locations of mass graves and burial sites in both Kosovo and in Serbia. Secondly, there would need to be an agreement on an exhumation programme, and finally the return of the bodies to their families in Kosovo and Serbia. This is a purely humanitarian issue; the ICRC have sought this information for years, and it seems that now, only a political agreement can make it possible.

For there to be access to justice on both sides, you need an agreement on cooperation between police, prosecutors and judiciary in Kosovo and Serbia. There is cooperation between Serbia and Bosnia, Serbia cooperates with Croatia, and there has been real progress in bringing perpetrators to justice — in many war crimes cases, not necessarily only enforced disappearances.

"You can understand why people didn’t have faith in UNMIK’s justice system; they didn’t have faith in EULEX, and now they won’t have faith in the Kosovo prosecutors."

There needs to be more than technical cooperation on exhumation, but ultimately judicial and prosecutorial cooperation on cases and the identification of perpetrators and being able to transfer them from one country to the other. But while Serbia doesn’t recognize the independence of Kosovo, and Kosovo is unlikely to cooperate with Serbia, there is no way that this cooperation will happen. The process is stuck. Maybe the EU is the only institution that can put that pressure on both sides, but at the moment, it doesn’t seem willing to tackle that issue.

What can Kosovar authorities do? What would their role be?

EULEX has some degree of cooperation with Serbia and when they [EULEX] go, it is difficult to see how there can be any progress. The institutions will have to make positive overtures to Serbia, and I am not really sure they would do that while Serbia is refusing really to make positive moves towards Kosovo. It is still like two sides of the war, even though maybe relations have got better in some way and there are now Serbs in the Kosovo government.

How do you see the transfer of war crimes cases from EULEX to Kosovo’s institutions?

There are only two war crimes prosecutors in the Special Prosecution Office, and they also deal with corruption and all sorts of other cases. Given that hundreds of cases are being transferred, it would take them forever to process those cases. Almost all the cases being transferred from EULEX were transferred from UNMIK in 2008-09, and we know from the work of the UNMK Human Rights Advisory Panel that UNMIK investigated few cases properly. So the possibility that there is enough evidence to prosecute the majority of transferred cases is very, very small.

You can understand why people didn’t have faith in UNMIK’s justice system; they didn’t have faith in EULEX, and now they won’t have faith in the Kosovo prosecutors. So many people have wanted justice; they have given statements, they have provided evidence, so long ago, and yet nothing has happened in their case.

Post-war justice is very complex, but it shouldn’t take so long. The international community missed an opportunity to bring justice to Kosovo, sometimes for political reasons they decided … the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague has been set up to try a specific set of crimes that were allegedly committed by the KLA. UNMIK could have prosecuted them back in 2003 or 2004, but a political decision was made to not prosecute members of the KLA, because the international community wanted political stability. We shall have to wait and see what happens with the new court.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

The rights of survivors of sexual violence during the Kosovo war is something that Amnesty has advocated for massively over the years. This is precisely one of the main reasons that has brought you to Kosovo this time. Do you see any progress toward ensuring these rights?

Under the previous president, there was clearly a massive boost towards ensuring the rights of survivors of conflict related sexual violence We [Amnesty International] supported the move to introduce the amendment to the Law [on the Status and Rights of the Martyrs, Invalids, Veterans, Members of KLA, Civilian Victims of War and their Families]. Although the amendment is imperfect, we supported it because there was a huge gap in the existing legislation, which meant that women who had suffered sexual violence were not getting any form of recognition or compensation.

I have just spent the past week talking to survivors: They have survived in such harsh conditions, most have no income, many are dependent on their family members some of whom don’t even know what happened to them, because the stigma here is so strong. Many of them suffered the most horrendous injuries due to what happened to them, and the majority of them appear to be suffering from stress-related illnesses. Many are living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and it is only those who have been able to pluck up the courage to go and talk to NGOs who are getting any help.

