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Economic Agreement, Resumed Talks between Belgrade, Pristina, Mark Important Steps towards Reconciliation in Kosovo, Mission Head Tells Security Council

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The recent United States-mediated agreement on Belgrade-Pristina economic cooperation and the resumption of European Union-facilitated talks between the two sides represent positive steps towards reconciliation and lasting peace, the top United Nations official in the Balkans told a Security Council video-teleconference meeting on 21 October.

“The recent meetings in Brussels and Washington, D.C., demonstrate the potential for progress when international resources are combined with leadership on the ground to move difficult issues forward,” said, Zahir Tanin, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

Briefing on the Secretary-General’s latest report on the Mission (document S/2020/964), he highlighted that the removal of the reciprocity measures upon goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina by the government of Avdullah Hoti created an impetus for restarting the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. He added that this was accompanied by the appointment of the European Union’s new dedicated Special Representative, Miroslav Lajčák, and a high-level meeting hosted by the leaders of France and Germany on 10 July, leading to the official resumption of the European Union-facilitated dialogue.

The United States also launched new initiatives for improving Pristina‑Belgrade relations, which culminated in a meeting in Washington, D.C., in September, during which agreements were signed in the economic and other spheres, Mr. Tanin noted. “Of course, the most important conditions to be met for negotiations to succeed are political unity, strong commitment and goodwill among leaders, both in Pristina and Belgrade, and sustained international support,” he emphasized, also underscoring the importance of women’s participation in the peace process at all levels, particularly in the ongoing dialogue between the two sides.

Turning to the rule of law, he said important steps were made to advance the investigative and judicial processes of the Kosovo Specialist Prosecutor’s Office and Kosovo Specialist Chambers. In June, the Special Prosecutor’s Office filed indictments against Hashim Thaçi and the leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, Kadri Veseli, alongside others whose names were not made public. Mr. Thaçi has indicated his intention to step down from office if his indictment is publicly confirmed by pretrial judges. In September, arrests were made, with three individuals now in pretrial detention, one facing war crimes charges and the two others being held on suspicion of intimidation, retaliation, violating the secrecy of proceedings and unlawful disclosure of protected information.

However, some public reactions to these higher profile indictments have been concerning, including attempts to question the legitimacy of the Specialist Chambers and accusations that it is politically motivated. The Specialist Chambers and the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office are integral parts of Kosovo’s justice system, with mandates crucial to the rule of law there and to its future. Ruling by a slim majority, Mr. Hoti’s government faces significant parliamentary opposition, as well as widely diverging priorities among coalition partners. Having been in office for barely over 100 days, constant disagreements among its constituent parties, and difficulty reaching compromises, have hampered and delayed its responses in critical areas.

On the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said the socioeconomic consequences have been severe and are not limited to the measurable macroeconomy. UNMIK, alongside the United Nations country team, have also significantly adapted their activities to help meet the unprecedented challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Mission’s focus has been on providing direct support to people, institutions and communities in the framework of its strategic support for dialogue and trust-building in Kosovo. Projects have been tailored to contribute to the response to the coronavirus.

For places such as Kosovo, still suffering the consequences of past conflict, the highest of priorities must be accorded to cooperation, unity of political voice and vision, dialogue and preventing extreme polarization. This solidarity, especially during the current pandemic, should focus intensively on attaining the difficult balance between public health, economic recovery and human rights. In the same spirit, leaders on both sides should move decisively towards a comprehensive agreement, long-term peace and reconciliation.

Ivica Dačić, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Serbia, said UNMIK’s presence remains critical to building lasting peace on the ground. Spotlighting his country’s long-standing and responsible attitude to its dialogue with Pristina, he said it signed the 2013 Brussels Agreement following a series of difficult negotiations and major concessions on the part of Belgrade. In the years since, Serbia has asked the European Union — the agreement’s guarantors — the same question: Can such an agreement be considered valid if one side refused to uphold its commitments under it? To this day, Pristina’s statements reveal that it lacks the political will to engage in further negotiations, in contravention of the Brussels Agreement.

“Dialogue is the only true path to a sustainable solution to the issue of Kosovo,” he said. Thanking the United States Government for its efforts to facilitate an economic normalization agreement, he said such strides are critical to improving everyday life throughout the entire region. However, Pristina has already begun to violate that agreement. “It is high time they started to act in a serious and responsible manner,” he stressed. Noting that ethnic Serbs continue to be attacked and intimidated in Kosovo — with hatred spread over social media networks — he expressed concern that those incidents continue despite many direct appeals to local authorities — and even amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regarding the fate of thousands of displaced ethnic Serbs, he said that while Pristina claims that they are welcome to return home, it is no wonder that only 1.9 per cent would choose to do so, as they would be unable to realize their safety or human rights in Kosovo. Spotlighting other examples of Pristina’s “cultural arrogance”, he said local authorities have not committed to cease construction in special protected zones. Agreeing that perpetrators for serious crimes must be held to account, he stressed that “this applies to everyone” — including the Kosovo Liberation Army, which has committed crimes against members of the Roma community and other civilians. The so-called president of Kosovo continues to attempt to destroy the very court which has brought indictments against that terrorist group.

