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Gun Battle Exposes Splits in UN Police
The recent shootout at a United Nations detention centre in Kosovo between members of the UN’s multi-national police force has stirred a debate on the mission’s capacity to keep the peace in the territory, one month after severe ethnic riots claimed 19 lives.
The April 17 incident, in the divided town of Mitrovica, centred on a Jordanian officer from a Special Police Unit, SPU, who opened fire on vehicles carrying mostly American UN officers. The shooting claimed the lives of two American women officers and injured 11. A third US officer wounded in the shootout later died in hospital.
International police officials have been quick to maintain that the gun battle was an isolated incident and would not derail their overall strategy.
“The international police and the KPS [the local Kosovo police force] will continue to maintain the rule of law in Kosovo,” said Kosovo police chief Stephan Feller.
Notwithstanding this reassuring claim, the shootout has raised questions about whether the UN’s multi-national police force needs restructuring if it is to guarantee the safety of Kosovo’s ethnically divided population.
Alex Anderson, Kosovo director of the Brussels based think-tank, the International Crisis Group, says the March riots had already revealed dangerous cracks within the force.
“During the riots in March, it became clear that the UN police force was not cohesive in a crisis and was without a strong sense of identity,” said Anderson, adding that the force lacked a sense of “shared values”.
That the international police force has shown signs of cracking under pressure crisis is not surprising, considering its heterogeneous command structure and the wide variety of countries from which it recruits members.
Officers serving in Kosovo come from more than 40 states, some with questionable human rights records and others with poor traditions of policing.
To complicate the situation, some countries participating in Kosovo’s UN police force are locked in territorial disputes with each other, such as India and Pakistan, while others have historically bad relations, such as Greece and Turkey.
Local critics of the UN police complain that political pressure from UN member states, demanding inclusion in lucrative international police missions, takes precedent over an honest judgment of the policing abilities of some of these countries.
“All 3,500 internationals currently in the UN police force have their respective cultural reference points,” said Anderson, adding that these can be difficult to abandon when different policing standards are in play.
UN police spokesperson Neeraj Singh said the force was still awaiting the results of its investigation into the Mitrovica shootout and no reforms could be expected until they had examined the assessment.
“If it turns out that the attack was politically organised, only then will measures be put in place to address ethnic or national differences within the police force,” he said.
Kosovars who have worked with the UN force say animosity between the different police units is not a secret.
“This ‘marmalade’ of police from different countries is an experiment to see how to integrate a police system,” former UN police translator Samir Potera said.
“I have noticed a feeling of inferiority among the police who come from developing countries. I definitely felt this from Jordanian officers.”
Potera said he had also noticed strong anti-American sentiments among some of the officers he worked with during his 18 months as a police translator. This was strongest among those from what he called near eastern countries.
Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority, on the other hand, see Americans as liberators – a legacy of the role played by former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright and former president Bill Clinton, in leading the NATO air war that terminated Serbian rule in Kosovo in 1999.
Pro-American signs are woven into the fabric of daily life in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. A huge poster of a waving Bill Clinton overlooks the university campus. A main thoroughfare has been renamed after Clinton, while a copy of the Statue of Liberty crowns one of the city’s biggest hotels on the route to the Macedonian capital Skopje.
Local analysts say Albanians in Kosovo perceive any attacks on the US police presence as undermining the force as a whole.
Blerim Shala, editor of the Kosovo weekly, Zeri, says the April 17 shootout was another wake-up call for the UN following the March 17 riots – and proved “once again what has been known for a month now: the UN police system must undergo essential changes”.
What those changes should be is less clear however, both for the Kosovars and international authorities in Kosovo.
Loath to open up a public discussion about which nations the Kosovars favour for policing, the UN here is staying tight-lipped about potential shake-ups within the force.
At a joint UN press conference one day before the funeral for the murdered American officers, US, Jordanian, Turkish and Austrian unit commanders issued a joint statement, pledging that the tragedy would not affect their cooperation.
The display of solidarity is not likely to quieten the discussion, however. In Belgrade, the Serbian government has insisted that the shootout was more proof of the lack of security surrounding Kosovo’s 80,000 or so remaining Serbs, who were the targets of last month’s ethnic violence.
At the same time, Oliver Ivanovic, leader of the local Kosovo Serb Povratak Coalition and a member of the Kosovo parliament’s presidency, has echoed this criticism.
“The event shows a weakness in the local policing structure,” he said. “The reality is that reflections of events occurring in places like the Middle East can be felt here. I know the officers are professional, but they’re human.”
Surprisingly, the need to reassess the UN police structure is one of the very few points that both Albanians and Serbs have no serious disagreements about.
Jackson Allers is an American journalist recently based in Kosovo.
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