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U.S. Department of State

Department Seal Harold Hongju Koh
Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Remarks to 4th Annual Inter-Action Annual Forum Awards Dinner
Arlington, Virginia, April 26, 1999

Blue Bar

Thank you. I am pleased to be here in front of a group so committed to giving the victims of conflict sustenance and redress, and I am here to reaffirm the close working relationship that the U.S. Government has with Inter-Action. Perhaps the best compliment one organization can pay the other is when it hires away key staff -- and Inter-Action's loss in the form of Julia Taft is most certainly our gain. She is a talented, practical, compassionate thinker who is doing yeoman's work directing the United States' humanitarian response around the world.

Many organizations represented here are already taking important steps in the Balkans to alleviate the suffering of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have not only been forced from their homes in Kosovo, but have been subjected to murder, rape, the destruction of their homes, and the theft of their identities and history. I wanted to take this opportunity to highlight an aspect of this calamity -- the human rights dimension of the humanitarian emergency, and ask for your support.

Last week, I visited the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, refugee camps in Macedonia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna, and the refugee and human rights community in Geneva. I was unable to travel to Kosovo, where the greatest violations of human rights are occurring. I went to these places to evaluate the current human rights situation in and around Kosovo, and work to develop a broad-based human rights response to this calamity.

There are several important steps that the U.S. is taking as a government to address the human rights dimension of the Kosovo conflict. First and foremost, we have taken a principled stand on human rights in Kosovo. We are clarifying the scope of the human rights response to the crisis, and are taking steps to roll back, to the extent that we can soon, some of the egregious Serb offenses such as identity cleansing.

I am pleased to say that we have secured general agreement among the OSCE, the major UN human rights organizations, the Prosecutor's Office at the War Crimes Tribunal, and many of the leading NGOs in-theatre to use a common approach to systematically document the terrible crimes of the Milosevic regime through large-scale and systematic refugee interviews.

Our overriding goal is to bring these refugee interviews into a coordinated process, ensuring:

First, that standard questions and interviewing techniques are used and that these efforts use the same information architecture so that data can be easily aggregated and exchanged, and

Second, that the information can be comprehensively assessed and packaged in a way that is useful for the end users, including participating NGOs and the War Crimes Tribunal.

I should first communicate the gravity of the violations I was told of in the Macedonian camps. I heard first-hand accounts from refugees in the Brazda transit camps who have been witnesses and victims of the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. We are witnessing a massive human rights epidemic that includes war crimes, crimes against humanity, and grave breaches of the Geneva conventions. We have also received reports of rape used as a weapon of terror, summary execution, and strategies for terrorizing and displacing persons, such as the use of human shields and identity cleansing. There are reports of adult men being separated from their families and slaughtered.

Medical neutrality is grossly violated: we heard documented accounts of the use of medical facilities for military purposes, the expulsion of ethnic Albanian patients from Kosovo still dressed in their hospital gowns, and the deliberate destruction of Albanian medical facilities. We are grateful for the ongoing work of the NGO Physicians for Human Rights in this field. Some of the refugees we spoke to suffered multiple cleansings -- driven from the city to villages, only to be forced to flee again under the threat of death.

Perhaps most visibly, Milosevic has used forced expulsions as a political and military tool, first brutally purging the Kosovar Albanian population from their homeland, and now cynically holding thousands hostage within it. Nor can we forget that Kosovo represents only a symptom of a much broader attack on human rights in Serbia. Just recently, the independent publisher Slavko Curuvija was assassinated in Belgrade, a murder that represents only one part of a larger, quiet war being waged against all Serbian citizens by their own government. Atrocities of this scale do not just happen; they had to be meticulously planned. The logistical burden alone of transporting so many refugees to Albania and Macedonia shows the command and control resources that have been dedicated to executing this plan.

Where can we go from here?

Faced with such atrocity, what can we do? Let me suggest six steps.

First and foremost, we must and will continue to take concerted action. Such a massive human rights crisis demands an immediate and major human rights response. At the end of the century, our only choice cannot be to watch ethnic cleansing unfold, and then to seek accountability after the fact. Only after we had exhausted all diplomatic avenues, did NATO finally turn to force, backed by diplomacy, justified by international law and humanitarian necessity. In so doing, NATO's 19 democracies acted not alone, but with the support of all major human rights mechanisms: the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the UN High Commissioners for Human Rights and Refugees, and the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who spoke strongly in support of our human rights response at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. I visited The Hague to ensure that the story of the Kosovo human rights crisis will be fully told by another UN human rights body, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Second, we must get the human rights story out, and in a form useful to all who value justice for Kosovo. While in Skopje, I met with representatives from international organizations, our own and other governments, and non-governmental organizations who have formed an unprecedented alliance to document abuses, to help ensure that all potential sources of evidence will be tapped, and that those who commit these crimes will be held responsible. Through the U.S. Agency for International Development, we have provided a grant for the American Bar Association's Coalition for International Justice to compile and document cases of human rights and humanitarian law violations in Kosovo. We are working to ensure that all non-governmental organizations, humanitarian assistance providers, international organizations, and governments ask the same questions of all the hundreds of thousands of refugees who can tell of atrocities and violations of their human rights. The OSCE's Kosovo Verification Mission has played and will continue to play the critical role in cataloging and addressing these human rights issues in theatre. In Skopje, I met with the KVM's Head of Mission Bill Walker, who was clearly supportive of expanding and systematizing the extensive human rights reporting the KVM has already accomplished. In Vienna, I spoke to OSCE ambassadors and the secretariat about the need to reaffirm the essential role the OSCE's human dimension activities play in Kosovo. The OSCE Secretariat indicated to me that there will be sufficient funding and manpower to reinforce work on these human rights issues, and to release data outlining the size and scope of human rights violations based on daily reporting.

