Building a Police Force from the Outside In

January 27, 2003

Early one morning of November 2001, Mr. Sami Ibishi1 arrived at the OSCE Field Office located in a small town in Southeastern Kosovo. He timidly asked to speak to the human rights officer. Once in the protected environment of the agency’s interview room, he told the reporting officer a story of intimidation and brutality at the hands of local police that had occurred the previous night.

After having been pulled over for no apparent reason, and having no valid driver’s license with him, Mr. Ibishi was asked to pay a fine of fifty German Marks. Although he told the officers that he could not pay, the officers proceeded to search him and found some money in his pockets. Allegedly, at that point one of the policemen kicked Mr. Ibishi’s legs while the other hit him very hard on his back. According to the victim, the policeman told him that he and his “Ashkali brothers” should leave Kosovo for their own sake. While verbally assaulting him, the officer used his weapon to poke Mr. Ibishi, ordering him to run away as fast as possible. Sadly, the harassment Mr. Ibishi suffered as a result of lingering ethnic tensions in Kosovo is not uncommon, and has created a sense of public insecurity and fear among ethnic minorities that is a continual challenge for peacekeepers and member of the international police force in the region.

With the exception of the OSCE human rights officer, the actors in this incident are Kosovo Serbs. Mr. Ibishi is an ethnic Ashkali male, one of the numerous non-Albanian communities in the province; the police officers are Kosovo Albanian males. Following the events of 1999, Albanians represent the majority community in the province, although the population still retains a multiethnic flavor including Kosovo Serbs, Ashkali, Roma, Gorani, Turks, and other groups. Even though the police also prosecute Kosovo Albanian suspects, this episode underlines the friction existing between the nationalistic Kosovo Albanian fringe and the non-Albanian communities who, during the Serb military campaigns, were perceived to side with the Serbs.

Incidents similar to Mr. Ibishi’s have been reported in several OSCE human rights offices around Kosovo since the fall of 2000, when the first cadets of the newly established Kosovo Police Service (KPS) started their patrols without being accompanied by an international police tutor. It is difficult to establish how many and what kind of violations are perpetrated by the KPS in the UN-administered protectorate, as citizens are afraid to report incidents of abuse; reporting is even more unlikely when the victims are not Kosovo. The public is further discouraged by the fact that the OSCE, the agency responsible for human rights fact finding and reporting, is also the body that runs the police school.

Before the collapse of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) regime in Kosovo in 1999, there existed an organized, full-fledged police force, in most cases ethnically balanced according to the composition of the local population. In the years leading up to the NATO intervention in the spring of 1999, however, this balance shifted in favor of Serbs from Kosovo and other regions of Serbia. Meanwhile, the Kosovo Albanians were complaining of harassment. Excessive use of force had become commonplace in many areas where the (mainly) Serb police were targeting alleged Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) militants. In 1999, the OSCE reported that it was not uncommon for individuals to be detained for up to seventy-two hours without charge, and abused or tortured in detention. The continued use of repressive measures had become the signature mark of the FRY police in the late 1990s, decreasing sensitivity for human rights violations among a public that saw abuse as the status quo. Kosovars had at that time become accustomed to abuse, having experienced it in one form or another throughout the 1990s. When asked about police brutality, people generally regard it as a lesser evil than the abuse they suffered at the hands of an oppressive regime known for its high level of intimidation, corruption, and violence.

By the end of 1999, after Kosovo became a UN protectorate and the FRY police force was disbanded, the Military Police (MP), part of the Kosovo Force (KFOR) had provided the first answer to the imperative of closing the security gap in the immediate aftermath of the withdrawal of the Serbian army. At first, the MP had provided ground forces to deal with the climate of extreme ethnic tension and the steep surge in crime. However, once the UN mission had built up, it became responsible for the unprecedented task of establishing a new indigenous police force. Virtually all the former Serb police officers had left the province for other parts of Serbia, and records of the former Kosovo Albanian officers had been destroyed or removed. The UN started to recruit new officers, encouraging applications by former members of the disbanded KLA, thus finding what seemed to be a solution to the pending issue of the former combatants.

