A decision by the Council of Europe that turned the world of justice upside down

Full remarks by the Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, at the Assembly of the Council of Europe

Honourable Council of Europe, distinguished members of the Parliamentary Assembly,

I am very grateful for the opportunity to address this Assembly today on a crucial matter of truth and justice that calls upon us to reflect and act together. 

I represent Albania but it is not primarily about Albania that I am here to speak. Although the subject of the concern I want to share with you is linked to Albania like the soul to its body. Yet it is worth beginning with Albania since what I am about to say bears on the question of the relationships of a country with its past and what impact that may have for its development in the future. It also bears on the relationship between states in the Balkans and beyond and what role Europe and European institutions play in how we develop these relations.

Turning a history of conflict into one of co-operation requires not only courage from leaders, goodwill among citizens and trust between states but also shared faith in international institutions. Indeed, our relationship with each other is mediated by our relationship with European institutions. If such institutions fail to secure justice, the loss to all of us is as great as the harm caused to the single victims of their errors. The damage goes far beyond the sum of individual tragedies. It is damage to our whole community of people and nations, a blow to all our efforts to turn a dark page in our history so as to write a bright new one. If institutions fail, the blow could be fatal.

War is, for you, a distant memory. For us, it is a wound that still burns while struggling to heal. And yet despite our different experiences with war, under the large umbrella of this institution, which defines itself as the continent’s leading human rights organisation, historical memory cannot be taken lightly. Facts should never be undermined by power games and resolutions should always withstand the test of the future.

In the last decades, as you know, international institutions have been an essential factor in mediating conflicts in the Balkans. Like all other states in the region, Albania continues to build the future while struggling with the legacy of the past to develop democratic institutions while still being haunted by spectres of authoritarianism. It continues to construct solid relations with its neighbours including Serbia, who not too long ago was considered a mortal enemy but is now an important partner in our strategic Open Balkan initiative. It may be difficult to explain to those who approach our region for the first time why Europe, for us, is more than an institutional project: it is an existential one. History has never before been kind to us. We were never able to choose where we belonged. It was decided on our behalf. It was decided by empires, regimes and ideologies that kept us locked away from Europe in a country that called itself the “anti-imperialist lighthouse of the world” but who was in fact a dark hole at Europe’s heart.

It was only three decades ago that we could freely change the course of our destiny and turn our gaze towards Europe’s horizon. The faith of Albania and its European destiny is our anchor to the future. No matter what storms or fogs Europe encounters, Albanians, as a whole, cannot but imagine sharing the journey even if it turns out to be a tumultuous one. This is why we continue to inculcate hope in younger generations knowing that the harder a crisis like the current one hits all Europe, the easier it is for the forces of fear to threaten the sources of hope.

Yet, it is especially in moments like these when the future is once more at the mercy of the past and narrow-minded politicians are ready to exploit the past to assuage their citizens’ fear of the future, that questions of truth and justice return to the fore. It is in moments like this that faith in transnational institutions needs to be restored and strengthened. It is in moments like this that small states must not be abandoned so that big states are not threatened by the cumulative results of their resentment. In these three long decades, if we have been taught anything, it is that democracy is always a construction project, never a finished building. Nothing we achieve is ever complete, nor is it irreversible. Nothing proves this point better than Russia’s current aggression of Ukraine and the war that followed in Europe only a few hours from here. That country is once more haunted by its past and it is yet another vivid memory to those of us still haunted by their past of how easily history can be manipulated and exploited by dark forces. 

In the Balkans, we are painfully aware of this. Our new Open Balkans initiative is an attempt to realise in-house the aspirations and the objectives of the stilted building process without delays, without hesitation, in a way that reflects our own will and determination. It is an attempt to put the ideas of European integration in disposal of peace and co-operation through the freedom of movement of people, goods, capital and services; through culture, arts and crafts; through joint political initiatives and joint forces on the face of crises bigger than us, through concrete outcomes that can show our citizens how meaningless it is to cling onto the ghosts of the past.

In a world of increasingly porous borders, this is how we want to see the Balkans: no longer a powder keg of Europe but the model of peaceful co-existence, no longer a hostage of the past but an example of how to build a shared future. And yet, how we engage with the past is crucial for all this to be possible. The past is not a slate that one can wipe clean. How we evoke the past, what stories we tell, what truths we choose to uphold, how we think of who we are and how others perceive us matters not just to keep a record of ourselves but to know how to engage with the world, what to follow, who to be friends with and who to believe.

