A speech by Lord Hylton, opening a debate on Kosovo in the House of Lords on September 15th 2011, in which he calls on the British government to support a peacebuilding process centered around the monasteries of Pec and Decani.
By Lord Hylton
My Lords, it is a long time since this House last discussed Kosovo, so for that reason I am very pleased to be able to introduce this debate. Kosovo is a highly symbolic place for two rival nationalisms. It was the centre of the great medieval Serb monarchy and contained its royal monasteries. In Ottoman times, it became more and more inhabited by Albanians, who declared independence in the 19th century at Prizren in Kosovo. The subsequent clash of cultures has led to great suffering in recent years. During Tito’s time, Kosovo enjoyed a high level of autonomy and was modestly prosperous.
Milosevic, however, imposed direct rule, and the Albanians developed parallel institutions for education, welfare et cetera. When the tyrant began to drive out the Albanian population, NATO responded with a bombing campaign and the Kosovo Liberation Army fought back. It was thus that in 1999 Kosovo came to be occupied by KFOR and administered by UNMIK.
In February 2008, Kosovo declared its independence, and this was confirmed by the International Court of Justice 18 months later. Its population is estimated at 1.8 million, of whom some 92 per cent are Albanian. This compares with 1.6 million people in Northern Ireland and somewhat over 600,000 in neighbouring independent Montenegro. Kosovo has a Parliament of 120 members, and by now has been recognised by 81 states. It is a member of the World Bank and the IMF.
This incomplete recognition is due, in part, to the fact that Kosovo does not have full control of all its territory. North of the Ibar River, the mainly Serb population has partly broken away and linked itself to Serbia. Mitrovica is a divided city, and last year I stood on the bridge marking the divide between Albanians and Serbs. Currently the Kosovo Government are trying to assert their control over the crossing points and customs posts between northern Kosovo and Serbia. At the same time, three northern Serb mayors have declared no confidence in Serbia’s negotiator in the bilateral talks that are being held in Brussels and being mediated by a British official. I therefore ask Her Majesty’s Government what there view is of the current Kosovan actions. Should not the border issues be settled by negotiation?
I am inclined to be somewhat critical of the international groups in Kosovo, which I have already mentioned and to which I would add EULEX, which has responsibility for the administration of justice and some oversight of law and order. No doubt they have suffered language and culture difficulties, while frequent rotations of staff have hindered full understanding. Nevertheless, they have been overconcerned with stability and have tended to avoid confronting difficult issues, such as the conditions of the Roma minority or relations between the historic Serbian Orthodox monasteries and their neighbours.
Will the Government seek to ensure that the right lessons are learnt from past experience, and that the activities in Kosovo of the European Union, the OSCE and the Council of Europe are better co-ordinated? Can the Minister first say to what extent Kosovo now has its own system of justice? Are the civil and criminal courts fully functioning? Secondly, given the still high unemployment, have Kosovo’s large mineral resources been fully, or even begun to be, brought into production?
To come back to the monasteries, almost all are on beautiful sites. The smaller ones cause little difficulty and often have good relations with their Albanian neighbours. Of the two major ones, Peç is a community of nuns and the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch. Deçani is a community of monks. Both are UNESCO cultural and historic sites, and I have visited both of them. They should not, however, be considered just as monuments of the past. They support living, functioning communities and are of huge symbolic importance. It should not be necessary, 12 years after the war, for detachments of KFOR to stand guard at their gates, checking the credentials of all visitors. This has the perverse effect of cutting off the residents from their neighbours.
Through two world wars, earlier Balkan struggles and the whole of the Ottoman period, the local Albanians successfully protected the monasteries against external violence. This traditional local situation should be restored, bringing free access for bona fide visitors and pilgrims, and freedom of movement for the monks and nuns. I believe this to be quite possible; indeed, my friend and colleague who founded the NGO called the Soul of Europe for peace-building work, first in Bosnia and now in Kosovo, has been invited by both sides to facilitate good, normal relations.
The nearby Kosovar municipalities are keen, and the veterans of the KLA are also willing to sit at the table. Will the Government give more than just verbal support to this initiative? It has great potential as a confidence-building measure that would help further the wider bilateral negotiations already mentioned. Can the Government give some indication of how far those negotiations have already progressed and about their future prospects?
I am sure your Lordships would wish to see Serbia, Kosovo and their neighbours all playing their full parts in the European institutions. This would bring historic antagonisms to an end and greatly benefit their people. However, this cannot just be engineered from on high. It must be built upwards from the hearts and minds of people in villages and small towns. That is why I conclude by asking why community development is not built into the briefs of the international agencies, in particular those working in Kosovo.
We have people, particularly in Northern Ireland and in multiethnic English cities, who have great experience in peace-building and community development. This could be a truly effective form of technical assistance. I saw something similar in Moldova during a 10-year period after their civil war. I commend this idea, and look forward to the Government’s response.
Lord Hylton is a crossbench peer with a long-standing interest in peacebuilding endeavours in the former Yugoslavia
To learn more about, and donate to, this timely and important project, entitled ‘Mediation through monasteries in Kosovo’, please click here.
To watch a short film, entitled ‘Shoes, walls, land and tables’, which documents a visit by Reverend Donald Reeves to the Monasteries of Peć and Dečani in Kosovo, please click here.