Autonomy, Colonization, Genocide

IHF Special Report:
July 7, 1999

International Helsinki Federation (IHF) Responses to
Human Rights and Humanitarian Law Violations in Kosovo



In March 1989 the Serbian parliament -- in violation of both Serbian and the 1974 Federal Constitution of the Socialist Federal Republic (SFR) of Yugoslavia -- adopted constitutional amendments which stripped Kosovo of its virtual autonomy that was guaranteed by the Federal Constitution. This act was a turning point in the political and human rights developments in Kosovo. During the course of the 1990’s, Serbian authorities have increasingly infringed upon the fundamental rights of the Kosovo Albanians. The Serbian government has systematically tightened its grip on the region and purged all sectors of Kosovo public life. As a result, the ethnic Albanian population has been totally marginalized in a region where it made up about 90 percent of the entire population.



Kosovo has been one of the priority areas of IHF activities for over a decade. In its 1986 report Violations of the Helsinki Accords: Yugoslavia, the IHF highlighted the 1980’s political and human rights developments, including the military intervention to calm protests for autonomy and economic improvements, and the effects of the martial rule. The IHF reported the imprisonment of thousands of Kosovo Albanians after summary trials; the repression of Albanian culture and language, seen by the Serbs as "nationalist provocation," and the restrictions on free expression, considered by Serbian authorities as "hostile propaganda," or free association termed as "hostile activities."

Since 1989, there have been dramatic changes regarding the status of Kosovo within the Yugoslav Federation such as systematic and increasing human rights violations against Kosovo Albanians by Serbian authorities. The IHF has reported this and has signaled the need for effective international engagement in Kosovo to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. It has carried out over 10 fact-finding missions in Kosovo, issued dozens of press releases, approached inter-governmental organizations regularly to discuss the gradually escalating repression and violence, and warned about the danger of an armed conflict and appealed for urgent measures.


Call for Democratic Representation

In its Annual Report 1990, the IHF stated that "…while its [Yugoslavia’s] neighboring states are taking steps toward openness and democratization, the Belgrade government has decided to go the opposite direction." These steps included the introduction of a state of emergency in Kosovo. In February 1990, the IHF appealed to the Serbian and the federal governments to lift the state of emergency and to "create opportunities for a dialogue with the Albanians." It called for the "end of political trials and ethnic discrimination," and appealed to the two governments to "guarantee the security of the Albanian population in Kosovo, the right to democratic representation in political bodies, and the right of free association for all ethnic groups living in Kosovo."

The IHF and its member committees organized several press conferences and meetings with authorities of the respective countries and media for visitors from Kosovo, including deputies of the dissolved Kosovo parliament, who traveled throughout Europe. In September 1990, an IHF delegation was detained in Prishtina, interrogated by Serbian authorities and had all its documents confiscated. All members of the delegation were extradited and declared persona non grata in Yugoslavia. Following international protests, the presidency of the SFR Yugoslavia annulled the decision. The IHF resumed its fact-finding mission in November and sent one more delegation there in December, issuing reports on the results of the missions.


In the Shadow of Armed Conflict

In 1991, while the attention of the international community was directed towards the wars in Slovenia and Croatia, the Serbian government intensified its assimilation policies in Kosovo. Radical measures were carried out, for example, in the field of education and health care. The Albanian language was banned as the language of instruction at all levels of education, and only a few ethnic Albanian students were allowed to enroll at Prishtina University. Thousands of Albanian teachers and other Kosovo Albanians lost their jobs due to their ethnicity.

The IHF carried out three fact-finding missions in Kosovo to look into the deteriorating health care, the deaths of ethnic Albanian army recruits and the education system. In its report The Health Care Situation in Kosovo (October 1991), based on one of these fact-finding missions, the IHF delegation pointed out that the dismissal of most ethnic Albanian health workers, the banning of the use of the Albanian language in hospitals, and the withdrawal of economic sources for health care, had created a situation where the health of the population was seriously endangered.

The IHF also gathered information on the deaths of ethnic Albanian recruits who, according to Serbian authorities, had committed suicide while performing military service. The IHF concluded that, in most cases it could look into, "it was reasonable to believe that the recruits did not commit suicide but were victims of violent attacks against them by fellow recruits or army officers."

