Saturday, April 10, 2010

Making Kosovo’s Judiciary Work

Driving through Kosovo’s rural areas, empty houses, with missing doors and windows, dot the landscape. The country’s judicial system is in a similar state: Courts are still in the process of being built up, legal improvements are progressing slowly and matters of corruption continue to be an obstacle for the rule of law.

Though much has been achieved, judicial reforms remain an unfinished cornerstone for the consolidation of peace and stability. Nevertheless, recent developments are promising, at least from the perspective of a post-conflict transformation.

Kosovo’s public institutions are certainly works in progress. So far, legal bodies are only partly staffed, causing many judicial delays. Most recently, in late February, the first phase of security checks and interviews ended with the appointment of the Supreme Court judges and the highest state prosecutors, with the vetting process to be finalized hopefully in October. The tasked Independent and Prosecutorial Commission (IJPC), composed of international practitioners (from the US, Sweden and Germany), is examining nominees. Unfortunately, some of the constitutionally designated posts for minority candidates are vacant due to a shortage of applicants.

The status of the judiciary is still weak: One general problem is the low salary for civil servants. Police officers, fire fighters and prisoner guards took to the streets in protest earlier this year, demanding better working conditions and wage increases. A judge in a local court earns about €300-€400 per month, which is above the average income of €160, but still low compared to rising prices and the far higher wages earned in international organizations. Many qualified local lawyers would rather work for the OSCE, UNMIK and embassies, or simply stay abroad. The brain drain since the war is taking its toll, and a renewal of national legal experts will be slow.

Kosovo’s Constitutional Court is finally in place, supported by three international judges assigned by the International Civilian Representative. However, the court, for now, holds public hearings in a USAID-sponsored court room at Pristina University, which can only host half of the judges on the front bench. Fortunately, the Turkish government has announced it would finance a proper court room in the near future.

Property claims remain a serious concern, and the cadastral register system requires a major organizational overhaul, as does the process of document verification.

Although the Kosovo government has made strides to reign in lawlessness, much more needs to be accomplished to stabilize law enforcement and tackle corruption. A recent study by the Kosovo Democratic Institute (KDI) says that the judiciary is the most corrupt sector. The Parliament passed a reform of the country’s anti-corruption agency law in January, but it remains a common practice to bribe legal officials to speed up procedures in public administrations or motivate closures of criminal investigations. State tenders are frequently said to be predetermined because of nepotism, frustrating foreign investors.

While the international community seems to expect quick results, it will be a very slow process that sees Kosovo’s decision makers learning by doing. Kosovo’s eventual EU integration will, in part, depend on its ability and will to make the courts independent and free from political influence. Transferring this from paper to reality will be done against great odds.

Some 2,000 police officers, judges and prosecutors from the EU’s Rule of Law mission (EULEX) are presently in Kosovo to support law and order. The mandate of their mission is criticized by many, who would rather see the EU focus on economics. Realistically, EULEX’s will be a long-term mission.

There are equal doses of optimism and pessimism. Kosovo is a young country, whose independence has not yet been acknowledged by all. Access to justice will be essential for strengthening trust in its institutions, and fair trials will serve as proof of Kosovo’s ability to function as a state.

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