And this is where I come to the main question I want to raise with you today and why it matters not simply for those directly affected but for all of us, for our citizens’ ability to retain faith in politics, in lasting peace and in the transnational institutions. Ladies and gentlemen, there are nations in the history of the world who live their entire collective lives courageously defending their freedom surrounded by violence, lies and the hypocrisy of an international community that stands by watching as they are tortured into submission. They hope to resist for as long as they can and for the world to find the conscious, such as the Ukrainian nation now, and such as the nation of Kosovo a few decades ago. You will no doubt have noticed how eager the current Kremlin tenant is to construct parallels between Crimea and Kosovo. It is far from a stupid effort, although the evidence does not stand up to speculation. There is no parallel between Kosovo and Crimea although there is one between Kosovo and Ukraine. And by the way would it not be wonderful if you here, in this great Council, started by teaching also the other institutional bodies of international politics to spell and write Kosovo by its real and official name: “Kosova” not “Kosovo”. The Republic of Ko-so-va. It is never late to do things right and going back to analogies there is an even stronger analogy between the tsar that sits in the Kremlin throne in our days and the butcher that used to occupy Serbia’s Commander in Chief position during the war in Kosovo. There are two nations with a right to live freely in their lands with their language, their history, their culture, haunted by the same demons of the past disguised as special military operations. And there are two desperate tyrants: one dead and the other one playing with death, clinging to visions of past grandeur to manipulate their own citizens into deadly submission. 

I will spare you the history lesson. After all, the kind of history we are evoking here is hardly history. It is every European’s living memory. You all remember the devastating impact of the dissolution of Yugoslavia at the end of the Cold War. You all remember how the Western Balkans – the poorest and the most explosive corner of Europe – was struggling between life and death. You all remember how decades of tension within a region deeply divided by ethnicity, religion and ideologies culminated in the birth of seven independent countries. And you all remember the ensuing fragile peace process. A process that as recent events in Ukraine continue to teach us every day, will be foolish to take for granted.

I will concentrate my remarks on only one aspect of this human tragedy: the last chapter in the break-up of Yugoslavia – the humanitarian conflict in Kosovo. Decades of severe, widespread and well-documented repression, an intentional barbaric military operation of ethnic cleansing conducted by Slobodan Milošević resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced, half a million only in little Albania. Thousands died. Some 20 000 women were raped and these are official data from international organisations. And as we speak, some 1600 people are still missing. The living are still searching for their loved ones. The dead have not yet found the peace of the grave. It all escalated for decades under the nose of the international community. It took years of repression and deprivations for the world to find moral principles and to act on their behalf. But it happened, thank God, it happened in 1999. Kosovo’s last scream of despair could no longer be ignored. Its battle for survival aroused the world’s compassion and its biblical human waves escaping butchery triggered the democratic world’s firm reaction. The international community took responsibility and came to its assistance. The first-ever full-fledged military intervention of NATO on European soil recognised the struggle of Kosovo’s Liberation Army which resulted in the independence of the country a few years later. Justice was achieved, dignity was restored, reconciliation could start or at least so it seemed.

War is an ugly affair. It is in the nature of war that one pre-supposes the symmetry of combatants and assumes the harms committed by both sides. But the war in Kosovo was no ordinary war. It was the bloody showdown of an ultra-nationalist dictatorship in the womb of Europe. It was a democratic West conscience rally. It was a desperate call from the centre of Europe to redeem the integrity of the international community after decades of ignoring the plight of millions of civilians around the world. And the West rose to the challenge. The international community found its conscience. Europe found its moral compass and yet not too long after that compass was lost. It was lost in this very building. Those very same international institutions that ended the war in Yugoslavia and gave Kosovo the right to freedom, peace and dignity undermined their very own actions and their very own principles. They ended up not only questioning the motives and integrity of Kosovo’s liberation struggle but assuming through their actions that they had never had any. How could this happen? I will spare you any interesting speculations. Here are the facts.

Less than a decade after NATO’s intervention in 2008, Carla Del Ponte, a former Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, published the memoir entitled Madame Prosecutor. In that book, Del Ponte claimed that heinous crimes had been committed by the leadership of the Kosovo Liberation Army, including, first and foremost, human organ trafficking. The book – naturally – sent shock waves throughout the world and this allegation occupied front pages from Europe to Australia, despite the fact that the allegations were vehemently denied in Kosovo. The most mysterious question of all was what prevented a powerful prosecutor, working with a very strong mandate given by the Security Council of the United Nations, to inquire further. Her investigations of the matter including in Albania in 2004 were inconclusive, to say the least. How did the allegations persist? Again, I will not engage in speculations on the answers but the questions raised in Del Ponte’s memoir – guess what – were interesting enough to draw the attention of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s man, here in the Council of Europe. It was one such man, namely Mr Konstantin KOSACHEV, as head of the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, who in 2008, tabled a motion for all of your predecessors. Listen to the title: “Inhuman treatment of people and illicit trafficking in human organs in Kosovo”. This is what the occupiers called it: “Kosovo”. Mr KOSACHEV himself, an MP representing United Russia – Putin’s party for those who do not know – was subsequently sanctioned by the United States and the EU. Of course, not for very decent jobs but while the man fell from grace, his work persisted through the Council of Europe. Not only did it persist but it was elevated. His motion was picked up by this honourable body which blessed the team to prepare reports who claimed to conduct independent research in the region between 2008 and 2010 on behalf of this very body, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Serbian diplomats later bragged about how such reports were largely based on files supplied by the Serbian war crimes prosecutors but I do not want to speculate on this any further. What matters here is that the report mentioned – by name – high-ranking members of the Kosovo Liberation Army and accused them of committing horrific crimes including organ trafficking during and after the war in 1998–1999. And why the report did not produce then or at any point later, by the way, just for you to know, the Albanian delegation here presented did not obstruct and although without any evidence, its author claims to have obtained it was adopted in its entirety and verbatim by a resolution of this Assembly in January 2011. I am here today in 2022 and there is a reason for that. Not because I and us in Albania discovered today that this was the most horrendous fake news ever spread through the hands, the very noble hands, of the Council of Europe but because we waited patiently until we saw the official indictment, which I will come back to later. So I hope you understand the gravity of all this. Let me repeat totally unverified claims of a former Prosecutor General in search for great sales of her book –  we know how it goes with people that leave office and then leave with their memoirs – led to a motion tabled by a United Russia MP, which turned into a Council of Europe report sustained by totally dubious sources, which then turned into a resolution of this Parliamentary Assembly and led to the creation later of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers to judge – to judge – those suspected of human organ trafficking while fighting their liberation war.

One of the most famous novels of Albania but also European literature, The General of the Dead Army by Ismail Kadare tells the story of a representative of the Italian state visiting a village in post-war Albania to search for the bodies of Italian soldiers allegedly killed during the Second World War. In our case, reality exceeds fiction. A representation of one of the most well-respected European institutions, the Council of Europe, visited several sites in remote Albanian villages searching for specialised clinics where human organ extraction is supposed to have taken place. The report placed this particular emphasis on one key – listen to this – medical site: a yellow house in northern Albania where operations were allegedly based. The suspected building – which by the way is not yellow at all, but never mind this is the least offensive of the fantasies – is in fact not a clinic, it is a bare-stone construction of a poor Albanian family. Any of you can visit at any time. It is one of the many in remote areas that are practically the same. The village itself, situated in a very remote area in northern Albania, which was at that time – listen to this – cut off from electricity and running water as well as from paved roads. It is not exactly the ideal location for an operation of such complexity and sophistication as organ removals. So, imagine, sorry for bringing you to this horror imagination but imagine extracting organs without electricity without water and without roads to transport – let alone the specialised machinery and so on and so forth. Indeed, the villagers were questioned and they answered, they never ever, not only saw but either heard, of any such things. But even for their silence, the fantasies that were presented here to all the Parliamentary Assembly governors are written – you can check references to threats.  So the villagers were threatened by the Kosovo Liberation Army, as well as given free payoffs such, and I quote, “free access to alcohol, drugs and prostitutes”. Prostitutes! So prostitutes are brought from I do not know where to that remote village to silence the villagers. Alcohol and drugs are easy because there is an assumption worldwide that Albanians all make use of them. 

