New Decision Finds UN Responsible in Kosovo Lead Poisoning Case
The Human Rights Advisory Panel has found UNMIK, the UN Mission in Kosovo, responsible for breach of a number of human rights provisions connected with lead poisoning of the Roma population following the 1999 conflict. Under Section 2 of UNMIK Regulation No. 2006/12, t the Panel has jurisdiction over complaints relating to alleged violations of human rights “that had occurred not earlier than 23 April 2005 or arising from facts which occurred prior to this date where these facts give rise to a continuing violation of human rights”.
The facts of the case first launched in 2008 are summarized as follows:
the complainants are 138 members of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian (RAE)2 communities in Kosovo who used to reside in the camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) set up in northern Mitrovicë/Mitrovica since 1999. All complainants claim to have suffered lead poisoning and other health problems on account of the soil contamination in the camp sites due to the proximity of the camps to the Trepca smelter and mining complex and/or on account of the generally poor hygiene and living conditions in the camps. The Trepca smelter extracted metals, including lead, from the products of nearby mines from the 1930s until 1999.
In the recently released decision 26-08 NM etal Opinion FINAL 26feb16 the panel noted at para. 207 that:
the heavy exposure to contamination, coupled with poor living conditions in the camps, a situation which lasted for more than 10 years, three of them within the Panel’s jurisdiction, was such as to pose a real and immediate threat to the complainants’ life and physical integrity. The Panel also considers established the bad health conditions incurred by the complainants, and especially by children and pregnant women, as a result of their prolonged exposure to lead.
Ultimately, the panel found that UNMIK breached articles 2,3 and 8 of the ECHR (including the right to life, the right to be free from degrading and inhumane treatment, and the right to family life), Arts 2, 11, 12 and 23 of the ICESR (including the right to health and adequate standard of living), Arts. 2 and 26 of the ICCPR, and various provisions of CEDAW and the CRC due to the increased risk that pregnant women and children face from lead exposure.
With regards to remedies, the Panel recommended that UNMIK:
PUBLICLY ACKNOWLEDGES, INCLUDING THROUGH THE MEDIA, UNMIK’S FAILURE TO COMPLY WITH APPLICABLE HUMAN RIGHTS STANDARDS IN RESPONSE TO THE ADVERSE HEALTH CONDITION CAUSED BY LEAD CONTAMINATION IN THE IDP CAMPS AND THE CONSEQUENT HARMS SUFFERED BY THE COMPLAINANTS, AND MAKES A PUBLIC APOLOGY TO THEM AND THEIR FAMILIES;
TAKES APPROPRIATE STEPS TOWARDS PAYMENT OF ADEQUATE COMPENSATION TO THE COMPLAINANTS FOR MATERIAL DAMAGE IN RELATION TO THE FINDING OF VIOLATIONS OF THE HUMAN RIGHTS PROVISIONS LISTED ABOVE;
TAKES APPROPRIATE STEPS TOWARDS PAYMENT OF ADEQUATE COMPENSATION TO THE COMPLAINANTS FOR MORAL DAMAGE IN RELATION TO THE FINDING OF VIOLATIONS OF THE HUMAN RIGHTS PROVISIONS LISTED ABOVE;
It is hard to tell at this stage what influence this decision will have. A Chatham House report from 2012 reported that at that date, the UN had not acted on similar recommendations to pay compensation.
“although the Panel has recommended that UNMIK award ‘adequate compensation for non-pecuniary damage’ to date no compensation has been paid out on the basis of the Panel’s recommendations.”
Nonetheless, the decision creates important precedents in other ways. It is to be contrasted, in particular, with the fate of a decision rendered in 2011 under a different process established by the General Assembly, in which the UN’s immunities blocked the claims. I discuss this decision in a recent article on mass torts against the UN, and copy the relevant paragraph below:
This claim was brought by private claimants to the U.N. under a procedure established by General Assembly Resolution 52/24768 within six months from the time of the injury, asking for compensation and remedies for economic losses. The U.N. rejected the claim on July 25, 2011, stating by letter that the claims “do not constitute claims of a private law character and, in essence, amount to a review of the performance of UNMIK’s mandate . . . therefore, the claims are not receivable.” The U.N.’s response gave no explanation for why these were deemed to be public law claims, other than to note that the claims “alleged widespread health and environmental risks arising in the context of the precarious security situation in Kosovo.” In a more recent communication addressing the U.N.’s position on private torts claims generally, the U.N. added the following justification for its rejection of the Kosovo claim: The claims were considered by the Organization not to be of a private law character since they amounted to a review of the performance of UNMIK’s mandate as an interim administration, as UNMIK retained the discretion to determine the modalities for the implementation of its interim administration mandate, including the establishment of IDP camps.
The merits decision was issued after the case was refiled in October 2011 pursuant to the decision noted above. Significantly, the reasoning was similar to that used to reject the claim against the UN for bringing cholera to Haiti.