The UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics, Baskut Tuncak, called on Wednesday for compensation to be paid to the Roma people who were displaced by the Kosovo war and then exposed to lead poisoning while spending years in post-war UN-run camps adjacent to the Trepca mining complex in Mitrovica in the country’s north.
“Around 600 members of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities were placed in the camps between 1999 and 2013 on land known to have been contaminated by lead. Approximately half were children under the age of 14,” said a statement issued by Tuncak after meeting Roma families who were affected.
The UN Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK’s Human Rights Advisory Panel found in 2016 that the UN was ultimately responsible for the victims’ hardship and recommended the international organisation pay out cash compensation to the victims.
However, the UN has since refused to acknowledge any responsibility or pay compensation, choosing instead to establish a ‘trust fund’ to finance projects designed to support the Roma community as a whole. So far, the fund has not received a single contribution.
Tuncak described the trust fund solution as “fundamentally flawed”, saying it would “neither provide justice nor the necessary elements of an effective remedy for the victims”.
“After sobering discussions with victims and their families, and assessing the facts of this tragic case, the circumstances demand individual compensation and a public apology by the United Nations, in addition to community-based projects,” Tuncak said in a statement.
Christine Chinkin, an international legal expert who presided over the lead-poisoning case for UNMIK’s Human Rights Advisory Panel, said it was “very frustrating” to see her ruling ignored.
“By setting up a trust fund, they are not accepting that there is a legal obligation on the UN to pay reparations when there’s a violation of human rights,” Chinkin said.
“Essentially they did not respond in accordance with our recommendations,” she added.
Tuncak said that he believed that while the UN’s public statements on the matter have been unwavering in their refusal to pay individual compensation, there are people within the organisation who are pushing for an alternative solution.
“I have the impression that there are people in the UN who recognise this is an issue of integrity for the organisation and that something needs to be done for these victims more than the trust fund is offering,” he said.
Parallels with Haiti’s deadly cholera outbreak
Some observers have drawn parallels between the plight of the lead-poisoned Kosovo Roma and Haiti’s cholera outbreak in 2010.
More than three-quarters of a million Haitians were infected with cholera and approximately 10,000 died after a sanitation company contracted by UN peacekeepers dumped infected faeces into a stream.
For years, the UN denied any legal responsibility until then Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon established a $400 million trust fund in December 2016 – part of which was to go to infrastructure projects, like the Kosovo fund, and part to be allocated for individual compensation. However only a fraction of the total fund has so far been raised.
UN Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty Philip Alston, whose reports on the situation in Haiti were instrumental in getting the UN to take responsibility for the consequences of its actions, said the situations in Kosovo and Haiti were not identical but had some similarities.
“I do think that the underlying principles are the same and that a denial of responsibility sets the pattern for denying in all subsequent situations, which of course means repeating the cycle in relation to future disasters and further blackening the reputation of the UN in key locations around the world,” he told BIRN in emailed comments.
A report in the New York Times in 2017 quoted anonymous sources as saying that at one time there had been momentum within the UN for a “sincere” apology to be issued in the case of Kosovo’s Roma.
The same sources reportedly said that “main obstacle”to that apology, and the possibility of direct financial compensation, was the UN’s Office of Legal Affairs objecting to “any language in the statement that could be construed as acknowledging liability”.
Bruce Rashkaw, who headed the general legal division of the Office of Legal Affairs until 2005, told BIRN that while the UN might have solid legal grounds for not paying out compensation to the victims, it is not absolved of its moral responsibility.
“I think they ought to have considered setting up a dual trust fund as they did in Haiti and said something to the effect of,‘We regret things unfolded the way they did in Haiti,’” Rashkaw said.
“The interesting thing about Kosovo is that there’s been no internal political push. The question is why is Kosovo’s parliament not allocating or seeking to allocate funds for this, one would think that they should be doing this,” he added.