Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman. | Photo: Valerie Plesch.

Kosovo war survivors address US congress

Vasfije Krasniqi-Goodman, a wartime rape survivor, was among the speakers addressing the US House of Representatives on Tuesday, appealing for an end to impunity for war crimes and human rights abuses in Kosovo.

Wartime sexual violence survivor and activist, Vasfije Krasniqi-Goodman, was among the speakers addressing the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the US House of Representatives on Tuesday.

The hearing, titled “Kosovo’s Wartime Victims: The Quest for Justice” also heard testimony from former Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga, justice advocate Ilir Bytyqi and US international lawyer Paul Williams.

“This morning we will take a look back at the wars that ravaged the Balkans two decades ago, and shine a light on how the victims in Kosova are still seeking justice so many years down the road,” said Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Eliot Engel.

Krasniqi-Goodman, who was one of the first women in Kosovo to publicly share her experiences of sexual violence perpetrated during the Kosovo war, appealed to the committee to address the impunity of war crimes and human rights abuses that were committed in Kosovo.

“Twenty years have passed and justice continues to fail me. My torturer has not been held accountable for his crimes, and is still at large,” said Krasniqi-Goodman in her testimony, after recounting her experience during the war.

Krasniqi-Goodman was raped, tortured and abused by a Serbian police officer and one other man in April 1999 when she was sixteen years old.

“Although today I live a happy life in Texas as a proud mother of two daughters who were born in the United States and thankfully will never have to encounter the horrors that I experienced, I will never have true peace with my past until justice is delivered,” she said.

‘Complete failure’ to prosecute wartime sexual violence

Former President Jahjaga also addressed the House of Representatives, championing the work of local women’s organizations and the Kosovo Government for jumpstarting the justice process for women who were raped during the war.  

“It is no surprise that a vast majority of them did not report the crime against them, and that until now only two of them – Marte Tunaj and Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman- have openly shared their story,” she said. “In spite of the challenging context, women activists were vocal, and kept fighting the silence and the social taboo of this horrendous war crime.”

“One of the ways that rape serves its role as a weapon of war is by unjustly putting the blame on the victim, rather than the perpetrator,” she continued. “Ultimately women carry their shame, as well as the price for the shame and emasculation that men feel, and as a result the stigma is unjustly placed upon them.”

During Jahaga’s term as Kosovo President in 2014, the National Council on the Survivors of Sexual Violence during the War in Kosovo was established, and the Kosovo Assembly also passed an amendment to the Law on the Status of War Veterans and Families of the Civilian Victims to include the survivors of sexual violence during the war.

It was not until 2018 that the Kosovo Government’s Commission on the Recognition and Verification of the Status of Sexual Violence Victims During the War began to operate, three years after it was established, allowing citizens to receive benefits in the form of a monthly pension.

According to Jahjaga, to date, 1,026 women have applied for the legal recognition of their status.

Jahjaga said that Serbian, Kosovo and international courts have failed to prioritize the prosecution of crimes related to sexual violence.

“In Kosovo, so far, there have been only three cases of prosecutions for rape, which were acquitted after appeal,” she said.

In an Amnesty International report published in 2017 titled ‘Wounds that Burn our Souls,’ said Jahjaga, approximately 20,000 individuals were reported to be the victim of conflict-related sexual violence during the Kosovo war, hailing this violence as an instrument of “systematic ethnic cleansing.”

“We have been through a lot pain and suffering, and we want to end it here. Once and for all. We want justice, and we need justice in order to be able to turn a new page,” she concluded.

Dr Paul Williams, who served in the US Department of State and played a role in the formation of the American response to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, agreed that that an “accountability gap” was created by the various courts and tribunals charged with investigating crimes committed in Kosovo, hailing the most critical gap as the failure to prosecute perpetrators of wartime sexual violence.

“Selectively prosecuting a few military and political leaders from the Serbian regime is undeniably valuable, but nevertheless insufficient,” he said. “Only a handful of select and mostly high-level actors have been prosecuted to date. Although the previous judicial bodies made important progress, a vast number of perpetrators continue to walk free in Serbia.”

Williams spoke positively of the role that the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office, popularly known as the ‘Special Court,’ could play in providing justice for victims of the war.

The future of justice in Kosovo

Williams attempted to dispel the rumours labelling the Special Court’s jurisdiction as “ethnically bias” towards Kosovo Albanians, saying that public commentary reading members of the KLA as the court’s only focus for prosecution “does not paint a complete picture.”

“A close reading of the Chambers’ constituting law reveals an even broader mandate that includes the authority to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of any ethnicity,” he said.

According to Williams, the court has been bestowed with “a broad and ethnically neutral mandate,” and the ability to investigate crimes beyond those which are mentioned in the initial Council of Europe report.

Williams said that the Kosovo Assembly has both the power and the obligation to explicitly clarify that the Court does not suffer from jurisdictional bias and confirm its broad mandate, in order to strengthen the court’s legitimacy.

“The Chambers is a product of the Kosovo Constitution, so Kosovo has the power to decisively affirm the court’s jurisdiction… If necessary, the Kosovo Parliament may even direct the Specialist Chambers to prioritize particularly heinous crimes largely ignored by other mechanisms, such as conflict-related sexual violence,” he said.

Williams suggested that the US should work alongside the Kosovo Government to affirm that the court is not limited to prosecuting members of any specific ethnic group, and to ensure that others do not attempt to paint the court’s jurisdiction as ethnically biased.

“It is imperative that the international community not be allowed to distort the jurisdiction of the Court and narrowly tailor its focus to a defendant class of ethnic Albanians and the KLA,” he said. “To do so would run counter to the core foundations of justice and accountability, and to basic principles of fairness and of equal justice.”

Williams concluded by emphasizing that wartime sexual violence should be a priority.

“The United States should also work with the government of Kosovo to encourage the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office, a part of the judicial system of Kosovo, to prioritize the investigation and prosecution of rape and other conflict-related sexual violence,” he said.

30/04/2019 - 17:16

30 April 2019 - 17:16

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