A decade after NATO concluded its military campaign in Kosovo, and as the alliance is set to reduce its troops there, Amnesty International's Kosovo expert told Deutsche Welle the crimes of the past have gone unpunished.
The cessation of bombing operations in the breakaway region of Kosovo on June 10, 1999, ended the last large-scale military confrontation between NATO and Serbia within ex-Yugoslavia.
In the decade since, Kosovo - which has been under United Nations administration and which declared independence in February of last year - has seen the return of a measure of stability. And NATO is expected to announce on Thursday that it is reducing the number of its troops in Kosovo by a third, from 15,000 to 10,000.
But a report published earlier this week by Amnesty International says the West has little reason to be proud of its record in terms of clearing up human rights abuses by ethnic Serbs and Albanians against one another.
"NATO singularly failed in one of its main tasks in Kosovo - to ensure the right of return for all refugees," Amnesty's Balkans Expert Sian Jones told Deutsche Welle. "So it's not a great disappointment for us that some NATO troops may be leaving. They were little more than window-dressing."
Some 850,000 Albanians were forced from their homes in the late 1990s as violence escalated between Albanian separatists, chiefly the Kosovo Liberation Army, and police forces loyal to Serbia, which considers Kosovo to be an integral part of its territory.
Most of them later returned, but approximately 200,000 Serbs and Roma who fled the violence remain refugees. Estimates of the number killed by the principles in the conflict and in NATO air strikes vary dramatically, but all the figures run into the thousands.
Ill-prepared for the ceasefire
Amnesty says Kosovo needs to guarantee the right to return for all refugees
NATO began bombing Serbian targets on March 24, 1999, citing fears that a genocide could be in the offing, after Serbia's allies Russia and China blocked United Nations measures aimed at forcing an end to the conflict.
The campaign, known as Operation Allied Force, was concluded in less than three months. But NATO was caught off-guard, when some 500,000 Albanian refugees flooded back into Kosovo after the cessation of hostilities.
"They were woefully unprepared," Jones said. "The idea was to go into Kosovo and protect people, but nobody anticipated so many Albanians would return so soon, and they were unable to deal with it. There are reliable reports of children being abducted less than 100 meters from NATO posts."
In a statement released to mark the publication of the report, entitled Burying the past: Impunity for enforced disappearances and abductions in Kosovo, Amnesty International estimates that some 800 Serbs, Roma and other minorities were kidnapped after June 1999 "mostly under the eyes of the NATO-led peacekeeping Kosovo force."
Amnesty estimates that Serbian police and other forces abducted more than 3,000 ethnic Albanians during the war itself.
A culture of impunity
The EU police force EULEX has taken over some duties from NATO and the UN
Kosovo has since dropped out of the headlines around most of the world. And Amnesty International says NATO, the EU, the UN and the Kosovo government have given low priority to pursuing human rights violations there, especially after a brief flare-up of violence by Albanians against Serbs in 2004.
"There is a culture of impunity created by Kosovo authorities who have failed to demand the prosecution of people who could have or indeed have had allegations made against them," Jones said. "UNMIK [the UN's interim civilian administration in Kosovo] essentially decided in 2004 not to go ahead with resolving human rights violations and make political stability a priority."
The current Kosovo government, Amnesty contends, is reticent to go after potential war criminals, especially on the Albanian side, because many of the individuals concerned retain influence in Kosovar society. But resolving the injustices of the past, the organization argues, is an integral part of achieving lasting peace in the future.
"It's up to the Kosovo authorities to ensure right of return and a guarantee of non-repetition, after 2004, Roma and Serbs don't believe in this," Jones told Deutsche Welle. "We hope that UNMIK will improve efforts to bring both Serbs and Albanians to justice."
Ten years on from the 1999 Kosovo war, the region is relatively calm. But that stability has only been achieved, critics argue, by ignoring the injustices of the previous decade.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Rob Mudge