“The ideals of the United Nations – peace, justice, equality, and dignity – are the beacons to a better world.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres made these remarks during September’s UN General Assembly ceremony, which commemorated the organization’s 75th anniversary. These ideals are enshrined in the UN Charter, and yet, they been severely tested by the organization’s recent history in Kosovo. For more than two decades, the UN has refused to accept legal responsibility and deliver justice to Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian minorities who were forced to live in UN-run lead contaminated refugee camps.

In September 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics Dr. Marcos Orellana presented his predecessor’s report on lead poisoning in Kosovo. He delivered a clear message: inaction must end, and justice must be delivered.

The Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities suffered profound injustice, says UN report

The evidence, Dr. Orellana reminded the UN Human Rights Council, is undisputed. In the aftermath of the Kosovo war in 1999, more than 600 members of the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian minority communities were placed in UN-managed refugee camps – camps which were set up on toxic wasteland next to a large mining complex.

It was only in 2013 — fourteen years after the arrival of the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian families — that the UN disbanded the last refugee camp. By then, it was too late.

The severe health impact of continued lead-exposure on these communities is also indisputable. Women reported miscarriages and premature births. Children who grew up in the camps became prone to seizures, and many developed cognitive and behavioral disabilities.  Lead exposure can lead to lifelong illness, and many former camp residents continue to be plagued by a myriad of medical conditions.

Despite this clear evidence, the UN has failed to admit full responsibility for its actions and offer a remedy to the affected communities.  

The UN’s own human rights panel found for the lead poisoning victims

The United Nations Interim Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), which was Kosovo’s de-facto government until 2008, created a legal accountability void. As the UN enjoys absolute immunity from lawsuits and the UN was governing Kosovo, victims of human rights abuses by UNMIK had no legal recourse. Under mounting international criticism, the UN set up the Human Rights Advisory Panel (HRAP) — a tribunal tasked with examining complaints of alleged human rights violations committed by or attributable to UNMIK.

In 2008, Roma activists filed an HRAP complaint on behalf of 138 Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian victims. The UN employed procedural tactics  to block the communities’ ability to bring their claim before the tribunal, but in 2016 the victims finally gained some ground: UNMIK, HRAP held, had violated the affected communities’ rights to life and health.

HRAP sharply criticized UNMIK for failing to relocate the displaced families despite being aware of the health risks the communities were exposed to. In no uncertain terms, the panel found that the “complainants have suffered discriminations as members of the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian community.” As a minority group that faces hostility and prejudice, they were particularly vulnerable and in need of protection. The UN had failed the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities in Kosovo.

The UN flouts HRAP’s recommendations

HRAP, which can only issue recommendations but no binding decisions, advised the UN to publicly apologize for the suffering it had caused and provide adequate compensation to the affected communities.  

To date, the UN has markedly failed to comply with the panel’s recommendations.

According to reporting by the New York Times and Foreign Policy, Guterres blocked an official UN apology when he assumed his position as Secretary-General in 2017.

The same year, instead of providing individual compensation to the victims, the UN created a general Trust Fund to finance community-based assistance projects for the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian population in northern Kosovo. As the fund depends on voluntary contributions from member states, the UN has struggled to mobilize funds: it has so far only received an “appalling single, solitary contribution of US$10,000.”

The plight of the lead poisoning victims is not an isolated case

The UN’s refusal to accept legal responsibility for its actions and remedy the affected communities is not confined to the victims of lead poisoning in Kosovo. In Haiti, where the UN peacekeepers’ improper disposal of contaminated wastewater into the country’s largest river caused a devastating cholera epidemic and lead to the death of 10,000 Haitians, the UN has been equally reluctant to adequately answer to victims.

The Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, together with human rights organizations in Haiti and the U.S., has advocated for greater UN accountability in Haiti. After filing a formal complaint asking human rights experts to intervene in the UN’s response to the Haiti cholera epidemic, 14 UN independent experts released a statement urging Guterres to take responsibility and deliver justice for the victims.

In a recent expert panel on the ten-year anniversary of the cholera outbreak convened by the Clinic, speakers lamented on the UN’s refusal to hear the victims’ claims for compensation by claiming immunity from any judicial proceedings. Andrew Gilmour, the former UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, deplored that the same arguments are deployed in Kosovo, causing deep shame within the ranks of UN staff.

As the UN eschews responsibility, the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities are still awaiting justice

In September, the former Special Rapporteur on Toxics concluded his report stating that the failure to provide an effective remedy to the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities is an ongoing violation of their human rights.  An even more “insidious, ongoing violation,” he admonished the organization, “is the tantalizing cruelty of an illusory promise of a brighter future, which has been dashed time and again by legalistic apologies, an aimless and hopeless Trust Fund, and silence from the international community.”

When Guterres assumed his tenure as Secretary-General in 2017, he pledged his commitment to ensuring greater accountability and transparency, and delivering effective remedies to victims of UN human rights abuses. Yet the UN’s highest-ranking official continues to evade legal responsibility for his organization’s harm in Kosovo.

If the UN Charter is the beacon to a better world, the UN must be the first to uphold it. The failure to do so has seriously undermined the organization’s own integrity and credibility as the international bastion for the protection and promotion of human rights.

Twenty years on, it is time for UN leadership to act.

Nathalie Gunasekera JD’21 is a student in the International Human Rights Clinic.