Despite Increased Stability in Kosovo, Tensions Still Lurking, UN Mission Chief Tells Security Council, Urging Strong Leadership, Safe Return of Displaced Persons

SC/12489
25 August 2016
7760th Meeting* (AM)

Despite Increased Stability in Kosovo, Tensions Still Lurking, UN Mission Chief Tells Security Council, Urging Strong Leadership, Safe Return of Displaced Persons

The situation in Kosovo over the past three months had become more stable, but the threat of security and political tensions still lurked beneath the surface, the head of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) told the Security Council today.

Presenting his Mission’s latest three-month report, Zahir Tanin, Special Representative of the Secretary-General, said that, at the local level, economic, educational, health-care issues, the rule of law and corruption — not interethnic politics — were the dominant concerns.  Throughout the former Yugoslavia, he added, the immediate post-conflict generation was reaching voting age and looking for better opportunities.  With the European Union perspective as the region’s main driver of reform, he said, leadership from both sides would be as important as pragmatism and commitment going forward.

With around 16,000 people still displaced in Kosovo, and many more outside, the voluntary, safe and dignified return of displaced persons remained a fundamental right, Mr. Tanin said, appealing for the issue to be put back into focus.  And while recent months had seen no large-scale interethnic disturbances or significant attacks on cultural sites, vulnerable groups — in particular non-majority communities — had faced higher rates of intimidation.  Meanwhile, the fate of more than 1,600 persons still listed as missing from the time of the conflict required attention from all sides, including UNMIK.

Discussing the presence of radical Islamist elements and organizers, he said Kosovo authorities had implemented a strong law enforcement approach that would only succeed if it went hand in hand with efforts to address the socioeconomic drivers of extremism.  There, he said, the international community — including the United Nations — needed to play a major role.  Given the changing situation in Kosovo, Mr. Tanin added, UNMIK was developing ways to optimize its work, better engage with stakeholders and implement its objectives in a more up-to-date way.

Ivica Dačić, First Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs of Serbia, said the Secretary-General’s report should be viewed in the broader context of the complexity of the situation.  The section related to the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Priština did not adequately address the importance of the Community of Serb Municipalities, which had yet to be established.  The report also made no mention of the situation of the Serbs and other communities living south of the Ibar River, and noted simply that the level of returns was unacceptably low, he said.

While security in Kosovo and Metohija had always been unstable, he said, the radicalization of the political climate and the worsening of the security situation due to the rise of political and religious extremism had only increased such instability.  With respect to the size of the population, Kosovo and Metohija Albanians accounted for the largest percentage of those fighting in the ranks of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), he said, calling also on all countries that had not recognized Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence to persevere, despite the pressures to which they were exposed.

Vlora Çitaku of Kosovo said that Kosovo was “a young republic” that faced challenges, but not of the kind that required the Council to meet every three months to debate its situation.  “Kosovo is ready to move on, but Serbia needs to be ready to let go,” she said, recalling a visit by Hashim Thaçi to two memorials honouring Serbian civilians killed after 1999.  She said Kosovo was committed to a European Union-led dialogue in Brussels, but it also believed that the process needed to become more dynamic and results-oriented.  Kosovo would implement every agreement reached in Brussels, she said, but Serbia was making that difficult by financing parallel institutions inside Kosovo.

Kosovo would remain an active member of the coalition of nations fighting terrorism, she said, noting that it had adopted measures regarding foreign fighters and radicalization.  In the last 12 months, she said, the number of people from Kosovo who had joined ISIL was zero.  She concluded by recalling Kosovo’s first Olympic medallist, Majlinda Kelmendi, calling her and others like her Kosovo’s new heroes.

In the ensuing debate, several delegations questioned the need for the Council to continue taking up the situation in Kosovo every three months.  Some suggested that briefings every six months would be more appropriate.  Others emphasized that resolution 1244 (1999) remained the legal basis for resolving the Kosovo situation.

