Kosovo Panel: Health Conditions in UN Camps Violated Human Rights

Security Council Meeting Security Council resolutions 1160 (1998), 1199 (1998), 1203 (1998), 1239 (1999) and 1244 (1999) Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (S/2015/303) - Farid Zarif, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). - Hashim Thai, Representative of the Kosovo authorities will addresses the Security Council meeting on the UN Assistance Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

Head of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) addresses the UN Security Council
Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

The United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) violated the human rights of people who lived in its camps following the 1999 conflict there by exposing them to unsafe living conditions and lead poisoning, according to the body established to evaluate human rights complaints against UNMIK. On April 8, 2016, the Human Rights Advisory Panel rendered its opinion in the case of N.M and Others v. UNMIK, which involved 138 complainants who lived in UN camps that were built on contaminated land. [Human Rights Advisory Panel Press Release] UNMIK established the camps were established to temporarily house people displaced by fighting between Serbian and Kosovar armed groups. [Human Rights Advisory Panel Press Release] The complainants, members of the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities in Kosovo, claimed to have suffered from lead poisoning and other health problems caused by both contamination from the nearby smelting and mining complex and by poor hygiene and living conditions in the camps. [Human Rights Advisory Panel Press Release]

The Panel, the only body ever established to consider rights abuses by a UN field mission, found that the conditions violated multiple human rights treaties, including the European Convention on Human Rights (European Convention), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). [Human Rights Advisory Panel Press Release; NY Times] The decisions of the Panel are non-binding, and it is up to UNMIK whether to accept and act on the recommendations made. However, the decision is seen as a long-fought victory for the affected individuals, who suffered miscarriages, stillbirths, developmental disorders, paralysis, and death. [NY Times; Human Rights Advisory Panel Press Release] The UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, and UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Chaloka Beyani, both recently urged the UN to provide compensation and an apology to the victims in light of the Panel’s decision. [OHCHR Press Release]

The Facts and Allegations

After armed conflict broke out between Serbian forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1244 (1999) and deployed UNMIK along with the Kosovo Force (KFOR) to Kosovo to establish a civil presence and international security. See UN Human Rights Advisory Panel, N.M. and Others v. UNMIK, Case No. 26/08, Opinion of 26 February 2016, at paras. 39-41. The UNMIK was charged with protecting human rights according to international human rights standards. Id. at para. 41.

UNMIK set up several camps between 1999 and 2001 for the displaced Roma communities, with a few of those camps, Zhikoc/Žitkovac, Cesminluke/Česmin Lug and Kablare, located in close proximity to the Trepca mining and smelting complex. See id. at para. 44. The Trepca complex produced zinc and lead and included three tailing dams that stored the mining waste. See id. at para. 44. The adverse effects of the mining complex, which included environmental pollution and lead contamination, were well known and documented due to scientific studies conducted in the area since the 1970s. See id. The Trepca plant was eventually closed as an emergency health precaution after an environmental audit warned that the smelter was an “unacceptable source of air pollution” and there was a noted increase in the blood lead levels of the KFOR soldiers serving near the mining complex. See id. at para. 46.

In 2000, UNMIK and the KFOR conducted an assessment of the soil toxicity around the camps and discovered a high blood level of lead contamination in the camps. Id. at para. 47. Further, in November 2000, the UNMIK issued an unpublished report, “First Phase of Public Health Project on Lead Pollution in Mitrovica Region,” that provided evidence that there was unacceptable lead contamination levels in vegetation and soil samples in the camps. See id. at para. 48. Human Rights Watch released a report referencing the UNMIK study and noted that there were particularly high blood lead levels amongst the Roma population in the camps. See id.

Additionally, the camps were only intended for temporary use of 45 to 90 days and were unprepared for extended use, which resulted in extremely poor living conditions throughout the camps. See id. at para. 45. The camps opened in 1999, 2000, and 2001 and closed in 2006, 2010, and 2013, and many of the occupants lived there for years. See id. at paras. 43, 57, 62, 119-23, 130. The camps suffered from a consistent lack of water and food, inadequate healthcare, and insufficient electricity or heating. See id.

Although the UNMIK did not convey the situation to the UN Security Council, publish the report, or take steps to remedy the situation or warn the community, in early 2004, Roma activists brought the first cases pertaining to symptoms of lead poisoning to the press and officials. See id. at paras. 49-50. After the death of a child diagnosed with lead poisoning, the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted a health risk assessment of those living in the camps during the months of May, June, and July in 2004. See id. at para. 50. The WHO reported that most of the camp soils were “unsafe” due to lead contamination and, in July and October 2004, warned of the chronic permanent effects of lead on the human body. Id. The WHO, Amnesty International, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) all appealed to immediately evacuate those most at risk, children and pregnant women, from the camps. See id.

There was no evidence indicating whether the UNMIK immediately responded to the warnings issued by the WHO, but in 2005, the “Return to Roma Mahala Agreement” was signed with the purpose of resettling more than 500 people to the former area of the Mahala, the Roma neighborhood in the city of Mitrovica. See id. at paras. 39, 55. In 2007, about 462 individuals from the camps were relocated to newly-constructed apartments and private homes in the Mahala. See id.