This, unfortunately, was not the only place where that report resourced to very damaging stereotypes, in a devastating cocktail that mixes ignorance with arrogance. In ordinary circumstances, the confusion of a tiny traditional poor Albanian village with the red light district of a Western European capital would make one laugh at least at the naivety of the observer. But this is no laughing matter. It is no laughing matter that young people sacrificing their lives to free their country are depicted as members of a dangerous mafia group dealing with organ trafficking. It is no laughing matter that Albanians being Albanians from Albania and Kosovo, are regularly depicted as inferior people with an overdeveloped loyalty to their clan and insufficient respect for civil society and political institutions. It is no laughing matter that the report itself admits that, in crucial cases, investigators had no direct access to their sources. So what were they doing? Gossiping or what? It is no laughing matter that it admits in footnotes – they are very, very interesting footnotes that would have made jealous Franz Kafka and Dostoyevsky, and whoever has had the strong imagination to enter in the depth and dark insides of human nature – that several claims – it says there – could not be corroborated but the claims stay there still. You google, you check, you have it. It is no laughing matter that it emphasises that the investigators were operating under financial constraints and therefore they lacked resources for a proper legal investigation. What are we talking about? It is no laughing matter that throughout the process specialists and diplomats active in the region, called precaution and restraint. They were the same as you, the same as your predecessors sitting here, dignified and honourable representatives of the international community, but they knew more. And it is no laughing matter that Bernard Kouchner who is also a doctor, then special envoy from the UN Secretary-General repeatedly emphasised, “Please! Please, please stop with that. These claims are highly dubious.” Nevertheless, the phantasmatic yellow house made its way here to capture not only the imagination but also the rules of procedure and even a voting session. Votes included in this house, in this house – which is real, it is not a phantasmatic house. The house of European nations. The house of all Europeans. Those from the EU and them only with the “E” without the “U”.

But while Kadare’s novel The General of the Dead Army is a fictional creation whose legacy is to entertain and teach readers about the horrors of the past, the ultimate accomplishment of your very own general in search of a non-existing army of organs, was to make a mockery of the word “human rights” itself. On the basis of that and despite it laying lack of evidence regarding the alleged trafficking of organs, the Kosovo Specialist Chambers were founded, leading to the arrest of four individuals, including the sitting President of Kosovo, Hashim Thaçi. Just for a second, put in motion the vehicle of your imagination, and imagine the president, the prime minister or the leader of your country being taken from his office and put in custody without an official indictment. Someone named Joe Biden used to call him Kosovo’s George Washington but at this point, it would be more appropriate to call him Joseph K. since, like Kafka’s character in the trial, he was arrested by a remote and inaccessible authority without understanding what he was indicted for. President Thaçi resigned with grace, left his office with dignity, made himself available to justice, and repeatedly said that he trusted international justice because, in the end, justice is what he has put his life on the line for. He is still there, sitting in the Hague – a living Joseph K. in detention created by fake news that spread like a plague and affected international politics, and international institutions. But do not try to take me wrong. I am not here to question the Kosovo Specialist Chambers or anything that has to do with a due process. I am here to question the source – the very source – the infected abhorrent source that created all this wave and I am here to question the fact that in the official indictment that came out after one year that the man – not a simple man, a sitting president – was kept in prison, there is no single word – not one – that explicitly or implicitly brings the case of human organ trafficking. It is a non-existing matter. And this is why I am here today and I was not here last year, the year before last year or the year before last year because we were patiently waiting to see if something would pop up. Although we knew that nothing could pop up. It is pure fantasy, very well fabricated in the Kremlin and very, very intelligently trafficked, smuggled, in the channels of international politics and brought here in the temple of human rights.

Honourable parliamentarians, I understand the question of symmetry. I understand the importance of impartiality. I understand the urge to investigate. It is in the nature of institutions, such as this one too, that things take time and thorough research needs to be done before one can pronounce on any case but there comes a point where delays, hesitations manoeuvring lose their necessary administrative character and require a second meaning. One that ends up humiliating precisely those the international community is supposed to serve. This damages the international community itself not because it can no longer continue to do what it has always done but because faith in the international system is broken. When the world turns upside down and the victims become perpetrators, everything is possible. One abolishes a distinction between right and wrong, truth and lies, and if the distinction is abolished we are once again in the realm of arbitrary power and the first victim of the distortion is you. Yes, all of you. It is the international community itself.

