Finding a Shared Truth and Justice in Kosovo


More than 20 years after the end of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, Kosovo is still contending with unresolved ethnic tensions. Formerly an autonomous region of Serbia within the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo declared independence in 2008. While 97 out of 193 UN member states recognize Kosovo’s independence, Serbia disputes its legality and it remains a thorny issue for other countries. Kosovo’s population is predominately ethnic Albanian; though, about 7 percent is ethnic Serb and another 5 percent is other ethnic minority groups. Ethnic tensions were a root cause of the violent conflicts, during which an estimated 140,000 died and numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and subsequent International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals were established to investigate and prosecute these crimes. Later, the  Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor's Office was set up to prosecute members of the ethnic Albanian paramilitary organization Kosovo Liberation Army who committed crimes from 1998 to 2000. However, the success of these mechanisms is debated, and many in the region continue to seek justice and accountability for wrongful deaths, displacement, and disappearances. In more recent years, several initiatives have been undertaken to rebuild relations among Kosovo’s ethnic groups, establish dialogue, and advance justice, with varying degrees of success.

ICTJ has worked in Kosovo in a number of capacities, including providing technical assistance and expert advisement to state bodies tasked with dealing with the region’s violent past. Currently, ICTJ is wrapping up a larger three-year project funded by the European Union in which ICTJ has been collaborating with civil society organizations in Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Serbia to develop meaningful, victim-led transitional justice initiatives in the region.

ICTJ’s Deputy Executive Director and Director of Programs Anna Myriam Roccatello and Senior Expert Kelli Muddell have led ICTJ’s programmatic work on Kosovo. They recently sat down with Communications intern Caroline Nowak to discuss the current challenges in the country and the legacy of past transitional justice efforts done in the region.

Caroline Nowak: ​​Can you briefly describe the tensions and their causes that persist today in Kosovo between the Albanian and Serb populations? Are they the same or different from those that lead to the 1998-1999 war?

Anna Myriam Roccatello: The tension of the past was obviously the aggressive and repressive policies that the Serbian regime, particularly during the Milosevic time, had exercised in Albania, in Kosovo. It has to be said that, in Kosovo, the past is more complex than it seems. There were reasons that backed Milosevic’s justification of his particularly aggressive regime against Kosovars, which was a sudden increase of the ethnic Albanian population that threatened to unbalance the hegemony of the Serbian ethnic element throughout the former Yugoslavia. I think the underlying tensions remain the same. There is still a very clear intention by the Kosovo Albanian population to have full control. . . of what they have always considered their country. There is certainly a continued sense of insecurity in Serbian enclaves and among the Serbian population. It may be very difficult for them to integrate into the Kosovo state because of the legacies of the past. Kosovo. . . has a multi-ethnic composition and the inclusivity and coexistence of different ethnic groups doesn’t seem to work perfectly, particularly when it comes to the Kosovar Serbs. There is this ongoing dialogue and peace process with the Serbian state, that recently. . . has taken a different turn.

Kelli Muddell: In the work we have done with groups in Kosovo to think through transitional justice priorities or get the inputs of groups, the conversation is often reduced to Kosovar Albanians and Kosovar Serbs, if we can say that. But often they don’t recognize or think of other ethnic minorities that were impacted during the conflict.

Anna Myriam Roccatello: Other ethnic groups have more easily endorsed and adopted the Kosovo state because they were also on the receiving end of the repression and violations by the Serbian state. The real problem is how to build an inclusive, multi-ethnic, transparent, and accountable society in a context where the conflict doesn’t seem to resolve, certainly because of undue influence from other factors—the Serbian state being one.

Caroline Nowak: What did the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) set out to accomplish? What were the major outcomes, particularly for Kosovo?

Anna Myriam Roccatello: The mandate of the ICTY was universal for the ex-Yugoslavia. It was created to prosecute a certain type of crimes, mainly what we define as international crimes and other gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in the former Yugoslavia. I know very well of two criminal proceedings conducted in relation to Kosovo. . . both of which ended in an acquittal. At least we were able to make the judges acknowledge officially that the evidence had been tampered [with] and specifically that witnesses had been intimidated. Socially, it was very difficult to advance the understanding by the population that certain proceedings needed to be conducted for the legitimacy of the state itself—very, very difficult. . . even from those that you would imagine as being more open minded and keen on the rule of law. I don’t know how social feelings and sensitivities have evolved, but it remains a very touchy issue.

Caroline Nowak: To what extent was the ICTY successful? Do you think any of its shortcomings exacerbated ethnic tensions in Kosovo?

Anna Myriam Roccatello: They certainly exacerbated the tension then. We had the March riots [in 2004], we had very serious public disturbances and demonstrations that turned violent. What I think was very disappointing is that the political process of dialogue that was initiated by the UN, which was meant to find a solution that the two parties could at least build on, if not sign off on as the final solution, it didn’t work out. But how effective has the entire process been to ensure the inclusiveness of the society? If that’s the measure, the result is not very positive.

Caroline Nowak: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set in motion by Former President Hashim Thaci who later resigned to face war crimes charges in the Hague, has been fraught from the start. ICTJ provided technical advisement to the commission in 2019. Is there still potential for this mechanism?