Those who were not relocated were moved to the Osterode barracks as an interim camp site. See id. at para. 56. The barracks, which were also in proximity of the lead slag heaps, were deemed a “safer” environment due to the concrete paving of the camp, lead free paint on doors, and the overall improved hygienic conditions. See id. at para. 56. A small clinic at the Osterode barracks conducted regular tests on the children residing at the camp and provided them with chelation therapy to remove lead from their bloodstreams. See id.

After the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo, the oversight and care of the Osterode facility was transferred in May 2008 from UNMIK to the Kosovo Ministry of Communities and Return of the PISG and all the camps were subsequently closed. See id. at para. 62.

Subsequently, the complainants submitted their complaint to the Human Rights Advisory Panel on July 4, 2008, alleging violations of the European Convention, the ICESCR, CEDAW, and CRC. See id. at paras. 132-49. They claimed that the UNMIK violated their human rights when it knowingly placed them in camps on land with high levels of contamination. See id. at para. 99. They further claimed that the UNMIK failed to provide them with information about the health risks related to lead poisoning, provide them with medical treatment, and move them to a safer location. See id. Consequently, the complaint alleged violations of the rights to life, prohibition of inhumane treatment, due process, family life, effective remedy, nondiscrimination, adequate standards of living, and the highest attainable standard of health, as well as other rights and obligations particular to women and children under CEDAW and CRC. See id. at paras. 132-49.

The Panel’s Findings

The Panel found violations of almost all of the complainants’ allegations but did not analyze the complaints under articles 6 and 13 of the European Convention. The Panel found a violation of the right to life under Article 2 of the European Convention. See id. at paras. 211- 218. Article 2 of the European Convention places a “positive obligation on the State to take appropriate steps to safeguard the lives of those within their jurisdiction,” which includes the obligation of authorities to provide access to information allowing individuals to make informed decisions about their health. Id. at paras. 194, 219.

UNMIK, the Panel concluded, was aware of the risks posed by heavy exposure to contamination, knew or should have known that the heavy exposure was due to the close proximity of the Trepca complex, and was also aware of the poor health situation in the camp through the communications of the WHO in 2004. See id. at paras. 208-210. The Panel found that the UNMIK did not take all necessary actions to protect the complainants’ right to life pursuant to Article 2 of the Convention, including relocating the complainants and providing adequate medical assistance. See id. at paras. 211- 218. Additionally, the Panel concluded that UNMIK violated the procedural obligations under Article 2 because it failed to investigate the deaths which were likely caused by lead contamination. Id. at paras. 230-31.

In addition to Article 2, the Panel found that the UNMIK violated the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment under Article 3, the right to respect for private and family life under Article 8, and the prohibition of discrimination under Article 14 of the European Convention. See id. at para. 349. The inadequate living conditions and lead contamination endured by the complainants for a long period of time amounted to degrading treatment under Article 3. Id. at para. 245. In violation of the Article 8, UNMIK failed to tell the complainants about the harmful effects of the contaminated area, and that contamination affected the reproductive rights of the women located there. See id. at paras. 258-59. In finding a violation of the prohibition of discrimination, the Panel also determined that the rights to nondiscrimination and equal protection under articles 2 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 2 of the ICESCR were violated as well. See id. at para. 309.

The Panel found additional violations of the ICESCR, CEDAW, and CRC. The Panel found that UNMIK violated the rights to an adequate standard of living and enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health under articles 11 and 12 of the ICESCR. See id. 283. With respect to the female complainants, the Panel determined that UNMIK violated their rights to nondiscrimination pursuant to articles 1, 2, and 12 of the CEDAW. See id. at para. 329. The Panel found that UNMIK was responsible for permanently compromising the life, health and development potential of the children born and raised in the camps in violation of articles 3, 6, 24, 27, and 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. See id. at para. 347.

The Panel’s Recommendations

The Panel recommended that the UNMIK publicly acknowledge its failure to comply with recognized international human rights standards and the effects of that failure on the complainants. See id. at para. 349. The Panel also recommended that the UNMIK make a public apology to the families and adequately compensate the complainants for material and moral damages. See id.

The Panel further recommended that for purposes of non-repetition the findings of this case be shared with other international human rights bodies and appropriate steps be taken to ensure that UN bodies working with refugees and internally displaced persons respect international human rights standards. See id.

The Panel recommended that UN offices ensure effective distribution of information pertaining to health and well-being of individuals under their authority and control. Id. at para. 349.

Additional Information

The Special Representative of the Secretary General in Kosovo and head of UNMIK created the Panel in 2006, pursuant to the general authority granted to him in Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999).  It is the first and only individual complaints mechanism to investigate violations attributed to United Nations field operations. See Chatham House, International Law Meeting Summary: The Kosovo Human Rights Advisory Panel (2012).  The Panel is part of the UNMIK and is charged with examining complaints of alleged human rights violations of the UNMIK in Kosovo and making recommendations to the Special Representative. See The Human Rights Advisory Panel, The Human Rights Advisory Panel.

Any person who believes that his or her human rights have been violated by UNMIK can submit a complaint to the Panel, which will then determine whether the complaint is admissible. See id. If the complaint is admissible, the Panel will provide an opinion on responsibility and possibly include recommendations if a violation is found. See id.

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