UNMIK’s presence remains necessary, he stressed. Regarding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Kosovo Force — known as KFOR — he voiced concern over its joint patrols with Kosovo troops, which run counter to existing security frameworks. Pristina’s announced intention to institute mandatory military service is also cause for concern. Emphasizing that dialogue remains the only way to achieve better relations, he declared: “The road to political normalization is long.” Concluding, he said the recognition of Kosovo by 160 nations, as reported today by the Special Representative, is “fake news”. Pristina can only garner 92 votes in the General Assembly.

Meliza Haradinaj-Stublla of Kosovo said the sovereignty and independence of Kosovo is an irrefutable fact supported by a 2010 ruling of the International Court of Justice. “Acceptance of this reality is the only basis for a resolution of the issues that divide Serbia and Kosovo,” she said, adding that, once it has been fully acknowledged, the way forward can begin.

Recalling the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia’s ruling that the military and paramilitary forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia conducted a widespread and systematic armed attack on the ethnic Albanian civilian population of Kosovo — actions which constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes — she said 12,000 people were killed in those attacks, 20,000 women were raped and half the population became refugees. The leaders who perpetrated those crimes included Aleksandar Vučić and Ivica Dačić, respectively the current President and Foreign Minister of Serbia, she said, stressing that “Serbia has never acknowledged the past” and continues to perpetuate denials.

More recently, she said, Serbia has intensified its attempts to sabotage the republic of Kosovo, issuing spurious arrest warrants, lobbying small States to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo, manipulating their own media channels with a constant stream of racist propaganda and preventing Kosovo’s accession to international bodies such as the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL). “What happened to our families, to our lives, is not a dim or distant memory,” she stressed, adding that Kosovo’s trauma is also seen today in the context of its more than 1,700 missing persons. Calling for the return of their bodies, she said Serbia’s denials and campaigns of hatred — while they may harm Kosovo in the short-term — ultimately achieve “precisely nothing”.

“The only way forward is true reconciliation,” she said, calling for a future that embraces all nationalities and ethnicities and where trade, culture and human well-being can flourish. The principles of such a path are clear: Serbia must acknowledge the fact of Kosovo’s statehood, including its territorial integrity, unitary character and constitutional order. Crimes of the past must be accounted for in an agreed manner, and the bodies of the missing must be returned. As requested by international organizations, Kosovo has been patient and built a functioning State based on the rule of law. It protects all of its citizens equally. However, while Council resolution 1244 (1999) always envisaged that Kosovo would become an independent State, that text remains a “zombie that exists on paper only” due to the exercise of the veto by certain members.

In the ensuing discussion, Council members broadly welcomed the recent economic normalization agreement and the resumption of the European Union‑facilitated talks. Many delegations called for the greater participation of women and youth in the peace process, while urging unity of both sides to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. They also exchanged views on the role of UNMIK, with a few pushing for the review of the Mission, including an option for a drawdown.

China’s representative, noting several Belgrade-Pristina meetings that took place between July and September, welcomed the official resumption of European Union-facilitated dialogue after a two-year hiatus. Stressing the importance of respecting the sovereignty of Serbia, he urged a solution based on dialogue. He urged Pristina to enhance mutual trust among different communities, calling for progress on the establishment of the Community of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines commended the efforts of UNMIK and the United Nations country team to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, also welcoming the 4 September agreement in Washington, D.C., on economic cooperation. She also welcomed the European Union-facilitated dialogues, stressing the need to advance the participation of women in peace processes. Highlighting the nexus between development and security, she urged Kosovo to strengthen the rule of law and its fight against corruption.

Tunisia’s representative, welcoming the resumption of negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade, expressed his hope that the parties will harness such progress to make further headway towards a comprehensive political settlement based on compromise. He also voiced support for the full participation of women in future talks.

Germany’s representative voiced regret that the delegation of Serbia never includes references in their statements to the crimes committed against the Kosovar population in 1998 and 1999, including ethnic cleansing and mass deportation. “Our Serbian friends are shooting themselves in their own foot,” he said, pointing out that Belgrade is also trying to gain membership in the European Union. The International Court of Justice has ruled that Kosovo’s independence declaration did not violate international law, which implies that it should be fully recognized. He urged both sides to work towards a legally binding, comprehensive agreement that ensures stability and enables both parties to become members of the European Union.

Niger’s representative said that the resumption of European Union-facilitated dialogue in July is a decisive step in the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. It is therefore crucial that regional and international actors support the parties in this process to create the conditions conducive to a comprehensive peaceful settlement of the conflict. In any peace process, confidence-building, partnership and cooperation are of paramount importance, he said, welcoming the launch of the platform for the strengthening of intercommunity trust, aimed at advancing the recommendations of the United Nations Kosovo Trust-building Forum.

