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Press Briefing by Deputy Special Representative of Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs in Kosovo

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Press Briefing - 20000306
Mitrovica was only the most visible tip of a Kosovo-wide problem of attacks on minorities, including harassment, intimidation and persecution, the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs in Kosovo, Dennis McNamara, told correspondents at a Headquarters press briefing this afternoon.

Mr. McNamara, who is also the Special Envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said that although the crime rate was the lowest it had been since the arrival of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), minority populations were disproportionately targeted on a regular basis. Kosovo continued to be a lingering, post-war conflict situation in terms of minority populations within Kosovo, whether the minorities were Albanians in north Mitrovica, or Serbs, Roma and Bosniacs in the rest of Kosovo. Tension, conflict and attacks continued to characterize Kosovo.

Mr. McNamara, who was attending a Security Council discussion on Kosovo with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Kosovo, Dr. Bernard Kouchner, and General Klaus Reinhardt, the Kosovo Force (KFOR) Commander, said that the cycle of violence and displacement had spilled over to southern Serbia, into the Presevo Valley region. An increased number of incidents in recent weeks had stepped up concern. While 5,000 to 6,000 Albanians from that area had come into Kosovo since the mission had been in Kosovo -- a relatively low level -- 100 Albanians had recently arrived in one week alone, and 90 in one night after fighting in Dobrcane, an Albanian village on the Kosovo border.

The UNMIK was assisting the new arrivals which were generally rural Albanian families caught in a conflict that seemed to involve armed, uniformed elements on both sides, Mr. McNamara said. "By that, I mean the Serb and Albanian side", he said. If the violence continued, further displacement would follow. That was particularly worrying since there were approximately 60,000 to 70,000 Albanians in the region.

Refugees and displacement remained at the centre of the equation in terms of new movements, displaced minorities, and the possible return of displaced populations, he said. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was concerned that some Albanians had been sent back into northern Mitrovica under heavily armed guard, in conditions that did not meet UNHCR's minimum standards. That concern had been shared with colleagues in both UNMIK and KFOR. The UNHCR was also concerned that there were plans and discussions to return Serb refugees to Kosovo. "While we support the principle of that return, conditions are not there for us as UNHCR to promote such returns at this stage, primarily because of the insecurity and the risks that those people would face", he said.

Premature returns of displaced populations into an ongoing conflict situation could be counterproductive and might, in fact, exacerbate the situation, Mr. McNamara said. That had been the case in Bosnia and elsewhere.

While fully recognizing the need for people to return home as soon as possible, the UNHCR was determined to avoid such a situation. In Presevo and Mitrovica, extremists on both the Albanian and Serb sides had set the political agenda -- giving little room for flexibility -- and on occasion had intimidated moderate factions, he said.

On the humanitarian front, progress had been achieved during the winter months to a degree he had not thought possible, Mr. McNamara continued. Despite some predictions, there had been no new humanitarian catastrophe. Although it had been a harsh winter, the Kosovars showed their resilience and strength and did not leave in large numbers. Rather, they stayed in plasticized, warm room, "inadequate" shelters, which nevertheless gave them the basis to stay where they were. Food aid had also continued to cover half the population. By and large, there would be no new humanitarian crisis for that population in the coming months.

Per capita humanitarian aid in Kosovo had been among the highest that the United Nations had undertaken with the agencies in such a situation, Mr. McNamara said. Half the population -- an exceptionally high proportion -- of Kosovo received food aid from the World Food Programme (WFP) and non- governmental organizations. Both food aid and the emergency shelter programmes would end in the coming months.

The humanitarian pillar of UNMIK would also be phased out by the middle of the year, he continued. The Mission would move on to a more difficult part of the process, that of rebuilding and reconstructing Kosovo, in key areas such as shelter, housing, utilities. Social welfare programmes of UNMIK would now be the safety net for vulnerable families. "We will do what we've often been told to do by donors and others, to do the humanitarian relief and not stay around", he said. He strongly urged the European Union and other "rebuilders" to ensure that there would be no gaps in the transition.

A rule-of-law and governance vacuum remained a critical gap in the entire Kosovo set-up, Mr. McNamara said. In the Security Council, Dr. Kouchner had appealed for international judges, prosecutors and civilian police to be made urgently available. Even with the arrests of perpetrators of extreme violence, there was still no prosecution process in place because of the unwillingness or inadequacy of the local system. Without prosecutors and judges, there would be no way forward.

The UNMIK was in the long-haul, difficult part of the post-war situation in Kosovo, Mr. McNamara said. "We've seen an investment in the war, we don't see an investment in the peace, in the civilian side of it", he said. It was an extremely worrying stage of the mission, both politically and in terms of the international community's commitment to investments for peace. The Mission did not even have enough money to pay teachers and health workers, and a police force was not yet in place. Member States must be encouraged to invest in the post-war Kosovo, if the Mission were to be successful.

If the situation in southern Serbia emerged into something more serious, would the United Nations be prepared to host a large influx of people? a correspondent asked. Mr. McNamara said that there had been concern that unless the problem were contained, a new displacement into Kosovo would result. While the UNHCR and the humanitarian agencies had the capacity to respond to a new influx of people, they would be responding in a destabilized, inadequate Kosovo. While the United Nations system could handle tens of thousands of refugees coming into Kosovo, he would hope that all those with influence would put their influence into the political, preventive aspects, rather than looking to the humanitarian response as an answer.

A correspondent asked if the peace process could work in Kosovo, given the mixture of minority groups. Mr. McNamara responded that it was often thought that a supreme effort must be made to protect all minorities in Kosovo after the war, as the war was about that same issue. If that did not happen in a post-war peacekeeping operation, what was the point of the process? History would judge whether or not it would work.

If Dr. Kouchner would get the police and the money he was asking for, would the situation improve? A correspondent asked. Was it the only problem? It was not the only problem, Mr. McNamara answered. Dr. Kouchner should answer that question himself. With more budgetary support and police, the situation for UNMIK would improve. While there was a vast range of problems to be addressed, law and order and security issues were at the heart of many of the problems the Mission was facing in Kosovo.

When asked if there was a precedent for finding judges and prosecutors, Mr. McNamara said that there was no rule specifying from where the judges should come. The first judges appointed for Mitrovica had come from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and had been appointed by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General under his authority. The appeal, however, was also to Member States to make them available.

If the circumstances in Kosovo did not yet exist for a return of the Serbian population, did that confirm that the Mission had not performed its main task of providing security for all? a correspondent asked. Mr. McNamara said that he did not say that they were not returning. Some Serbs were returning. The conditions were not such that UNHCR could actively promote a large-scale return of refugees to Kosovo. If they were to come back, they would receive assistance, but the basic conditions were not there to promote the return process at the moment.

Asked whether the current political arrangement affected his work, and future humanitarian activity, Mr. McNamara said that the humanitarian area was largely immune to the complexities of the political framework. He was an observer member of the IAC, the Interim Administrative Council, but not a full member. Political complexities were better addressed to Dr. Kouchner and his colleagues.

Were there areas other than Mitrovica that could soon boil over or require police presence? a correspondent asked. Mr. McNamara said that the minority population, particularly the Serb population, in general, in Kosovo were under siege. In Orahovac, in the south-west, they had recently evacuated Serbs. In a monastery in Prizren, they had also taken out people to Serbia. In the Gnjilane area, where there were a number of enclaves, people were living under difficult and tight conditions without basic freedom of movement. Those areas were all potentially fragile, whether or not they were explosive. Mitrovica had the distinction of being the divided city with the northern, Serb-dominated part backing directly into Serbia proper, which was unlike the other areas mentioned.