Kosovo is a parliamentary democracy. The constitution and laws provide for an elected unicameral parliament (the Assembly), which in turn elects a president, whose choice of prime minister must be approved by the Assembly. The prime minister resigned on July 19, and on August 22, the Assembly voted to dissolve itself. As decreed by President Hashim Thaci, who was elected by the Assembly to a five-year term as president in 2016, parliamentary elections were held on October 6. The outgoing government continues to serve in a caretaker role until a new government is formed, which was not complete at year’s end. The parliamentary elections were considered free and fair.
Security forces included the Kosovo Police (KP) and the Kosovo Security Force (KSF), which report, respectively, to the Kosovo Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense. During the year the government began the process of gradually transitioning the KSF into a territorial defense force, in accordance with a 10-year plan. Border Police, a subgroup of the KP, are responsible for security at the border. Police maintain internal security with assistance from EULEX, the European Union rule-of-law mission in the country, as a second responder for incidents of unrest, and the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR), an international peacekeeping force, as a third responder. KFOR is responsible for providing a safe and secure environment and ensuring freedom of movement in the country. As of August the mission had 3,526 troops from 28 countries. Civilian authorities maintained effective control of Kosovo security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: undue restrictions on the press, including violence or threats of violence against journalists; government corruption and impunity; and attacks against members of ethnic minorities or other marginalized communities, including by the KP.
Many in the government, the opposition, civil society, and the media reported instances of senior officials engaging in corruption and acting with impunity. The government and justice sector sometimes took steps to prosecute and punish those officials who committed past abuses, offenses, and crimes, but many continued to occupy public sector positions. The Police Inspectorate of Kosovo (PIK) took steps to investigate abuses and prosecute those responsible. Security forces have also participated in training to increase respect for human rights.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press. While the government generally respected this right, credible reports persisted some public officials, politicians, businesses, and radical religious groups sought to intimidate media representatives. The media also encountered difficulties in obtaining information from the government and public institutions as provided by law and struggled to secure funding to remain independent. The Independent Media Commission regulates broadcast frequencies, issues licenses to public and private broadcasters, and establishes broadcasting policies.
Press and Media Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, generally without restriction. Nevertheless, reports persisted government officials, some political parties, businesses connected to the government, religious groups, and disgruntled individuals exerted pressure on media owners, individual editors, and reporters not to publish certain stories or materials. Some journalists refrained from critical investigative reporting due to fear for their physical or job security.
Financial difficulties of media outlets put the editorial independence of all media at risk. While some self-sufficient media outlets adopted editorial and broadcast policies independent of political and business interests, those with fewer resources sometimes accepted financial support in exchange for positive coverage or for refraining from publishing negative stories harmful to funders’ interests. According to some editors, funding was limited in part because of government reluctance to advertise its programs in media outlets that published material critical of it.
Violence and Harassment: As of September the Association of Journalists of Kosovo (AGK) and media outlets reported 17 instances of government officials, business interests, community groups, or radical religious groups violating press freedom by physically assaulting or verbally threatening journalists. In one example a journalist reporting on the demolition of an unlicensed shopping center faced violence from mall security and civilians who snatched his equipment, slapped him in the face, and prevented his reporting on the story.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were no reports of direct censorship of print or broadcast media, although journalists claimed pressure from politicians and organized criminal groups frequently resulted in self-censorship. Some journalists refrained from critical investigative reporting due to fear for their physical or job security. Journalists occasionally received offers of financial benefits in exchange for positive reporting or for abandoning an investigation.
According to the AGK, government officials as well as suspected criminals verbally threatened journalists for perceived negative reporting. According to some editors, government agencies and corporations withdrew advertising from newspapers that published material critical of them. In August the AGK denounced a Kosovo Democratic Party (PDK) statement denigrating the daily newspaper Gazeta Express as “fake.” AGK stated this PDK claim is consistent with previous statements targeting media and represents interference with the media. The AGK reported that in May, PDK chief and former Kosovo Assembly speaker Kadri Veseli called the editor in chief of Gazeta Express, Leonard Kerquki, in an attempt to influence the daily’s policies.
Journalists complained media owners and managers prevented them from publishing or broadcasting stories critical of the government, political parties, or particular officials. In some cases owners reportedly threatened to dismiss journalists if they produced critical reports. Journalists also complained that owners prevented them from reporting on high-level government corruption.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
The government did not consider Serbian-issued personal documents bearing Kosovo town names to be valid travel documents, making it difficult for many members of the Kosovo-Serb community to travel freely to and from the country, unless using the two border crossings with Serbia located in the Kosovo-Serb majority municipalities in the north. Improvements at the civil registry in 2018 greatly expanded Kosovo-Serb access to identity documents, and the number of Kosovo Serbs with these documents increased tremendously during the year.
