Courting justice

Pristina-based daily Zeri posed some questions a few days ago about the proposal for a new special court to try cases emerging from the EULEX Special Investigative Task Force.  My understanding is that Kosovo’s parliament approved the proposal yesterday, but here is my pre-approval interview in English:

Q:  Should Kosovo’s Members of Parliament (MP) vote in favor of the Special Court that will deal with the outcome of Special Investigative Task Force (SITF) report? If yes, can you elaborate, please why should they?

A:  MPs should make up their own minds what is best for Kosovo, but from an international perspective the Special Court solves a number of problems. It will be formed, as I understand the proposition, as a court under Kosovo law. It therefore represents a step towards giving Pristina authority over difficult cases. It will meet outside Kosovo, therefore enabling better protection of witnesses, judges and prosecutors. It will handle sensitive cases that would be difficult to try in Kosovo without creating undesirable political backlash.
If a Scottish Court can try the Pan Am 103 bombers in The Hague, it seems to me a Kosovo court meeting outside Kosovo is not such a stretch.

Q:  Having in mind that EULEX, the EU’s largest and costliest rule of law mission ever is operational in Kosovo since 2008, why should the country’s Parliament approve a new Court?

A:  As I understand it, the court will be part of the Kosovo legal system. It will lend credibility to that system and resolve cases that have attracted a lot of attention.

Q:  Does the creation of a new Special Court also mean that the locals and the EU failed on their rule of law mission?

I might prefer in principle that the already existing Kosovo legal system handle whatever cases emerge from the SITF report, but there would be little international confidence at present in such a solution. Six years however is not a long time to accomplish the tasks EULEX was given. It is not surprising that the ultimate goal has not yet been achieved.

Q:  In Kosovo, there are some people that believe that with the creation of the new Court the country’s image will suffer even more, while some other people say the opposite – what is your opinion on this?

A:  From an international perspective, the creation of the court will be seen in a positive light. It will signify commitment to justice for all those who suffered.

Q:  There are a lot of speculation’s regarding the number and the identity of the people who could be indicted by the new court – remembering that Mr. Dick Marty’s report made a mention of Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, can the latter be one of the indictees?

A:  I can be one of the indictees, if they have evidence against me. No one is above the law. One Kosovo prime minister has already been tried and acquitted at ICTY, more than once.

But I would underline: the Marty report mentioned Prime Minister Thaci but offered no evidence against him that would even begin to stand up in court. That is one of the prime reasons for creating the SITF: the Marty report unfortunately created suspicions that it did not even begin to prove.

Q:  Albin Kurti’s party “SelfDetermination” says that a similar Court/Tribunal should have been created for Serbia, and not Kosovo. Your comment, please?

A:  Most high-level Serb indictees have been tried and many convicted by an international court, namely the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which is not taking new cases and in any event cannot—as I understand it—try cases where the violations in question occurred outside Yugoslavia. Some serious cases have been tried and convicted in Serbian courts.

I don’t think the international community has any objection to Kosovo trying war criminals in its existing courts, which it has sometimes done, but as in Serbia doing so in politically sensitive cases would be difficult. Serbia relieved itself of difficult burdens and gained credibility with the international community when it relied on ICTY.

Lucky Afghanistan

I have been hesitating to write about the April 5 Afghan presidential election, whose outcome is still unclear.  Views of its significance among people I respect are wildly varied.  Sarah Chayes thinks it means nothing.  Andrew Wilder, who observed the election, thought the Afghans had–with strong turnout–sent a clear message of rejection to the Taliban.

I’m less impressed than some with the process, as it appears that there may have been widespread fraud.  The number of complaints, including apparently serious ones, is up from four years ago.  The Afghans are inclined toward stuffing ballot boxes on an industrial scale.  I won’t be surprised to find that the relative peacefulness of election day ends up less emblematic of this election than post-election disqualification of large numbers of votes, as happened last time around.

