There is a puzzle over the report published by Clint Williamson, the US diplomat appointed in 2011 to investigate the allegations made by a Swiss politician, Dick Marty, in a Council of Europe report on crimes committed by elements of the Kosovan Liberation Army in the 1998-99 independence war.
There is no disputing atrocious acts of violence took place. Visit Muslim Albanian cemeteries in Kosovo and you will see grave stones with scores of different dates but the date of death is always identical. It is the day the Milosevic militia came to terrorise the Albanian population. For years Kosovo had tried to win its acceptance like Croatia, or Slovenia, or Macedonia as a small nation born out of the dissolution of the Yugoslav federal republic.
Begrade refused to deal with the peaceful political movement led by Ibrahim Rugova and as so often happen, younger, angrier activists turned to violence in the face of Serb obduracy. They formed the Kosovan Liberation Army. Its chief political leader was a young exile student from Switzerland, Hashim Thaci. The war intensified in brutality until finally the democracies were forced to intervene and the Serbs lost control of Kosovo. Thaci was 30 years old and was the smooth, diplomatic, moderate face of the KLA in the negotiations in the winter of 1999 with the West to try and stop the violence.
Since then there have been accusation and counter-accusations. The most lurid was in a report published by the extreme anti-American and anti-Nato Swiss politician, Dick Marty, who was a Swiss Council of Europe delegate. He has now retired. Under its headline on “Kosovo PM is head of human organ and arms ring, Council of Europe reports” the Guardian depicted Thaci as a monster:
“Kosovo’s prime minister is the head of a “mafia-like” Albanian group responsible for smuggling weapons, drugs and human organs through eastern Europe, according to a Council of Europe inquiry report on organised crime.”
People who knew Thaci and respected his patient determined efforts to bring his country to a European future were shocked and dismayed.
But the more the Council of Europe report was examined the more no-one could find evidence to back the lurid claims accusing Thaci. Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who prosecuted Milosevic at the Hague tribunal, wrote an angry article in the London Review of Books pointing out the the Council of Europe contained alleged evidence from a witness who did not exist. He asked if behind its publication from a Council of Europe parliamentary assembly where Russia played a leading role lay a political motive to stop Kosovo’s bid to be accepted as an independent state.
Now the US diplomat Clint Williamson has produced a report which has nothing to say about the headlines accusing Thaci of being an organ smuggler during the conflict. Williamson in rather odd interviews, notably on the BBC World Tonight programme, hints that he could, but doesn’t want to, say more.
Certainly some KLA people as is the norm with all so called ‘liberation’ struggles turned the struggle into a profit-lining racket. Look at how the IRA, FARC, the ANC, Hamas, Fatah and other groups on how the freedom struggle can be made into a money spinner for criminals who latch on.
There were also terrible atrocities committed. These were reported at the time, have been documented and recorded in all reports from the Marty one to the latest.
There is general agreement that those responsible for these crimes should be brought to justice. There is a paradox that in Britain we decided to forget and ignore murders, and torture committed by IRA killers in the 1970s and 1980s. Some of the men who oversaw these atrocities now hold government posts. Others sentenced to long terms of imprisonment have been let out.
The price of securing peace was judged to be worth more than ensuring justice was done to the nth degree for the victims of IRA torture, disappearances and killings.
The hate unleashed by the Serb attacks on innocent Kosovan Albanians was as bad as anything seen in the épuration in France in 1944-45, in Algeria either before or after independence in 1982 or any number of conflicts in Asia, Africa or Latin America in recent times.
Kosovo meanwhile is stable and peaceful. There was an election in June in which Hashim Thaci’s PDK party emerged as the biggest party but without a working majority. Now his opponents are trying to put together a heterogeneous coalition with Ramush Haradinaj as prime minister.
Haradinai was also a KLA leader and his memoir of the war with a front cover showing him as a guerrilla leader is an important text. He was briefly prime minister in 2005 and was indicted by the Hague Tribunal for crime committed in 1998/99. As Europe Minister for the UK I urged him to go to the Hague where the charges were thrown out.
After the Williamson report, a Serb woman on the BBC World Tonight whose brother disappeared in the convict 15 years ago complained that whereas the Serb brutes accused of atrocities had been sent to the Hague, the Kosovan killers had not. This is not true. Harardin Bula of the KLA is serving 13 years for killing Serbs. The Kosovan war was short and intense unlike the wars further north notably in Bosnia which has produced the largest number of Serb indictees and conviction.
But this burning sense in Belgrade that the Kosovans have been let off lightly remains strong and since everyone in the international community tends to be parti pris the idea that politics and retribution are not part of the process of inquiries is far-fetched.
Meanwhile Kosovo has a rather boring political stalemate as the parties jostle to form a government. Rather like Belgian or Dutch politics where the country can take months or more than a year to shape a government, the Kosovans are getting used to the muddle and difficulties of European democratic electoral politics.
Serbs account for only 1.5 per cent of the total Kosovan population but have 9 members (7.5 per cent) in the 120 strong parliament. Thaci’s peace overtures to Belgrade have been encouraged by the EU’s High Representative, Catherine Ashton, and the world has seen far more handshakes and meetings between Pristina and Belgrade than in the first years after the conflict.
Is all this put at risk by Williamson’s part endorsement of the Marty report? The US diplomat did not confirm the Marty headlines about Thaci and organ trafficking but neither would be rule them out.
He returns now to America with mission only partly accomplished, It will be up to his successor to decide on indictments and then a court jointly based in the Hague and Kosovo will hold trials.
So 15 years after the fighting stopped and Kosovo could embark on its twisting road to being a small European state – about the same size as Baltic nations – the search for justice and final definitive accountability for what happened in the dark summer and autumn of 1998 and winter and spring of 1999 goes on and on.
Denis MacShane was Britain’s Minister for the Balkans 2001-2005 and UK Council of Europe delegate 2005-2010. He is author of ‘Why Kosovo Still Matters’ 2011.