Council of Europe Report: Authorities in Kosovo urged to refrain from using Special Forces in the north for ordinary police tasks

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Authorities in Kosovo should refrain from using Special Forces in northern Kosovo for ordinary police tasks and ensure that such forces are deployed only where necessary and in close collaboration with KFOR and EULEX. This is stated, among other things, in the conclusions of the Council of Europe legal experts' Report on the Compliance of Kosovo's legal system with Council of Europe standards.

The Report was prepared as a part of the procedure for reviewing Kosovo's request to become a member of the Council of Europe, submitted on May 12, 2022, and the authors of the Report are Thomas Markert and Spiliopoulou Akermark.

In the section addressing the police, it is stated that the Constitution of Kosovo stipulates that the police must reflect the ethnic diversity of Kosovo, but the integration of non-majority communities into special police units has not been successful.

"These units are usually composed of the Albanians and only of police officers who speak Albanian; they are heavily armed and wear protective gear. Therefore, their presence is perceived as intimidating by the local population, especially in the north. After the resignation of Serbian police officers, there has been an increased tendency to deploy special police units in the north. While the Ministry of Internal Affairs claims that such units are deployed based on a precise threat assessment, all international observers agree that their presence has become excessive and leads to tensions with the population in the north. This does not mean that such a presence can never be justified. In the case of attacks by armed groups, as was the case on September 24, 2023, such units obviously need to be used", the document states.

However, it reminds that Kosovo authorities, during a meeting with the EU Special Representative Miroslav Lajcak in Bratislava in July, agreed to reduce the presence of special police forces in the north. The latest report from UNMIK to the Security Council from April 2023 is also recalled, which mentions "several incidents of verbal and physical abuse by members of the special operations unit of the Kosovo Police" in northern Kosovo.

"In the case of violent and unlawful demonstrations or roadblocks, Kosovo authorities favor the rapid and strong use of Special Forces to restore public order, even if there is a high risk that the use of force by the police will lead to mass violence and bloodshed. It was only thanks to KFOR's strong stance that it was possible to avoid a major escalation of violence in recent cases," the Report states.

It is noted that Article 41 of the Law on Police stipulates that station commanders in municipalities with a Serb majority must be elected with the participation of municipal assemblies.

"After the First Brussels Agreement between Serbia and Kosovo in 2013 in the dialogue mediated by the EU, the integration of Serbian police officers into the Kosovo Police was quite successful. Until the resignation of about 400 Kosovo Serb police officers at the end of 2022, the composition of the police force quite well reflected the population's composition. This was crucial to facilitate communication between the local population and the police and to gain the trust of the local population. Therefore, it is highly desirable to either bring back a sufficient number of Kosovo Serb police officers into service or recruit them into the service", the Report states.

In the Key Findings, it is emphasized that the legal framework in Kosovo had been strongly influenced by the international community, and this influence had certainly contributed to the fact that legal provisions were generally in line with international standards, "or, as is the case with the Constitution, surpassing these standards".

"However, this does not mean that there are no problems in terms of implementing standards in practice", it is stated.

As they add, these problems are partially similar to those faced by other countries in the region but are also problems due to the specific situation in Kosovo and tensions between the majority and Kosovo Serbs, as well as tensions with Serbia. Increased cooperation with the Council of Europe, as they assess, could contribute to improving the situation.

"Local interlocutors from the Government and civil society firmly believe that extending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights to Kosovo would significantly contribute to improving the respect for human rights", the conclusions state.

Regarding the standards of the Council of Europe's democracy, Kosovo can be considered a functional parliamentary democracy, providing a level of local self-government generally in line with standards, it is added, but to improve the situation, a series of recommendations are also given.

"Authorities should abandon their opposition to the establishment of the Community of Serb-majority Municipalities and enter into negotiations in good faith for the establishment of such a Community", the report states.

Regarding the rule of law, the legal framework in Kosovo generally corresponds to CoE standards. Although the Constitutional Court plays an important role in improving the rule of law, there are still problems with the functioning of regular courts, and the current tensions make the situation with the courts in the north quite challenging.

"While political bodies have recently shown more determination in the fight against corruption and organized crime, they do not always fully respect the independence of the judiciary, and there is concern about the tendency to overuse Special Forces in northern Kosovo", the conclusions state.

To improve the situation, specific recommendations are given.

"Authorities should implement the Constitutional Court judgment on the Visoki Decani case without further delay, fully respect the independence of the judiciary, including refraining from unnecessary criticism undermining trust in the judiciary, continue efforts in judicial reform in cooperation with the Council of Europe, fully respect CoE standards, take necessary steps to ensure that property claims of refugees and internally displaced persons are resolved in a reasonable timeframe, continue efforts to combat corruption and organized crime, refrain from using Special Forces in northern Kosovo for ordinary police tasks, and ensure that such forces are deployed only where necessary and in close cooperation with KFOR and EULEX", it further states.

"As for the respect for human rights, including minority rights, authorities should ensure effective access to quality primary and secondary education and textbooks for all children, including children with developmental disabilities and those belonging to groups such as Roma people, Ashkali, and Egyptians.

"Urgently address the lack of a comprehensive and coordinated approach to minority issues and rights, resolving issues in the implementation and monitoring of legislation related to languages, including at the municipal level, adopt concrete strategies for inter-community dialogue", this document states.