The interesting thing is that it hardly matters if you are worried about the results.  It is looking as if Abdullah Abdullah, who came in second to Hamid Karzai in the last election, and Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official and Finance Minister well known for his academic work on state-building, will be the clear front runners.  If neither gets more than 50%, which is likely, they will face each other in a second round.  The internationals worry that there could be controversy about the ultimate result, so that the election confers legitimacy.  But any country on earth would be blessed to have either Abdullah or Ashraf as president.  These are two people of notable intelligence and distinction.  That they would emerge in Afghanistan, of all places, after Karzai’s erratic performance, seems almost too good to believe.

But it is symptomatic of something interesting about Afghanistan.  While most of its population is illiterate and its physical infrastructure ravaged by war, it boasts a thin layer of extraordinarily well-educated and capable people.  Ghani I am told spent the last year managing the security transition–from US lead to Afghan lead–throughout the country.  Abdullah, a former Foreign Minister, has led the parliamentary opposition to Karzai.  Both have said they would sign the bilateral security agreement with the United States that will allow thousands, but perhaps not many thousands, of American troops to remain in Afghanistan for training and counterterrorism purposes.

Neither is likely to be any less critical of American mistakes in killing Afghan civilians than Karzai.  Ghani has a particularly acerbic and sharp tongue.  I’ve heard him use it as a private citizen on US contractors and government officials.  I wouldn’t want to be at the receiving end if he becomes president.  Abdullah I don’t know, but he has been sharp and effective in his public critiques of Karzai.

So after all the sound and fury of Karzai’s railing against the Americans for the last year and more, Afghanistan is likely to see its first peaceful alternation of power without any dramatic change in its political direction.  But the much improved Afghan security forces are far more costly than the Afghan government can afford without international help.  Whoever he is, the next president will want to focus major attention on growing the country’s economy while maintaining the relationships that allow major international military and financial assistance to flow.  Continuity, hopefully with improvement, will characterize the transition, not a sharp change in direction.

The big question is whether the aid flow will be sustainable in the US Congress and elsewhere around the world.  Annoyed with Karzai, Congress voted in January to halve US assistance. That and the further reduction of US troops will be major blows to an economy already feeling the impact of drawdown.  Ghani or Abdullah will have major challenges ahead.  Whichever it is, Washington should count itself as lucky.


The Administration and its surrogates are trying hard to assure all concerned that its pivot to the Asia Pacific will not reduce attention to the Middle East.  They are also trying to minimize the impact of Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine maneuvers.  Meanwhile Bashar al Asad intends to hold an “election” June 3 and photographs have confirmed the Russian origin of supposed pro-Russian demonstrators in Ukraine.  Presidents may try to set their own agenda, but circumstances in the world don’t always comply.

The prospect of an election in Syria under current circumstances is bozotic.  While Asad will no doubt find some supposed “opposition” figure to contest him, the whole thing will be what the car guys call “booooogus.”  A good part of the Syrian population is living in areas outside government control, one-third or more of the population is displaced or refugees, violence threatens even more, and election observation is impossible.  Unfree and unfair is the best that could be said about an election occurring under these conditions.

The protesters taking over government buildings in eastern and southern Ukraine are no less bogus.  Russia inspires, equips and leads them to disrupt Kiev’s efforts to exert control.  Most may be Ukrainians, but that makes little difference.  For the Russian foreign minister to complain about Kiev’s failure to rein them in adds insult to injury.  Provoking unrest and then complaining about is downright evil.

The question is what the United States can and should do about such reprobate behavior. 

In Syria, only an effort to rebalance the battlefield will have a serious impact at this point.  That is apparently happening, with the shipment of anti-tank weapons to a selected few trained members of the opposition.  Hesitancy and reluctance still characterize the effort more than boldness and resolution.  Even with greater resolve, arming will not suffice.  There are other requirements:  strengthening the opposition politically by connecting the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) with the fighters on the ground, enabling the SOC-connected administrations to govern more effectively in liberated areas, and convincing the Iranians that their assistance to Asad is damaging to their regional ambitions.

