The following piece is published as an honorable mention in the Harvard Human Rights Journal’s Winter 2021 Essay Contest. The contest, Beyond the Headlines: Underrepresented Topics in Human Rights, sought to share the work of Harvard University students with a broader audience and shed light on important issues that popular media may overlook.
The United Nations Must Deliver Long Overdue Remedies for the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian Victims of Lead Poisoning in Kosovo
“The ideals of the United Nations – peace, justice, equality, and dignity – are the beacons to a better world.” United Nations (“UN”) Secretary-General António Guterres made these remarks during last September’s UN General Assembly ceremony, which commemorated the organization’s 75th anniversary. These ideals are enshrined in the UN Charter, and yet, they have been severely tested by the organization’s recent history in Kosovo. For more than two decades, the UN has refused to accept legal responsibility and deliver justice to Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian minorities who were forced to live in UN-run lead contaminated camps.
The Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities suffered profound injustice
The evidence, according to a recent report by Baskut Tuncak, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics, is undeniable. In the aftermath of the Kosovo War in 1999, more than 600 members of the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian minority communities were placed in UN-managed internally displaced persons (IDP) camps – camps which sat on toxic wasteland next to a large smelter and mining complex. The lead contamination in Mitrovicë/Mitrovica, where the camps were located, was well documented at the time. In fact, French peacekeepers housed in army barracks close to the toxic dumps were relocated within a couple of weeks after they registered high lead levels in their blood. After conducting an environmental audit in 2000, the United Nations Interim Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), the UN mission in Kosovo created by the UN Security Council, decided to close the smelter, as it was “unacceptable source of air pollution.” Then-Special Representative of the UN Secretary, Bernard Kouchner, declared, “I would be derelict if I let this threat to the health of children and pregnant women continue for one more day.” As lead remains in the environment indefinitely unless efforts are taken to abate its impact, the health risks to the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian IDPs persisted; unlike the peacekeepers, they were not afforded an opportunity to leave.
The same year, UNMIK commissioned a report on how to assess risks and mitigate lead exposure in Mitrovicë/Mitrovica. The report revealed that blood lead levels among the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian people in the IDP camps were particularly high – a crucial finding that UNMIK chose not to relay to the affected communities.
In 2004, Roma activists began to highlight the deteriorating health of IDPs in the camps, prompting the World Health Organization to conduct environmental sampling and blood testing of children living in the camps. Its findings and message to the UN were clear: children had unacceptably high blood lead levels, and the camps needed to be closed immediately. It was only in 2013 – fourteen years after the first families arrived and nearly a decade after this warning – that the UN disbanded the last IDP camp. By then, it was too late.
There is no safe level of lead exposure and prolonged exposure causes severe and permanent health effects, damaging a person’s neurological, biological, and cognitive functions. Roma rights activists reported premature births and miscarriages among women in the camps, both common complications of lead poisoning. Children who were born or grew up in the camps developed a myriad of medical conditions, including seizures, paralysis, respiratory problems, and kidney disease, as well as cognitive and behavioral disabilities such as difficulty with memory and concentration – also common health impacts of protracted lead exposure. The long-term lead exposure is believed to have caused the death of several children and adults. As there is no cure for lead-induced health damages, many former camp residents continue to be plagued by illnesses, causing significant financial burdens on them and their families. Nevertheless, the UN has failed to admit full responsibility for its actions and offer a remedy to the affected communities.
The UN’s own human rights panel finds in favor of the lead poisoning victims
UNMIK, which was Kosovo’s de-facto government between 1999 and 2008, created a particularly acute accountability vacuum. The UN’s general immunity from lawsuits and UNMIK’s extensive, unchecked powers meant that it was difficult to hold UNMIK accountable for its human rights violations in Kosovo. Under mounting international pressure, UNMIK set up the Human Rights Advisory Panel (HRAP) — a quasi-judicial body tasked with examining complaints of alleged human rights violations committed by or attributable to UNMIK.
In 2008, Roma activists filed an HRAP complaint on behalf of 143 Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian victims. The victims argued that UNMIK violated their right to life and right to health by placing them in camps known to be highly lead contaminated, withholding information about health risks and required medical treatment, as well as failing to relocate them to a safe environment. While HRAP initially deemed the complaint admissible, it reneged on its decision after UNMIK changed HRAP’s procedural rule. HRAP, UNMIK ordered, could not examine “any complaint that is or may become in the future subject to” the UN’s third-party claims process, an opaque dispute settlement mechanism for private law grievances decided by the Office for Legal Affairs (OLA) at the UN Headquarters in New York. As human rights lawyers had also lodged compensation claims for the lead poisoning victims under that precise mechanism in 2006, UNMIK forced HRAP to stall its proceedings. This was an extraordinary interference in HRAP’s admissibility criteria: UNMIK sought to limit the panel’s jurisdiction by barring claims that could theoretically be brought before the third-party claims process. In effect, this reduced HRAP’s jurisdiction to claims that had been dismissed by the third-party claims process or that did not amount to private law grievances.
The Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian lead poisoning victims were left in limbo. OLA in New York did not apprise the victims of the status of the case, solely maintaining that it “was continuing its review of the matter.” In 2011 – five years after the complaint was submitted – OLA dismissed it, and the lead poisoning victims requested HRAP to reopen the case. When HRAP prompted UNMIK to engage on the merits, however, the interim administration remained unresponsive until December 2014. The victims finally gained some ground in 2016: UNMIK, HRAP held, had violated the affected communities’ fundamental rights to life and health, as well as right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment, and right to respect for private and family life.
HRAP sharply criticized UNMIK for failing to relocate the displaced families despite being aware of the health risks the communities were exposed to. It also chastised UNMIK for not offering continued remediation activities or medical treatments, and for denying the victims access to information about the health hazards in the camps. In no uncertain terms, the panel found that the “complainants have suffered discriminations as members of the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian community.” The UN had failed the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities in Kosovo.
The UN flouts HRAP’s recommendations
To date, the UN has markedly failed to comply with any of the recommendations made in HRAP’s ruling. First, the panel, which can only issue recommendations but no binding decisions, advised the UN to publicly acknowledge and apologize for the suffering it had caused. Secretary-General Guterres expressed “profound regret for the suffering endured by all individuals” living in the IDP camps, yet has refused to proffer an official apology or acknowledge any legal responsibility.
The UN also defied HRAP’s second recommendation: adequate compensation to the affected communities for material and moral damage suffered. Rather than providing targeted, individual compensation to the victims, the UN created a trust fund to finance community-based assistance projects for the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian population in northern Kosovo “more broadly” – a far cry from the individual compensation demanded by HRAP. The trust fund, furthermore, was devised without any input from the affected communities. As the fund depends on voluntary contributions from member states, the UN has struggled to mobilize monetary contributions: it has so far only received an “appalling single, solitary contribution of US$10,000.” Four years since Guterres’ announcement, the trust fund has yet to become operational.
Dismayed by the UN’s actions, or lack thereof, former HRAP members took the unprecedented step of sending an official letter to Guterres and criticizing the trust fund for its failure to provide a remedy to the affected communities. Without the UN taking responsibility for the injuries and suffering it had caused, the HRAP members warned Guterres, “the human rights system as a whole is weakened.”
The plight of the lead poisoning victims is not an isolated case
The UN’s refusal to accept legal responsibility for its actions and remedy the affected communities is not confined to the victims of lead poisoning in Kosovo. In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, UN peacekeepers caused a devastating cholera epidemic by improperly disposing contaminated wastewater into the country’s largest river. At least 10,000 Haitians died as a result of the epidemic. The UN refused to take any responsibility until 2016, when then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon finally apologized to the people of Haiti for the UN’s role in the cholera outbreak. He acknowledged the organization’s moral responsibility towards the cholera victims, and committed to a “new approach”: ending the transmission of cholera and providing material assistance to the victims of the epidemic. As the new approach depends on voluntary contributions, it is meagerly funded. Material assistance, moreover, has so far only translated into symbolic community assistance projects rather than remedies for the victims’ injuries. As in the case of Kosovo’s lead poisoning victims, the UN refuses to hear the affected communities’ claims for compensation by asserting immunity from any judicial proceedings.