Cruel fake news made the way to become a report that was transformed into a resolution in an admirable effort in fact to serve truth and justice by so many people that were totally misled and made it end up undermining both truth and justice. Your decade-ago actions have triggered in good faith one of the most monumental failures of international politics and international justice, an ugly distortion of human rights and dignity in the very act of seeking to uphold both. But I am not here to blame your predecessors –  far from it. I am here for you, men and women I can see in the eye, who I associate with European consciousness of justice.

The Council of Europe, the world excellence in human rights protection, I am here to tell you that as a result of this Council’s, this Assembly’s past decision, the world of justice was turned upside down. Victims of horrendous war crimes were turned into perpetrators. The search for truth turned into a never-ending replication of lies. A young freedom fighter was turned into an Albanian mafia gang leader. It is easy. A peace-building elected leader was turned into a war criminal. A heroic struggle of ordinary people rallied under the flag of their Liberation Army was turned into a gruelling story of organ trafficking. A nation’s quest for dignity was trampled in shameful accusations of mass atrocities. Those rescued through humanitarian intervention were accused of the most inhuman crimes and this is how international justice was displayed once more by international hypocrisy. But make no mistake, I am not here to plea for Kosovo. The truth of Kosovo is known to all, to all who have eyes to see, to all who have ears to hear, to all who have their heart in its place without the truth, the international community would have continued to stand by as they have done for decades while the people of Kosovo went through a brutal apartheid. If they ultimately intervened it was because the truth was on Kosovo’s side. Kosovo has applied to join the Council of Europe. It goes without saying that Albania supports the application unreservedly and urges you to do the same. All of you. It goes without saying that Serbia should recognise Kosovo as a free, democratic and independent neighbouring state but if this major step for Serbia may take time, the admission of Kosovo as an equal member of the Council of Europe should not take any more time. Just do it. Do it now and do it for all of us, for Europe, not for Kosovo. For Europe that is facing together an ugly war and if you need a second opinion listen to the Ukrainians. Ukraine has not recognised Kosovo. Ask them what they think now. And thinking about what I told you before, try to imagine President Zelenskyy 10 years after, being part of something as real as President Thaçi today because already the Kremlin and Moscow are saying there are human organ trafficking activities by neo-Nazis in Donbas. Be prepared, admitting Kosovo to this big family of ours will contribute to peace and to reconciliation in the region, will consolidate human and minority rights in Kosovo, will support justice reform and institution building in the youngest democracy of Europe and will help Kosovo’s society keep the government in check. I mean no doubt that Kosovo will continue to make progress on all these fronts, what brought me here is not the concern for Kosovo’s democracy, which despite its young age, despite the current crisis, will do okay. It is Albania’s strong faith in institutions such as this one that has been shaken with your decision, with that decision. When the truth of an entire nation is so dreadfully distorted one can only plea for God’s sake do not let a previous tragic mistake become your own forgivable sin. I am here for you. I am here for all of us. I am here as a European in Europe’s temple of faith in international and human rights. And just like Saint Anthony ended up preaching to the fishes because the people had lost their faith, I hope tragic mistakes such as the one this Assembly did with the liberators will not turn us all into heretics. I am here to implore you, to save the face of human rights in Europe, to protect your own integrity, to tell all the oppressed people in the world and all the victims of human rights violations that they can resist without fear, that their legitimate resistance will not one day become a crime, that victims will not be accused as perpetrators, that the international community will not come to their help only to turn its back again soon after, that it will not degrade and humiliate with such dreadful allegations the very people whose dignity it was supposed to restore.

I urge you to drop the charges against Kosovo. I urge you to accept Albania’s request to adopt a resolution asking for a follow-up report regarding unproven shameful allegations of organ trafficking by members of the heroic Kosovo Liberation Army. It is a crime that was not committed and should have never been attributed.

But let me end by repeating this: it is neither for the sake of Kosovo not for the death of Albania that you should adopt this new resolution. It is for your own honour and credibility. The world is bad enough as it is. Human rights are in danger everywhere. They need warriors to fight on their behalf but there can be no warriors if there is no faith. And it is all about faith. May God bless you all. May God bless the Council of Europe.

Thank you very much.