What Remains to Be Done in the Balkans

Walter Kälin
Walter Kälin Former Brookings Expert

December 22, 2005

GENEVA— Ten years after the Dayton accord brought an end to the worst fighting Western Europe had witnessed since the World War II, there is much to celebrate. Peace has come to the Balkans, and the insidious results of ethnic cleansing have largely been reversed. Two and a half million refugees and internally displaced persons have returned to their homes, at least half to areas where they are an ethnic minority.

Nevertheless, the scars of war are far from healed. Much remains to be done before the Dayton accords can truly be considered a success. As the UN secretary general’s representative on the human rights of internally displaced persons, I recently undertook a mission to the region. I left with mixed feelings.

In Croatia, many houses and apartments have been returned to their original owners. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, economic and political ties have been growing among Muslim, Croat and Serb communities, and almost all property has been restored to its rightful owners. Serbia and Montenegro have made huge efforts to accommodate the remaining 500,000 refugees and almost 250,000 displaced persons, straining their already faltering economies.

But some of the emotional scars I witnessed may be too deep to heal.

I met survivors of the Srebrenica massacre. They had returned to the villages close by, but many looked far older than their years, and without hope or courage for their future.

In Northern Mitrovica, in Kosovo, I visited Roma camps that had been hastily erected in areas that proved to be poisoned by lead. Three years after the first tests, the inhabitants had still not been evacuated, although the environment constitutes a serious threat to their health and to the lives of their children.

People from different ethnic groups still discriminate against each other. Throughout the Balkans, returnees can still expect prolonged and unjustifiable delays in having their houses connected to water and electricity. They are discriminated against when applying for jobs and are denied access to pension funds and the state health system.

Too little is done so that returnees’ children can go to a school in their own language. In many places the police are perceived as biased. National and religious symbols are not used to create unity but to feed divisions and insecurity among minorities. And the overburdened and cumbersome judiciary systems are not able to enforce a strong rule of law.

The failure, moreover, to bring to justice thousands of people suspected of war crimes, in particular Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, who helped orchestrate ethnically motivated mass expulsions, continues to cast a pall over the progress made and has done nothing to reduce fears and insecurity.

There are still almost 500,000 internally displaced persons as a result of the Balkan wars. Thousands live miserably in ramshackle collective centers or “informal settlements” that were never intended to become permanent housing. Many of them have no place to go and are incapable of living on their own.

The international community has wound down its financial and political support for the region. There are no funds left to rehabilitate living conditions and find solutions for the most vulnerable among the refugees and internally displaced. There are no means to give 5,000 survivors the psycho-social care that would make their lives less of a living hell.

Several steps are needed urgently in the Balkans. First, there must be an immediate, concerted effort to find solutions for the most vulnerable people still in collective shelters – particularly the Roma in Northern Mitrovica.

Second, help must be extended to those who prefer to integrate locally, so that they have access to jobs and public services.

Third, efforts must be made to better inform displaced persons and minorities about their rights, to simplify administrative rules so they can claim their entitlements, and to halt discriminatory practices against them.

Fourth, donor governments and the World Bank should be encouraged to invest in rebuilding schools, health facilities, housing and other infrastructure, so that displaced persons and returnees begin to lead normal lives.

Finally, all crimes and acts of violence against the displaced and those returning must be investigated and prosecuted. Only then will the promise of Dayton be fully realized.

Walter Kälin is the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons.