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Kosovo and the Western Balkans Region

Volume 830: debated on Tuesday 6 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the recent unrest in northern Kosovo; and what steps they are taking to support stability, democracy and human rights in (1) Kosovo, and (2) the Western Balkans region.

My Lords, we are working closely with international partners to de-escalate the situation in northern Kosovo and encourage a return to dialogue. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Peach, visited Kosovo on 30 May and met political leaders, the commander of NATO’s KFOR mission and other key actors. The Government use a number of diplomatic, programme and other tools to encourage and support crucial rule of law and human rights reforms across the western Balkans.

I thank my noble friend for his update and pay tribute to NATO soldiers, including our own. The incident which resulted in 30 NATO peace- keepers being injured appears to have been a co-ordinated attack supported and inspired by Belgrade, yet both the United States and the EU seem to have chosen to ignore Belgrade’s hand in this flare-up and have imposed, and threatened to impose, sanctions on Kosovo. It remains unclear what our Government’s position is on this matter. I would be grateful if my noble friend could clarify it.

I would also welcome a swift increase in the number of NATO troops in Kosovo. However, I am deeply concerned that right now in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the threat of Kremlin-backed secession is real, our ability to deter any such act is wholly inadequate. What consideration has been given to increasing our contribution to NATO HQ in Sarajevo or to Operation Althea?

My Lords, I believe I speak for the whole House when I join my noble friend in paying tribute to the incredible work done across the world by both NATO troops and those deployed through key missions. The situation in Kosovo is of course very alarming, although the latest report I have is that it is calmer. There is direct engagement by our key partners; we are working closely with the EU and the United States in this respect. Their representatives are on the ground speaking to both sides. We have also called for a four-step de-escalation.

Both sides have a role to play. Kosovo should perhaps now enable its mayors to work from locations outside municipal offices until such time as these issues can be resolved. Importantly, Serbia needs to reverse its decision to raise the level of readiness of its armed forces. The read-across to Bosnia-Herzegovina is very clear. Of course, I know that my noble friend engages consistently and extensively in that area. The UK fully supports EUFOR and KFOR in Kosovo; my right honourable friend the Minister for Armed Forces recently announced our continuing commitment to KFOR in Kosovo.

My Lords, one recommendation from the inquiry into the western Balkans by the International Relations Committee was that the UK should actively help to preserve the large amount of evidence held by EULEX on conflict-related sexual violence in Kosovo. Witnesses suggested that it would be better safeguarded by the UN, or its loss would feed the continuing culture of impunity. Can the Minister say what has happened to safeguard this evidence and, in the current circumstances, what is being done to prevent further conflict crimes of sexual violence?

My Lords, as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, I assure the noble Baroness that we have taken these measures seriously. Some of the initiatives that we have taken, such as the introduction of the Murad code, do exactly that—protecting and sustaining the testimonies of those who suffer the most extreme violations to allow for successful prosecutions to take place. I myself have visited Kosovo twice, once in 2018—indeed, with my noble friend Lady Helic—and, subsequently, in 2019. We are engaging on the ground. The current situation is calm, but we want to ensure that there are no violations, and none that lead to the kind of crimes that we have seen in the past.

Does the Minister agree that President Vučić is riding two horses simultaneously? On the one hand, he is trying to move closer to the European Union; on the other, he is following the traditional Serbian warmth in relations with Moscow. Does he see any hand of Moscow in the current disturbances?

My Lords, one thing is very clear in Kosovo and, as my noble friend said, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. When you visit on the ground, as I did last year in Sarajevo, you can feel and see the growing assertiveness of Russian influence in these key areas, which is very much in evidence. While we call for Russia to respect the sovereignty of these key nations, it is evident that those leading some of the Serb causes, such as Mr Dodik in the so-called Republika Srpska, are becoming ever more assertive. That is why the United Kingdom took steps to sanction such individuals.

My Lords, the replenishment of KFOR is regrettably necessary, and I welcome the fact that the UK has announced that it is going to replenish the 80 personnel there. I commend the Minister on his commitment to peacekeeping forces, as demonstrated just before Recess at the event where he, I and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, met peacekeepers of the UK contributions. Just two years ago, the contribution from the UK was over 400 personnel but, according to the UN Association, the UK is now 50th in the world for our contribution to global peacekeeping forces. Will he please tell his colleagues in the MoD that now is the time to increase the number of UK personnel able to be deployed for peacekeeping forces around the world?

My Lords, we take considered decisions on the deployment of UK forces for international missions in terms of our support for both NATO and the United Nations. I am proud of the fact that we have consistently been strong supporters of troop-contributing countries in the UN system—we are one of the largest contributors. We have troops who serve through various UN mandates as well. We look at the particular mandate to see what is required. The other thing to note is the strong technical and training support that the MoD and UK troops provide to many nations across the world, which is very much valued.

My Lords, I declare my interest as the Prime Minister’s special envoy to the western Balkans. I very much support the Minister. As a frequent visitor to the region, I assure noble Lords that the United Kingdom’s role there is appreciated; we just do not always advertise it on Twitter.

We should thank our allies in NATO for keeping the peace for over 20 years. The quality of our contribution remains important. It is critical now to stop the violence and to de-escalate. We continue to support normalisation between Kosovo and Serbia, which takes many forms, and again we call for the Kosovo Serbs to be readmitted into security structures, particularly the police.

We must break the cycle of violence in the Balkans. We need to be alert, as a noble Lord has said, to the risk posed by Russia, exploiting the region as a second front through warfare by other means.

My Lords, there is little that I can add to the words of the noble and gallant Lord apart from thanking him for the incredible role that he plays on the ground. I believe that he has made four visits in the recent past to Kosovo. I agree with him that the United Kingdom has stood side by side with Kosovo as it seeks to find its place in the international world, and we continue to campaign for its global recognition as an independent nation. However, I also agree that we must ensure that what happened in the past is not repeated.

My Lords, I welcome the FCDO’s role with France, Germany and Italy last week in their joint statement. The Minister referred to the EU-facilitated dialogue to normalise relationships. Can he tell us a bit more about how the UK is directly involved in supporting that dialogue? How closely are we working to ensure that it achieves its objective?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that the current engagement is live; it has been taking place yesterday and today, and I will update the House on certain outcomes. We are working closely with both our US and EU partners in this respect, and recently my right honourable friend the Prime Minister attended the meeting of the EPC, where there was engagement on this important issue.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the recent decision by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe to accept the recommendation of the Parliamentary Assembly that Kosovo should join the Council of Europe is a step forward to developing Kosovo as a free, independent and democratic country?

My Lords, following on from the question from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, does the Minister not think that the election issue is the critical one? If we still have any influence outside the EU, we should bring the two Prime Ministers together to discuss those elections and make sure they happen.

My Lords, I assure the noble Earl that our influence with our EU partners and other partners, across Europe and beyond, is substantial. Recently, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and I engaged directly at the Council of Europe meeting. I was also at a recent meeting of the EU with Indo-Pacific nations, where we discussed co-ordination and strategy. Equally, I agree with the noble Earl on this issue; we are using our convening powers with key partners to ensure that both sides meet. We need inclusive elections. The conditionalities being set by the Kosovan Serbs are in some cases unrealistic, but inclusive elections are needed so that all people of Kosovo, irrespective of their background, culture or community, can be represented effectively.