The Russian Federation’s representative called the situation in Kosovo far from normal, notably for its Serb minority.  More robust legal guarantees were needed to protect historical and sacred sites, he said, adding that dialogue between Belgrade and Priština was in a “deep freeze”.  He called Kosovo a “grey space” for recruiting and training terrorist fighters and stated that — in light of instability and ongoing interethnic conflict — UNMIK must continue to be resourced and supported.

His counterpart from the United States — one of several delegates who saluted Kosovo’s Olympic Games debut at Rio de Janiero — noted “with some disappointment” a slowdown in the pace of normalization between Belgrade and Priština in the past year.  She called upon leaders on both sides to uphold their commitments, and on all Member States to recognize Kosovo as an independent State.  To do so, she said, would be good for the international community, as well as “inevitable”,

Representatives of the United Kingdom, China, Japan, Ukraine, Angola, Uruguay, Senegal, Egypt, Venezuela, New Zealand, France, Spain and Malaysia also spoke.

The meeting began at 10:10 a.m. and ended at 12:25 p.m.

Briefing

ZAHIR TANIN, Special Representative of the Secretary-General, introducing the report on the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) (document S/2016/666), said the situation in Kosovo over the past three months had been more stable.  “Nonetheless, the threat of security and political tensions remained beneath the surface,” he said.  In the Kosovo Assembly, ratification of an agreement on Kosovo’s border with Montenegro had prompted political arguments and accusations which often strayed far from facts, irritating public sentiment.  Acts of political violence — including three incidents in August targeting the Assembly, the home of a Kosovo official and the headquarters of a public broadcaster — were “absolutely unacceptable,” he said.  However, recent talks with leaders gave him the impression that they understood the need to put realism and practicality higher on their political agenda.  Many had their eyes on emerging trends that might help remove old obstacles and lead to faster progress.

At the local level, he said, economic, educational, health-care issues, the rule of law and corruption — not interethnic politics — were the dominant concerns.  Throughout the former Yugoslavia, the immediate post-conflict generation was reaching voting age.  That generation needed clear directions and better opportunities, as Europeans and as world citizens.  “A lack of promising trades and professions, public corruption, and extremes of economic inequality all fracture the communities far more than do the ethnic or religious nationalisms,” he said.  He said that, during his recent conversations with leaders in Belgrade, he was struck by their emphasis on regional cooperation.  As in Pristina, they stressed the need for a successful European Union-led dialogue.  The European Union perspective was the region’s main driver of reform, he said, adding that leadership from both sides would be as important as pragmatism and commitment in taking the process forward.

Around 16,000 people were still displaced in Kosovo, with many more outside, he said.  With the passing of time, many had built new lives in their places of displacement.  However, the voluntary, safe and dignified return of displaced persons was a fundamental right.  That issue should be brought back into focus, he said.  According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some 9,400 displaced persons were registered to return.  For them to do so, requisite resources and proper conditions would be needed.

Although the past three months had seen no large-scale interethnic disturbances or significant attacks on cultural sites, vulnerable groups — in particular non-majority communities — had been subjected to higher rates of intimidation, with an average of around 25 potentially ethnically motivated crimes recorded every month, he said.  Meanwhile, more than 1,600 persons remained missing from the time of the conflict.  That issue must not slip off the political agenda, he said, calling for a sustained commitment by all sides, including UNMIK.

Turning to the presence of radical Islamist elements and organizers in Kosovo, he said the authorities had implemented a strong law enforcement approach regarding those who advocated violence and facilitated volunteer fighters.  Such an approach could only work, however, if it went hand in hand with efforts to address the socioeconomic drivers of extremism.  The international community, including the United Nations, had an important role to play through well-coordinated assistance.  In recent days, the Mission had significantly strengthened engagement with Kosovo leaders, while constructive engagement with Belgrade leaders remained essential for its balanced and objective role.  UNMIK had meanwhile reviewed its activities, developing a focused vision to optimize its work, better engage with all stakeholders and implement its objectives in a more up-to-date way.