In-country Movement: The primary bridge connecting Mitrovica/e North and South remained closed for vehicular traffic but was fully open to pedestrians. Other bridges connecting the two cities were fully open.
Exile: The return to the country by Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptian, and Romani refugees from the war remained a problem. Parliamentary representatives of these three communities reported social prejudice prevented the return of nearly 400 Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptians, and Roma who were formerly resident in the country and have informed the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that they were ready to return from Serbia, North Macedonia, and Montenegro.
f. Protection of Refugees
Refoulement: On June 24, the Assembly adopted the final report of its investigative committee into the March 2018 refoulement of six Turkish citizens legally residing in Kosovo. The committee’s report highlighted serious rule of law violations including the refoulement of one man who was not identified in the extradition request. The Assembly published its report despite months of political intimidation and interference.
While the Special Prosecution (SPRK) has not concluded its investigation, the Police Inspectorate of Kosovo (PIK) in August filed a criminal report against 22 police officers involved in the operation for criminal violations. The Turkish government had accused the Turkish citizens of alleged ties to the so-called Fethullah Terror Organization.
In September the Appellate Court affirmed a Basic Court of Pristina ruling the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ rationale for rescinding residence permits for the expelled Turkish nationals was baseless.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting of asylum or refugee status with subsidiary protection, a system for providing protection to refugees, and temporary admission of asylum seekers while their cases are adjudicated.
Reception facilities at the asylum center can host children, but the facility lacked standard operating procedures for the treatment of unaccompanied children seeking asylum and for determination of their eligibility for asylum. Although asylum cases have continued to increase, Kosovo is largely a transit country and those seeking asylum typically left the country and did not attend their hearings. The increasing number of asylum seekers has not yet overwhelmed the country’s capacity. Those seeking asylum in the country are housed at the asylum center throughout the year.
Access to Basic Services: UNHCR reported asylum seekers received accommodations, regular meals, and clothing, while UNHCR partner organizations provided psychological assessments, counseling services, and legal aid. The lack of interpretation services for several official languages at both central and local levels remained a problem. UNHCR claimed health care and psychological treatment were still inadequate.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection, called subsidiary protection, to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. Through June the government provided subsidiary protection to one person.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot based on universal and equal suffrage.
The Serbian government continued to operate some illegal parallel government structures in Kosovo-Serb majority municipalities and in areas primarily inhabited by the Kosovo-Gorani community. These structures are often believed to be used by the Serbian government to influence Kosovo-Serb and Kosovo-Gorani communities and political representatives.
Some Kosovo-Serb community members claimed retaliation from political opponents, alleging Serbian government influence and intimidation of potential political opponents to the primary Kosovo-Serb political party (Srpska List) ahead of the country’s October 6 elections.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. A lack of effective judicial oversight and general weakness in the rule of law contributed to the problem. Corruption cases were routinely subject to repeated appeal, and the judicial system often allowed statutes of limitation to expire without trying cases.
Corruption: The Anticorruption Agency (ACA) and the National Audits Office shared responsibility for combating government corruption. As of September the SPRK filed 10 corruption-related indictments in cases referred by the ACA. Convictions on corruption charges continued to represent a small proportion of those investigated and charged.
NGOs and international organizations identified numerous alleged failures by the judicial system to prosecute corruption, noting that very few cases brought against senior officials resulted in indictments. Sentencing of high-level officials convicted of corruption was often lenient. NGOs reported indictments often failed because prosecutors filed incorrect charges or made procedural errors.
As of September the state prosecutor had received 174 criminal reports involving 366 persons, leading to 81 indictments involving 126 persons. These resulted in 52 convictions for corruption, with 21 persons receiving prison sentences, 21 receiving fines, and 10 receiving suspended or other types of sentences.
In December the former minister of agriculture, Nenad Rikalo, and six other officials from the Ministry of Agriculture were charged with abuse of power for reportedly sidestepping legal safeguards and manipulating the ministry’s grant process to award millions of dollars to companies owned by political associates.
During the year, in at least four high-profile corruption cases, the Supreme Court found that lower courts had violated the criminal code to the benefit of defendants. The Prosecution Office used extraordinary legal remedies to request the Supreme Court evaluate the decisions rendered by lower courts in these cases. Under the criminal procedure code, the Supreme Court is able only to confirm the violations; it can take no punitive actions against the defendants.
A report from the nongovernmental Kosovo Law Institute (KLI) criticized the SPRK’s handling of a 2018 case in which the prosecutor allegedly used administrative machinations to avoid filing corruption indictments against high-level officials who enabled 19,060 individuals to illegitimately claim war veteran status and obtain state financial benefits. A March report on impunity, corruption, and monitoring of corruption cases from 2016-18 to 2020 found that courts handed down 59 indictments against 68 high-ranking officials, of which courts dismissed indictments against nine officials, acquitted 16, and rejected five. Courts imposed sentences against 11 of the 68 high-ranking officials, of whom eight received suspended imprisonment and one a fine. Proceedings against 27 high-ranking officials were ongoing.
The government assembled a parliamentary investigative committee to look into the procedural details of the March 2018 forcible repatriation, at the request of the Turkish government, of six Turkish citizens legally residing in Kosovo. The investigation experienced many difficulties completing its work. Initially, some MPs did not participate at the committee meetings in order to prevent quorum. The Assembly subsequently delayed extension of the committee’s term and acted only after the international community criticized the delay. On April 26, President Thaci presented himself to testify at a committee meeting after having declined three prior invitations. Instead of testifying, however, Thaci questioned the legality of the body’s decision to hire a foreigner as the legal expert who compiled the draft report. Thaci also claimed the expert had shared information with others, including countries that did not recognize Kosovo’s independence. In May, 52 international human rights professors and advocates, from institutions such as Harvard University, the American Bar Association, and Human Rights Watch, addressed a letter to Xhelal Svecla, head of the parliamentary Inquiry Committee, expressing their concerns over “irresponsible and reckless accusations” made by Kosovo officials.
Financial Disclosure: The law obliges all senior public officials and their family members to declare their property and the origins of their property annually. Senior officials must also report changes in their property holdings when assuming or terminating public service. The ACA administers the data, verifies disclosures, and publishes them on its website. Authorities may fine officials charged with minor breaches of the requirement or prohibit them from exercising public functions for up to one year. The ACA referred all charges against those who had not filed to prosecutors.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A wide variety of domestic and international human rights groups operated, generally without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. The government was cooperative and sometimes responsive to their views.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The Ombudsperson Institution has authority to investigate allegations of human rights violations and abuse of government authority and acts as the national preventive mechanism against torture. The institution is the primary agency responsible for monitoring detention facilities. Based on powers granted by the Assembly, the Ombudsperson Institution can file amicus curiae briefs with basic courts on human rights-related cases. It can also make recommendations on the compatibility of laws and other sublegal or administrative acts, guidelines, and practices.
In 2018 the government established a preparatory team to draft terms of reference for a future truth and reconciliation commission (TRC). During the year a preparatory team met and drafted the rules and procedures for a TRC and submitted the document for parliamentary approval. The government established a Missing Persons Commission, which signed procedures on handing over remains of wartime victims with Serbia in November 2018.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and the violation of any individual’s labor rights due to his or her union activities. The law requires reinstatement of workers fired for union activity, including in essential services. The law applies equally to all individuals working in the public and private sectors, including documented migrants and domestic servants.
Authorities did not effectively enforce the labor law, which includes regulations and administrative instructions that govern employment relations, including rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. According to the Association of Independent Labor Unions in Kosovo (BSPK), resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate, and penalties insufficient. As of May the Ministry of Labor and Social Work’s Labor Inspectorate had issued 99 fines during the year. These fines were insufficient to deter violations. Administrative and judicial procedures were circuitous and subject to lengthy delays or appeals.
According to the BSPK, the government and private employers generally respected the right to form and join unions in both the public and private sectors. Political party interference in trade union organizations and individual worker rights remained a problem. According to union officials, workers in the public sector commonly faced mistreatment, including sexual harassment and the loss of employment, based on their political party affiliation. Employers did not always respect the rights of worker organizations to bargain collectively, particularly in the private sector. The BSPK reported many private-sector employers essentially ignored labor laws. The BSPK reported continued difficulty in establishing unions due to employer interference in workers’ associations and unions, particularly in the banking, construction, and hotel sectors.
Representatives from these sectors told the BSPK anonymously employers used intimidation to prevent the establishment of unions. The Labor Inspectorate reported receiving no formal complaints of discrimination against employees who tried to join unions during the year. The inspectorate was not fully functional due to budgetary and staffing shortfalls.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The Law on Child Protection adopted in June prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but forced child labor occurred during the year (see section 7.c.).
Government resources, including remediation, were insufficient to bring about compliance, identify and protect victims, and investigate claims of forced or compulsory labor. There were limited investigations, prosecutions, and convictions of forced labor due, according to the Labor Inspectorate, to inadequate resources. Penalties, although stringent compared with those for other serious crimes, were insufficient to prevent forced labor. As of July authorities had not identified any victims of forced labor.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits all the worst forms of child labor. The minimum age for contractual employment is 15, provided the employment is not harmful or prejudicial to school attendance. If the work is likely to jeopardize the health, safety, or morals of a young person, the legal minimum age is 18. Regulations forbid exploitation of children in the workplace, including forced or compulsory labor. The government maintained a National Authority against Trafficking in Persons that investigated cases of child labor trafficking.
On June 27, the Assembly adopted its first Law on Child Protection, key child labor protection legislation that unifies all the other legal and sublegal documents on the topic. The law provides additional measures and penalties for employers of children that are sufficient to deter violations, but citations do not address the problem adequately as it does not affect occurrences in the informal economy. The law permits authorities to remove a child from the home if that is determined to be in the best interests of the child.
The law enforcement agency effectively enforced the law. Inspectors immediately notified employers when minors were exploited or found engaged in hazardous labor conditions. As of May the NGO Terres Des Hommes reported the cases of 116 minors (105 Kosovo citizens and 11 minors from Albania) working in hazardous conditions. Of these, 73 were children engaged in begging, 13 in street work, and 14 in mining. According to the Ministry of Labor, 73 individuals received Social Work Center counseling on issues related to child labor.
The Coalition of NGOs for Protection of Children (KOMF) reported children working in agriculture encountered hazards associated with operating farm equipment. KOMF reported child labor in farming persisted as a traditional activity. Government-run social work centers reported children engaged in farming were not prevented from attending school. While children were rarely their families’ main wage earners, child labor contributed substantially to some family incomes.
Urban children often worked in a variety of unofficial construction and retail jobs, such as selling newspapers, cigarettes, food, and telephone cards on the street. Some children, especially those from families receiving social assistance and ethnic minorities, also engaged in physical labor, such as transportation of goods and in picking through trash piles for items to sell.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred across sectors with respect to sex, gender identity, disability, religion, political affiliation, and minority status (see section 6). During the year the BSPK received reports from labor unions and individuals also claiming discrimination based on union membership, age, and family status. The BSPK and union officials noted employment, particularly in the public sector, often depended on the employee’s political status and affiliation. Union officials reported other mistreatment, including sexual harassment, based on political party affiliation. The BSPK also reported instances of employers discriminating against female candidates in employment interviews and illegally firing women for being pregnant or requesting maternity leave.
International observers reported discrimination in university employment against individuals wearing hijabs or other symbols of Islam. Universities sometimes rejected candidates on this basis, justifying the practice as a counterradicalization effort.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The government-set minimum wage was higher than the official poverty income line.
The law provides for a standard 40-hour workweek, requires rest periods, limits the number of regular hours worked to 12 per day, limits overtime to 20 hours per week and 40 hours per month, requires payment of a premium for overtime work, and prohibits excessive compulsory overtime. The law provides for 20 days’ paid leave per year for employees and 12 months of partially paid maternity leave. The labor law sets appropriate health and safety standards for workplaces and governs all industries in the country.
Ministry of Labor inspectors were responsible for enforcing all labor standards, including those pertaining to wages, hours, and occupational safety and health. The fines were not sufficient to deter violations. The number of inspectors was insufficient to deter violations in both the formal and informal sectors.
According to the Labor Inspectorate and the BSPK, the labor code is comprehensive and its provisions on work hours are adequate for the equal protection of public and private sector workers. The government did not effectively enforce the law. The BSPK reported lack of enforcement by the government and citing resource and capacity limitations within the Labor Inspectorate.
According to the BSPK, employers failed to abide by official labor standards that provided equal standards of protection to public and private sector workers. The BSPK reported a lack of government oversight and enforcement, particularly of the standard workweek and compulsory and unpaid overtime. Many individuals worked long hours in the private sector as “at-will” employees, without employment contracts, regular pay, or contributions to their pensions. The BSPK reported employers fired workers without cause in violation of the law and refused to respect worker holidays. As of June the Labor Inspectorate received 1,519 formal complaints of violations of workers’ rights in the public and private sectors and issued 99 formal complaints against violators. Women’s rights organizations reported sexual abuse and harassment occurred on the job but went unreported due to fear of dismissal or retaliation.
While the law provides for the protection of employees’ health and working conditions, private and public institutions failed at times to comply. The Labor Inspectorate and BSPK officials reported difficulties in obtaining accurate information about compliance, because workers rarely disclosed the problems due to fear of losing their jobs.
No law specifically permits employees to remove themselves from a dangerous work situation, but the law requires every employer to provide adequate work conditions for all employees based upon job requirements. According to the Labor Ministry, informal employer-employee arrangements may address when and whether employees may remove themselves from work due to dangerous work situations. The country’s institutions did not track these arrangements. According to experts, violations of wage, overtime, and occupational health and safety standards were common for men and women, as well as foreign migrant workers, particularly those who faced hazardous or exploitative working conditions.