After the December 1991 fact-finding mission, that checked out the educational system in Kosovo and Macedonia, the IHF delegation noted that the bi- or even tri-lingualism in Kosovo was subjected to policies of forced assimilation. The IHF delegation called for negotiations on this issue and a need for compromises on both sides, as well as the establishment of a standing committee with the aim of creating a new pluralistic educational system which could offer equal chances to all ethnic groups.


Repression Grows


In May 1992, Kosovo Albanian parliamentary and presidential elections were held and subsequently declared illegal by the Serbian government that had also hindered the deputies from gathering. Despite the highly tense situation, the European Community (EC) and the United Nations (UN) waited several months to accept Kosovo Albanians as equal partners in subcommittee meetings on the negotiations on the Former Yugoslavia.

The dramatically deteriorating economic situation (due to dismissals of most ethnic Albanians) grew explosive. The IHF carried out additional fact finding missions in Kosovo, published press releases and approached intergovernmental organizations -- particularly the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) -- to draw their attention to the escalating developments. In its press releases, the IHF protested, among other things, violations of the freedom of the media; the use of violence by the Serbian police against ethnic Albanians accompanying their children to private Albanian schools; and the continuing Serbian policy to keep Albanian-language schools closed -- all acts that clearly violated the CSCE minority standards.

The IHF repeatedly appealed to the CSCE participating states to place the Kosovo situation high on their agenda and urged the EC and the UN to "take immediate steps to prevent the explosion of violence in Kosovo." The 1992 IHF General Assembly expressed its concern about the "continuation of systematic human rights violations of the ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo and urged the CSCE to take the issue to the agenda of the CSCE Follow-Up Meeting in Helsinki. During that meeting, the IHF briefed the delegations on the Kosovo issue.

In April 1992, the IHF sent an open letter to the CSCE, the EC and the UN. It expressed its concern about the increasing distribution of arms to Serbian and Montenegrin paramilitary groups; public threats of violence by leading Serbian authorities in Kosovo against ethnic Albanians and the positioning of Serbian paramilitary snipers in strategic points in Prishtina. The IHF, again, strongly urged the international organizations to put the Kosovo conflict on their agenda to prevent a possible armed conflict, and to use international mechanisms to put an end to continuing abuses against ethnic Albanians. In May, the IHF also briefed a CSCE delegation that was due to visit Kosovo to determine the military situation there. It also participated in several international meetings on Kosovo.

In 1992, on several occasions, the IHF stressed the necessity of accepting the Kosovo Albanians as equal partners in the former Yugoslav peace negotiations. "Only by listening to all parties equally… would it be possible to conduct fair negotiations, to seek solutions to the grave problems in Kosovo and thereby prevent a potential conflict in that region," IHF argued in August 1992.


Isolation from International Scrutiny

In July 1993, the longstanding CSCE mission was expelled from Kosovo, and the Yugoslav government denied entry to any delegations or experts who wished to look into human right issues in Kosovo. The isolation of the region from international scrutiny resulted in a significant deterioration of the human right’s situation.

In its October 1993 appeal, the IHF expressed its concern for the failure of the UN Security Council to consider and take steps to implement the Resolution 771993(29) of the UN Commission on Human Rights, which recommended that a UN observer mission be dispatched to Kosovo (Sandjak and Vojvodina). The IHF said that, in its opinion, the "international community has failed to respond adequately to the escalation of human rights violations" in Kosovo and appealed that urgent measures be taken immediately. Towards the end of 1993, the IHF organized press briefings to report about the deteriorating situation.

In November 1993, the IHF published the report From Autonomy to Colonization: Human Rights in Kosovo 1989-1993. In it, the IHF presented the developments in Kosovo since the 1989 abolishment of the autonomous status, the occupation of Kosovo by the federal army, and the declaration of martial law in Kosovo. According to the IHF, the early 1990’s developments were characterized by "extreme, repressive Serbian policies known as ‘emergency measures,’ which have placed the region under virtual colonial control and resulted in a total marginalization of the Albanian majority in Kosovo." The report focused, among other things, on the Serbian purge on Kosovo’s trade, industry and administration; the collapse of the education and health care systems; the repression of the Albanian-language media; violations of due process standards; police brutality and the militarization of Kosovo. The IHF concluded that "the discrimination practiced against ethnic Albanians in all sectors of life constitutes a violation of international law and CSCE standards," and that the "’emergency measures’ imposed since 1990 are used to assimilate forcibly the non-Serbian population of Kosovo with a final goal of creating an ‘ethnically clean’ Kosovo." It warned that the recent Serbian measures "have bought the situation in Kosovo to the point where an armed conflict could break out at any moment…This would most surely end in bloodshed," the IHF stated.