Statements

IVICA DAČIĆ, First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Serbia, said his delegation had always made every effort to address the Council in a constructive manner, while the representatives of Priština continued to levy falsehoods and outright propaganda.  Among recent fabrications, the Council had heard in May that Albanians in Kosovo and Metohija had been beaten and arrested by Serbian police because they were playing football.  It had also heard repeatedly that Kosovo and Metohija Albanians had been loyal and good citizens of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia before Slobodan Milošević took power.  That contention was just another historically unfounded fabrication propagated to the international community with the aim of winning support for separatism and ethnic cleansing conducted systematically in Kosovo and Metohija in the last 100 years.  Kosovo’s representative would, presumably, speak about genocide and ethnic cleansing, which were more propaganda and lies.  History did not record evidence of such genocide.

Turning to the report of the Secretary-General, he warned that the document should be viewed in the broader context of the complexity of the situation.  The section related to the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Priština did not adequately address the importance of the Community of Serb Municipalities, which had yet to be established.  Instead of being the central issue, its establishment had become the subject of political blackmail.  The report also made no mention of the situation of the Serbs and other communities living south of the Ibar River, where the majority of the Serbs of Kosovo and Metohija lived.  It also noted simply that the level of returns was unacceptably low, without offering concrete reasons to explain why that situation was so worrisome.

What all reports of the Secretary-General had in common was the failure to characterize the incidents in Kosovo and Metohija as ethnically motivated, he said.  Absent from the current report was an account of the institutional reaction to incidents affecting minority communities, including by the police, prosecutorial and judicial authorities.  The danger of such an approach was the risk of a gradual acceptance by all — including the international community — of virtual impunity for criminal offenses committed against Serbs and other non-Albanians, including murder.

Security in Kosovo and Metohija had always been unstable, he continued.  However, the radicalization of the political climate and the worsening of the security situation due to the rise of political and religious extremism had only increased such instability.  With respect to the size of the population, Kosovo and Metohija Albanians accounted for the largest percentage of those fighting in the ranks of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh).  He called on all countries that had not recognized the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo to persevere, despite the pressures to which they were exposed.  Doing so showed respect for international law, the United Nations Charter and Council resolution 1244 (1999), which upheld the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia. 

Expressing his delegation’s hope that an opportunity would arise for dialogue and agreement in full accordance with international law, instead of unilateral acts, he went on to urge the countries that would use their statements today to call for the violation of a legally binding resolution to refrain from doing so, and to reconsider their decisions to recognize the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo.

VLORA ÇITAKU of Kosovo said that Kosovo was “a young republic” that faced challenges, but not of the kind that required the Council to meet every three months to debate its situation.  The millions of dollars spent every year to maintain UNMIK could be put to better use.  “Kosovo is ready to move on, but Serbia needs to be ready to let go,” she said, recalling a visit by Hashim Thaçi to two memorials honouring Serbian civilians killed after 1999 in Kosovo.  Serbia, meanwhile, wanted to erect a statue revering Slobodan Milošević.  Kosovo was committed to dialogue in Brussels, but it also believed that the process needed to become more dynamic and results-oriented.  On behalf of the government of Kosovo, she reiterated that every single agreement reached in Brussels would be implemented.  But, that job was made difficult when Serbia financed parallel institutions in Kosovo and tried to build colonies in the north of Kosovo in breach of the Brussels agreement of 19 April 2013.

Such dualism — implementing Brussels agreements on the one hand, and maintaining parallel structures on the other — allowed Serbia to report progress in implement while maintaining interference in Kosovo, she said.  Kosovo institutions had shown commitment through actions.  In the north, Serbian majority municipalities had received an additional €10 million from a special quality-of-life fund.  Kosovo would do all it could to demonstrate that every citizen, regardless of ethnicity or religion, felt at home and lived without fear.

