Minnesota judges travel to Kosovo for U.N. mission

Elizabeth Dunbar

Judges in the United States enjoy the help of secretaries, computer access to court files and hour-long lunch breaks.

Four Minnesota District Court judges will forgo those privileges – along with more basic conveniences such as daily hot showers – when they head for Kosovo to serve as judges for the United Nations Mission in Kosovo.

“I think we’ll have to make several adjustments to the way we look at things,” said Judge Edward Wilson of Ramsey County, who leaves for Kosovo in December.

Kosovo is still recovering from a civil war that destroyed trust between people of different ethnicities and many of the institutions that would resolve the tensions.

The United Nations established the program in 1999 to maintain peace and ease the re-establishment of Kosovo’s public institutions, including the justice system.

“I think it’s an opportunity for them, but also an adventure for us,” said Judge Daniel Mabley of Hennepin County before he left Monday.

“It’s a good opportunity to live in a different culture and in a place where, because of the war, they are having trouble establishing the rules of law,” he said.

Judge Marilyn Justman Kaman of Hennepin County, who will leave for Kosovo on Monday, said cases of war crimes, ethnically motivated disputes and organized crimes she and the others will hear in Kosovo do not compare with what she currently deals with here as a family court judge.

“Those are not the kinds of cases a state court judge here would ever handle,” Kaman said. “I think the experience will broaden my legal knowledge and enlarge my horizons on any number of fronts.”

In the U.N.-administered justice system, international judges sit on a panel with Kosovar judges – the majority of whom are ethnic Albanians – to decide cases.

“They’re cases where the local judiciary would have problems being or appearing fair,” Mabley said.

Wilson said many of the cases involve Serbian criminals. Because of tensions between the two ethnic groups, international judges have been appointed to the panels to restore the judicial system’s credibility.

“If you were a Serb, you

would n’t expect a fair trial,” Wilson said. “That’s why we’re there – to put a sense of fairness in the judicial system.”

Mabley added that ethnic Albanian judges are criticized by each ethnic group whether they give a Serbian criminal an innocent or guilty sentence, due to the tensions.

“They’re under pressure no matter what they do,” Mabley said.

Judge Robert Carolan of Dakota County, who leaves for Kosovo on Dec. 1, traveled to the Balkans almost 30 years ago and said he expects a challenging experience.

“We have our issues here, but not to the extent that it is there,” he said. “I would guess that (the experience) would heighten my sensitivity for things that you take for granted in our system.”

Mabley said one of the main differences between the justice systems of Kosovo and the United States that he will have to get used to is that U.S. judges rely more on lawyers to determine the truth.

In Kosovo, “the judge has a greater responsibility to elicit the truth and not rely on the lawyers,” Mabley said.

“It seems like (the Kosovo) system is better at arriving at the truth and our system is better at protecting peoples’ rights,” he said.

Another challenge the judges might face is a growing desire people in Kosovo have to be free from U.N. rule.

“I would think in general terms that people wouldn’t want an outside organization running their country,” Wilson said. “The U.N. wants that too, but right now I don’t know if there is a reasonable chance of that happening.”

Kaman said she is not concerned about people acting hostile toward her.

“I’ve heard that the people of Kosovo like Americans. I think our presence will be welcome there,” she said.

When the judges arrive, they will have a brief orientation and then be on their own to find housing in an area of the world where electricity and running water aren’t reliable.

“I think it will give me a greater appreciation for what we have here and new insights into how we can improve things,” Carolan said.

Wilson said he hopes he can bring something to the struggling judicial system in Kosovo but also thinks he will come back with new insights for his U.S. job.

“I think we’ll be able to act in a mentoring capacity,” he said, “but I think we expect to learn more than what we teach.”

Elizabeth Dunbar covers international affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]