Søren Jessen-Petersen: Kosovo Protector

Søren Jessen-Petersen has been Special Representative of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Kosovo since June 2004. A Danish diplomat with vast experience of both the former Yugoslavia and refugee issues, he came to Kosovo from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* where he had been the Special Representative of the European Union from February 2004.

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Prior to that, he was Chairman of the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe's Migration, Asylum, Refugees Regional Initiative where he initiated, developed and directed a strategy to manage population movements in the Western Balkans. Between 1998 and 2001, he headed all UNHCR operations as Assistant UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. Between 1994 and 1998, he was Director of the UNHCR Liaison Office at UN Headquarters in New York. From December 1995 to September 1996, he was based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' Special Envoy to the former Yugoslavia.

What are the greatest challenges facing Kosovo?

The overall challenge is to build a stable, democratic and multi-ethnic Kosovo. The immediate challenge is to take forward implementation of a series of priority standards that we have identified as key to building a multi-ethnic Kosovo. We have identified security, rule of law, freedom of movement, return of the displaced and decentralisation as priorities, since it is unrealistic to try to make progress in all areas. In addition to identifying these priorities, we have ensured that the Contact Group has endorsed them and will assess what progress has been made in their implementation in mid-2005 with a view to launching a process leading to status talks in the event of a positive assessment. In this way, we have an agreed way forward, which is well understood both in Pristina and in Belgrade. The other great challenge is the economy. Indeed, the economy may be the most serious challenge, because if we don't make progress in this area, even in the short term, we risk future instability.

Since the outbreak of violence in March of this year, every international organisation has been examining what went wrong. What lessons has the United Nations drawn from this event?

I think we have drawn the same conclusions as the other institutions concerning what led to the outbreak of violence, our level of preparedness and the way we responded. There is now fairly broad agreement that several factors contributed to the outbreak of violence. It was in part the result of frustration over the lack of progress on the economy, in part frustration concerning the security situation, and in part uncertainty about the lack of a clear way ahead. Having analysed the reasons for the outbreak of violence, there is now a new sense of urgency on the part of the international community to address some of the causes.

There is no question, however, of rewarding violence. Indeed, since March there have been several arrests and both local and international judges are working on bringing those responsible to justice. But since maintaining the status quo would only have led to more violence, we could not simply ignore the causes of the March violence. For this reason, there is now agreement that Kosovo could not be left as a holding operation for much longer. Moreover, we came up with a new strategy with an accelerated way forward focusing on a number of priority standards.

By addressing issues such as lack of protection for minorities, lack of freedom of movement, security, rule of law and lack of progress in the return of the displaced, we are addressing the legitimate concerns of the minority communities. At the same time, we are saying to the Kosovo Albanians that if, and only if, there is significant, demonstrable progress in those areas, will we be able to move forward.

Given the events of March, it's easy to be pessimistic about the state of the peace process. Is there also a case for optimism?

First of all, I think it's important to say that there has been only one serious, ethnically motivated violent incident since March. That was in early June. We have just gone through four weeks of electoral campaigning and there has not been a single serious violent incident. As far as security is concerned, both KFOR and UNMIK have learned a lot since March. We are now better prepared. We coordinate better with each other. We have better response mechanisms. We have invested in riot-control training. And we are better at intelligence-gathering both individually and working together with the Kosovo Police Service. As a result, I think that the security environment is already significantly improved.

Secondly, I believe that there is a case for a very, very cautious degree of optimism. The reason for this is that whereas to date Kosovo has essentially been a holding operation, we now have an agreed way forward for the province for the first time. Status is finally on the agenda and that gives us both carrots and sticks to use. In many ways, therefore, it will be easier to take the peace process forward. That said, as we get closer to status discussions, the situation risks becoming more complicated and security could easily become a problem again.

The European Union is taking responsibility for day-to-day security in Bosnia and Herzegovina in December of this year. Would a similar arrangement make sense in Kosovo in the near future?

Like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo is in Europe. The future here lies in Europe. Irrespective of what emerges from status talks, it is a European perspective that will drive this process. As a result, I think it would make a lot of sense for us to start looking ahead now already at what would and should be the successor arrangements to UNMIK. Indeed, I would say that UNMIK has already begun a gradual scaling-down process. This process should not, however, be about phasing out the entire international presence, but rather about organising a transition. Irrespective of status talks, I believe that there will be a need for some sort of international presence, both military and civilian, for many years to come. Given that Kosovo is Europe and its future is in Europe, we should be looking to the European institutions to take on a greater role.

As Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Kosovo, you have extensive powers, and some analysts argue that these powers risk undermining the prospects for democracy in Kosovo. How much power does someone in your position require to help nurture a peace process?

The powers are extensive and based on UNSCR 1244. That said, they are considerably weaker than they were in 1999, since during the past three or four years my predecessors have already transferred considerable powers to local authorities. Moreover, I, too, am in the process of transferring more power to local authorities. Indeed, I'm preparing to transfer almost every power that is not specifically linked to the issue of sovereignty, because I cannot do that as a result of UNSCR 1244. We are now establishing new ministries and we are "Kosovising" the economy and other areas. This is also essential when it comes to preparing for eventual local administration whatever the outcome of talks on the province's final status.

One problem we are facing is that local capacities do not necessarily exist. That said, I don't believe this is a valid reason not to move forward with the transfer of powers. It is simply a reason to increase our focus on building local capacity. But as we entrust more and more responsibilities to the local authorities, we have to insist on greater accountability and be prepared to sanction non-performing authorities.

Given that only about one per cent of Kosovo's Serbs voted in the recent election, how do you intend to persuade them to participate in the province's political life?

This is evidently one of the great immediate challenges. To go out and campaign for a boycott, as many Serb politicians did, is not difficult, because there are many good reasons why the Kosovo Serbs should not wish to participate. We have to recognise this. But what I will never accept is the deplorable methods that were used to enforce the boycott. Nevertheless, the fact is that less than one per cent participated, either because they didn't want to be part of it or they were intimidated.

We will now seek to work with the legitimate elected representatives of the Serb community. The Serbs who were elected are legitimate because the constitutional arrangement in Kosovo is such that seats are reserved for minorities, irrespective of the number of votes cast, in order to protect them. The province's Serbs do, therefore, have legitimate representatives, though there is a question mark about the credibility of these representatives. Indeed, they themselves are concerned about lacking credibility in the eyes of the people they are supposed to represent. The only way we can address that and the concerns of all those Serbs who either chose not to vote or were intimidated into observing the boycott is to make immediate progress in the priority areas I have outlined.

We need, above all, to address the issue of freedom of movement, since this remains a major problem. Indeed, there are villages in Kosovo that are still surrounded by barbed wire and dependent on KFOR protection. Promoting decentralisation is another way to win over some Kosovo Serbs. If, for example, they are able to take charge of local issues, such as the provision of local services, in municipalities in which they form a majority, they should begin to feel that they do, after all, have a future in Kosovo and a stake in the peace process. The few Serbs who live in the north of Kosovo close to Serbia may feel they have little to lose by boycotting elections. But the majority of Kosovo Serbs, who live in southern Kosovo, are clear losers. We now have to reach out to them and others worried about their security, human rights and the future.

As you've mentioned, final status talks on Kosovo are likely to begin in the middle of next year. How do you envisage these discussions, and what do you hope emerges from them?

These are still early days. I think that it is likely that all the key stakeholders - Belgrade, Pristina, key countries, the Contact Group and the Security Council - will begin informal reflections early next year, focusing on the modalities of the status talks, that is who, where and how, and then the principles. Some of the principles are likely to be straightforward, others less so. I can imagine a situation in which certain parties seek to limit the options and possibly try to reach agreement on what should not be on the agenda. In the first instance, what is important is to find agreement on the principles and modalities for status talks.

Some analysts argue that the Balkans require the convening of a major international conference to address all outstanding issues in one go, much like the Congress of Berlin in the 19th century. How do you view such an idea?

If we were to do that, we'd probably be here until the 22nd century. That's not the way forward.

How long do you think the United Nations will have to remain in Kosovo in its current configuration?

I think that the United Nations will already, early next year, begin a major restructuring of its operations. That restructuring will be on the basis of the way forward that I have referred to several times, focusing on the priority standards, getting to a review of standards, working with the parties to achieve a positive assessment, and then moving to status talks. Managing Kosovo during this process will be both critical and difficult. I, therefore, think we have to restructure UNMIK in such a way that it is better equipped to respond to the needs of this process. I believe also that in this restructuring, we should already start looking at what follows UNMIK. Irrespective of what emerges from status talks, the United Nations has to be looking forward to scaling back its operations and handing responsibility to other organisations and local authorities.

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