She said Kosovo would remain an active member of the coalition of nations fighting terrorism.  It had taken very serious measures to fight the phenomenon of foreign fighters and radicalization.  Nineteen non-governmental organizations which fed radicalization and financed with suspicious funds had been shut down, while 34 people had been convicted.  “Today, around 50 Kosovars are in Syria and Iraq,” she said, adding, however, that in the last 12 months, the number who had joined ISIL was zero.

During the three-month reporting period that ended on 15 July, Kosovo had established diplomatic relations with three more countries, become a party to the Apostolic Convention and joined the International Exhibitions Bureau, she said.  While political discourse inside Kosovo remained fierce, all political parties condemned acts of violence such as attacks on the parliament building and public broadcaster RTK.  “Although the sky might seem grey sometimes, I know that there is hope for Kosovo,” she said, recalling how Majlinda Kelmendi had brought home Kosovo’s first Olympic medal.  She, like others, including a teenager who won a medal at the International Math Olympics, were Kosovo’s new heroes, showing there was no excuse for failure.

VITALY CHURKIN (Russian Federation) said the situation in the province was far from normal, with a trend towards deterioration including in the levels of security for Kosovo Serbs.  Acts of aggression had been seen against journalists, as well as refugees and internally displaced persons that had dared to return to their homes, and such acts had been ignored by the authorities.  More robust legal guarantees were needed to protect historical and sacred sites and the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština was in a “deep freeze”.  He expressed concern over efforts to create a “pan-Albanian State” and urged restraint in that respect, as such actions were ethnically fraught.  Expressing further concern over recent statements that UNMIK was a vehicle for Russian influence, he also raised concern about unjustifiable delays in establishing the special international tribunal.  That structure must learn from the mistakes of the past and hold accountable all those that were guilty.  As a result of the weakness of its security, Kosovo remained a “grey space” used to recruit and train terrorist fighters, and which fed such fighters to groups including ISIL.

Recalling that representatives of the Russian Federation had been unable to engage with the Kosovo Force (KFOR) officials during a recent visit, he warned that ignoring his country — as a permanent member of the Security Council — was unacceptable.  Given the unstable situation and ongoing interethnic conflict, UNMIK must continue to be resourced and supported, and resolution 1244 (1999) must remain the basis for any resolution of the situation in the province.

STEPHEN HICKEY (United Kingdom), recalling that Kosovo had recently participated in the Rio Olympic games under its own flag for the first time, drew a sharp contrast to the negative vision of Kosovo that was often presented before the Council.  He welcomed progress made in establishing the Special Court, as well as the return of the opposition to the Assembly and the downsizing of the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) and the transfer of power to Kosovo authorities.  Challenges remained, and he was concerned that the dialogue to normalize relations between Kosovo and Belgrade had stalled.  The Council once again found itself debating an issue that did not need to be on its agenda, and which did not represent a threat to international peace and security.  Calling for a reduction in the number of meetings and reports on UNMIK, which would allow the Council to focus on more pressing issues, he stressed that “we have to accept that discussions in this chamber exist in a bygone era” in which the existence of Kosovo was still questioned.  In that regard, he called on all States to help Kosovo seize its new future instead of dragging it back to the past.

WU HAITO (China) expressed respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia, and understanding for its legitimate concerns on the question of Kosovo.  Resolution 1244 (1999) was the basis for any resolution to the conflict, which must be in line with all the principles of the United Nations Charter.  The Government of Serbia had sought a political solution to the question of Kosovo, and he hoped that both sides would strive to maintain peace and security in the region.  The current security situation was generally stable, but it faced a number of uncertain factors.   In that regard, the rights of all communities of Kosovo must be protected, and actions that would further complicate the situation should be avoided.

