Kosovo: Top war crimes prosecutor forced to leave amid US state department inertia

February 28, 2018, 5:29 pm

The chief prosecutor of a war crimes court for Kosovo has said he is being made to leave the job at a critical stage of the tribunal’s work with no designated successor – largely due to inertia in the US state department.

David Schwendiman said he had been asking the state department for more than a year to make a decision about the future of the position at the Hague-based court. But he heard only a fortnight ago that he had to leave by April, leaving virtually no time to find a replacement.

Schwendiman said he had no idea whether a search has begun for a successor.

“I have been given no assurances. It has essentially been radio silence since two weeks ago,” he told the Guardian in a telephone interview from the Hague. The court was established under Kosovan law, but based in the Dutch capital to shield it from political pressure and threats.

Schwendiman’s experience echoes frequent reports of indecision and paralysis in a state department facing deep budget cuts and riddled with vacancies in its top ranks.

Forty ambassador positions remain vacant without a nominee and seven of the nine top jobs at headquarters. One after another, former diplomats have warned that the US is consequently haemorrhaging influence around the world.

The impending vacuum at the top of the Kosovo tribunal also comes at a precarious time in the region. Ten years after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia after an uprising, a brutal counter-insurgency and Nato intervention, the country’s future has not been resolved. Belgrade, Moscow and their allies refuse to recognise its independence and ethnic Serb enclaves on Kosovo territory remain potential flashpoints.

The court, known as the Specialist Chambers set up in 2016, has made substantial progress towards indicting several leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) for atrocities against ethnic Serbs and opposition Kosovars during and just after the 1998-9 conflict.

Senior officials in the current Kosovo government are reported to be among the suspects, and in January the ruling party made an abortive attempt to repeal the legislation underpinning the court’s existence.

The absence of war crimes charges for KLA atrocities is seen as a deep injustice by most Serbs, and many Kosovans complain that a culture of impunity has been allowed to grow, entrenching organised crime and government unaccountability.

When the court was first established in 2016, Schwendiman, a US attorney with extensive experience in international war crimes cases was chosen as its first ‘specialist prosecutor’.

He told the Guardian he only agreed to take the job on condition that its financial and political independence could be assured and that he would serve a full four-year term until 2020.

Although his three-year state department appointment as a senior foreign service officer was due to expire two years before his term in The Hague was up, Obama administration officials assured him his service would be extended to allow him to complete his tenure as prosecutor.

“After the administration changed, I’m absolutely convinced that the professionals in the department understood [the issues] but they were frank with me that others in the department weren’t interested,” Schwendiman said.

“We began to press very hard for an answer about what was going to happen. I wanted to make sure that if I wasn’t going to be extended that was time enough to pick a successor so there’d be as little disruption as possible,” he said.

However, he received no guidance until he was called to the US embassy in The Hague on 13 February, and told in a call from the state department that he would have to step down at the end of the March.

“I was told: Thank you for your service, but they were not going to make an exception to the rules,” he said.

Choosing a successor will be complex. It will be up to the European officials to decide how it should be done. They are said to favour a US prosecutor to take up the position, to keep Washington engaged in Kosovo.

The deputy prosecutor, Kwai Hong Ip, a British lawyer, will serve as acting chief prosecutor, but his prospects of ultimately taking the job full time are complicated by the politics of Brexit.

Schwendiman insisted his departure at short notice would not hinder the court’s work

“People in the region, those who should be worried about being held accountable have got nothing to rejoice about,” he insisted.

“My honest assessment is this will not slow us down at all. When the times ripe we’ll do what we have to do.”

However, if a policy decision is taken that indictments will have to await a new permanent chief prosecutor, the delay could be considerable while a successor is found, approved and then brought up to speed with the 700,000 pages of documents and hundreds of interviews the court has accumulated.

“Schwendiman’s departure is taking the piss with the whole special court thing by delaying the process to the absolute maximum,” said Jeta Xharra, a Kosovan investigative journalist and TV anchor. “A new prosecutor will take ages to learn the case ... It is unserious and undermines any faith in this court for the victims.”

The state department did not respond to request for comment.

Source: The Guardian