Ambassador Kosnett’s Speech on Justice at Levizje Fol

Ambassador Kosnett’s Speech on Justice at Levizje Fol,  April 25, 2019

Thank you for that introduction, Elbasan, and thank you for the invitation to speak at Levizje Fol. It is a privilege to be here, as a representative of Kosovo’s closest partner, to offer my thoughts on a topic that is vital to Kosovo’s future: how institutions and individual citizens can work together to strengthen the rule of law and make Kosovo a more just society.

First, let’s define the terms.  We often talk about “rule of law” in Kosovo, and I think the dictionary definition is pretty clear: the principle that all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to law that is fairly applied and enforced.

In democracies like the U.S. and Kosovo, writing, interpreting, and enforcing the law is the formal responsibility of the government’s three branches: the legislative, judicial, and executive departments.  But it is also the responsibility of citizens to participate in ensuring that—I will say it again—all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to law that is fairly applied and enforced.

The great American Senator and Attorney General Robert Kennedy said this—more poetically—half a century ago:

“The glory of justice and the majesty of law are created not just by the Constitution – nor by the courts – nor by the officers of the law – nor by the lawyers – but by the men and women who constitute our society – who are the protectors of the law as they are themselves protected by the law.”

But I submit to you that following the law is only one element of justice.  OK, what do I mean by justice?  Try Googling the word, as I did while writing this speech, and you’ll find some vague and unhelpful definitions.  For example:  “Justice is the quality of being just.”

So “justice” is hard to define.  But having lived in many countries, I’ve come to realize that attitudes about justice often deeply reflect history and culture.

In some places, history and culture dictate an emphasis on strict administration of written laws—written by a legislature or perhaps derived from religious texts—to ensure fairness and impartiality.  Citizens are expected to accept a court ruling, even if it negatively affects them.

In other places, people view the law more as a general guideline, but if a court rules against them, they are quick to dismiss the decision and assert their own definition of fairness.  This is frequently true where a minority group believes—perhaps with good reason—that their government does not offer them equal protection under the law, or even that laws were written specifically to disenfranchise them and deny them equal justice.   And in some places, people are raised with the idea that providing opportunities for family or friends is more important than any responsibility to an abstract law or to society as a whole.  I will come back to this point.

This would be a good place for me to say that the United States, a much older republic than Kosovo, is still struggling to build a society where all citizens and residents can be confident of equal protection under the law.  The Constitution and our laws ensure equal protection and promote equal opportunity—the “Pursuit of Happiness”—without regard to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. But we argue energetically, in and out of court, about whether this is true in practice and how to balance competing interests.

So I don’t want to give you the impression that building a just society is easy, or that the United States has all the answers.  But we understand the importance of the goal of equality under the law, and we keep fighting to make it a reality.

Let’s talk about Kosovo.  I submit that an expansive view of justice—a concept that includes equal rights and opportunities, equal protection under the law, and confidence that government officials will be held accountable to the people—would create hope for Kosovo’s youth and confidence among Kosovo’s partners.  This view of justice expands benefits to all of society.

What are the benefits of living in a just society with equality for all?

I believe that a just society is a more peaceful society, not without disagreement, but with established, non-violent means for working out differences among groups, and between citizens and government.  In a just society, people feel that justice has been served when they understand how decisions are made, even if they don’t agree with the result.

Finally, a just society is the foundation of a peaceful, prosperous society.  A society in turmoil—a society without the predictability that rule of law brings—is a less attractive place for entrepreneurship and job creation.

First, the good news. As Kosovo enters its second decade of independence, it has capable institutions and sound laws, stemming from its constitution.

Citizens have more access to information on government decision-making than ever before.  Kosovo is impressing the world as a regional leader in public procurement transparency and victim compensation. And in a trail-blazing move, Kosovo passed comprehensive whistleblower legislation before the European Union.   Kosovo’s citizens have much to be proud of on this front.

But you have a lot of work to do as well.  What are the challenges facing Kosovo with regard to the practice—and not the theory—of justice?  And how can Kosovo’s institutions and citizens strengthen both the formal rule of law and the country’s informal commitment to justice?

Let me give you several examples to illustrate what I mean:  specifically, an example where the government is willfully ignoring the law; an example where the law itself may need to be re-examined; and finally an example where the government may have acted legally but not justly.  Then, to give praise where due, I’ll talk about a government agency doing justice right.

Let’s examine the Decani Monastery land case.  The constitutional court, which bases decisions on Kosovo’s constitution, confirmed the Orthodox Church’s ownership of several parcels of land.  But local and central-level cadastral officials refused to implement the decision, with the tacit support of senior officials.

A month from now, we will mark the three-year anniversary of the Constitutional Court’s ruling, with zero progress on its implementation.  And while some of you may not think issues faced by the Serbian Orthodox Church are your concern, if you believe in equality and in a justice system that works for all citizens, you should pay attention to this case. When it comes time for you to rely on a court decision, will you be able to, when the government ignores some rulings and enforces others?

Justice—the kind that protects all citizens equally—requires consistency and predictability, and respecting and implementing court decisions is an obligation of government agencies.  Where rule of law is respected, court decisions are not open to negotiation or personal interpretation.