YOSHIFUMI OKAMURA (Japan) said the people of Japan were deeply moved to see a Kosovo athlete, Majlinda Kelmendi, winning the Olympic gold medal for judo.  That achievement sent a strong message of hope to Kosovo’s people.  However, Kosovo had yet to qualify for a medal in institution-building.  Citing dozens of security incidents, he said:  “We see no significant progress in the relations between Serbia and Kosovo”.  It was important that Kosovo train police forces in communities, and enhance the rule of law and human rights, and promote capacity building of legal institutions.  He noted, however, Kosovo’s efforts in the area of counter-terrorism.  Kosovo was among the poorest countries in Europe, largely reflecting conflict legacies.  Coal and zinc represented promising export sectors.  Agriculture provided jobs for 40 per cent of the population, with potato and berry exports the main wealth creators.  Tax and revenue reform, and fair welfare distribution, were crucial for growth, he said, stressing that the key to peace was the formation of robust institutions.

YURIY VITRENKO (Ukraine) welcomed improved political conditions in Kosovo, but regretted that implementation of agreements resulting from the European Union-led dialogue had not significantly moved forward.  There was no alternative to the Brussels process, he said, fully supporting the Secretary-General’s call for both sides to resume engagement and show willingness to compromise.  Another issue requiring attention was the safe and sustainable return of refugees and internally displaced persons, “a problem applicable to Ukraine, as well”, he said, emphasizing the right of such persons to return to their places of origin.  Special attention should also be paid to assaults on the cultural and religious heritage of minority communities.  Ukraine strongly supported the important work of UNMIK and other international missions in Kosovo and welcomed the extension of the EULEX mandate for another two years.

JULIO HELDER MOURA LUCAS (Angola) said he was encouraged that that the overall security situation in Kosovo had remained stable and that political conditions had improved.  Underlining the fundamental role of UNMIK, he said a number of sensitive issues remained outstanding, such as the border demarcation agreement with Montenegro.  Efforts to tackle organized crime and corruption had yielded positive results, with no recent reports of anyone from Kosovo joining the conflicts in the Middle East.  Angola remained confident that the political leaders of Belgrade and Priština would be able to reach agreement under the European Union-facilitated dialogue, he said, adding that resolution 1244 (1999) remained the applicable legal framework for a comprehensive solution for Kosovo.

MICHELE SISON (United States), congratulating the Olympic athletes of both Serbia and Kosovo, said Ms. Kelmendi’s gold medal was preceded by years of practice.  The Council, too, had spent years discussing Kosovo, she said.  Having largely fulfilled its mandate, UNMIK should be further consolidated.  While there had been some excellent political reporting from the Mission, she asked what its remaining tasks were.  With the Secretariat and the Council facing more pressing business at hand, she said the Council should debate Kosovo every six months.  Doing so should not be construed as a lack of support for Kosovo.  She noted “with some disappointment” that the pace of normalization had slowed in the past year, and called upon leaders on both sides to uphold their commitments.  Recalling the recent visit by Vice-President Joe Biden to Belgrade and Priština, she called on all Member States to recognize Kosovo, and looked forward to the day it would have a seat in the General Assembly.  That would be good for Kosovo, good for the international community, “and it’s inevitable”.

BEATRIZ NUÑEZ (Uruguay) stressed that resolution 1244 (1999) should serve as the internationally accepted legal basis for resolving the situation in Kosovo, ensuring strict respect for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia.  Challenges remained on the security front, with tensions and increasing reports of attacks on members of Kosovo’s minority communities.  Firmly rejecting the use of such violence, she regretted the lack of significant progress in the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade and urged all parties to reach a compromise.  Efforts to address of the situation of disappeared persons were particularly important, she said, welcoming the recent meeting of a working group in that regard.  Nevertheless, concerns remained.  With regard to migration, she stressed that regional cooperation focused on a human rights approach was fundamental.

FODÉ SECK (Senegal) welcomed the fact that, despite the tensions that remained, there had been an improvement in the situation in Kosovo marked by a decrease in violent acts and the holding of elections without incident.  While his delegation regretted the lack of progress since the Brussels meeting, he nevertheless encouraged both parties to continue along the path of such momentum.  Other recent positive developments included steps by Kosovo to liberalize the visa regime and promote the rule of law.  The extension of the EULEX mandate was appropriate, he said, urging all parties to work together.

