Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Senator George V. Voinovich
Commissioner - Helsinki Commission


I thank the chairmen, Congressman Smith and Senator Campbell, for scheduling this hearing to discuss the situation for Kosovo’s ethnic minorities. This issue has been one of my top concerns during my time in the Senate, and I believe it is critical – with all that is going on in the world – that we continue to discuss and examine issues affecting southeast Europe.

I have probably spent more time on southeast Europe than any other member of the Senate, and I have been interested in Kosovo since I visited the Stankovic refugee camp in Macedonia during the war in 1999. At that time, I was very concerned with the plight of Kosovar Albanian refugees, and I was glad that many of them were able to return to their homes. I have also been very concerned with human rights and refugee returns throughout the region, whether in Bosnia, Croatia or Kosovo.

As my colleagues may be aware, the OSCE and the UN High Commission on Refugees released the Ninth Assessment of the Situation of Ethnic Minorities in Kosovo at the end of May. I have reviewed this document and I am glad that we have witnesses here today who will be able to elaborate on some of the key issues and recommendations in the report.

At the end of May, I had the opportunity to spend time in Kosovo following the NATO Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria, and I was pleased to have many productive meetings during my time there. It was my third trip to Kosovo since February 2000 and the fourth full day that I have spent there.

I spent time with the Head of UNMIK Michael Steiner, as well as Commander of KFOR General Valentin. I also met with President Rugova and Prime Minister Rexhepi, and Serb leaders Rada Trajkovic and Ljubomir Stanojkovic. Ms. Trajkovic will testify before the Commission this morning. I also met with Ambassador John Menzies and his team at the U.S. Office in Pristina, and I was glad to visit with General Lute at KFOR Main and some of our troops at Camp Bondsteel.

I also had the opportunity to meet with Ambassador Pascal Fieschi, who heads the OSCE Mission in Kosovo.

My impressions after spending time in Kosovo last month reaffirm many of the conclusions reached in the OSCE-UNHCR report: while there has been some improvement for ethnic minorities, there is still a long way to go.

I am impressed with the “benchmark” goals that have been outlined by UNMIK, which call for progress in key areas, including respect for the rule of law, strengthening democratic institutions, and building a civil society.

The benchmark goals also emphasize respect for minority rights and refugee returns, which deserve attention both from the international community and from the newly elected leadership in Kosovo.

This document is very important, as it lays out a plan for Kosovo. It will be critical for the international community to refer to this document from time to time to assess progress and, as necessary, to redouble efforts in certain areas. In the past, I have been concerned that the international community has not been focused in its vision for Kosovo, and this document offers a positive step in the right direction.

To make real progress, however, we must encourage Michael Steiner and UNMIK to develop a strategic plan and a critical path for the implementation of the benchmark goals. When I attend the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Berlin next month, I will encourage the Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, Pascal Fieschi, to do so. This will allow UNMIK to monitor progress on the benchmark goals.

In addition to the UNMIK paper, we must also pay close attention to the findings and recommendations outlined in the OSCE-UNHCR assessment of the situation of ethnic minorities in Kosovo. The OSCE-UNHCR paper highlights a number of concerns including: freedom of movement, continued harassment and intimidation, refugee returns, and participation in political and civil life.

On freedom of movement, the report says that while an upward trend in mobility is encouraging, this (quote) “should not be seen as synonymous with general freedom of movement, which will only be realized when any minority can travel to any location, including urban centers, without special escort arrangements and without fear of harassment or violence.”

Regarding ethnic violence, the report notes, the period of September 2001 through April 2002, (quote) “Despite the decrease in serious incidents of violence, harassment, intimidation and humiliation of members of minority communities in Kosovo continued to prevail as a feature of daily life.” This affects all of Kosovo’s minorities, including Serbs, Roma, Egyptians, Bosniaks, Croats, Albanians, Turks and others.

Regarding refugee returns, the assessment points out the need to give internally displaced persons and refugees a “free and informed choice” on the option to return to Kosovo. Additionally, the report says that if more people are to actually return, it will (quote) “require much more meaningful and broad progress on the main issues,” such as security, freedom of movement, essential services and employment.

I was pleased that everyone I spoke with during my meetings in Kosovo last month, including President Rugova, Prime Minister Rexhepi, and Michael Steiner, was committed to refugee returns, but I am concerned because there are still more minorities leaving Kosovo than returning. Therefore, I also encourage Mr. Steiner and UNMIK to articulate a clear action plan for returns.

Regarding participation in political and civil structures, the report focuses on the need to engage ethnic minorities in the electoral process leading to municipal elections this October. It also highlights the need to eliminate parallel structures – such as courts and schools – which exist to serve certain minority communities. While noting that some of these structures may be inevitable in certain cases due to restricted movement of minorities, it points out that (quote) “these structures ultimately provide an unsustainable second-class service for minorities and inhibit important forms of inter-ethnic action.”

It is clear, as we examine the recommendations outlined in the OSCE-UNHCR report, that ethnic tensions remain in Kosovo, and the international community must remain focused and committed to improving the situation in Kosovo.

In the United States, we should also stay focused on our objectives in Kosovo. We have invested heavily in the region, with troops and financial assistance, and it is important that we follow through on our goals there. The U.S. State Department remains engaged. They have worked with UNMIK on the benchmark goals, and I am confident they will continue to play a role as Kosovo leaders and members of the international community work to implement those goals.

Following my visit to Kosovo, I am still very concerned with the situation in Mitrovica, which remains divided between north and south. I believe the only way to achieve any progress will be if the international community works with the elected leadership in Kosovo to find a solution. While there are different schools of thought as to what should happen in Mitrovica, it is imperative that discussion continues and that parties act to normalize life for all the city’s residents.

I also believe we must watch the situation along the border with Macedonia carefully. This issue has become controversial in both Kosovo and Macedonia. While some in Macedonia would like to move forward with the demarcation of the border, this is a sensitive issue which must be approached calmly and rationally. Therefore, I believe there should be discussion on this matter, with all involved parties together at one table.

In closing, it is evident that Kosovo’s new leaders, working together with UNMIK, KFOR, the OSCE and other representatives of the international community, face many challenges in the coming months and years. I again thank the chairmen for holding this hearing, and I thank the witnesses for taking the time to be here today. I look forward to your testimony. I sincerely believe that the issue of minority rights in Kosovo is fundamental to security and stability in southeast Europe.

I could not agree more with a statement made in the OSCE-UNHCR report, which says, (quote), “Only when Kosovo’s minorities feel confident in their long-term future and when all of Kosovo’s displaced persons are able to exercise the choice to return to their homes, feeling assured of their safety and confident in their ability to access institutions and participate in social, economic and political life in Kosovo on a non-discriminatory basis, will it be possible to say that the situation of minorities in Kosovo is acceptable.”

Thank you.