European Western Balkans

Council of Europe membership: A good opportunity for improving human rights in Kosovo?

Council of Europe; Photo: Council of Europe

In mid-May, the Government of Kosovo submitted an official application for membership in the Council of Europe. Kosovo’s aspirations to be a member of the continent’s largest international human rights organization are not new, and Russia’s expulsion from membership over aggression against Ukraine further motivated Pristina authorities to apply at this moment. With the help of Russia, Serbia managed to block Kosovo’s membership in international organizations, such as UNESCO in 2015 and INTERPOL in 2018.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs and Diaspora of Kosovo, Donika Gërvalla, stated that the decision on the application for membership in CoE was made promptly and that she believes that the country will join that international organization.

“So far, we have not encountered any resistance that would suggest that the process could be jeopardized. Of course, we will respect all procedures, we will be honest, dedicated, and serious during the whole process. And we hope that Kosovo will be among those countries that need a shorter period to join the CoE”, Gërvalla said.

Kosovo’s application for membership in the CoE will first be considered by the Committee of Ministers, and, after assessing the situation in the country, the final word is given by the Parliamentary Assembly, which consists of national representatives of member states. Two-thirds of the CoE member states must give their consent for Kosovo’s membership (31 out of 46). At present, 36 CoE member states recognize Kosovo as an independent state, so Kosovo meets this condition.

Milica Andrić Rakić, manager at New Social Initiative (NSI), assesses that, when it comes to the legislative framework, Kosovo will not have many impediments. She states that the legislative framework itself will not be very problematic because it was prepared in the first decade of the 2000s by international experts and missions.

However, Andrić Rakić warns that assessing the implementation of that framework could be more problematic.

“Kosovo could face some demands, such as the need for implementation of the demarcation agreement with Montenegro or other agreements ratified by the Kosovo Assembly, specifically the Brussels agreement. Hypothetically, there could be problems with respecting the right to language, since there are no tertiary educational institutions in the Kosovo system that work in one of the official languages, such as Serbian”, says Andrić Rakić.

She adds that numerous omissions and violations of the right to language by the institutions, especially the judicial ones, would certainly be identified since consequences for the legality of the trial are the most serious.

According to some legal experts, there could be problems with the law on civil registration, which currently does not provide for the possibility of same-sex unions. Amendments to this law were not recently accepted in Kosovo Assembly, and there are expectations that the Council of Europe could request that, explains Andrić Rakić.

Pëllumb Çollaku, the Senior Research Associate at Riinvest Institute for Development Research says that Kosovo has been a member of two partial agreements of the Council of Europe since 2014, on the CoE Development Bank and the Venice Commission.

Nevertheless, he adds that there are specific challenges that Kosovo may face on its membership path due to lots of technically complex admission procedures within the CoE Committee of Ministers and the composition of the members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the CoE (PACE).

Çollaku mentioned that Kosovo has problems in an important area – a judicial system, which is loaded with high citizens’ court cases where the number of unresolved cases reached over 220,000 cases by the end of 2021.

„As the criteria are broad, they may vary and include also requirements such as the ability to exercise its jurisdiction over its entire territory, and the results of the EU-facilitated normalization dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. If this is the case, and knowing the current dialogue dynamic, the membership status looks like a long process if the priority will not be given to solving these issues“, said Çollaku.

Can membership improve the fight against corruption?

The current authorities in Kosovo believe that the Government’s most remarkable success after a year of work is the fight against corruption and organized crime. The Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, stated on the anniversary of the work of the Government in February that 12,000 persons were arrested, including 270 state officials.

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Moreover, in its 2021 Human Rights Report for Kosovo, the US State Department welcomed the steps to identify, investigate, prosecute and punish officials who committed human rights violations.

Pëllumb Çollaku assesses that corruption threatens the rule of law, democracy, and human rights, negatively impacting competition and economic development and endangering the moral foundations of society.

He underlines that the CoE approach in the fight against corruption has always been multidisciplinary and consists of several elements: setting of the European norms and standards, monitoring compliance with the standards, and capacity building offered to individual countries and regions through technical cooperation programs.

„The Council of Europe has developed many multifaceted legal instruments dealing with matters such as the criminalization of corruption in the public and private sectors, liability, and compensation for damage caused by corruption, the conduct of public officials, and the financing of political parties. These instruments are aimed at improving the capacity of States to fight corruption domestically as well as at the international level“, says Çollaku.

He adds that in the past, PACE has issued reports for Kosovo requiring improvements on political interference in the work of the judiciary, the legislature, the media, and other regulatory institutions, corruption, organized crime, and integration of the Roma population.

„However, besides such recommendations, there was no support with tools and instruments that member states of the CoE benefit from. Such provisions would have been of immense importance to the Government of Kosovo in tackling challenges in the fight against corruption“, says Çollaku.

CoE – a guarantor of respected human and minority rights?

Serbia has described the attempt as a breach of the 2020 Washington Agreement, pending the formal application. President Vučić described the move as a “violation of all principles of international law and the direct norms of certain agreements, from Resolution 1244 to the Washington Agreement”. 

During the press conference with Vučić, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that he would like Serbia to continue actively involved in the CoE and that it was essential to develop relationships that would see the entire region in the EU in the future. Serbian leadership has made no further signals that it would be ready to leave the Council of Europe.

Kosovo’s membership in the Council of Europe and the comeback of the Washington Agreement

Asked whether the Serbian authorities should change their position on Kosovo’s membership in the Council of Europe and see it as an opportunity for securing the rights of the Serbian minority community, Andrić Rakić said she did not see Serbia seeing significant value in Kosovo’s membership to CoE.

“I think that the authorities in Belgrade will conclude that it is much more essential to prove that Kosovo cannot resolve the issue by bypassing Serbia and dialogue, than possibly by improving the rule of law situation in Kosovo”, she said.

Andrić Rakić states that Kosovo’s membership could have positive effects on the quality of work of institutions and the judiciary, underlining that the example of the case of Osman Kavala in Turkey shows that this is not the rule and that, in the end, it all comes down to political will.

“This is still the case with some of the verdicts of Kosovo courts that are of great importance for the Serb community, such as the one related to the property of the Visoki Dečani monastery. It is not difficult for me to imagine that such disputes will occur in the case of decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, but not necessarily for everyone and a larger part of society could still see an improvement in the protection of human rights”, says Andrić Rakić.

As for the position of Serbs in Kosovo, she explains that, since the European Court of Human Rights becomes competent only after the ratification of the charter and admission to membership and cannot be applied to court decisions made before membership, years will pass before the first cases of Kosovo Serbs are exhausted before local courts and this body becomes available to them.

Although some Member States of the European Union have supported Kosovo’s application for membership in the Council of Europe, several of them have shown clear reservations. One of them is France, and even the German representatives in the Council of Europe did not have a single position, although Chancellor Scholz gave his unreserved support to the application. However, it was not on the agenda of the Committee of Ministers on 20 May.

Although Kosovo does not have major institutional obstacles to becoming a member in a relatively short period, it remains to see whether there will be the political will to do so. It will also be necessary to respect human and minority rights in Kosovo and continue a consistent anti-corruption policy. If that political will is not there, there is a danger that Kosovo’s membership in the Council of Europe will not improve the reality in Kosovo’s citizens’ lives.

This article was published as part of the project “Civil society for good governance and anti-corruption in southeast Europe: Capacity building for monitoring, advocacy and awareness-raising (SELDI)” funded by the European Union.

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