A glimmer of hope for Kosovo’s lead poisoning victims

Kosovo (HRW) – They have fought for justice for more than a decade. Hundreds of families from ethnic minority communities who were forced to live in camps in northern Kosovo known to be highly contaminated by toxic lead are still waiting for an apology and compensation for the harm they suffered. When Kosovo was under United Nations administration from 1999 onwards, the United Nations moved several displaced Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptian communities to camps in Mitrovica after they fled their homes in fear of their lives in bouts of ethnic cleansing. But soon many residents in those camps started to display telltale symptoms of lead poisoning like paralysis, stunted growth, miscarriages, and developmental disorders. Some residents even died.

Now there’s some reason for hope.  In anopinion issued last week, the UN Human Rights Advisory Panel found that the UN Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) failed to protect the rights of Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities, and recommended that UNMIK pays compensation and issues a public apology to victims and their families.

In 2009, a Human Rights Watch investigation documented the long-term lead exposure that residents were subjected to, as well as appalling living conditions and lack of proper medical care. Four years later, all the camps had been closed and the remaining inhabitants resettled. But the move came too late for many former residents, some of whom are still suffering health consequences today.

Refugee camps outside of Kosovo. Yugoslavia was a resort destination before the war. "Kampi i Kosovareve gjate Eksodit 99" by Jonuz Kola

Refugee camps outside of Kosovo. Yugoslavia was a resort destination before the war.
“Kampi i Kosovareve gjate Eksodit 99” by Jonuz Kola

Lead is highly toxic and can impair the body’s neurological, biological, and cognitive functions. Children and pregnant women are particularly susceptible, and high levels of lead exposure can cause permanent intellectual and developmental disabilities. The World Health Organization has warned that the neurological and behavioral effects of lead exposure are “believed to be irreversible.”

But the opinion of the Human Rights Advisory Panel is not worth much unless UNMIK follows through on the recommendations, including adequate compensation and an apology – which are both long overdue.

The Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities have already won a partial victory, but now UNMIK needs to acknowledge the wrong that was done to them.

This report prepared by Katharina Rall for Human Rights Watch.