Kosovo’s Reluctance to Address Wartime Rape
Long after the end of the Kosovo conflict, survivors of gender-based violence associated with the war continue to face political and social obstacles in their struggle for justice.
Progress on legal remedies for women in Kosovo who survived the military rape campaigns of the 1999 conflict has been blocked by the Kosovar Assembly. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) remain a source of support for such survivors, but they lack sufficient funds to provide adequate services and change traditional social norms, which stigmatize rape as a shameful matter for the woman’s family rather than a crime against an individual. Meanwhile, gender-based violence continues with impunity in Kosovo.
While Bosnian women who survived systematic rape as a tool of war were able to pursue justice through legal channels such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Kosovar survivors have had less success in garnering a similar response to what international law and jurisprudence recognize as a war crime. The past and present governments of the young country have failed to supply the necessary support mechanisms. While Kosovo was supervised by a UN mission from 1999 until 2007 and has continued to receive guidance from the European Rule of Law Mission since 2008, systematic rape has been addressed only through local and international NGO collaborations. It was not until March 2013 that a proposal on the issue was brought before the Assembly for an initial reading.
The legislative proposal was drafted by activist Albin Kurti’s Self-Determination Party in collaboration with local NGOs such as Kosova Women’s Network. It aims to provide legal categorization and protection to survivors of systematic rape, and would offer social services in the form of therapy, education, and employment, alongside monetary compensation. In order to bypass the inevitable opposition to any new legislation that addresses rape and violence against women, the Self-Determination Party opted to package the measure as an amendment to an existing law that provides similar services to war veterans, wounded soldiers, and family members of those killed in the 1999 conflict. The proposal would also create a committee to facilitate research and collect data so that resources can be better mobilized to provide aid.
Nonetheless, opponents of the legislation cite budget constraints, lack of data, and lack of evidence that would justify granting services to rape survivors. These critics overlook the fact that when the existing law on war veterans, wounded soldiers, and families was passed, no data were available at the time. The arguments against the proposed amendment show a disregard for gender equality, as most of the individuals currently protected by the law are men, and the majority of survivors of rape as a weapon of war are women.
Insensitive and sexist rhetoric has not been uncommon during the Assembly debates on the proposal. Deputy Gëzim Kelmendi of the conservative Justice Party stated, “We have no possibility to help them, because this category of people, meaning the majority of the female gender who suffered during the war, are hesitant to testify, and there is no exact [medical] method to accurately examine them.”
The proposed amendment represents a crucial test for the new government in protecting space for social change and new political ideas, including reform movements that are trying to deal with the neglected victims of war crimes and lift harmful social taboos. In the past eight months, since the proposal narrowly won initial approval in its first legislative reading, the government has issued few recommendations and further delayed the second reading.
The lack of progress and government leadership has opened the door to sometimes violent pushback. During the March debate, Nazlie Bala, head of the Self-Determination Party Women’s Secretariat, was severely beaten outside her home for supporting the amendment.
Pervasive gender-based violence in a society strips women of their voices and undermines transitional justice, as pluralism and participation in decision-making institutions are the foundation of democracy and rule of law. Without effective leadership to integrate gender-based policies into Kosovo’s legal framework, it is impossible to conclude that the whole of society is participating substantively in the peace process.
Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry marked the launch of the annual “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence” campaign—which runs from the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25 to Human Rights Day on December 10—by reaffirming U.S. commitments to combating this pernicious form of violence and turning “words into action.” As a strong supporter of Kosovo’s transition to democracy, the United States could do more to hold the government accountable for its compliance with the objectives outlined in the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally.
In recent remarks before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Catherine Russell, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, described Washington’s efforts “to help local governments investigate and prosecute crimes of gender-based violence; provide legal and psychological services to survivors; support prevention efforts by educating communities and engaging with critical stakeholders including men, boys and religious leaders; and support capacity-building to enhance the ability of the media and civil society to address these issues.”
The delays and opposition over the past year—and indeed over the past 14 years—suggest that far greater support for such initiatives is needed in Kosovo.
For more information on Kosovo, see the annual Freedom House publications Nations in Transit, Freedom in the World, and Freedom of the Press.
Gigi Alford, senior program officer for Freedom House’s Global Internet Freedom Program, contributed to this blog post.z
Photo Credit: Majlinda Hoxha | Kosovo 2.0
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.