At the CSCE Implementation Meeting on Human Dimension Issues in 1993, the IHF stated that it is "of the opinion that, had Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic been penalized for pursuing his course in Kosovo – through the use of international sanctions – the tragic warfare in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina might have been prevented." The IHF warned the international community of the "spreading of violence to Kosovo, with the potential of involving neighboring Albania and Macedonia, which could threaten the Balkan as a whole." The IHF urged the Serbian government to put an end to its abusive Kosovo policies.

Throughout 1994, the "emergency measures" remained in force in Kosovo, and the "persistent pattern of discrimination against ethnic Albanians and the systematic violations of their basic rights continued and intensified in all areas of daily life," as the IHF noted in its Annual Report. At pace with continuing militarization and open distribution of arms to Serbian population, increasing numbers of draft-age Albanian men fled Kosovo. The IHF investigated the situation of the deserters and draft evaders during its fact-finding mission in Tetovo, Macedonia. It appealed to the European states to give them protection on the ground that "it cannot be expected that Kosovo Albanians serve in an army that has occupied its territory since 1989 and has been collectively persecuting ethnic Albanians." Those young men who could not flee, faced intimidation and ill-treatment in the army.


Mass Arrests and "Apartheid"

With the ever deteriorating human rights situation, mass arrests of ethnic Albanians were carried out in 1995, beginning in March with the arrest of some 260 former employees of the former Kosovo Ministry of the Interior. Most of the detainees were former police officers. The mass arrests continued later that year. The detainees were accused of having formed "a so-called Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Kosovo" and for having "endangered the integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia." The trials were characterized with numerous violations of due process standards, and most of the defendants were ill-treated or tortured. The IHF and its member committees monitored the trials and reported about abuses.

In its report to the OSCE Implementation Meeting on Human Dimension Issues (October 1995), the IHF warned about the "emergency measures" still in force and said that their "objective appears to be the total assimilation of the non-Serbian population in creating an ethnically ‘clean’ Kosovo."

In 1996, Kosovo "continued to suffer under an ethnically-based apartheid system unparalleled anywhere in Europe," as the IHF stated in its Annual Report. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) for the first time claimed responsibility for bomb explosions at Serbian refugee camps in Pristina, Pec, Suvareka and Vuciturn in February and on police stations and civilian targets. The passive resistance promoted by Albanian leaders was increasingly criticized by Kosovo Albanians, many of whom demanded more effective means for the release of Kosovo from Serbian rule.

In 1997, the IHF and its affiliates in Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia, conducted a fact-finding mission in Kosovo. They expressed their strong concern about the "recent dramatic escalation in the levels of state repression against ethnic Albanians and politically motivated violence in Kosovo that was manifested by a wave of arbitrary mass arrests and politically-related killings." The IHF also briefed the OSCE about those developments.


Undeclared War

In early 1998, the situation escalated further into an undeclared but still open warfare. Under the pretext of fighting the KLA, Serbian Special Forces targeted ethnic Albanian villages, and the KLA raised its profile as an underground organization. At the same time, the international community became more responsive to reporting by local and international NGOs. On 3 March, the European Union (EU) Political Committee concluded that the Kosovo Issue could no longer be regarded as an internal matter of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The EU withdrew trade preferences from Yugoslavia for 1998 because it had failed to meet minimum human rights criteria and to fulfill other requirements set out in a report on disputed local polls. EU foreign ministers renewed their demand to open an office in Prishtina and to continue pressure on the Belgrade government to open a dialogue with ethnic Albanian leadership. They also appointed Felipe Gonzalez as an EU Kosovo mediator.

On the initiative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, the IHF carried out a fact-finding mission in Drenica, Kosovo, in January 1998. The delegation held discussions with numerous observers and leaders, including Ibrahim Rugova, and had interviews with victims of human rights abuses and collected information on preparations by Serbian military and police forces, and a large-scale military crackdown. The IHF and its affiliates in Kosovo, Montenegro, Norway, and Serbia recommended "an immediate initiative to convene an international Dayton-like conference to solve the present crisis, which threatens to escalate into a bloody military confrontation." They pointed out that the possibility to deal non-violently with Serb oppression was reaching the point of exhaustion.