MOHAMMAD ABOULWAFA (Egypt) reaffirmed the importance of building on the parties’ commitments to implement past agreements and to achieve a peaceful settlement of all pending issues, which would only be achieved through the creation of a environment conducive to such aims and continued dialogue under the aegis of the European Union.  Welcoming the decision of the Netherlands to host the special tribunal to investigate war crimes, which would help enforce the rule of law in Kosovo, he stressed the need to bolster efforts on voluntary repatriation of displaced persons, complete reconciliation and non-discrimination, the protection of minority rights and other key areas.  In addition, he expressed his delegation’s support for the five-year strategy to combat extremism announced by Kosovo authorities.

WILMER ALFONZO MÉNDEZ GRATEROL (Venezuela) said resolution 1244 (1999) remained the legal basis for a peaceful solution in Kosovo, and called for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia to be guaranteed.  The support of the United Nations remained vital, especially through UNMIK.  Regretting the absence of significant progress, he encouraged all parties to intensify their efforts to transform the situation.  It was important to support the voluntary return of Serbs who had been displaced from their homes and to promote full respect for the human rights of displaced persons and minorities.  He expressed concern over incidents against Serbo-Kosovar citizens, urged parties to work together on protecting religious and cultural heritage, and highlighted efforts by Kosovo authorities to address terrorism and violent extremism.

CAROLYN SCHWALGER (New Zealand) welcomed improvement in the standards of political engagement, following disruptive incidents in the Kosovo Assembly earlier this year, expressing hope for a more settled political future, with respect for democratic institutions, courts and judges.  She urged renewed efforts to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia, expressing hope that progress would be made in implementing agreements for energy, telecoms and Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo.  She welcomed progress towards establishing the specialized court to try cases brought forward by the European Union Special Investigative Task Force, encouraging the Council to consider adopting a more flexible approach to addressing the agenda item, as there were other issues of more immediate importance.

ALEXIS LAMEK (France), assuring the Special Representative of France’s support, said the future of Kosovo and its regional integration should be decided within the framework of the European Union-led dialogue, rather than in the Council.  He called on the authorities in Kosovo and Serbia to achieve more concrete results in the coming months, citing such issues as the Mitrovica Bridge and Serb-majority municipalities.  Normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina remained indispensable for progress on the path to European integration.  Efforts to strengthen the rule of law in Kosovo must remain a priority.  He welcomed rapid ratification of an agreement with the Netherlands for a specialized judicial chamber in The Hague and reiterated support for the EULEX mission.  Expressing France’s support for international recognition of Kosovo, he reiterated its wish for a progressive transfer of competencies from UNMIK to Kosovo authorities and a change in how often the Council debated Kosovo.

JUAN MANUEL GONZÁLEZ DE LINARES PALOU (Spain) said his delegation had long supported the critical dialogue between Priština and Belgrade.  Circumstances such as election cycles could explain the absence of dialogue in recent months, but the parties must now return to dialogue in a committed manner.  Noting that progress had been achieved, he nevertheless underscored the importance of establishing Serbian municipalities as a necessary step towards reconciliation.  Expressing support for UNMIK, whose role in Kosovo remained crucial, he also stressed that all political leaders must set an example by abandoning incendiary rhetoric and support for violence.  Discussions on the issue of Kosovo remained important and should continue to be held on a regular basis.

RAMLAN BIN IBRAHIM (Malaysia), Council President for August, said in his national capacity that he was encouraged by recent political and economic improvements in Kosovo.  Calling for the continued implementation of Kosovo’s economic reforms, including tackling unemployment, he also took note of significant reductions in violent protests and progress in implementing the 2013 15-point Brussels Agreement.  The Community of Serb Municipalities should be established and efforts should continue to combat terrorism, he said, welcoming Kosovo’s introduction of a law to counter terrorist financing.  There was value in the calls for the Council to reduce its number of meetings on UNMIK, as the situation no longer merited such attention.

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*  The 7759th Meeting was closed.

For information media. Not an official record.