Independence and Impartiality


This week at CLARD, I have been continuing my review of Kosovo’s transitional period, and my main focus has been a new opinion from the European Commission for Democracy Through Law (known as the Venice Commission). The Venice Commission advises the Council of Europe on constitutional matters and helps countries that are working to align their institutions with European standards. Although Kosovo is not yet an official member of the Council of Europe, it hopes to be soon, as becoming a member would help pave the way for full European integration and grant Kosovars access to key institutions like the European Court of Human Rights. This opinion I have been reading, adopted by the commission just last week, concerns the state of Kosovo’s justice system and recommendations for the improvement thereof. It comes in response to a concept paper regarding the development of a vetting process in the Kosovan justice system, upon which Kosovo’s Minister of Justice requested the Venice Commission’s advice.

The concept paper notes that a justice system is the backbone of a state’s democratic functioning, and that the independence and impartiality of that system are fundamental to its fairness and accessibility. In this light, the concept paper paints a troubling picture of Kosovo’s justice system: high levels of corruption, vulnerability to undue political influence, low institutional capacity and inefficient administration of justice, interference from media and police, impunity of officials and lack of effective oversight, and very low public trust. These concerns over the professionalism and integrity of some justice officials points to a need for a thorough and continuous vetting process because while professional competence can be achieved through training and performance reviews, integrity and accountability are more easily ensured through vetting and disciplinary measures.

Although the concept paper and the Venice Commission’s opinion differ slightly in their recommended courses of action, there is a strong consensus that reform is necessary. Kosovo’s civil society organizations agree, with CLARD and its contemporaries calling for the government to implement the Venice Commission’s advised legislative changes and vetting procedures. And yet, the government is dubious of vetting’s necessity, pointing instead to recent improvements and advancements in the system. While these developments are certainly important steps in the right direction, the pace of improvement is painstakingly slow and greater action is gravely needed. The commission’s opinion concludes that for the sake of viability, whatever is done must be done with sincere dialogue and close cooperation between all stakeholders.

This week we also took the campaign against domestic violence to a town called Graçanicë, where one of CLARD’s former team members met us for lunch. He now works as a lawyer for a different NGO, and he told me of some of the issues he has seen firsthand in the criminal justice system. For instance, he explained that not only are judges imposing inconsistent and irregular sentences without explanation, but also that judges commonly impose very minimal penalties, often even smaller than the minimum sanction recommended by the sentencing guidelines. Because of this, Kosovo has seen high levels of recidivism as the penalties for serious offenses are not felt serious enough to deter repeat of future offenders. The perceived lack of rhyme or reason behind the judges’ decisions, combined with the prevalence of recidivism, contributes significantly to the public’s lack of trust and satisfaction in their justice system. Our conversation reminded me of the conference I attended my first week here, during which the criminal sentencing guidelines were in the hot seat. While the guidelines exist, they are not mandatory nor have they been consistently implemented across courtrooms. So you see, the need for proper implementation and accountability strikes again in Kosovan jurisprudence.

Between exploring more of Pristina and traveling to Graçanicë this week, I have noticed just how paradoxical Kosovo can seem while all the pieces still fit together perfectly. Walking around Pristina, you’ll hear the bells ringing from the Catholic cathedral one moment and the adhan (call to prayer) lilting from the Islamic mosque the next; you’ll find yourself outside a new government ministry from the 2010s not blocks from part of the Old Bazaar dating back to the 14th century; you’ll walk past modern high-rises on one street and crumbling war ruins around the next corner. In Graçanicë, which is a predominantly Serbian municipality just a twenty-minute drive from Pristina, there were Serbian flags flying outside the municipal building and Kosovan flags flying outside the police building right next door. This juxtaposition of old and new, Christian and Islamic, Kosovan and Serbian, destruction and growth is a testament to Kosovo’s storied past and dynamic culture.

That is all for now, friends, but I will be back next week with a historical overview of the institutions and processes at play during Kosovo's transition to an independent nation.

Shihemi më vonë!