Following the first armed clashes and the increased activity of the KLA, the IHF and the Helsinki Committees in Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia proposed that a "Dayton-like process be initiated to break the cycle of discrimination, hatred and violence." In March 1998, the IHF called upon the Contact Group and the UN Security Council to "take immediate steps to prevent further summary executions, torture and ethnic cleansing by Serbian police units in Kosovo." It recommended that the Contact Group members agree on a common strategy, aimed at ending the use of violence by both sides and leading to internationally mediated negotiation seeking a political solution for Kosovo. The IHF stressed that "only a similar investment of political energy can bring about a peaceful political settlement of the crisis and prevent further massive human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law." It also called on the Contact Group to propose a resolution to the UN Security Council establishing that the situation in Kosovo is a "serious threat to international peace and security," a resolution which would provide for stronger international involvement in Kosovo.

At the same time, in March 1998, IHF Executive Director Aaron Rhodes stressed in an article in International Herald Tribune (18 March), that a "meaningful dialogue" proposed by the Contact Group could only take place if the "actual preconditions were removed -- that is, if the complex array of Serbian policies that have pauperized the Albanians in Kosovo, subjecting them to a kind of apartheid, were removed. The dialogue would work only if the two sides had equal rights." He asked: "Can anyone be expected to engage in a ‘dialogue’ with another person holding a knife to his throat -- a knife that has already drawn blood?"

In its report to the 54th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights (March/April 1998), the IHF expressed its fear that "the murders and terror by Serb police units have been premeditated elements of a program of ‘ethnic cleansing’, aimed at forcing Albanians to accept a new political reality and at creating a rump Kosovo free of Albanians."

In the summer of 1998, the IHF dispatched a fact-finding mission to northern Albania and Kosovo to collect information on human rights and humanitarian law violations in Kosovo as well as to assess the situation of refugees and internally displaced persons. It reported on deliberate shelling and sniper fires against civilians by Serbian paramilitaries, looting and burning of homes. The IHF demanded an immediate increase of international humanitarian assistance to Albania and Montenegro to take care of Kosovar refugees. IHF also called for a significant increase in diplomatic efforts to obtain the UN Security Council and NATO consensus on the dispatching of a preventive mission to Kosovo. Lastly, it called for the deployment of forces to improve the border security of Albania and Macedonia and the use of force, if required, to convince President Milosevic to change his government’s current policies with respect to Kosovo.


Breached Agreement for Peaceful Solution

On 17 September 1998, the IHF said: "With a humanitarian disaster now beginning that threatens hundreds of thousands of civilians, the call for a cease-fire must be backed up by threat of force." The IHF and its member committees insisted on UN Security Council authorization for any military action to stop the bloody war within FRY. The IHF continued: "The international rule of law demands no less. If European countries are serious about saving lives, they can convince Security Council members to authorize the necessary actions, including military actions. It is inadmissible that the Security Council has stood passive and quiet for such a long time during the escalation of the Kosovo crisis.

13 October 1998, the Serbian government approved the Milosevic-Holbrooke Agreement for the peaceful solution of the Kosovo conflict. It included provisions for the withdrawal of all Serbian forces from Kosovo; the return of refugees and internally displaced persons; free access to humanitarian organizations into the area and initial talks for the autonomy of Kosovo. Despite this agreement, fresh forces and heavy weaponry were re-deployed in Kosovo. In addition, Serb forces began to distribute more arms to Serb civilians.

In a series of confidence building measures, the IHF and the Helsinki Committees in Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia held conferences to discuss the common future and published the results in both the Serbian and Albanian languages. One of the conferences, held in November 1998, focused on "Self-Determination in International Law -- Application to the Kosovo Case." It was attended, among others, by over 100 leaders of civil society in Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro, to discuss the relevance of the concept of self-determination to Kosovo and the concrete options for the future. In early 1999, some of the ethnic Albanian participants of the conference and their families were executed by Serbian forces.

While the international community in 1998 played a greater role in helping resolve the Kosovo crisis, these efforts were insufficient in scope and scale to stabilize the situation, to provide for a negotiated, peaceful political settlement and prevent an outbreak of a larger conflict. The IHF and its member committees criticized the UN Security Council several times for its slowness and reluctance to take action to save lives in Kosovo, and repeated its call upon the international community to stage a Dayton-type conference for resolving the Kosovo crisis. The IHF also urged the deployment of a robust and large-scale international monitoring and preventive peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, as well as forces to monitor the implementation of a cease-fire.