As the UN eschews responsibility, the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities are still awaiting justice
The former Special Rapporteur on Toxics concluded his 2020 report on Kosovo by stating that the failure to provide an effective remedy to the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities is an ongoing violation of their human rights. An even more “insidious, ongoing violation,” he admonished the organization, “is the tantalizing cruelty of an illusory promise of a brighter future, which has been dashed time and again by legalistic apologies, an aimless and hopeless trust fund, and silence from the international community.”
The right to an effective remedy means that victims are entitled to compensation for injuries suffered as a result of human rights violations. Indeed, compensation is an essential means for redress where victims like the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian IDPs who have suffered irreversible harm cannot be restored to their state before the violation occurred. The UN’s refusal to abide by HRAP’s recommendations is particularly disheartening in light of the fact that providing compensation is attainable; locating the affected Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian individuals and engaging them in meaningful consultation to determine what they consider to be an effective remedy appears wholly feasible. It is merely the UN’s obstinacy that prevents the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities from obtaining justice.
Secretary-General Guterres must honor his pledges to deliver remedies to victims of UN human rights abuses
When Guterres assumed his tenure as Secretary-General in 2017, he pledged his commitment to ensuring greater accountability and transparency, and to delivering effective remedies to victims of UN human rights abuses. Yet the UN’s highest-ranking official continues to evade legal responsibility for his organization’s harm in Kosovo.
If the UN Charter is the beacon to a better world, the UN must be the first to uphold it. The failure to do so has seriously undermined the organization’s own integrity and credibility as the moral authority for the protection and promotion of human rights.
Twenty years on, it is time for the UN leadership to act.
[*] Harvard Law School, JD ’21.
 U.N. Secretary-General, Secretary-General’s Remarks at General Assembly Ceremony Marking the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations (Sept. 21, 2020) https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2020-09-21/secretary-generals-remarks-general-assembly-ceremony-marking-the-75th-anniversary-of-the-united-nations-bilingual-delivered-scroll-down-for-all-english-and-all-french.
 U.N. Charter Preamble.
 The Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities comprise 2% of Kosovo’s 1.8 million inhabitants. The Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptians, which over the last few decades have rejected the overarching “Roma” label, represent three different communities; however, their differences are complex and multifaceted. For example, the Roma are usually Romani-language speaking and inhabit both Serbian-majority and Albanian-majority areas in Kosovo. Ashkali and Egyptians generally are Albanian-language speakers and usually live in Albanian-majority areas. Some Ashkali are Romani speakers, Egyptians are usually not. While their differences are complex, all three communities are subject to economic marginalization, social exclusion, and discrimination. See Jacqueline Bhabha, Margareta Matache, Carrie Brosther and Bonnie Shnayerson, Post-war Kosovo and its Policies Towards the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian Communities, Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, pp. 8-9 (July 2014) https://cdn1.sph.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/2464/2020/01/FXB-Kosovo-Report-July-2014.pdf; see also Minority Rights Group International, Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptians (March 2018) https://minorityrights.org/minorities/roma-9/.
 See Baskut Tuncak (Special Rapporteur on the Implications for Human Rights of the Environmentally Sound Management and Disposal of Hazardous Substances and Wastes), The Human Right to an Effective Remedy: The Case of Lead-Contaminated Housing in Kosovo, ¶ 72 U.N. Doc. A/HRC/45/CRP.10 (Sept. 4, 2020).
 Kosovo Poisoned by Lead, Human Rights Watch 22 (June 24, 2009), https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/kosovo0609webwcover_1.pdf (noting that “[A]cademic studies during the 1980s and 1990s showed a high concentration of lead in the water, soil, and air in Mitrovica, and discussed the damaging impact on health of the region’s inhabitants.”); N.M. and Others v. UNMIK Case No. 26/08, Opinion, ¶ 44 (Human Rights Advisory Panel Feb. 26, 2016), https://media.unmikonline.org/hrap/Eng/Cases%20Eng/26-08%20NM%20etal%20Opinion%20FINAL%2026feb16.pdf.
