24 April 2020

Guaranteeing Impartiality in Postwar Kosovo

A recent chapter in Everyday Justice: Law, Ethnography, Injustice (Cambridge University Press, November 2019) looks at the modalities for guaranteeing impartiality in a context as politicised as post-war Kosovo. Its author shows how impartiality is embodied in the everyday work of the Kosovo Property Agency – a quasi-judicial institution put in place by the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo to “resolve” war-related property claims – through a dialectic of “global” ideals and “local” practices. Ultimately, it is the “nationalistic bias” of Kosovo Albanian lawyers that ensures due diligence and respect for rule of law principles. Interview with Agathe Mora, Research Associate at the Graduate Institute’s Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding.

What led you to write this book chapter on justice and impartiality in transitional Kosovo?

This book chapter stems from long-term research on post-conflict reconstruction and human rights in post-war Kosovo. The research project on which this chapter is based explored how war-related property restitution worked, from within the international rule of law apparatus. I analyse the ideals and actors that shaped the property restitution mandate and its operation and, more importantly, the tensions, contradictions and paradoxes that inhabited this venture from start to finish. I spent 14 months within the Kosovo Property Agency (KPA), the UN-mandated, quasi-judicial, independent institution tasked to review and adjudicate property claims. I also gained access to the Kosovo Supreme Court and spent several months interviewing parties in Kosovo and Serbia.

In the aftermath of an armed conflict fought along ethnic lines that led to gross mass violations of human rights, an agency staffed mostly by Kosovo Albanians was entrusted to deal with property claims submitted overwhelmingly by Kosovo Serbs. In this chapter, I explore the different ways in which Kosovo Albanian lawyers working for the KPA experience “justice” and how they reconcile strong nationalist resentment against Kosovo Serbs and Serbia with the human rights requirement to act impartially in their everyday work.

What contributions does this article make to existing literature on justice in post-war settings?

As Sandra Brunnegger writes in her introduction to the edited volume, justice, as a category of practice, “needs to be seen as a textured object of analysis; it needs, in other words, to be interrogated, excavated, or exposed, rather than to be used simply as a ready-made instrument of analysis or measure to be eventually worn out”. Here, human rights as the institutional, normative narrative of procedural justice seems in direct contradiction with the nationalistic repertoire of justice so boldly embodied by Kosovo Albanian lawyers at the KPA. The ethnographic material presented in the chapter shows that, in fact, they re-enforce one another and are both key to achieving (subjective) impartiality.

Based on your findings and observations in this book chapter, what are some of the future avenues of anthropological research on “global” and “local” repertoires of justice and their interactions?

Encounters between “local” practice and “global” rule are generally analysed in anthropology in terms of vernacularisation, whereby the “global” is incorporated into, and given meaning by and in, the “local”. In order to make sense of how Kosovo Albanian lawyers deal with these contradictory and seemingly irreconcilable institutional and personal notions of (in)justice, I probe the tenets of the dialectic between “global” ideals and “local” practice, and ethnographically demonstrate the limits of an anthropology of human rights that sees vernacularisation and meaning-making as the only analytical tools available. I argue that it is a sense of distance from the “local” that gives human rights their social and political force. At the same time, it is precisely because the national lawyers are so deeply rooted in the “local” context that they are able to simultaneously uphold ideals of procedural justice enshrined in international law and a personal sense of distributive justice stemming from nationalistic sentiments, and therefore to act impartially.

How was your experience as a research intern at the KPA?

Institutional ethnography and the hands-on methods I was allowed to employ have their advantages and disadvantages. The daily schedule of eight hours in the office I followed for the first six months was extremely useful, especially at the beginning of fieldwork, because it provided me with a clearly demarcated fieldwork site and straightforward research objectives. After some time, I started doing work that could actually be used by other staff members. This went well beyond participant observation as conventionally understood. However, the strictness of the schedule as well as my double role as intern-researcher increased my workload, creating an imbalance between the high level of my participation and the scant time I had left to write about it. After about six months, I thus decided to take some distance from the KPA. The idea was to better balance my institutional involvement with other research commitments, to be freer in my movements and to gain additional perspectives on the practice of property restitution.

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Full citation of Dr. Mora’s book chapter:
Mora, Agathe. “We Don’t Work for the Serbs, We Work for Human Rights.” In Everyday Justice: Law, Ethnography, Injustice, edited by Sandra Brunnegger, 83–105. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Interview conducted by Bugra Güngör, PhD Candidate in International Relations and Political Science; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image: excerpt from an image by Northfoto/