Roma children play in the Cesmin Lug refugee camp in Mitrovica city, northern Kosovo. Cesmin Lug is one of several camps that the UN established in what was known to be a heavily contaminated area near a defunct lead mine. December 12, 2007.
© 2007 Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Today, the United Nations human rights expert on hazardous waste called out the UN for consistently failing the victims of widespread lead poisoning in refugee camps it ran in Kosovo. The UN leadership should listen and take long-overdue action in response.
For more than a decade following the end of the war in Kosovo in 1999, about 600 Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptian minorities lived in refugee camps operated by the UN. The camps sat on land contaminated by lead from a nearby industrial mine. Now, seven years after the last camp was closed, victims experience ongoing health impacts and are still awaiting compensation and health and educational support for themselves and their families.
As the UN expert explains in his report to the UN Human Rights Council, victims of toxic pollution often face multiple challenges when trying to get justice. Evidence for the link between exposure to pollution and related harms may require further study, or it may be difficult to pinpoint who is responsible for the exposure.
Not in this case. The exposure to lead and resulting health impacts in adults and children, including permanent intellectual and developmental disabilities, are undisputed and there is no doubt that the UN, Kosovo’s de-facto government at the time, operated the camps despite clear evidence at the time of contamination. A strong assessment from the UN’s own advisory panel in 2016 found violations against members of displaced communities and recommended the UN pay individual compensation, publicly acknowledge responsibility, and apologize to the victims. But the UN dodged responsibility and four years later there is still no remedy.
The UN human rights expert describes the situation for the Kosovo lead poisoning victims as particularly destructive because, even though the facts of the case are undisputed, their hope for compensation “has been dashed time and again by legalistic apologies … and silence from the international community after report after report.” The United Nations should finally heed its own expert’s advice, clearly admit full responsibility, and finally provide a remedy to the victims.