 Tuncak, supra note 4, at ¶¶ 12, 71.
 N.M. and Others v. UNMIK at ¶ 69.
 UN Seizes Control of Polluting Smelter in Kosovo, ENS News (Aug. 14, 2000) http://ens-news.com/ens/aug2000/2000-08-14-03.html.
 Lead remains in the environment indefinitely without any abatement efforts, continuing to pose serious health threats even when the original source of pollution no longer exists. See Rob Jordan, Stanford Researchers and Others Reveal Pervasive Health Threats of Unregulated Battery Recycling, Stanford News (Jan. 14, 2021), https://news.stanford.edu/2021/01/14/lead-poisoning-children/.
 N.M. and Others v. UNMIK at ¶ 49; Tuncak, supra note 4, at ¶ 37.
 Human Rights Watch, supra note 5, at 28.
 UN: Compensate Kosovo Lead Poisoning Victims, Human Rights Watch (Sept. 7, 2017), https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/09/07/un-compensate-kosovo-lead-poisoning-victims.
 Centers for Disease and Control Prevention, Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention, (Apr. 5, 2021) https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/prevention/pregnant.htm; World Health Organization, Lead Poisoning and Health (Aug. 23, 2019) https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact sheets/detail/lead-poisoning-and-health; Centers for Disease and Control Prevention, Health Effects of Lead Exposure (Jan. 7, 2020) https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/prevention/health-effects.htm; Human Society for Threatened Peoples, Poisonous Refuge, p. 6 (Mar. 2018) https://www.gfbv.de/fileadmin/redaktion/Reporte_Memoranden/2018/Kosovo_Poisonous-Refuge_Report_STP.pdf.
 Human Rights Watch, supra note 5, at 53; Human Rights Watch, supra note 12.
 Human Rights Watch, supra note 5, at 53; Human Rights Watch, supra note 12; Tuncak, supra note 4, at ¶ 16; Poisonous Refuge, Soc’y For Threatened People 5-6 (Mar. 2018), https://www.gfbv.de/fileadmin/redaktion/Reporte_Memoranden/2018/Kosovo_Poisonous-Refuge_Report_STP.pdf.
 N.M. and Others v. UNMIK at ¶¶ 120-21; see also Human Rights Watch, supra note 5, at 50.
 Human Rights Watch, supra note 12.
 Tuncak, supra note 4, at ¶ 74.
 See Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations (CPIUN) art. 2, § 2; UNMIK Reg. No. 2000/47 (Aug. 18, 2000); UNMIK Regulation No. 1999/1, § 1.1 and 1.2 (July 25, 1999) (providing that the UN vested “all legislative and executive authority with respect to Kosovo, including the administration of the judiciary,” with UNMIK); Better Late Than Never: Enhancing the Accountability of International Institutions in Kosovo, Human Rights Watch 8-11 (June 14, 2007), https://www.hrw.org/report/2007/06/14/better-late-never/enhancing-accountability-international-institutions-kosovo; The Kosovo Human Rights Advisory Panel, Chatham House, 3 (Jan. 26, 2012), https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/public/Research/International%20Law/260112summary.pdf; Alexandros Yannis, The UN as Government in Kosovo, 10 Glob. Governance 67, 69-70 (2004).
 Human Rights Watch, Better Late Than Never, supra note 19.
 UNMIK Regulation No. 2006/12 (Mar. 23, 2006).
 N.M. and Others v. UNMIK Case No. 26/08, Admissibility Decision, ¶ 2 (Human Rights Advisory Panel Mar. 31, 2010), http://www.worldcourts.com/unmik_hrap/eng/decisions/2010.03.31_NM_v_UNMIK.pdf.
 N.M. and Others v. UNMIK, at ¶¶ 99, 107.
