David Ferry reads from Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations, on Wednesday, March 28, at 7 p.m., Barnes & Noble Reading Room

Vol. IV No. 27   ·   23 March 2001 


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Tour in Kosovo pays off
Grad's human rights work wins Luce scholarship

By Brian Fitzgerald

In Prizren, Kosovo, Jeffrey Prescott saw a plume of smoke in the distance. When he got closer, he could see a Serb home burning. It was September 1999, and Prescott (CAS'93), a staff attorney with the New York-based Lawyers Committee on Human Rights (LCHR), had come to postwar Kosovo to find out if minorities there were safe. The scene confirmed his suspicions: they weren't being protected. In fact, they were being persecuted.

  In 1999, Kosovar Albanians torched this Serb home -- and many others -- in the city of Prizren, after nearly a decade of Serbian repression of the country's Albanian majority. Photo by Jeffrey Prescott

Prescott, who recently earned a Luce scholarship (Read the sidebar "Scholarship facilitates alum's human rights quest"), snapped a photo of the arson fire, which was published in the LCHR study A Fragile Peace: Laying the Foundation for Justice in Kosovo.

The flames of hate had been stoked for quite some time in the region, culminating in a brutal civil war in the 1990s. Then in March 1999 NATO launched air strikes against Yugoslavia to force then-president Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his forces from Kosovo. When Milosevic capitulated 11 weeks later, NATO-led peacekeepers and UN administrators streamed into the country. But all was not well. Thousands of Kosovar Albanian refugees returned en masse to the region, some of them eager to avenge the ethnic cleansing by Serb forces. Serbs were beaten and killed, and many of their houses torched.

Initially, the UN Security Council placed Kosovo under international civil administration and military protection. This marked the end of one major tragedy. But it was just the first step in getting the province back to some kind of normality.

"We were there a few months after the NATO bombing, looking at the reconstruction of policing and judicial services," says Prescott. "Several homes were being burned each week after Serb families were forced by threats and intimidation to leave the province."

The politics of revenge

Prescott and another member of the LCHR went to Kosovo to assess the international community's efforts to establish the rule of law, and to set up an independent and impartial judiciary to end the mob rule and vigilante justice that were continuing to tear the country apart.

"We spent some time interviewing the UN officials who were trying to put legal institutions back in place," Prescott says. "We were talking to local leaders who were either going through the new police academy, or working as judges and lawyers in the courts."

The LCHR report is a critique of the international effort in Kosovo, noting several of its shortcomings and highlighting some of the problems that are being faced in a country in the early stages of postwar recovery.

"Many of those problems have been addressed in ways we recommended, but there are still lots of challenges," says Prescott. "The hard work of rebuilding a country from scratch is where international support tends to fall off. We were looking at structural flaws in the way the institutions were being rebuilt, in light of the continued conflict between the different ethnic groups."

In filling the legal vacuum in Kosovo, the fight for the protection of human rights for all the country's inhabitants is an uphill battle, especially after nearly a decade of Serb oppression of Kosovo's Albanian majority. "Because of the pressures facing a particular judge of Albanian ethnicity," says Prescott, "you can't assume that a Serb is going to necessarily get a fair trial in a case where the judge is getting paid very poorly, and is facing enormous pressure from his neighbors and his peers to reach a certain decision."

Indeed, the report points out that the UN Interim Military Administration in Kosovo is charged with setting up an independent and multiethnic judiciary. But the special representative to the secretary-general appointed 44 Kosovar Albanians, 7 Serbs, 3 Muslims, one Turk, one Roma, and one Albanian Catholic. Finding Serb lawyers to fill judicial positions is not an easy task: many of them have fled the area. Will defendants charged with war crimes -- most of them Serbs -- receive fair trials? The LCHR was told that one judge had openly expressed the opinion that all Serb judges and court officials should be put on trial for war crimes. Ethnic tension does not die down easily.

"These kinds of stresses are going to be very powerful, and there is going to have to be a lot of protection built in to account for them," Prescott says. "We recommended that there be international judges to help with some of the cases, and the UN is doing this."

Prescott, a native of Wichita, Kans., is a 1997 graduate of Yale Law School. But it was at Boston University that the seeds of his future career took root. "I met a lot of students from overseas, some of whom had come from difficult political situations in their countries," he says. A graduate level course he took as a senior, Political Movements in America, taught by CAS Political Science Professor Betty Zisk, he notes, "initiated my academic and personal interest in fighting injustice."

His efforts to promote human rights are not limited to countries overseas. At present, Prescott is helping the LCHR address police misconduct in the United States. "Since the Rodney King episode, there have been a series of incidents that have highlighted some of the problems of discrimination we have in our country in general, and in the police in particular," he says. "Our focus will be more on the systemic problems behind some of the high-profile cases, rather than the cases themselves, which tend to generate their own attention and pressure for reform. We see our role as trying to use that momentum to build in some lasting reform."

Prescott is "one of the best students I've ever taught," says Yale Law Professor Jed Rubenfeld, who also worked with him at Yale's Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic. "He worked 16- and 18-hour days out of sheer enjoyment."

Another of his Yale law professors, Harold Koh, describes him as a perfectionist. Does Prescott agree with that assessment? "You can't attain perfection," he says. "One of the advantages in working with human rights issues is that there is always a lot of work to be done. You can never be completely finished with any project you're working on."

Read the sidebar "Scholarship facilitates alum's human rights quest"


23 March 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations