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Macedonia: Ombudsman Seeks To Rectify Human Rights Abuses

Clashes are continuing between Macedonian security forces and ethnic Albanian rebels along Macedonia's northern border with Kosovo. The fighting has sparked growing concern among Macedonian citizens of all origins that the country might soon become swept up in widespread inter-ethnic unrest or even civil war. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from Skopje that a state-funded independent institution, the office of ombudsman, is trying to resolve problems that are the result of inter-ethnic human rights violations.

Skopje, 12 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Branko Naumovski, a former public prosecutor, is Macedonia's national ombudsman (naroden pravobratitel), a function established three years ago to defend the civil and constitutional rights of all citizens in the southernmost former Yugoslav republic.

Naumovski says the ombudsman's office has earned the trust of Macedonians by successfully upholding their civil rights. It does this, he says, by intervening with government organs that citizens charge with violating their rights.

The office advertises its telephone number and activities so that people with a rights problem know where to turn. Staffers say some 4,000 citizens have turned to the ombudsman to intervene on their behalf and 5,000 more have consulted with the office. Naumovski told our correspondent:

"We are very active in this matter -- [individual] citizens are not the only ones who can initiate a complaint about a human rights violation. We are also obliged to intervene in cases of violations of a group's human rights, with each side informing the other of its views. Usually we intervene if the authorities are intentionally silent about these rights."

In its annual human rights report last month, the U.S. State Department noted that last year Macedonian police were accused of extra-judicial killings of at least two detainees. In both cases, the government was said to have taken inadequate steps to clarify the circumstances of the detainees' deaths and to have failed to discipline the responsible officers. In addition, the report said, Macedonian police sometimes abused suspects and prisoners, in particular Roma and ethnic Albanians. Arbitrary arrest and detention were also pointed to as problems.

Naumovski says police beatings or the denial of the right to attend school -- signaled either by a direct complaint or by a mention in the news media -- are grounds for intervention.

"It is absolutely intolerable to mistreat a citizen because of a lack of documents. I'll give you a concrete example from the [ethnic Albanian] village of Tanusevci, where less than a year ago, according to the media, [one family] had seven children who were not allowed to attend the elementary school because their births had never been officially registered."

Naumovski says that the children were admitted to the school after his office intervened with the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for maintaining birth registries. But he says there are other families in Tanusevci and in other mountain villages who do not send their children to school either for lack of birth certificates or because, they say, the school is too far from their homes.

The Interior Ministry estimates that some 10,000 ethnic Albanian inhabitants of Macedonia lack identity papers. But ethnic Albanian politicians put the figure far higher, with some saying that as many as 120,000 are without documents.

Naumovski, an ethnic Macedonian, says his family comes from Kruzeno, a village inhabited mostly by Macedonians of Albanian origin. He says his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather lived peacefully in the village without any inter-ethnic problems. Naumovski says that institutions in multi-ethnic Macedonia must demonstrate tolerance and equality for all citizens.

"We must communicate to each other what we feel. We were born here, we live here and we have no other community or state -- that is entirely true of all the nationalities that live here in Macedonia. Only in this way can we move forward in every area of human rights and in the country's economic and political development."

The ombudsman office is criticized by some Macedonian human rights advocates for being passive and lacking initiative. It has a limited budget and employees are largely bound to their office in the center of Skopje. None of the staff, for example, has gone up to Macedonia's northern border region to check on recent reports of harassment of ethnic Albanian inhabitants. And few of the inhabitants of the isolated northern border villages come down from the mountains to file complaints in the ombudsman's office.

Obtaining accurate information is difficult even for the ombudsman's office. One (unnamed) staffer put it this way to RFE/RL: "We don't have normal information available about what is happening in Macedonia -- for example, at the border -- only national information." In other words, the Albanian- and Macedonian-language media tend to report and interpret facts selectively to suit their ethnic orientation and goals.

Suzana Saliu, Naumovski's deputy, is the only ethnic Albanian among 15 lawyers employed in the ombudsman's office. She says Albanians come to the office every day in search of help in gaining Macedonian citizenship, but adds that denial of documents and other human rights violations must be seen in the context of Macedonia's development.

"There are human rights violations in the Republic of Macedonia. This is probably due to the phase [it] is going through. In these conditions, it is a little difficult to protect and define human rights."

Asked about the impact on Macedonians of the country's current crisis along its northern border with Kosovo, Saliu takes a minute to collect her thoughts. Then she says:

"Panic is palpable now among the citizens. One can sense this in talking to any citizen -- uncertainty about what will happen to our [national] unity. Every citizen feels this, regardless of whether he is a Macedonian, Albanian, or of other origin. My view is that the Albanian people and the Macedonian people never had conflicts with each other [in the past], at least not active conflicts. At the present time, the government, the leadership, should show reason and [conclude] that we really have no cause to become embroiled in some mass conflict."

Sociologist Mirjana Najcevska heads the non-governmental Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Skopje. She views the ombudsman's achievements to date with some skepticism.

"It's a new institution, and many people were very enthusiastic when it was formed and had great faith in its realization. But for the moment, the functions and tasks of this institution are quite weak. And the reason for this is a lack of tradition in regulating and protecting human rights."

The major problem, Najcevska suggests, is not a lack of will among the staffers but rather a lack of understanding by government authorities. She says officials frequently fail to understand fully what constitutes a human rights violation.

"Many people in the police structures are poorly educated on human rights issues. These include not only police but lawyers and judges, who do not have a precise view of what constitutes a human rights violation, do not react responsibly to human rights violations."

Najcevska points out that Macedonian law does not permit any sort of beating, torture, mistreatment, or humiliation of citizens by the police. She notes, however, that her organization is currently working on three recent cases of alleged police beatings and torture. She says she has not received any response from the authorities since filing complaints three weeks ago.

According to Najcevska, the dispute between Macedonian authorities and ethnic Albanian rebels in and around Tanusevci must be seen in the context of what she calls "the deep tectonic loss of reason we have experienced in this region over the last 10 years." She expects matters to get worse before they get better.

"Until now, all the [regional] trouble has circumvented Macedonia. But [it] is normal that even the Republic of Macedonia will occasionally be swept into this. If everything is shaking around us, it is impossible for us not to suffer considerable and certain damage ourselves. This means that these are not the last tremors from the huge loss of reason that this region has undergone. And I think that very soon this will influence the state of the country's independence and sovereignty and even [ethnic] relations within the Republic of Macedonia."

Najcevska says sociological studies show that Macedonia's Albanians tend to identify positively with Kosovo -- although they don't want to live there -- and identify negatively with Macedonia -- which they have no intention of leaving. Part of the problem, she says, is that when Macedonia declared independence in late 1992, it was formed as a "nation state" rather than a state based on the full equality of all citizens.

"Macedonia is essentially a nation state. The idea of a civil society is not very developed [here]. All the symbols of state are based on one ethnic group [the Macedonians]. If we wish to develop as a civil society, we will have to change certain basic presumptions, certain external manifestations of the state. But for now, we are [only] at the very beginning."

Among those necessary basic changes, Najcevska says, would be changing the name of the country, amending laws on citizenship and language, and ending discriminatory practices in the armed forces and police.

Ethnic Albanians constitute between a quarter and a third of Macedonia's population. But as the State Department noted in its annual report last month, "the under-representation of ethnic Albanians in the military and police is a major grievance in the community." The report said that despite government efforts to recruit more ethnic Albanians, the police force remains overwhelmingly Slavic Macedonian, even in areas where the ethnic Albanian population is large. Members of ethnic minorities constitute less than 9 percent of law enforcement officers.

The report also noted that although the proportion of ethnic Albanians in the military is estimated to be about 25 percent, minorities constitute only some 12 percent of all officers, noncommissioned officers, and professional soldiers.