Kelli Muddell: I think it does say something that the Ministry of Justice has been working on this strategy and is willing to adopt the strategy. There are several different types of mechanisms under that strategy. One is to essentially change several laws and enhance the abilities of a range of different laws on the issue of the missing and disappeared. One is a truth commission. One is another institute to establish facts about war crimes with the aim of essentially creating a collective memory. The other elements of the strategy are to call on the government to help civil society initiatives that are documenting the needs of victims. The final one is to create memorandums with different international actors to obtain information that they have on the conflict to have it housed in one place. The Ministry of Justice has the political will to invest in creating this strategy. However, then comes the question of actually having the resources to implement the strategy. I would think whatever they move forward with will be the most politically expedient thing they can do, and will cost them the least.

Caroline Nowak: Who are the victims seeking justice today in Kosovo? What are their primary concerns and demands?

Anna Myriam Roccatello: We’re still dealing with victims of war, victims of the conflict, victims of the Serbian repression and I don’t know how many victims there are out there who have reported violations by the Albanian armed groups. The societal division and political division are so rigid. . . that still there is that universe of victims. From what we see, there continues to be organizations that represent victims of the war and they are still very much divided across ethnic lines.

Kelli Muddell: One of the live issues that I think victims themselves are still talking about is around disappearances and the missing. There is a government body that’s been set up to follow up on that, but it hasn’t really been seen as effective, and so that’s definitely something that gets raised. I think the issue of truth and memory gets raised. The other thing that no one is aware of is that because victims are still represented by certain groups—they’re very segmented and polarized in terms of ethnicity, which then aligns with maybe political party and maybe aligns with civil society representation—the victims themselves often feel they already know the truth, so there’s no other truth for them to know. So, when this narrative of establishing the truth comes up, we need to [make an effort to] get out of these ethnic silos. And if we're going to really deal with the past, we need to have a more inclusive truth-telling, truth-seeking institution.

Anna Myriam Roccatello: The truth in Kosovo is now the truth of the Kosovo Albanian and that is the truth that is universally accepted or that is proclaimed and revered. There has never been an attempt to establish a process of truth-seeking to get to a shared truth, where, even if we have different interpretations, other communities can express the ways in which they felt violated.

Caroline Nowak: When did the ICTJ begin working in Kosovo and what were some of its early activities?

Anna Myriam Roccatello: We got involved right about the time when former President Thaci started speaking about a truth commission. We got involved at the request of a civil society organization, which still appears to be very genuine in its attempt to pursue inclusiveness. They called on us to help in preparing and assisting them as members of a preparatory team that was supposed to then lead to the creation of the truth commission. Then, we became more involved with the preparatory team as a whole and we worked with them. We developed a parallel project that involved Pax, another INGO that sits in the Netherlands, which conducted a survey and consultations with several different victims’ groups and we advised on the structure of the surveys and the questions. In the past few years, a group of organizations [including ICTJ] received a three-year grant from the European Union. One of its objectives is really to try to challenge the concept of truth and to have some dialogue that is responsible, that is inclusive, that at least acknowledges how one-sided the approach has been and how the lack of other measures of transitional justice, other than criminal prosecution, has negatively impacted the re-composition of society.

Kelli Muddell: This EU project that we're a part of was for Kosovo, Serbia, and Northern Macedonia. We were working with national organizations in each country, and they did surveys of grassroots victims’ groups, and then did some granting to victims’ groups to do their own work with this idea of pushing them to break out the ethnic narrative of the conflict. But, we knew from the beginning that that was a very lofty objective to have, given the divisions and the lack of communication that happens with these groups in these different countries.

Anna Myriam Roccatello: One reason for this is that the problems of Kosovo in their relationship with Serbia do not only affect Kosovo. It's really a legacy of how the former Yugoslavia collapsed, so you still have big tensions between Macedonian Slavs and Macedonian Albanians. The project was sound in its conceptualization. It's just that it takes much more than three years and it probably takes much more handholding. If you speak to individuals, they seem to have a [shared] understanding and are on the same page. They have developed their capacity to articulate human rights issues and the protection, but once they go into a room together, and one is Serb and one is Albanian, then there is this default mode that they fall into.

Kelli Muddell: The bulk of the work of the project done. . . is to get these national organizations and the victims groups to think about their priorities outside of what the political parties that represent them are telling them their priorities should be for justice and truth. I think that that work has momentum for it to continue beyond the life of the project. Further, we gave some technical assistance to the Commission on the Verification of the Status of Sexual Violence Victims. There was a law that was passed to provide pensions for martyrs, to those who had fought with the liberation groups, but it didn't explicitly talk about sexual violence victims. It took many, many years of lobbying work by national and international women's groups to get that law amended to include sexual violence victims. Currently, we've been providing technical assistance on the Ministry of Justice in Kosovo. There, they've drafted a transitional justice strategy.

Caroline Nowak: As the three-year EU project comes to a close, ideally what would you like to see happen in Kosovo moving forward? What further work should be done?

Kelli Muddell: The idea is for civil society groups from the three countries to continue to collaborate on developing a joint vision for victim-led transitional justice processes that can happen at both the national and regional level. My hope is that if this could materialize, strides would be made to challenge the continued widespread denial about war crimes that is rooted in ethno-nationalist narratives of the past.


PHOTO: Hasan Shkreli's two children, Bukurie and Rrahim, were forcibly taken from him by Serbian forces in 1999. He never saw them again, and his daughter Bukurie's body has yet to be found. (Atdhe Mulla, from the "All Our Tears" photography exhibition)