Expert urges UN remedies for lead poisoning victims

TIRANA, Albania — A human rights expert on Wednesday urged the United Nations to take "immediate action" to provide justice and remedies to displaced minority communities in Kosovo who were sheltered on lead-contaminated wasteland.

Baskut Tuncak, a U.N.-appointed expert on the human rights implications of toxic substances, said after a meeting with victims and U.N. officials in Kosovo that "the circumstances demand individual compensation and a public apology by the United Nations, in addition to community-based projects."

"No one appears to be considering what many in this marginalized and vulnerable community see as the only viable solution to their past and present situation," a statement from the U.N. Human Rights Special procedures office in Geneva, Switzerland, quoted him.

Forced from their homes in Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, after the 1998-99 war, some 600 members of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities were housed by the U.N. between 1999 and 2013 on land known to have been contaminated by lead frop, a nearby mine.

Several children and adults have died and many have experienced health problems, including seizures, kidney disease, various physical and mental disabilities and memory loss.

Reports on the lead pollution risk were available as early as 1999. Protective measures were taken in 2000 for peacekeeping soldiers, but not for the residents until 2006.

Kosovo, which came under U.N. and NATO administration after a 1999 NATO-led air war halted a crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists, declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

In 2016, a U.N. human rights advisory panel recommended compensation payments to 138 members of the three communities and an apology for failing to comply with human rights standards.

A voluntary trust fund set up in 2017 has never been activated because of lack of contributions from the international community.

Tuncak said he is "deeply disappointed by the inertia surrounding this case, and that the solution offered by the U.N. is an inoperative and fundamentally flawed trust fund."

"Now the United Nations has an opportunity to do what it can to atone for past mistakes. I urge it to recognize its responsibilities and take immediate, meaningful action," Tuncak said.

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