Estonia’s representative said that the normalization of relations by the two sides is key to regional stability, expressing his delegation’s strong support for European Union-led facilitation. He also encouraged both parties to engage with civil society, especially women and youth. Estonia commended UNMIK for its work on Kosovo’s democratization and protection and promotion of human rights, as well as its work on increasing the participation of women in peace processes. Both parties must build trust and refrain from negative rhetoric.

South Africa’s representative noted the role of UNMIK in building trust amongst communities, and efforts to continue engagement between authorities in Belgrade and Pristina. He highlighted the importance of a Kosovo Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as “our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an integral part of the process that paved the way for our democratic transition”. Facing the past was crucial in realizing national unity, as hearing different views and versions of events of all communities can ultimately lead to a peaceful, inclusive political solution.

The representative of the United Kingdom said the Mission’s mandate should now be reviewed as the situation on the ground has shifted. Welcoming the resumption of dialogue and progress made recently towards greater economic cooperation between Pristina and Belgrade, he called on both parties to establish a “rational, calm atmosphere” and continue to negotiate in good faith. Calling for justice for war crimes committed in 1998 and 1999, he stressed that “we cannot allow impunity” and voiced support for Kosovo’s specialist courts. It is disturbing to hear provocative and harmful comments from senior ministers regarding the issue of missing persons, which are disrespectful to victims and harmful to the peace process, he said.

Indonesia’s representative said his country consistently upholds the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity and will not condone any acts that violate it. Welcoming Pristina’s decision to lift its 100 per cent tariff imposed on goods from Serbia — as well as recent economic normalization commitments agreed to by the parties — he said nothing is more important than dialogue. In that vein, he commended UNMIK’s multiple prongs of engagement and called on Belgrade and Pristina to demonstrate flexibility in overcoming their differences.

Belgium’s representative strongly condemned attempts to weaken the Kosovo Specialist Chambers or obstruct their action. This transitional justice mechanism makes it possible to bring the truth to victims. Establishing accountability for crimes of great gravity is essential to restore the confidence of the population and thus achieve lasting peace. In this regard, he expressed full support for the efforts of the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) and welcomed the recent adoption by the assembly of Kosovo of an amendment to the Constitution which makes directly applicable the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

The representative of the United States said that a briefing by the Special Representative of the European Union could have made this meeting more fulsome. The agreements signed at the White House on 4 September spanned a range of economic normalization issues. “They will bring growth, investments, and jobs to citizens in both countries and set a new tone of reconciliation in the pursuit of progress for the Western Balkans,” she said. Seeing the full normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina remains a shared goal, as well for the United States and the European Union. The United States-brokered agreements complement the European Union-facilitated talks. UNMIK’s role in Kosovo and the region as a peacekeeping mission has long since outlived its original purpose. The Security Council now has the responsibility to redirect limited peacekeeping resources to areas and issues where they are more needed. She urged Council members to think seriously about UNMIK’s transition and to begin taking the steps needed for a responsible drawdown.

Viet Nam’s representative joined other speakers in welcoming the resumption of talks between Belgrade and Pristina, as well as the recent agreement to normalize economic relations. However, he voiced regret over the continued lack of implementation on the ground, urging both sides to undertake confidence‑building measures in an effort to reach a sustainable negotiated settlement.

France’s representative recalled that a comprehensive, legally binding settlement between Belgrade and Serbia is a prerequisite for membership in the European Union. Welcoming the resumption of dialogue between the parties, she said it is essential that even the most sensitive issues be addressed. She also voiced support for EULEX — as well as the latter’s Specialist Chambers — while calling upon all parties to cooperate with them. “Serbia and Kosovo do have a common future,” she stressed, pledging that France will remain engaged in the European Union-led dialogue process.

The representative of the Dominican Republic urged both sides to seize an opportunity to leave their differences aside and focus on fighting the pandemic, urging donors to increase their official development assistance to the region. She strongly emphasized the need to include women and youth in peace processes. Kosovo has the youngest population in the region, she said, noting that all efforts must count on the full participation of young people in governance.

The representative of the Russian Federation, Council President for October, speaking in his national capacity, said that Pristina still sabotages the formation of the Community of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo. On 14 October, Mr. Hoti once again ruled out the possibility of endowing such municipalities with executive powers. Expressing hope that the European Union mediation will lead to significant progress and noting the agreements signed by the parties in Washington, D.C., he stressed that Security Council resolution 1244 (1999) remains the international legal basis for a Kosovo settlement. There is no improvement in the situation in the rights of non-Albanian communities in the province. Ensuring protection of Orthodox sites in Kosovo requires special attention. Against this background, his delegation considers Kosovo’s accession to international organizations, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), erroneous. The return of former terrorist fighters to Kosovo poses a threat to peace and stability in the region. “This is a time bomb for security in the region,” he said.

For information media. Not an official record.