I wouldn’t waste any more breath on the Russians, who appear to have decided to support Asad to the bitter end.  Iranians I heard from recently show much more concern about the damage being done in Syria, not  least because sectarian warfare and the growing strength of Sunni extremists are seen as real threats in Tehran.  Asad’s use of chemical weapons and the increasingly serious attrition of Hizbollah forces also give Iran pause.  Tehran has more to worry about if Asad falls without a political arrangement for what comes next than Moscow does.

In Ukraine, the United States can do little more than insist on implementation of last week’s agreement to deescalate.  If this includes requiring the demonstrators in Kiev’s Maidan to disperse, as quid pro quo for an end to the occupation of government buildings in the south and east, so be it.  The key thing is to create the conditions for a decent election at the end of May, or soon thereafter, to legitimize a government in Kiev with democratic blessing.  The demonstrators in the east and south will try to prevent that, not least because the Russian annexation of Crimea has eliminated any chance the country’s Russophiles can win it.  They will be condemned to the opposition.  Their best hope for them to avoid such an election is to make Ukraine as chaotic as Syria.

Russia is relying on bogus protestors in Ukraine and a bogus election in Syria.  The best response right now would be a decent election in Ukraine and more serious support to a more unified opposition in Syria.  Neither will repair all the harm that has been done in both places, but the President’s prospects for convincing allies in Asia this week and next that they can rely on Washington depends on what he achieves in the places he would like to leave behind.

Peace Picks April 21 – 25

1. America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East

Monday, April 21 | 4 – 5:30pm

6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center; 1300 Pennsylvania Ave NW

Reservations requested because of limited space:

The CIA has an almost diabolical reputation in the Arab world. Yet, in the early years of its existence, the 1940s and 1950s, the Agency was distinctly pro-Arab, lending its support to the leading Arab nationalist of the day, Gamal Nasser, and conducting an anti-Zionist publicity campaign at home in the U.S. Drawing on a wide range of sources, Hugh Wilford uncovers the world of early CIA “Arabism,” its origins, characteristic forms, and eventual demise.


2. Iraq After 2014

Tuesday, April 22 | 12:30 – 2pm

Kenney Auditorium, SAIS (The Nitze Building), 1740 Massachusetts Ave NW


Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, counselor at CSIS, President and CEO of Khalilizad Associates, and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the United Nations, will discuss this topic.

Read more…

Where humanitarian and strategic interests intersect

Thursday afternoon, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy hosted a policy discussion about US strategic interests and the humanitarian disaster in Syria. Featured speakers were former UK foreign secretary David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, and Robert Ford, a US diplomat retiring after serving as ambassador to Syria (he left there in October 2011). Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute, moderated.

Though it engulfs a large part of the Middle East,  many people no longer want to talk about the Syrian crisis, Miliband said.  It has become the defining humanitarian crisis of our time for all the wrong reasons.  The humanitarian community has failed to rise to the challenge posed by dictatorship, sectarianism, and geopolitics.

Massive humanitarian efforts have failed because they don’t meet the needs.  About 9.5 million people have been displaced from their homes. The UN says about 3.5 million Syrians are cut off from aid. Inside Syria the idea of “civilian” is lost.  Everyone is treated as a combatant, which contravenes international law.

Neighboring countries are overwhelmed.  Lebanon now has more than a million refugees. Jordan has 650, 000 registered refugees and an equal number of unregistered refugees. The refugees have been displaced multiple times within Syria before escaping. Currently there are 88,000 Syrian children in Lebanon going to school.  This leaves 300, 000 Syrian children who have had no education for the last three years. The UN has appealed for $5.5 billion but only $1 billion has been committed.

With the political process stalled, the humanitarian situation is worsening.  It took three years to get a UN Security Council resolution on humanitarian aid. Government restrictions on the UN and non-governmental organizations working in Syria have hampered aid to at least 12 of 14 governorates. With the winter over, the IRC is concerned with spring and summer, when infectious disease could become rampant.  Lack of access and the humanitarian crisis are not an unfortunate byproduct of a war without law. They are the strategic result of a war without law.

Miliband urges every member of the UN Security Council and other interested countries to name a humanitarian envoy, a diplomat of distinction with support from the head of a government,  to broker a ceasefire. Governments should also undertake cross-border humanitarian operations. If he had told an audience three years ago that 160,000 Syrians would die, several million would be displaced, and a large number would be tortured by their government, the response would have been, “We must do something.” We need make sure that our senses aren’t dulled.

Ford emphasized that the US government is hugely concerned about the crisis. It is the largest single donor to Syrian relief efforts, having committed $1.7 billion. Additional money is being provided to local communities where the regime has lost control. The US is providing rescue equipment and food, and now it is paying salaries of some teachers and police.

The situation is nevertheless deteriorating.  People in refugee camps are the lucky ones. The ones that are really suffering are still inside Syria and under blockade. According to the latest UN estimates, Syrian government forces have 175, 000 civilians under blockade. They are located primarily in the Damascus suburbs. Blockading aid convoys contravenes the Geneva Convention.  It is illegal and outrageous. The regime is starving people into ceasefires and eventually surrender. In return for armed opposition forces giving up heavy weaponry, the civilians are granted access to food. The blockades are a regime tactic that will continue as long as the regime is fighting for its life.

Some argue that both sides are blockading civilians. The opposition has wrongly blockaded some small towns, but those are not airtight blockades. The opposition does not fully control access.  For example, food supplies come in from the north to pro-regime Kurdish areas. The opposition blockades are in no way justified, but they do not compare with the much more vigorous and extensive regime blockades.

If the fighting goes on for another three years, what kind of crisis will we face? What will the implications be for humanitarian assistance, state structures in the Levant, and the prevalence of extremists?

Miliband replied that the Syrian refugees he has spoken to know Assad will not be toppled tomorrow. They see the war lengthening. No one is expecting a quick resolution. Ideas about reconstruction have not really been developed. The dangers of communicable diseases will rise over time if the crisis continues. Public health risks are massive even with sufficient food supplies. There are obvious dangers of a humanitarian and political explosion in neighboring countries. What is Lebanon’s capacity? There is an influx of 750 refugees a day into Lebanon. Lebanese asking themselves, what gives?  But there is no incentive for the regime to make necessary compromises. It is a very bleak situation.

Ford thought in 2012 that the regime’s days were numbered. What changed was assistance to the regime. Who could have imagined Hezbollah would send 5-6,000 soldiers?  Russia has increased assistance as well. This has enabled the regime to take and hold the area from Damascus up to Homs and over to Latakia.  In the short or medium term, the armed opposition will not be able to change that.  The country is being cantonized. Different factions of armed groups control different territories. There are six opposition groups that divide control in Abu Qamal.

The war of attrition inside Syria is between minority and majority. But it is also a war of attrition regionally between Sunni and Shia states. Assad is not the majority on either side of those divides.  Ultimately, he will lose.  But in the meanwhile the war leaves vast spaces governed by no one in particular or by bad guys. If the moderates don’t prevail against extremists, we will see a much more serious problem, as we have seen in the past in Afghanistan.

Kosovo gets an army and a special court

With the kind permission of Belgrade daily Danas, here is the report on its interview, published  Monday under the headline “Prishtina is creating an army and is not afraid of a special court,” with Kosovo Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi.  I have made minor editorial changes to the English version, supplied by Petrit:

Our international partners have already met key Kosovo demands regarding the investigations of Special Prosecutor Clint Williamson into the Dick Marty Report. Unfortunately, Serbia has tried all propaganda means to use Dick Marty to re-write the history of Kosovo war and also to return the issue of Kosovo under the UN. There were more than 10 formal requests by Serbia to the UN to deal with allegations from the Dick Marty Report, but now it’s clear that these allegations will be investigated by a Kosovo court, within Kosovo’s law and Constitution, with international legal staff supporting our Special Court – stated today for Danas Petrit Selimi, Kosovo’s Deputy Foreign Minister, who Pristina media regard as the person who is leading public relations efforts in the cabinet of PM Hashim Thaci.

