Përshëndetje! (This week's Albanian phrase is "hi." You can also say "tungjatjeta," or "tung tung," which I especially like.)
This past week was a busy one. I've gotten a lot of questions from family and friends about my daily experiences in Kosovo. For this blog, I wanted to provide a sense of what my work at CLARD is like. Mostly, my duties can be boiled down to legal research and writing and attending meetings with other legal and civil society NGOs, but of course, the underlying legal issues and work culture are all very new to me!
This is my desk at the office. Normally, it’s the four of us: me, Anton (my supervisor), Nedzad, and Edona. We usually start the day with an espresso (or americano for me) at the café downstairs to discuss our work and current events.
This past Tuesday, Anton and I attended a conference at the Hotel Sirius in downtown Prishtinë. The conference took place in observation of Pride Month, and that day's programming focused on LGBTQ+ rights in the development of Kosovo's civil code. Because Kosovo is a relatively new country (having declared its independence from Serbia in 2008), its civil code is a work in progress. Local and regional civil society organizations, like CLARD, are pushing the Ministry of Justice to include greater individual liberties (such as marriage, adoption, and property rights for LGBTQ+ couples) as legislators complete work on the code. During the event, we heard from various speakers on the opportunities and challenges of ensuring LGBTQ+ individuals are protected under Kosovo's evolving legal framework.
One major bright spot in this effort is that Kosovo's constitution is clear on the right of LGBTQ+ individuals to form same-sex unions. This legal protection is endorsed by influential legal institutions, including the European Convention on Human Rights (under which same-sex couples are protected under privacy and family laws) and the European Court of Human Rights (whose rulings are not controlling in every European jurisdiction, but are influential toward the development of laws). This is especially important because Kosovo is working to accede to the European Union, and the government is trying to show it can bring its laws into compliance with international standards. Additionally, many stakeholder groups (specifically, civil society organizations) are organizing citizen-led efforts to weigh in on the code; this is crucial because public opinion in Kosovo and the Balkans has been increasingly supportive of LGBTQ+ rights.
However, many challenges remain. There is a long history in the Balkans of stigma toward LGBTQ+ individuals, despite the positive recent trends in public opinion. This stigma can be especially pronounced outside of major urban areas. Another difficulty is the uneven patchwork of legal protections, especially when it comes to same-sex couples' rights to cohabitation, property, and adoption.
One interesting point during this discussion was whether Kosovo's constitution required an affirmative protection of LGBTQ+ individuals' rights, or whether the constitutional language should be considered a passive baseline for the protection of rights that the civil code should interpret. For any 5-4 podcast listeners out there, this point brought to mind the hosts' discussion in the episode on San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, in which the Supreme Court refused to recognize low-income individuals (specifically, students in a low-income school district) as eligible for protection under the 14th amendment's Equal Protection Clause. In this episode, the hosts discuss the unrealized promise of the Equal Protection Clause, based on the view that the law is a dynamic and flexible tool of social policy. In the case of Kosovo's civil code, the panelists talked about their advocacy efforts as an opportunity for Kosovo to be a progressive leader in the region on LGBTQ+ rights. The speakers also saw this as a move that would have positive externalities for Kosovar society, such as preventing brain drain and greater promoting social inclusion.
I enjoyed getting out of the office for the conference, although it came with a few extra logistical challenges (such as using the sometimes-spotty translation headset and not being able to speak with the panelists afterward, since they came from multiple different countries across Europe!). That said, I like to view these challenges as part of the experience and something to take in stride while working in another culture.
Also this past week, we toasted to the finalization of our grant application to the Kosovar Civil Society Foundation (KCSF). In my last blog post, I mentioned my early work on that grant proposal and promised to share a little bit more on my findings. Basically, the call for grant proposals directed applicants to design a project to address legal aid access for a marginalized group in Kosovo. My supervisor Anton really let me take the lead on the project design, which was both exciting and scary! With some guidance and discussion with Anton, I put together a proposal that would use target-language legal clinics to reach Kosovo's ethnic minority groups (Serbian, Roma, Ashkali Egyptian, and other minority populations) and train current law students to address the unique legal needs of these minority groups.
As background on this project, Kosovo has made significant strides in growing its judicial institutions and framework, but the government is still constrained by issues such as a lack of resources to reach minority communities and low awareness of legal information and solutions among ethnic minorities. The result is that Kosovo’s ethnic minorities lack information and resources necessary to secure their well-being; and they are less able to advocate for their basic rights, public benefits, health, safety, and overall position in society. The data support this: a 2015 survey by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) (the most recent available survey) found that non-Albanian speakers faced additional hurdles in the processing of their court cases, and only 30% of women and non-Albanian community members were represented by lawyers before the court. The survey acknowledged other critical knowledge gaps regarding the justice system, including lack of awareness about a right to counsel, right to free legal aid, right to access legal information, and right to legal proceedings in the individual's language.
We should hear back about the grant in July or August. My fingers are crossed! In the meantime, there's another project we're starting to work on, "Furthering Gender Equality Through the EU Accession Process." This is a smaller-scale project, but I'll be working on it with a law professor who also serves as a CLARD attorney. I'm excited to bring my little bit of experience to the proposal and working with her!
That will be my main project for the next couple of weeks. I also had the opportunity to attend a conference yesterday, "The European Green Deal and Sustainable Development Goals." I'll share my takeaways about that event in a future post.
Until then, mirupafshim (Albanian for "good bye")!