The recent indictment of top leaders of Kosovo’s political establishment for war crimes is a significant moment, both in the investigation and the history of the country. Towards the end of last month, the Hague-based Specialist Prosecutor’s Office (SCO) said it had filed an indictment in April with the Kosovo Specialist Chamber (KSC). The indictment chargespresident Hashim Thaci, former parliamentary speaker Kadri Veseli, and others of war crimes during the Kosovo war (February 1998 – June 1999). The indictments were made on 10 counts, including murder, enforced disappearances, persecution, and torture during the armed ethnic conflict between the NATO-backed Kosovo Albanians and the ethnic Serbs supported by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY).
A judge from the Kosovo Specialist Chamber will now decide if the case goes to trial.
Even though Thaci and Veseli denied the accusations on June 29, it is a well-known fact that both are among the top ex-commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The KLA was an ethnic Albanian paramilitary organization that was involved in the Kosovo war and committed crimes against the ethnic Serbs and other political opponents. Thaci and Veseli have reportedly also been accused of obstructing the SCO’s work.
War crimes by KLA, NATO
While the recent indictments have been welcomed by leftist and progressive forces, there is widespread cynicism about the leaders actually being convicted. Marijan Kubik, in-charge of international relations of the New Communist Party of Yugoslavia (NKPJ), told Peoples Dispatch, “We believe that Thaci will not be convicted as he was a close ally and has friendly relations with many Western military and diplomatic representatives, who financed and equipped the KLA because it served NATO as a cheap ground force in the war against former Yugoslavia. If Thaci were convicted, many former Western politicians and soldiers would have to be convicted, including leaders such as Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Joschka Fischer and Wesley Clark.”
In 2008, Carla Del Ponte’s The Hunt: Me and the War Criminals was published, in which she presented extensive evidence that the Kosovo Albanians were smuggling human organs of kidnapped Serbs after the Kosovo war ended in 1999. The book created an international controversy.
On April 4, 2008, Human Rights Watch wrote to the then Kosovo prime minister Thaci and his Albanian counterpart Sali Berisha, requesting for opening an investigation into the matter under international supervision. By May 3, both had publicly rejected Del Ponte’s claims as unsubstantiated.
On July 19, 2019, ex-KLA leader and then prime minister of Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj, resigned from office after being summoned for questioning by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office (KSC & SPO) in the Hague, Netherlands.
The KSC & SPO were established in 2017 for conducting trials of KLA members accused of crimes committed during the Kosovo war, following widespread criticism against the biased war-trials by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The ICTY had solely indicted Serbian political leadership for the atrocities committed during the Kosovo conflict. Progressives in the region, including the Left, have continuously demanded the indictment of NATO and its backed KLA forces for their crimes, which include the bombing of Yugoslavia, in the name of liberating Kosovo.
Serbia or Kosovo?
Though the long drawn process of disintegration of the former Yugoslavia saw numerous allegations and counter-allegations of human rights violations and war crimes, leading to persecution of some top state officials, the case of Kosovo remains unclear. Unlike other successor states, Kosovo is still not recognized by the United Nations as an independent state despite its declaration of independence in 2008. In fact, in June 1999, in an attempt to end the Serbian (then Yugoslavia) war which was actively backed by NATO, the UNSC passed resolution 1244 recognizing Kosovo as a part of Serbia, one of the successor states of Yugoslavia. The resolution treats Kosovo as an autonomous region of Serbia.
The KLA-led war forced a large number of minority non-Albanians to flee Kosovo between 1998-99. There are around 210,000 Kosovans living in Serbia as refugees. Given the small size of the total population of Kosovo (1.8 million in 2019), the number of refugees is significant. Following resolution 1244, the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) was established to administer the region and guarantee the safe return of the refugees. However, after the withdrawal of the Yugoslav armies, leaders of the KLA, including Thaci and Veseli, unilaterally declared its independence.
Allegations of human rights violations and war crimes by the KLA forces were not taken seriously due to NATO pressure, and action against them was delayed for over a decade. The indictment and conviction of the KLA leadership may create an atmosphere for the resolution of both the statehood and refugee issues.