In Geneva, I received support from High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson's office for the comprehensive database project. Finally, I also met with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ogata who noted that human rights and refugee protection require complementary approaches. We will be working with the UNHCR to further cement and improve links between the two processes.

Third, we must keep the perpetrators of these crimes accountable. I consulted with Prosecutor Arbour prior to travelling to Macedonia, and she indicated that she has deployed the know-how and manpower to develop a legal response to these humanitarian violations. She also supported our push to document abuses systematically through refugee interviews carried out by a coalition of the international community and NGOs in-theatre. While in The Hague, I also announced a U.S. pledge of $500,000 to support Tribunal outreach to citizens in the former Yugoslavia so that the tribunal can carry its message of impartial justice forward to not just governments, but also victims of Yugoslavia's wars.

Fourth, we must do all we can to alleviate the suffering of refugees. While working to ensure that refugees and displaced persons can return home, we should also make sure that the conditions of refugee camps are humane and that refugees are treated fairly. All involved governments are working under tremendous burdens to make these goals a reality, even as the number of refugees mounts. The suffering in the camps was almost too palpable to endure. One mother told us of refugees approaching the border at Blace, and being told they could only cross if they had children with them. People were literally handing their children to strangers so that they could cross to safety, not knowing if they would see these children again if they got to the other side.

The Brazda transit camps were filled to bursting. Managing an influx of persons as large as the Kosovo exodus naturally entails a high level of bureaucratic confusion and shortages. UNHCR, working with NATO and the OSCE, may have averted initial violence in the camps, although a high level of bewilderment remains. Most of the refugees are still stunned at their loss and told me that they hoped to return to their Kosovo homes soon.

We have a special responsibility to make sure that we do not compound the human rights offenses occurring by averting our eyes from allegations of human rights violations in the camps, and to make sure there is the necessary space and support for humane conditions in the camps. Moreover, we cannot let public attention be diverted from the real human rights violations that are the reason for the refugees' departure. This will take sustained effort and an even-handed approach for those who have taken refuge in Albania and Macedonia, those who provide assistance, and the governmental hosts of the refugees.

But the refugee crisis is only another symptom of the broader human rights crisis. The only long-term solution is to address the underlying human rights problem in Serbia-Montenegro so that refugees can go home and go on with their lives.

Fifth, we must take decisive steps to reverse the effects of "identity cleansing" by ensuring that an identity card can be issued to refugees, and that data that could be used for property adjudication or even elections after the conflict is captured. Without this information, the rehabilitation of key aspects of Kosovo's post-conflict civil, political, and economic life will be impeded. We are working with the OSCE, the UNHCR, and other players on the ground to immediately develop an identity card for Albanian refugees and quickly expand this program to the Macedonian camps. In registering for this card, refugees are asked critical questions as to property and where they lived before the expulsions. By capturing this data, we can slowly reverse "identity cleansing."

Sixth,and finally, we recognize that Kosovo will most likely require enormous commitments to human rights, elections, democratization, institution building, and rule of law issues. The OSCE has taken the lead in planning to rebuild civil society after hostilities cease, and has done excellent work. All of us need to work with them on these issues now, so that we can be better prepared.

In Macedonia, a representative of a human rights NGO asked the head of the Tribunal's team there why they should cooperate to bring these crimes to light. The Tribunal investigator replied that neither the Tribunal nor any other organization had been faced with the prospect of hundreds of thousands of potential witnesses expelled from a country all at once. This is an extraordinary moment that requires unprecedented focus and cooperation.

Extraordinary circumstances demand an extraordinary response. In closing, I urge you and your organizations to give support to this comprehensive approach to documenting human rights violations. If your organization has operations in the region, I urge you to adopt the common form for reporting human rights violations. This way, we can work together to build a statistical base that can move beyond anecdotal accounts and comprehensively document the full contours of a plan of ethnic cleansing directed at all the citizens of Kosovo. I urge all persons who want to help out to contact the Washington office of the Coalition for International Justice, who can be reached at 202-662-1595.

We owe it to ourselves to work together to get the story out, but most of all, we owe it to the victims of this twisted policy. I invite you to work together with us, now, to encourage action, to document the truth, to further accountability and the search for the missing, to aid the victims and their families, and to reverse the human rights abuses that are still going on as we speak.

Thank you.

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