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Manual for Sustainable Return

Part II - Operational Guidelines - Inter-ethnic Dialogue and Community Relations

Although the right to return is a non-negotiable fundamental right, simply asserting this right will not inevitably create an environment conducive to returns. Efforts directed towards tolerance, co-existence and development of an integrated multi-ethnic society constitute the foundation of any returns programme. Seeking consensus for the principle of return is relatively trouble-free. There are very few majority leaders who would oppose return in principle. The challenge lies in bringing this principle to fruition in practice. Confidence building and consensus in favour of return needs to be developed on three levels:

1) Kosovo-wide political level;

2) Municipalities;

3) The communities level, including majority communities, existing minority communities and IDPs/Refugees.

1) Kosovo-wide political level

Kosovo leaders of all ethnic groups are in a unique position to exert considerable influence over their respective communities and are therefore ideally placed to improve attitudes towards inter-ethnic tolerance and co-operation. Positive statements from leaders, followed by strong concrete actions, can have a powerful impact on marginalising negative messages from more extreme sectors of society. Substantial advances can only be expected when PISG and local civil society adopt a pivotal role in the process. Progress at this level provides the framework in which return can be pursued at the Municipal and local levels. Prominent political leaders can be drawn on to give increasing prominence to minority concerns, particularly returns.

2) The Municipal Level

Municipal Working Groups can provide an important vehicle for public discourse between the displaced and their community of origin. Consisting of local representatives of international organisations and all ethnic groups, these Working Groups are a forum in which discussion can occur among all interested parties, including between the IDPs/Refugees and the PISG, about the right to return and the best way in which it can be implemented. The process of consensus building over returns should be as wide as possible, including a broad range of civil society initiatives as well. In addition, Municipal Assemblies have the duty to represent IDPs/Refugees and their interests, as do their specific Committees. Minority representatives in the Assemblies and in the Committees should also assume a full role in voicing the concerns of IDPs/Refugees. Although every interaction between the majority community and IDPs/Refugees has the potential to improve reconciliation objectives, it can also reinforce division if not prepared carefully. The subject of conversation should be kept local, with an emphasis on identifying possible common interests. At the same time, if interactionsbetween these groups are too tightly controlled, the onset of the reconciliation process may be severely hampered. If initial resistance arises, referring to progress in some Municipalities to Inter-ethnic dialogue and community relations highlight the way forward in others can encourage further developments in the process.

3) Community level

Although influenced by developments at the political and municipal levels, engaging former neighbours within a given community has its own particular dynamics, largely dependant on the pre-war relations between ethnic groups and the experience of the community during the conflict, and demographic changes after 1999.

Local communities often have their own mechanisms for managing conflict and resolving disputes, which should be incorporated into the process where possible. Relying on village councils and involving respected families are two ways in which the community will be empowered by the returns process, rather than feeling as if it is imposed upon them. Contact between majority community and IDPs/Refugees at the community level can be established through talks initiated simultaneously with local municipal authorities and with majority community villagers in the proposed return site. Such contacts can take place within the MWG; or within specific project teams that report to MWGs and involve representatives of local communities through such efforts. IDPs/Refugees are thereby increasingly exposed to representatives of the majority community. The joint planning of specific returns provides a vehicle for interaction between returnees and the host community. Discussions can focus on points of connection, which emphasise common interests. This should help to lower resentment and foster an atmosphere of trust, co-operation and integration. The way in which activities are designed can also increase long term integration by ensuring that services create links between communities. The provision of health care, primary education, social services and the distribution of humanitarian aid should all focus on creating links between communities. The way in which the activities are implemented can also provide tools for encouraging integration. For instance, making reconstruction of returnee houses a multi-ethnic endeavor - employing Kosovo-Albanian villagers to work on non-Kosovo-Albanian community returnee houses, and returnees to work on community integration projects - is one way of improving ties between the returnees and host communities, and laying the groundwork for greater co-operation.

Overcoming obstacles to dialogue at the local level:

There are many different reasons for opposing return at the local level: some may be relatively legitimate (e.g. fear of insecurity, war-related trauma), others may not be (e.g. property usurpation). Fear of and resentment at exclusion from decision-making circles connected with return are also increasingly apparent. Similarly, a host of conditions are often attached to returns: "returns can only take place as long as…"

These objections and conditions should not be legitimised, but the reasons that give rise to them must be explored and tackled as appropriate. Exploring these more complicated issues, and addressing legitimate concerns will help to smooth the process of inter-ethnic dialogue. One of the most widely heard statements on return is anyone can return, provided that they have not committed any war crimes. It should be stressed that there is functioning law and order system in Kosovo, with the jurisdiction to try war crimes.

Moreover, crimes are committed by individuals, not by ethnic groups, and innocent people cannot be punished simply because of their ethnicity. All evidence should be given to the police, who in turn will put into place a proper investigation, which if the evidence is sufficient will result in criminal trials. All actors involved in the returns process should underline their commitment to the prosecution of war crimes, and all efforts to link the two issues to prevent return must be rejected. When unforeseen problems arise, the involvement of law and order (KPS, CIVPOL, KFOR) is appropriate should the implementation of a return project be threatened. In other circumstances, mediation and persuasion are more effective. For instance, when the return of Ashkali to Vushtrri/Vucitrn encountered difficulties, the Prime Minister, Dr Rexhepi, intervened to encourage the majority community to respond more positively to the returns. Similar initiatives can be undertaken at the Municipal level. Regular meetings should be held with all actors, especially IDPs/Refugees and the receiving communities, to tackle issues as they arise and ensure that faith in the process is maintained.


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