Interview with the Ombudsperson of Kosovo, Naim Qelaj

10 December 2021

On Human Rights Day, the Ombudsperson of Kosovo, Naim Qelaj, speaks about the collective responsibility of our societies and institutions in the fight against domestic and gender-based violence! He also elaborates on key changes he would like to see in Kosovo in the coming year when it comes to human rights, as well as the measures Kosovo should take to have a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Read the full interview: 

1.    On 10 of December it is human rights day: all around the world institutions, civil society organizations and activists take stock of the achievements conquered and the challenges ahead: what key changes would you like to see in Kosovo in the coming year when it comes to human rights?

Qelaj: “I can say for sure that Kosovo for 20 years now aspires to build a system based on the highest standards of respect for human rights and freedoms. The legal infrastructure has been built upon these standards, although there are delays in implementation, whilemechanisms have and are being created to guarantee the implementation of obligations of the state towards human rights. It has to be pointed out however, that  these mechanisms and laws are not always functional and are failing to meet the purpose for which they were created.

What I would like to see happen next year is the improvement of the implementation of laws, policies and strategies so that they do not remain on paper, but are used for the purpose for which they were designed. Also, there is a need to  work hard to strengthen institutional mechanisms in general and in the justice sector in particular as one of the links that guarantees the rule of law.

The challenges we are facing every year are many, but I hope that we will be able to overcome them without falling short of our aspiration to build a state that is based on respect for human rights and freedoms. The Ombudsman finds himself with an important role in this process, always playing an oversight role as a mechanism that will improve in general the respect of fundamental rights and freedoms with his recommendations.”

2.    Having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment has been recognized as a human right, what are in your view the most urgent measures that have to be taken in Kosovo to realize this right?

Qelaj: “Respect for constitutional and legal obligations on issues related to the environmental changes is defined in Article 53 .2 of the Constitution. ‘Institutions of public power are committed to guarantee everyone the opportunity to influence decisions related to the environment where she/he lives.’

In this regard, the Ombudsperson published a report on 03.02.2021 on issues related to the procedures for the operation of hydropower plants and has found that the shortcomings related to respecting the rights of citizens to access information, the right of public participation in decision-making and access to justice requires the attention of the state in order to balance the public interests with economic ones, by carefully assessing the impact on the environment that can be severe and irreparable.

Therefore, even in this case, what I want to emphasize as an urgent measure is the care of public authorities that when deciding on issues related to the environment always should respect such standards regarding access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice.”

3. The COVID 19 pandemic has affected and continues to affect our lives; do you think COVID has aggravated pre-existing inequalities in Kosovo? Which categories have suffered the most and what can be done to reverse these inequalities?

Qelaj: “The pandemic has affected everyone in general and human rights in particular. Measures imposed by the government were not always respecting international human rights standards for the Government's responsibility to show that any restrictions it places on human rights must be balanced and proportionate to the real threat that threatens the citizens, so that each case should strive to achieve a legitimate aim, insofar it is necessary.

Support policies to overcome the pandemic situation have not always been balanced and comprehensive, and this has further deepened social inequality by particularly affecting vulnerable groups, women, people with disabilities and the elderly. We have prepared a special report on the impact of the pandemic on human rights, which will be published on December 10, marking the 73rd anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The special report analyses the impact of the pandemic on human rights from the perspective of the Ombudsperson.”

4. You arrived at the Ombudsperson office after being National Coordinator for Domestic Violence for more than two years. How is this previous responsibility affecting the way you exercise your present one? 

Qelaj: “For me, two years as a Coordinator for domestic violence was a great experience, an experience that is now helping me in my current position as an Ombudsperson.  In fact during those two years, I dealt with the problems that domestic violence brings. I know theinstitutions for combatting domestic violence internally; I know where the gaps are regarding the problem. For me, four pillars cover the aspect of domestic violence. 

The first one is about prevention. In this aspect, there is great progress but it is not sufficient yet. What is important at this point is the collaboration between the institutions and civil society, but from my point of view, when it comes to campaigns, institutions for battling gender violence shall appear in a good light. Especially for the fact that, we are aware that the perception of the citizens is not very good, when it comes to the work of the institutions. Without a doubt, the increase in trust for institutions would affect the increase in reporting domestic violence. 