The NGOs have given them counseling, have given them treatment, have helped them to buy medicines and have provided them with bees or greenhouses or cows, so they are able to provide for themselves and their families with some income. The institutions have done nothing for those women, and now it is their chance.

The [former] president [Atifete Jahjaga] showed the way — she went out and talked to the women. She moved the process on. She set up the Council [National Council for the Survivors of Sexual Violence during the War], and with the expertise of the NGOs, worked out what enabling legislation was needed. The application process for reparation here in Kosova is very good; it is designed to protect the women’s anonymity, and it will provide them with acknowledgement for what they have suffered and some compensation to live on.

It is regrettable that the law does not provide them with access to free health care, which they really need. It also excludes any woman who was raped or sexually assaulted after the war. So, unlike the Law on Missing Persons, which includes everyone who was disappeared up until  December 2000, any of the mainly Serb or Roma women who were raped after the war by the KLA or other Albanians don’t qualify under this legislation.

"Many of the survivors cannot let go of the past because of what happened to them — despite all the counseling and help they have received. They need this from the government — almost every woman I have spoken to has said: 'The institutions have done nothing for us.'"

But despite these problems with the law, the most important thing is to implement it. This year there has been real progress. Under pressure from the women’s NGOs earlier this year, the previous government set up the Verification Commission, which has a good representation on it of different professionals, as well as representation from the relevant institutions. The process has been designed by women NGOs working together with the institutions, and with people on the Verification Commission who are committed to making it work

Now, the new government has stepped up, and on September 22, they announced that a budget would be allocated for the running of the Verification Commission and to provide reparations, specifically, compensation, in the form of a monthly pension to women who were raped or sexually assaulted during the war.

What should the government’s next steps be? Just after the budget allocation announcement for the Verification Commission, Kosovo’s minister of finance proposed reducing the timespan of verification from five year to five months, causing reaction from NGOs that work with sexual violence survivors.

Amnesty International does have a number of concerns. We hope that the compensation is such that it provides women with a dignified settlement. We also hope that there will be some agreement, as was being negotiated with the previous government, that an agreement can be reached with the Ministry of Health, so that they are provided with health insurance. The problems around eligibility for women who are already in receipt of other war-related pensions perhaps because their husband was killed or injured in the war are resolved, so that women receive compensation for the harm personally done to them.  

Another issue, related to the budget is that of the authorities wanting to know how many women will apply and how much it is going to cost. It is impossible to predict this, but from looking at, for example, Bosnia and Herzegovina, it will not be a large number in the first year.  It may be bigger in the second year, and the third and so on. We are therefore very worried that instead of being provided with five years to apply for the status of survivor — as originally planned — there is pressure to reduce this period to five months.

The number of survivors who have already come forward to the NGOs and told their stories is actually quite small. And the number of those women who will initially apply for the pension will be smaller still. Even with the guarantee of anonymity, many are really worried that someone will recognize them, despite the protection measures that are being put in place so their names are never revealed the number of women who are brave enough to go forward as soon as the provisions of the amendment come into effect will be relatively small.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

The others will need to see the process working, and gain enough confidence, to make their applications. You have to remember that some women have never even told their husbands or other family members, so it will take a lot of courage to tell their story to an official commission.

The cost to this government would not be very much, but the benefit to those women would be transformative. It would give them recognition, it would give them respect, and it would give them their own money, so they feel a sense of themselves; and it would give them a future.

Many of the survivors cannot let go of the past because of what happened to them despite all the counseling and help they have received. They need this from the government — almost every woman I have spoken to has said: “The institutions have done nothing for us.” So I think this is an opportunity for the government to do something.

Under international law, victims of crimes under humanitarian law — war crimes and crimes against humanity — and that’s what rape is — have the right to justice and reparations. Only a small number of these women will get access to justice, because of the problems we’ve already discussed about the justice system; so reparation, in the form of compensation, healthcare and some sort of official acknowledgement, is the best way this government can honor the majority of these women — for the violations they experienced during the war, and the psychological trauma and physical illnesses that they have suffered for the past 18 years.K

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0