It was a difficult fresh start: despite the presence of the MP, the KLA was attempting to fill the void by establishing its own mafia-controlled institutions based on a regime of fear, lawlessness, and disorder, and saw an opportunity to infiltrate the new force with its own men. Meanwhile, new threats had come about: cross-border trafficking, prostitution, and drugs added to old threats of ongoing internal conflict, the energized drive to expel Kosovo Serbs, and the established regime of violence and fear by then instilled in the collective minds of Kosovars.

As one of the pillars of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), the OSCE established and ran the Kosovo Police Service School (KPSS) where the new recruits received their initial training. The challenges were many: the selection process, hard enough in an established democracy, proved all the more challenging in an environment where background checks were made by international police officers working in a foreign territory. Other major challenges were posed by the need to integrate Kosovo Serbs in the police force, as they had been in the old one, in order to cover the ethnically mixed areas and the enclaves. While Kosovo Albanian applicants were in abundance, Kosovo Serb ones were hard to come by and, at first, hard to train alongside the Albanians. On occasion, in the absence of Serbs, Kosovo Albanians were trained to serve and protect in mixed areas.

The choice was therefore that of building up a force to cover the ground fast enough, while attempting to achieve ethnic balance, taking the time to select candidates thoroughly, and train them in identifying and respecting victims’ rights. To this end, the OSCE has thus far trained over four thousands men and women of all ethnic groups, and continues to do so. Overall, the public perception of the KPS is positive. The occasional instances of brutality committed by the new police seem not to compromise its legitimacy if compared with the total aversion toward the former FRY corps, more so considering the province’s historically high level of intimidation, corruption, and violence by authorities. It must be borne in mind that until recently the Kosovo climate was less sympathetic to rights protection and the population, accustomed to a high degree of violence, favored a strong hand to ensure their personal safety.

Questions remain over the methods and the actors involved in future KPS monitoring. Thus far, the public does not perceive the need for independent monitors as strictly connected to the question of legitimacy of the KPS. The public needs further education about human rights standards and ways to raise them, while the police are expected to respect rights and ensure that the more vulnerable groups are protected. The OSCE continues to implement human rights training for various citizens’ groups, and promotes and finances public information campaigns as well. UNMIK has also learned important lessons in the police recruitment process, and the OSCE has introduced a comprehensive human rights training in the academic curriculum, requesting that the KPS recruits “demonstrate a commitment to protecting the human rights of all people.” This training, coupled with media campaigns, has led to increasing public interest in and knowledge of human rights.

Besides OSCE, there are national human rights NGOs - established groups alongside newly formed organizations - that are taking an active role in public education and training. However, their lack of multi-ethnicity, their alleged affiliations, and their partisan interests weaken both their legitimacy and their efficacy. When handled by a national NGO, the human rights framework is easily employed as a political tool by one ethnic group against another. Under this unfortunate scenario, Kosovo Albanian NGOs only monitor Kosovo Albanian KPS officers in Albanian areas, while Kosovo Serb NGOs carry out the same tasks in Serb areas. National human rights NGOs became NGOs for the protection of human rights of the Kosovo Albanians, and were thus perceived as biased, their activists considered politicized. Central coordination is difficult to achieve, and confidentiality of victims of abuse is jeopardized.

Human rights monitoring is one of the most important of the OSCE legacies in Kosovo. The pool of national staff trained by OSCE now has extensive experience, and is perhaps the most valuable human rights asset in the Province. In the best case scenario, this pool of experts—who reflects all Kosovo ethnic groups, religions and languages—will become the nucleus of an independent agency responsible for providing consistent monitoring of the KPS, making interventions with the relative government bodies, and ensuring that appropriate remedies are put in place once OSCE has pulled out of the region.

As a newly and internationally trained force in a territory exposed to high levels of crime and violence, the KPS is gaining legitimacy. Independent monitoring remains a crucial condition for the long-term future legitimacy and represents yet another task for the international actors responsible to ensure that such a legacy is left with the people of Kosovo. Hope remains that experiences like those of Mr. Ibishi will diminish as Kosovo makes its way toward ethnic stability and greater understanding of citizens’ rights.

1 Not his real name.