Let’s move to an example of legislation that was written with good intentions, but has been hampered by politics: the amendment to the 2014 Law on the Status and Rights of the Martyrs, Invalids, Veterans, Members of KLA, and Civilian Victims, which gave official status to survivors of wartime sexual violence.   With the support of leaders like former president Atifete Jahjaga and Dr. Feride Rushiti, and through the courageous testimony of Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman and others, survivors are beginning to come forward, 20 years after the fighting.  And they deserve immense credit for having turned an important idea into legislation.  But this amendment is attached to an existing statute which withholds status from those who were affected after June 1999.

Organizations that work with survivors made all this clear at the time the legislation was passed.  But did the Assembly members who wrote and voted for this law hear from the people most affected or from experts in this field?  Can the Assembly be persuaded to modify the law so it serves all victims? And similarly, will the Assembly extend the social and financial benefits of real and imagined KLA veterans—whose numbers have grown suspiciously high—to the survivors of sexual violence?

Then there is the politicized appointment of unqualified leadership to the Kosovo Property Comparison and Verification Agency. Appointing an unqualified individual who is not trusted by all communities to enforce the law equally, as the Assembly did in this instance, demonstrates an unwillingness to uphold the values of freedom and equality on which this country was founded.

And let’s be honest: there are many reports in Kosovo of people who are given jobs or government appointments, who are not the most qualified candidate but who are connected to influential people.

I know some cultures believe providing opportunities for family or friends is more important than an abstract goal like equal opportunity.  A recent poll noted that only about 20 percent of respondents believe that merit is the key to opportunity in Kosovo.  This is not the path to prosperity.

Let me balance these examples with a more positive one.  At the Ministry of Local Governance, courageous civil servants have committed to hiring practices based on experience and qualifications rather than political connections. I say these civil servants are courageous because their commitment to rule of law has invited intense political pressure and even attempts to intimidate them.  Yet the transparency and accountability of their hiring practices are precisely the reason donors increased their support, making even more resources available for municipal grants.

This respect for rule of law is directly benefitting many citizens in many municipalities, rather than a handful of powerful, wealthy politicians in Pristina.  This illustrates the broad concept of justice I am outlining: one that favors the rights of all citizens over the narrow interests of a privileged few. One where the government—at both national and municipal levels—acts after the Assembly passes laws, to ensure the laws are actually implemented, fairly and in full.

By embracing justice based on equal rights and opportunities, rule of law, and accountability for all of Kosovo’s citizens, you can ensure Kosovo achieves a brighter future. A future in which people succeed based on merit and talent. A future in which all citizens—women, non-majority groups, members of the LGBTI community, and people with disabilities—enjoy equal opportunity.  A future in which no person is above the law, and no person fails to receive the protections of the law.

I believe Kosovo’s international partners have a constructive role to play in shining the spotlight on violations of justice as well as positive steps, as the U.S. Government and others have been doing for some time.  We will continue to do this.  Expect to hear more soon about ways we can help ensure that those who engage in corruption or organized crime experience consequences for their corrupt behavior.  But the primary responsibility for ensuring justice in Kosovo must lie with the people of Kosovo, acting both individually and collectively.

Let’s turn to civil society organizations, like those represented here today, that are making progress as watchdogs and advocates for Kosovo’s citizens.  However, for all the progress you’ve made, there’s more you could do to multiply the impact of your efforts through coordination and mutual support.

For example, it was a civil society group—an inter-ethnic youth organization—that alerted us to the politicized appointment of unqualified leadership to the Property Verification Agency I mentioned earlier.  But once the American Embassy and other international observers spoke publicly against the hiring, why weren’t civil society organizations amplifying the concerns of these youth?

And where was the media in this case?  Its role is crucial in any democracy, and it can be a powerful ally to civil society organizations.  Journalists have a vital role to play in ensuring justice for all of Kosovo’s citizens.  To do so, they need to be protected from undue pressure or threats.  Honest journalism doesn’t mean making up stories or spreading wild rumors to sell papers or collect clicks: it means courageously exposing corruption, revealing discrimination, uncovering inequality, and demanding accountability.  It means covering stories that will help majority communities understand issues faced by minority and other vulnerable groups.  The media plays a role in ensuring that those who are unaffected by injustice are as outraged as those who are affected.

Finally—and here I have saved the most important point for last—every individual citizen has a role to play in upholding the rule of law.

Expect more from your elected officials.  The establishment of democracy in Kosovo was a tremendous achievement; don’t take it for granted.  Vote. Write. Speak out.  Demonstrate peacefully.

Expect politicians, police, prosecutors, and judges to meet their responsibilities of providing justice fairly, equally, and with honor.

Engage in formal legal processes, even if it takes more time and effort.  Invest in justice institutions and hold them accountable to ensure that they live up to the ideals enshrined in Kosovo’s constitution, the bedrock of your rich and multi-ethnic society.

Finally, expect more from your fellow citizens in building a just society.

I thank you for your attention, and look forward to a frank and open discussion of these issues.  Permit me to close with one more quotation from an American hero, Martin Luther King:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”