 Dianne Post, Lead Poisoning in Kosovo: A Cautionary Tale for Flint, OpEdNews (Feb. 23, 2016), https://www.opednews.com/articles/Lead-Poisoning-in-Kosovo–by-Dianne-Post-Flint-Michigan_Health_International_Law-160223-617.html. While UNMIK had the authority to change the panel’s procedural rules, doing so revealed UNMIK’s unease with HRAP investigating the mission’s alleged human rights violations. See Chatham House, supra note 19, at 5-6.
 Administrative Direction No. 2009/1, Implementing UNMIK Regulation No. 2006/12 on the Establishment of the Human Rights Advisory Panel (Oct. 17, 2009), § 2.1-2.3 (“Any complaint that is or may become in the future the subject of the UN Third Party Claims process or proceedings under section 7 of UNMIK Regulation No. 2000/47 on the Status, Privileges and Immunities of KFOR and UNMIK and their personnel in Kosovo of 18 August 2000, as amended, shall be deemed inadmissible for reasons that the UN Third Party Claims Process and the procedure under section 7 of Regulation No. 2000/47 are available avenues pursuant to Section 3.1 of Regulation No. 2006/12.”).
 UNMIK, Administrative Direction No. 2009/1 at § 2.2, UNMIK/DIR/2009/1 (Oct. 17, 2009).
 Letter from Leigh Day to UN Legal Counsel Patricia O’Brien, November 2011 (on file with author); see also Beatrice Lindstrom, When Immunity becomes Impunity: Rethinking Liabilities for UN Harms, J. of Int’l Peacekeeping 24 (2021) (forthcoming).
 N.M. and Others v. UNMIK, at ¶¶ 16-17.
 Id. at ¶¶ 24-31.
 Id. at ¶¶ 204-09, 272-76, 349.
 Id. at ¶ 255.
 Id. at ¶ 256.
 Id. at ¶ 309.
 Id. at ¶ 349.
 U.N. Secretary-General, Statement Attributable to the Spokesman for the Secretary-General on the Human Rights Advisory Panel’s Recommendations on Kosovo (May 26, 2017), https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2017-05-26/statement-attributable-spokesman-secretary-general-human-rights.
 N.M. and Others v. UNMIK, at ¶ 349.
 U.N. Secretary-General, supra note 35.
 Tuncak, supra note 4, at ¶ 55.
 Id., at ¶ 72.
 Id., at ¶ 51.
 Louis Charbonneau and Katharina Rall, UN Should Reconsider Refusal to Compensate Kosovo’s Victims, Human Rights Watch (June 20, 2017), https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/06/20/un-should-reconsider-refusal-compensate-kosovos-victims#.
 Mona Ali Khalil, Ten Years After the Outbreak of Cholera in Haiti, Justice for the Victims Has Yet to Come, OpinioJuris (Oct. 20, 2020), http://opiniojuris.org/2020/10/20/ten-years-after-the-outbreak-of-cholera-in-haiti-justice-for-the-victims-has-yet-to-come/.
 Press Release, Secretary-General, Secretary-General Apologizes for United Nations Role in Haiti Cholera Epidemic, Urges International Funding of New Response to Disease, U.N. Press Release SG/SM/18323-GA/11862 (Dec. 1, 2016).
 Beatrice Lindstrom and Joey Bui, On the 10th Anniversary of Haiti’s Cholera Outbreak, What Has the UN Learned?, PassBlue (Oct. 30, 2020), https://www.passblue.com/2020/10/30/on-the-10th-anniversary-of-haitis-cholera-outbreak-what-has-the-un-learned/.
 Tuncak, supra note 4, at ¶ 73.
 Id. at ¶ 74.
 Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law arts. I(2)(c), II(3)(b), IX(15), G.A. Res. 60/147, U.N. Doc. A/RES/60/147 (Mar. 21, 2006).
 Pablo de Greiff, Handbook of Reparations 452 (2006).
 U.N. Secretary-General, Secretary-General-Designate António Guterres’ Remarks to the General Assembly on Taking the Oath of Office (Dec. 12, 2016), https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2016-12-12/secretary-general-designate-antónio-guterres-oath-office-speech.