Opening Remarks at the OSCE Judicial Conference, December 5, 2015

Madam President, Minister Kuci, Judges, Prosecutors, Diplomatic Colleagues, Honored Guests,

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.  I applaud the OSCE for supporting this event for the last five years and for their dedicated effort to improving rule of law in Kosovo.  I think it is extremely important to have annual conferences like this for judges.  In the United States, almost every State and Federal Court sets aside time each year to meet as a group, discuss the issues facing the judiciary, and plan for the coming year.  I hope you take this opportunity to share your thoughts candidly with your peers today.

Most of you know by now, one of the main objectives that I have as Ambassador is to help strengthen the rule of law in Kosovo.  This requires supporting the development of Kosovo’s rule of law institutions and helping the country fight corruption.  Fighting corruption and strengthening the rule of law continue to be serious challenges, and the judiciary has been a focal point of criticism for several years.  Right now, public perception is particularly negative.  In fact, according to a UNDP survey last spring, the satisfaction level with the judiciary is lower than with all of Kosovo’s other institutions.  Whether watching the Assembly in 2015 or demonstrators outside the EULEX headquarters in 2009, people inside and outside Kosovo had difficulty understanding how criminal acts that are openly committed and caught on television remained unpunished.

The same UNDP study concluded that corruption remains one of the top three most important problems for Kosovo’s people, and 43% of the respondents to the survey believed the courts suffer from large-scale corruption.

The number one concern of citizens was of course unemployment.  But the judiciary’s role in dealing with this issue is almost as important as its role in combatting corruption.  Kosovo’s unemployed will not find work until investors build businesses in this country.  This will not happen until the businesses are reasonably certain that their investments will be protected by the rule of law, by a robust judiciary, and by an operating environment largely free of corruption.

Numerous national and local officials here have told me it is not just foreign investors who are reluctant to invest due to corruption, but Kosovars residing here and abroad as well.

Now, I know my message so far has been tough.  I did not come here to criticize you or your chosen profession.  The vast majority of judges do a capable job.  But it’s hard to tackle a problem unless you recognize just how big it is.

The UNDP statistics about public perceptions are disturbing, but they should not leave us hopeless.  First, they reflect the importance of the courts and judges to the entire rule of law system.  As judges, your role is crucial.  You are instrumental in ensuring that the citizens of Kosovo receive fair and impartial justice.  Both collectively and individually you are capable of taking the steps needed to improve accountability and change those public perceptions.  You are capable of ensuring that the rule of law is implemented and businesses feel protected in Kosovo.

The United States has been a strong supporter of rule of law in Kosovo, and over the next year we will donate over $12 million in development aid and expertise focused on this issue.  Today, I am pleased to announce the next phase of our cooperation — a new USAID program called the “Justice Sector Strengthening Project.” This just-awarded, $9.3 million program will focus on enhancing accountability, transparency, and efficiency in the justice system.  It will also support the important work needed to integrate Kosovo’s judicial structures under the Brussels agreement.

We look forward to continuing our work with Kosovo’s judicial institutions, such as the Kosovo Judicial Council and the Ministry of Justice, so that the people of Kosovo can have increased confidence in their judicial system.  My Embassy and I stand ready to help you as you work to strengthen the judiciary and fight corruption.

I would like to turn for a moment to another of Kosovo’s vital institutions:  the Assembly.  Over the last two months, we have all watched events unfold at the Assembly where one group of members of parliament has chosen to substitute teargas and pepper spray for discussion and debate.  My Embassy and Kosovo’s other international partners have been vocal in our view that the floor of the Assembly, the very cradle of democracy, is no place for weapons and violence.  These actions damage Kosovo’s international reputation and the rights of its citizens.  Let me be clear, members of parliament have every right, and indeed obligation, to be the voice of those that they represent in the Assembly.  But they have the same responsibility to respect the law as every other citizen of Kosovo.  A legal system that carves out exceptions for those in power is doomed to failure.

I say all of this to you because in the coming weeks, some of you may be handling the cases that result from these actions.  These will not be easy cases, because you may be subject to immense political pressure and public scrutiny.  But the judiciary must be completely independent of all political influence including mine.  I hope you use this opportunity to show the people of Kosovo that Kosovo’s judiciary is up to the task – that it will not succumb to outside influence, but will be a model of transparency, accountability, and independence in accordance with Kosovo’s constitution and laws.

In closing I want to leave you with a quote from US President Theodore Roosevelt who said: “No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man’s permission when we ask him to obey it.  Obedience to the law is demanded as a right, not asked as a favor.”

You have some of the most important jobs in Kosovo.  The future of your country is truly in your hands.  I wish you all the best in the coming year.

Thank you.