GENEVA (13 March 2019) – The United Nations must take immediate action to provide justice and remedies for displaced minority communities who were housed in UN camps constructed on toxic wasteland in Kosovo*, says a UN human rights expert.
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.
Lead poisoning is believed to have contributed to the deaths of several children and adults. Other former residents are said to be still experiencing a myriad of health problems, such as seizures, kidney disease, various physical and mental disabilities and memory loss.
“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,” said Special Rapporteur on human rights and toxics Baskut Tuncak, following a meeting with victims and UN officials in Kosovo. “It is also of utmost importance that the community is consulted on what they themselves consider an effective remedy, as no one appears to be considering what many in this marginalised and vulnerable community see as the only viable solution to their past and present situation.”
“I am deeply disappointed by the inertia surrounding this case, and that the solution offered by the UN is an inoperative and fundamentally flawed Trust Fund, which will neither provide justice nor the necessary elements of an effective remedy for the victims.
“The UN’s integrity is at issue. It should reform its approach and mobilise the necessary resources to fully implement the recommendations of its own Human Rights Advisory Panel without further delay,” the expert said.
In 2016, the panel recommended that the UN should take appropriate steps towards payment of adequate individual compensation to 138 members of the three communities and issue a public apology for having failed to comply with human rights standards.
The panel identified multiple violations of human rights – including the rights to life, health and freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment – as well as of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Reports of lead poisoning among residents were available as early as 1999, and protective measures to prevent lead exposure were taken for peacekeeping soldiers in 2000. However, preventative measures for the residents were not taken until 2006.
Young children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning and can suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects, particularly affecting the development of the brain and nervous system.
In addition to his meetings with victims and officials from the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), the Special Rapporteur has also been in direct contact with the office of the UN Secretary General regarding efforts to provide a remedy.
The voluntary Trust Fund, which was set up in 2017, has never been activated because it has not received any contributions from the international community.
“This ongoing inaction sends a loud message to these vulnerable communities. Decades ago, UNMIK did not fulfil its mandate to promote and protect the rights of these children and their families. Nothing will replace what these victims have lost, but now the United Nations has an opportunity to do what it can to atone for past mistakes. I urge it to recognise its responsibilities and take immediate, meaningful action,” Tuncak said.
For more information about the case of housing on lead contaminated soil in Kosovo and the Special Rapporteur’s ongoing dialogue with the UN Secretary General, please see here
(*) Any reference to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, is to be understood in full compliance with Security Council resolution 1244 (1999) and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.
Mr. Baskut Tuncak is Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes. As a Special Rapporteur, he is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.
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