IDP rights in Kosovo and Serbia should be a key consideration for EU membership talks
As Serbia begins accession talks with the EU this week, IDMC highlights how the recent local elections in Kosovo signal a positive step forward for marginalised internally displaced (IDP) communities, and calls on the EU to consider the plight of IDPs when assessing suitability of EU membership.
Last April, Kosovo and Serbia endorsed a 15-point agreement that lays a foundation for their cooperation after 15 years of an icy stalemate. Following endorsement of this agreement, Kosovo started negotiating a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU last October, and this week Serbia began EU accession talks.
Authorities in Belgrade and Pristina are cognizant of the need to strengthen their diplomatic relations and address the tensions between the Kosovar and Serb communities, as stability in the region has been stipulated as a precondition to joining the EU.
Kosovo election gives IDPs hope
In November, mayoral and municipal assembly elections took place, the first ever held throughout Kosovo under Kosovo law. The EU saw the elections as a mechanism for curbing ethnic tensions and for giving Kosovars and ethnic Serbs the chance to settle their differences through a democratic process.
From the onset, the government of Serbia was vocal in supporting the elections, encouraging IDPs to cast their ballots. On Election Day, the Serbian government arranged transportation for IDPs living in Serbia to be taken to polling stations in Kosovo. Meanwhile, the government of Kosovo entitled eligible voters who were temporarily living outside of, or were displaced from Kosovo, including IDPs, to register and vote by mail.
Overall, the result of the elections was positive. Some barriers to full IDP participation remained such as demands for old Kosovo-issued identification, tight timelines and inconsistent decisions. Indeed less than 35 per cent of those registered to vote by mail were approved, and the directive on acceptable forms of documentation was unclear at times, resulting in some individuals being refused the right to vote.
Nevertheless, the average voter turnout in Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo, where the majority of internally displaced people (IDPs) live, was over 20 per cent; this signifies a political mobilisation of Kosovo Serbs; particularly as previously these areas had boycotted elections completely.
Increased Kosovo Serb representation ushers in new era of peace and cooperation?
The election led to greater mayoral representation of Kosovo’s biggest minority community, the Kosovo Serbs. In the ten Serb-majority municipalities, nine mayors were newly elected. They overwhelmingly represent the conservative G.I. Srpska party, predominately supported by much of the Kosovo Serb community. While not reaching a majority in any of the municipal assemblies, this Kosovo Serb-supported party did increase its political weight, winning 22 municipal assembly seats in total, including ten in the four northern municipalities where the majority of IDPs reside.
For the estimated 17,400 IDPs in Kosovo and an estimated 225,000 IDPs in Serbia, increased political and ethnic representation of Kosovo Serbs, who remain alert to the fact that they are an under-represented minority, gives hope to improved social conditions for all IDPs. Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo will gain some level of autonomy, which is particularly important for many Kosovo Serb IDPs, who continue to deny Kosovo’s independence.
The elections mark a new era of cooperation and dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, formerly a challenge that hindered IDP return and resettlement, as well as the opportunity to be represented in the central government. The challenge now is to establish self-government of the Serb-majority municipalities in a way that improves Kosovo’s stability and secures durable solutions for IDPs. This can be a challenge where distrust still exists between these communities, as exampled by the newly elected mayor of northern Mitrovica who stated that the new mayors in Serb-majority municipalities will not recognise Kosovo institutions, signaling possible political strife.
Because it’s their right!
In these current talks, the EU should not fail to assess how both governments have respected internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) rights, including the right to political participation as expressly affirmed in the UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. These talks are a golden opportunity for the EU to contribute to ending protracted internal displacement since political participation of IDPs is a milestone on the road towards durable solutions to displacement.
In Kosovo, the election spelled a fresh start to a crippled independence and offers IDPs, who have been displaced for 15 years, a chance to be heard. Despite facing the threat of violence and attempts by opponents of the elections to dissuade them from voting, they actively participated in the political future of Kosovo as well as reclaiming rights once lost to them as part of their displacement. In talks with both Serbia and Kosovo going forward, the EU should honour the courage displayed by IDPs in exercising their political rights by ensuring they remain on the agenda.
For more information, see IDMC’s page for Kosovo.