Lead contamination Kosovo* – Dialogue with UN Secretary General

* Any reference to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, is to be understood in full compliance with Security Council resolution 1244 (1999) and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo

UN must urgently provide redress for minorities placed in toxic Kosovo camps, says UN rights expert
13 March 2019

Letters addressed by the Special Rapporteur to the leaders of several organisations in the UN system

In June 2019, the Special Rapporteur, as part of his ongoing engagement with the Secretary General of the U.N. regarding the organization's responsibility towards victims of lead-poisoning in Kosovo, addressed letters to the leaders of several organizations in the United Nations system whose mandates include issues raised by the case.

The letters underlined the need for the UN system as a whole to contribute to mobilizing the necessary resources to provide the victims their right to an effective remedy, one that is both just and sustainable and aimed at bringing moral and physical relief. The Special Rapporteur hopes WHO, UNDP, UNEP, UNHCR, UNICEF and OHCHR can make a positive change towards realizing the right of these victims and their families to such an effective remedy.

The Special Rapporteur urged the addressees to use their resources, outreach and expertise in helping the United Nations to raise the priority attributed to the situation of victims in Kosovo and advocate for greater visibility of this issue.

The letters sent to the Heads of following UN organisations can be consulted below.

Letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
Letter to the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Letter to the Executive Director of UNICEF
Letter to the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO)
Letter to the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
Reply by the WHO Deputy Director General

Exchange of letters between the Special Rapporteur and the Secretary General of the UN

Throughout 2019 and 2018 the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights Baskut Tuncak has engaged in a continuous dialogue with the Secretary General of the UN over the case of lead contamination.

In July 2019 the Special Rapporteur addressed a letter to the UN Secretary General, following news that an initial contribution had been received to the Trust Fund established by the UN, inquiring if any additional steps were envisaged for mobilizing the remainder of the financial and non-financial support necessary to provide the affected communities their right to an effective remedy.

The UN Secretary General’s reply to this letter, dated October 2019, can be consulted here.

In July 2018 the Special Rapporteur had addressed an open letter to the Secretary General about the state of play regarding the victims’ situation and their possible compensation.

In October 2018 he had received an answer to this open letter signed by the UN Under Secretary General for peacekeeping operation.

In November 2018 the Special Rapporteur had sent a communication letter to the UN Secretary General asking more specific questions regarding the funding situation of the Trust Fund.

The UN Under Secretary General for peacekeeping operations sent a response to this letter, dated 24 December 2018.

Background information on this case

#OHCHR Between 1999 and 2013, the UN housed approximately 600 members of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian families, displaced during the Kosovo conflict, in camps constructed on lead-contaminated toxic wasteland. The camps were established close to the Trepca industrial complex, containing a lead smelter and three tailing ponds of waste. The facility was known to be the source of lead contamination and other forms of toxic pollution in the area since the 1970s.  Reports of lead poisoning among residents of the camp were available as early as 1999, and protective measures to prevent lead exposure were taken for peacekeeping soldiers in 2000.  Preventative measures for the residents were not taken until 2006, which were still deemed insufficient by the World Health Organization as late as 2009.  Lead poising is believed to have contributed to the death of several children and adults[1]

Lead is highly toxic.  Young children are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and can suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects, particularly affecting the development of the brain and nervous system. Exposure of pregnant women to lead results in the exposure of the fetus, and high levels of lead can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature birth and low birth weight.  Lead also causes long-term harm in adults, including increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage. Half of the RAE residents were children aged 14 or younger.[2]

According to recent testimonies, many of those affected, including children, are still experiencing a myriad of health problems, including seizures, kidney disease, and memory loss – all common long-term effects of lead poisoning.

Findings and recommendations of the Human Rights Advisory Panel 

In April 2016, the Human Rights Advisory Panel (HRAP) of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) released an opinion on the case.[3]  The opinion concluded that numerous articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child were violated by UNMIK.  Among the human rights identified by the Advisory Panel as being violated were the rights to life, freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment, health, respect for private and family life, an adequate standard of living, and suffered discrimination.  Numerous violations of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child were identified, including exploitation.

The HRAP found that for many years, UNMIK failed to make sufficient efforts to relocate the displaced families despite awareness of serious risk to the internally displaced community’s health and wellbeing from the toxic contamination present in the camps.

HRAP recommended that UNMIK make a public apology to the victims and their families, as well as take appropriate steps towards payment of adequate individual compensation for both material and moral damage to 138 members of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian (RAE) communities who resided in the camps from 1999, among other recommendations.

The Trust Fund  

In 2017, the Secretary General of the UN established a Trust Fund charged with implementing community-based assistance projects, primarily in North Mitrovica, South Mitrovica and Leposavić, which would benefit the affected communities. Contributions to the Fund were to be made on voluntary basis and the Trust Fund is not intended to offer any individual compensation to the victims, contrary to HRAP recommendation.

The Trust Fund has never been operational due to lack of resources. On 5 October 2018, in response to a letter addressed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics[4], the Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations confirmed that despite targeted outreach and resource mobilization campaigns by a UN Task Force encouraging contributions to the Trust Fund, ”no contribution has yet been received from the international community in response to these appeals.”[5]  In response to a subsequent letter by the Rapporteur[6], no concrete details on plans to mobilize resources were provided.[7]

In November 2018, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the UN “to swiftly deliver the necessary support to the victims.”  In January 2019, fifty five members of the European Parliament wrote to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres urging him to “take long overdue steps to ensure that the victims of widespread lead poisoning at UN-run camps in Kosovo receive individual compensation, adequate health care and educational support.”


[1] Human Rights Advisory Panel, N.M. and Others v. UNMIK, case 26/08 (26 Feb. 2016), paras 119-120 http://www.unmikonline.org/hrap/Eng/Cases%20Eng/26-08%20NM%20etal%20Opinion%20FINAL%2026feb16.pdf

[2] Human Rights Advisory Panel, N.M. and Others v. UNMIK, case 26/08 (26 Feb. 2016), para 43 http://www.unmikonline.org/hrap/Eng/Cases%20Eng/26-08%20NM%20etal%20Opinion%20FINAL%2026feb16.pdf

[3] Human Rights Advisory Panel, N.M. and Others v. UNMIK, case 26/08 (26 Feb. 2016), http://www.unmikonline.org/hrap/Eng/Cases%20Eng/26-08%20NM%20etal%20Opinion%20FINAL%2026feb16.pdf