In 1999, the UN resettled 8,000 refugees fleeing the terror of the Kosovo war with the creation of two refugee camps in an area previously occupied by the Trepca mine. A further three camps were created nearby and all but one of the supposedly temporary camps were adjacent to the former industrial site. In 2000, a report from the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) confirmed documentation dating back to the 1970’s that the camps’ inhabitants were exposed to dangerous levels of lead. No action was taken by institutional bodies to monitor the levels and effects of lead exposure and, in 2004, International Roma rights activists began voicing the prevalence of symptoms associated with lead poisoning. That year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) conducted random blood tests and urged the UN to evacuate women and children from the camps.
Despite continuous reports of lead-poisoned victims in the camps, the UN did not close the last camp until December 2013. In the interim, the camps’ residents have spread awareness about this issue within the community. Lead toxicity takes a toll on the brain and central nervous system, causing a range of irreversible physical and neurological conditions – including seizures, kidney disease, coma and high risk of miscarriage – all of which have been observed in camps near the former smelting factory. Many of those who lived in the camps until 2013 arrived 14 years earlier, escaping the violence of the Albanian rebel group, which targeted ethnic minorities of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian descent. Without the financial aid of the Kosovo government or the UN, this displaced generation continues to suffer from the effects of lead poisoning without monitoring or treatment.
Earlier in 2017, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, articulated his “profound regret” regarding the extensive suffering of the refugee community following their exposure to toxic waste. Guterres’ statement was mostly concessionary, in that it noted the “alleged violations of human rights” by UNMIK. However, this acknowledgement did not constitute an apology, a victims’ program for reparation or a procedure for preventing such a problem in the future. Rather than individually compensating the 138 claimants who directly suffered from lead poisoning, the UN has established a voluntary trust fund that relies on contributions from UN members. Consequently, the trust fund contains no direct deposit from the UN and robs victims of accessible legal redress.
In addition, the Secretary-General and UNMIK have received extensive criticism from the UN-appointed Human Rights Advisory Panel (HRAP), which compiled a forty-nine-page report on the mishandling of human rights within the camps. The report identified UNMIK’s failure to investigate disappearances and deaths within the camp, as well as their ongoing negligence in treating lead poisoning. The report stated that investigators “can only wonder what might have been possible if UNMIK had undertaken to collaborate with the Panel in good faith, instead of turning this process into a human rights minstrel show.” The HRAP apologized profusely to the camps’ victims for being “part of this sham” and concluded that UNMIK had not upheld the universal right to life, adequate housing, health, and the prohibition on cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. Accordingly, HRAP recommended that the UN give a full apology and individual compensation to victims.
The formation of the HRAP in 2006 was originally intended to provide greater humanitarian compliance after the Kosovo Ombudsperson Institution was stripped of its mandate to investigate the Kosovo Force (KFOR) and UNMIK. In failing to operationalize both the Ombudsperson Institution and the HRAP, the UN has left an executive void that gives indirect immunity to military and civil personnel. Environment researcher, Katharina Rall, asked: “How can the UN expect to effectively press governments to take responsibility for their abuses if it won’t do the right thing for the harm it caused?”
With regards to the lack of compensation for victims of lead poisoning, Rall said “Creating an unfunded trust fund to compensate victims is like giving someone an empty bank account to rebuild their life.” The inefficacy of the trust fund in compensating victims has been compared to a similar attempt by the UN for cholera victims in Haiti. The spread of cholera within Haiti and the subsequent 10,000 deaths were traced back to the UN’s negligence in discharging contaminated human waste into Haiti’s largest river. Executive Director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, Brian Concannon, stated that “Guterres promised to promote a ‘culture of accountability’ at the UN…But what he is delivering is a slap in the face, to the victims in Kosovo and in Haiti.” In both instances, the UN has undercut its own pursuit of the rule of law by failing to support victims either financially or diplomatically.
Indeed, primary prevention of exposure to the toxic material is the greatest mechanism for preventing toxicity build-up, as the effects of toxicity on the central nervous system are irreversible. If the UN was responsive to earlier calls for the relocation of the camps in 2004, they would have been able to manage the extent of lead poisoning within the community. Fortunately, lead damage to the kidneys and blood is treatable, suggesting that there is potential for medication and therapy. A mother who raised six children in the camps near the industrial site has four children suffering the effects of lead poisoning. She stated, “we often do not go for exams because we cannot pay for the medicine anyway.” Supplementing such medication would go a long way towards rebuilding these communities and would be more than just a tokenistic form of compensation.
As the influx of refugees into Europe and the Mediterranean continues, the UN needs to institute a more comprehensive set of checks and balances within its governing structure. The UN cannot rely on asylum-seekers for information about suspected terrorist attacks if they are left disenfranchised. The Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, aptly stated: “Human rights provide a pretty good guidepost for how to deal with these tumultuous times…If you want to stop terrorism, the best thing you can do is to proceed lawfully, respecting the rights of people, encourage the communities who have the most information about a prospective terrorist attack to actually provide that information rather than seeing themselves as potential targets.” Hence, the UN’s negligence of this vulnerable population has the potential to be a safety issue as much as a humanitarian one.
The magnitude of change that is necessary requires a thorough health and safety assessment of all refugee resettlement camps, even if they are only intended as an interim solution. Moreover, protection of minorities will only be realistic or sustainable if refugees trust international bodies to bridge the accountability gap. Beyond the drastic and preventable health consequences of lead poisoning in the Kosovan refugee camps, the UN’s negligence robbed a displaced generation of their trust in diplomatic authorities. Providing compensation to lead poisoning victims and their families is the lower limit of action that the UN can take to stem the intergenerational harm against Kosovan refugees.