The Problem with the Kosovo War Rape Petition

Co-authored with Lura Limani. Published on Gazeta Jeta ne Kosove and Balkan Transitional Justice.

The collection of signatures for a petition to pressure the United Nations to investigate rapes that took place in Kosovo during the war has been going on in Pristina for two weeks now.

If everything goes according to the organisers’ plan, the UN will send investigators to Kosovo in order to draft a report. Although, at first glance, such intentions are good, the petition is a kind of camouflage for the absence of action and support for victims by Kosovo institutions since the end of the war.

No serious investigation has yet been conducted in Kosovo into cases of rape during the war. The supposed number of rapes, 20,000, is often repeated by politicians who support the petition, but this figure has never been proved to be correct.

It became part of Kosovo public opinion based on a report published by the World Health Organisation in January 2000, in which an approximate calculation of supposed cases of rape was given based on data provided by local NGOs. The report said: “Local organisations estimate that approximately 10,000 to 20,000 women were raped between February 1998 and June 1999.”

Another report on rapes committed during the war in Kosovo was published several months later by international campaign group Human Rights Watch. It gave no definitive total figure, but simply said saying that although 96 credible cases were found, “it is likely that the number is much higher”.

The figure of 20,000 however has remained in use in Kosovo despite the fact that it was never verified.

An admission of failure?

Asking the UN to provide such an analysis seems to be ineffective given that there are Kosovo state mechanisms and the EU Rule-of-Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) to investigate and document cases of rape during the war.

Kosovo’s War Crimes Institute, which was established in 2011, has not yet published any research or report on crimes committed during the 1999 war. Within this context, the request to invite the UN to investigate such crimes is absurd while local institutions that should be dealing with the collection of data have made no progress.

In order to have real justice, Kosovo and Serbia should have an extradition agreement. If most of the rapists are assumed to be Serbian soldiers and paramilitaries, it will be impossible to see justice done unless they appear in court, be it in a Kosovo court or an international one.

The extradition of suspected rapists could have been part of the recent Brussels-sponsored dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, at which acting Deputy Prime Minister Edita Tahiri, one of the backers of the petition, led negotiations on behalf of Pristina.

In this respect, focusing on producing a report is useless unless it results in punishment for the rapist and compensation for the raped. A report, which after being published will just gather dust in a drawer, does not amount to much.

One should not forget the fact that the UN used to have a mission in Kosovo which had executive power over the police, prosecution and judiciary from 1999 until 2008. While UNMIK was in power, there was no special chamber established to deal with war crimes and often cases were dragged out in an unjustifiable manner – or they were not investigated at all, as in the cases of many missing persons documented last year in a hard-hitting report by Amnesty International.

Furthermore, activists who collected data soon after the war and handed it over to UNMIK have accused the UN mission of destroying evidence. After this bitter history, should Kosovo now look to the UN for justice?

Selective justice?

It is assumed in Kosovo that through this petition, light will be shed on the rapes of Albanian women by Serbian military and paramilitary troops. But what if it comes out that the Kosovo Liberation Army fighters committed rapes too? Or what if cases of male rape are documented?

While the petition is being discussed and supported in Kosovo, there are no similar reactions to the case of the kidnapping, raping and brutal beating of two Albanian women by Kosovo Liberation Army fighters during the war. On the contrary, instead of supporting the victims, protests are organised for the release of the suspects who, as liberation fighters, could not have committed such crimes.

The case was initiated by EULEX’s chief prosecutor at the time Maurizio Salustro, who is now an advisor to deputy chief prosecutor for war crimes in Belgrade, thus giving more ammunition to those who say that the accusations against members of the KLA are ‘Serbian propaganda’.

What protests will take place if this international report documents cases of rapes committed by the KLA? Or rape is a crime only when it is committed by an external enemy?

It is ironic that in the public discourse, justice for people raped during the war has gained so much support, while rapes that occur as a result of domestic violence are not considered an urgent issue.

The fact that no raped woman has agreed (or maybe has not been invited) to be the public face of the petition for justice for people raped during the war is also something to be concerned about. We must not forget that during the parliamentary debate last year about classifying raped people as a special category in the law defining the status and the rights of civilian and non-civilian victims of the war, some of the loudest opponents of this were Albanian MPs.

The reasoning is based on their conviction that there may be women who would lie that they were raped in order to benefit from a pension, that there was no way to confirm their rape through medical examination, and that there is not enough money in the state budget to support them.

The tense debate in parliament not only brought out contradictions within the legislature but even outside it. Nazlie Bala from the Vetevendosje Movement, one of the activists supporting the amendment of the law, was even physically assaulted.

So, more than a year ago, not only did an initiative for the recognition of the status of rape victims not find support, but it was even attacked for defaming the liberation war and national honour. What has changed?

Women as permanent victims

Maybe nothing.

An appeal for justice is directed towards the United Nations, perhaps because in Kosovo it falls on deaf ears.

The problem of the petition is also related to the way in which wartime rape victims in Kosovo are represented. In a situation where facts are absent and strong emotions about shame and honour rule, the issue of the victims is put forward, but not the victims themselves. And while it is absolutely necessary to highlight such cases and give the victims the status they deserve, it is difficult to ignore how they continue to be stigmatised by those people who take on the role of representing this voiceless group.

To have the kind of representation that makes them social and political actors, an organisation of the victims themselves must exist, like the Association of Women Victims of War in Bosnia, which has been fighting for years for the rights of wartime rape victims.

These are not victims in the pathetic sense of the word; instead, they are activists fighting for their rights, without shame, in the public sphere. The tendency in Kosovo to see the victims of rape as pathetic is dangerous because it diminishes their humanity and courage.

A concrete example comes in the form of the words to a song by Eliza Hoxha, “Song of Silence”, which aims to raise awareness but completely bars victims from any possibility of rehabilitation and reduces them to “a hopeless body”; unprotected, weak beings that need our compassion most of all.

Finally, coming back to the petition, an initiative to find criminals and punish them is a fair and necessary act. A petition addressed to the UN, whose bodies obviously failed during their mission in Kosovo, is hopeless.

Yet, politically, it is very useful. If the petition fails, or if it brings to light some unpleasant facts, the UN can be blamed.

If the petition proves to be ‘successful’ and only facts about Serb forces raping Albanian women are documented, then this will constitute a symbolic victory, because Kosovo’s institutions have done very little to deliver facts about such rapes to international judicial bodies such as the Hague Tribunal, and haven’t considered it necessary to condition the EU-backed dialogue with Serbia on the investigation and punishment of war crimes.

Looking at it this way, the petition is just a ‘consolation prize’ for the victims, while local institutions continue to avoid the responsibility to recognise, investigate and punish all crimes committed during the war in Kosovo, without exception.

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