Selimi says that “because Kosovo wants a credible and transparent process that will close once and for all this chapter,” a special chamber will be set up in a European country, with a bilateral agreement between Kosovo and that country, in order to enable international judges and prosecutors to conclude any process that might arise from the EULEX investigation.

“Now it’s clear that no UN court but rather a Kosovo court with international staff will work to deal with any accusations made against any Kosovo citizen. Kosovo setting up a Special Court will also ensure to distance the liberation and independence movement in Kosovo from any individuals that might have engaged in criminal activities.” – stated Selimi for the Danas interview.

Danas: Will the allegations made against senior members of the Kosovo government have an impact on the election agenda in Kosovo? It’s known that Marty also accused Prime Minister Thaci of organ harvesting?

Selimi:  A major part of the allegations are science fiction and this will be proven by the investigations. But some allegations are very serious, and Kosovo will open a Special Court to deal with these.  As we will apply for membership tothe  Council of Europe in near future, it’s also important for Kosovo’s society and state to show it can deal with it’s own rotten apples. We know that even Nelson Mandela’s ANC had its own criminals. Unfortunately any guerrilla resistance can attract bad people with bad intentions. That is why it’s important that Kosovo parliament approves the creation of Special Court and the President extends the EULEX mandate for the final two years:  to silence once and for all those keen to systematically attack Kosovo’s reputation. NATO intervention in Kosovo and the KLA uprising marked the single most successful Western intervention, which helped both Serbia and Kosovo move towards European future.  The Special Court dealing with the Dick Marty allegations will cement Kosovo’s legitimacy as a modern, European state. We should not fear but rather fully embrace the creation of the court, knowing that the families of civilian victims on both sides, not only Albanian, need answers about their beloved ones.

Danas:  Do you expect that the principle of the “reserved places” in the Parliament will be preserved?

Selimi:  The Ahtisaari Plan asked for Kosovo to have “reserved seats” for two mandates for minorities, which gave them up to 1/4 of all seats in Kosovo Parliament, despite having only 5% of the population. This type of positive discrimination was needed to ensure Kosovo Serb leaders would join Kosovo institutions after independence. This formula is now automatically transformed into “guaranteed seats” which enable Serbs to have minimum 10 MP seats. The extension of the old formula is possible and is being supported by Prime Minister Thaci and the  international community, but right now there is simply no 2/3 majority in the Parliament to support this extension of “reserved seats.”

Danas:  Do you think it is feasible to form the Kosovo’s armed forces soon?

Selimi:  The Kosovo Armed Foces have already been formed, as a result of recent National Security Strategy, written with the support of the US and other NATO allies. Parliament will confirm this decision soon, but during the next year we will see creation of dynamic, defensive force that will provide Kosovo with an important element of the security architecture in the Balkans.  The Kosovo Parliament was also been accepted as an observer in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, hence we will move firmly towards NATO integration. So Kosovo’s multi-ethnic army is not only feasible, but it’s a reality of a fundamental and irreversible state-building project that is unfolding every day.

Danas:  The President of Serbia Tomislav Nikolic mentioned the possibility of the creation of a new resolution on Kosovo that would be adopted by the Serbian Parliament. In your opinion, what would be the significance of such a document?

Selimi:  Any documents, resolutions, constitutions approved by Serbian institutions since 1999 have no bearing on Kosovo. The Serbian Parliament can declare that Mars is part of Serbia, but the reality on the ground and the historic Brussels Agreement between Kosovo and Serbia prove that there is a state called Kosovo, it’s a neighbor of Serbia, and we both must normalize relations if we want to become members of EU.

Danas: What should be the main topics in the next phase of the Brussels dialogue?

Selimi:  We must implement all agreements, including complete closure of all justice and police institutions of Serbia in north Kosovo and full integration into the Kosovo constitutional system. All new agreements will slowly but surely cement the separate roads of Kosovo and Serbia towards EU membership, which in the end will only be possible when both countries recognize each other’s existence.  This will be sine qua non of our future political dialogue.


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