The second one is legislation. I consider that there is a need to improve the legislation. You are aware that Kosovo has included the Istanbul Convention as part of the constitution. Therefore, I believe that all the parts of the legislation related to domestic violence must be following the Istanbul Convention.

The third one is the protection of victims when cases occur and they are reported. In Kosovo, the sheltering of victims continues to be a big problem. .Usually, the victims leave the place where they lived, and adding to this the fact that 80 % are women and they have a very difficult economic situation. This makes the situation worse. In addition, so far, the only solution to this was to place them in shelters for domestic violence victims, and here I consider we have to do more, in the aspect of protection of victims. This protection could be done in different ways: issuing a court order, the obligation of one party to pay the rent, to pay the shelter for the victim, and the decision for the administration for the joint property of parties. The courts rarely decide about these things which makes the victims go back to the place where they faced the violence. It is important for the police and prosecutors to always bear in mind the risk assessment because in certain cases this does not happen.

The last one is economic strengthening and reintegration of the victim. Having in mind the overall country development level, the institutions must do more in this regard. Because this is considered one of the cases where the victims come back to the housing where the abuse took place I have noticed recently that there are attempts by authorities to deal with the perpetrators of the violence, and this is regulated by law, but so far there is little progress due to the lack of capacity and maybe also due to lack of experience of how to deal with such cases. It is a very small number of court decisions that oblige the defendant to be treated in the psycho-social aspect (providing psychological support) and the family.” 

5. Gender-based violence is a universal phenomenon. What is different in Kosovo? 

Qelaj: “The first thing that comes to my mind in this regard is the mindset of society. Twenty years ago it was a shame for the victim to report domestic violence and at that time society judged the victim and not the perpetrator. This was a result of the patriarchal system, which existed for centuries in Kosovo. This situation has changed drastically, meaning that also citizens understand that domestic violence should not be tolerated. It is a result of the general development of society and the great work that was done towards gender equality. And in this regard, namely in the political aspects and legislaton, we are in a better position than the countries in the region.” 

6. What do you think should be a priority for the Kosovo government to combat gender-based violence?

Qelaj: “It should remain a priority for the government to continue raising awareness of gender-based violence. The government has to continue combating domestic violence because the idea is to reduce the level of gender-based violence.

Through promotions of regulations on gender equality, we can change the mindset and the actions. The government must continue to promote national politics towards gender equality and women’s rights. The economic dependence of women in Kosovo makes their positionin the society more difficult and this makes women more vulnerable, that is why women are mostly victims of domestic violence.  Therefore, I think that the government priorities must be all-inclusive.”

7. What is an institution like the Ombudsperson doing and what can it do to assist in the combat against domestic violence/gender-based violence?

Qelaj: “The work of the Ombudsperson and its institution is oriented in two areas. In addressing, the individual cases when victims file a complaint to us and based on the observation that the Ombudsperson does concerning its own initiative. During the year, we organize activities about the promotion of women’s rights.”

8. Raising awareness of the phenomenon is key. Can the Ombudsperson institution assist in spreading the word? Do you think that victims know what to do? Where to call? Who to reach?

Qelaj: I place awareness-raising as a priority. The Ombudsperson does this without a doubt on a daily basis. In addition to our participation in different events and conferences organized by civil society and other organizations we do participate in TV debates and in promotional campaigns where we mainly explain the rights of the victims related to what they should do and where they should report their case. These campaigns will continue. The idea behind this is that we can approach each family/household. We are also preparing meetings, roundtables in different regions of Kosovo. Media are also the key actors that can make the promotion of women's rights and human rights in general, thus we have good cooperation with the media when we talk about these issues.”

9. The recent judgment condemning a rapist of a 15 years old girl to only a few months in prison makes people think that the exercise of violence against women is tolerated in Kosovo. What do you think should be done to change that?

Qelaj: “I just want to believe that this was an isolated case. Taking into consideration that during the recent years there were decisions issued for long time imprisonment for the perpetrators/rapists, for example, there is a recent case where a rapist was sentenced for life. There is a policy regarding the unified sentencing scheme order created by Supreme Court that serves for judges to make their decision. The only thing I can say now is that the courts must give priority to gender-based violence cases. The courts must always prioritize the well-being of the victim.”