Open Warfare

The rise of the KLA activities marked an end to years of peaceful resistance to Yugoslav government oppression. The KLA claimed responsibility for a number of attacks on Serb forcers and ethnic Albanians it considered collaborators with the government.

On 21 January, the IHF and its affiliates in Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia published an appeal stating that the "situation in Kosovo has reached an unprecedented danger level, which requires urgent, determined efforts to convince President Slobodan Milosevic to agree to a process of international mediation about the future political status of Kosovo." The IHF again repeated its call for an international, Dayton-like conference on the Kosovo crisis.

In February 1999, the IHF wrote to international mediators of the Kosovo conflict urging that "stronger guarantees for the protection of human rights become part of the Kosovo Interim Agreement." The IHF criticized that -- despite well-documented information on flagrant human rights abuses in Kosovo for more than a decade -- only two paragraphs of the 28-page Kosovo Interim Agreement were devoted to human rights and fundamental freedoms. It also urged, that the general amnesty foreseen by this agreement be extended back to 1981, the beginning of the crisis in Kosovo, and that the issue of citizenship of Kosovars living outside Kosovo as well as legal processes for providing remedies for those who have suffered from violations of human rights in the past be included in the agreement.

In early March an IHF delegation met in Kosovo with delegates to the Rambouillet peace conference, including top KLA commanders, and urged them to sign the Kosovo Interim Agreement which would bring a NATO protective ground force to end the violence and to restore human rights in Kosovo. The IHF, again, stated that "without a NATO protective ground force there is no possibility for an interim solution for Kosovo or for peace, security and stability in Kosovo and the region and thus no possibility for securing human rights and freedom."

In March 1999, NATO launched air strikes against Serbia and Serb military forces in Kosovo in response to increasing brutality towards Kosovo Albanians and to the continuing deployment of Serb military forces to Kosovo despite contrary commitments by Serbian authorities during the peace negotiations. Full-scale "ethnic cleansing" and genocide were carried out by Serbian militias in Kosovo.

At a press conference held on 30 March, the IHF and the Kosovo Helsinki Committee provided information and analysis concerning the nature of genocide and atrocities against Kosovo Albanians; the pattern of ethnic cleansing taking place; and the steps to be taken stop the atrocities immediately and to help protect all individuals in Kosovo and FRY irrespective of their ethnic, religious or national background. The IHF denounced the killing or prominent Albanian intellectuals and political leadership and said that such "pre-planned murders represent an attack upon the future of Kosovo, and can only be compared to the most inhuman cases of Nazi or Stalinist terror." The IHF also stressed the "imperative to stop Serbian military actions by undertaking, with utmost efficiency, urgency and resolve and by all necessary means -- military, political and diplomatic -- to bring about an immediate stop to the killings, genocide and ethnic cleansing going on in Kosovo."

In April 1999, the Kosovo Helsinki Committee intervened on behalf of the IHF at the UN Human Rights Commission, to provide the most recent information and analysis on the Kosovo conflict and the refugee crisis. It made appeals for the deliverance of food and medicine for refugees. The IHF stated that its was "imperative to stop Serbian military actions by undertaking, with utmost efficiency, urgency and resolve, and by all necessary means -- military, but necessarily also political, diplomatic, and humanitarian -- to bring about an immediate and efficient stop to the genocide and ethnic cleansing going on in Kosovo and create premises for a just, peaceful, stable and internationally verifiable and guaranteed solution of the Kosovo crisis."

In May 1999, the IHF urged that "all necessary and appropriate available means must be deployed swiftly to stop the atrocities and the ethnic cleansing; to save the Albanians remaining under Serb oppression in Kosovo and to provide for the safe return of those who have fled or have been deported." At the same time the IHF stressed that "humanitarian military operations cannot be conducted at no risk," and stated that the "fate of the Albanians -- and also many Serbs -- shows that risks, that the allied military forces have avoided for themselves, have been transferred to people bearing no responsibility." The IHF also urged for the allied and other governments to deliver humanitarian aid promptly to the displaced people to accommodate their basic needs. 

This page was last revised July 8, 1999

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