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Saving the Special Courts of Kosovo at Christmas

The nation of Kosovo is one of the youngest nations in Europe. It has had to overcome ethnic tensions and political corruption to pursue a path towards becoming a developed nation.

Flag of Kosovo, Wikimedia Commons
Flag of Kosovo, Wikimedia Commons

As U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo, Greg Delawie sought to promote U.S. interests in Kosovo, which included further economic development of the country, elimination of corruption, and most importantly, recognition and upholding of human rights.

This last goal is particularly important to U.S. interests and the continuation of close U.S.-Kosovar diplomatic ties. The violent birth of the country following the Balkan conflicts and the breakup of Yugoslavia saw many war crimes committed on all sides. The Special Courts of Kosovo, also known as the Kosovo Courts, were established to help meet the U.S. goal of recognizing and establishing human rights through the prosecution of the war criminals who were responsible for committing these crimes. The court is funded by the Kosovo government, and is responsible for maintaining the court’s operation. This “Moment” in U.S. diplomatic history begins right before Christmas 2017.

Greg Delawie’s interview was conducted by Mark Tauber on February 19, 2019

Read Greg Delawie’s interview HERE.

Drafted by Ryan Jensen

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“We started picking up hints that the assembly was going to vote on a law that would basically eviscerate the special court; but we did not know when.”

Department of Justice Scales of Justice, Wikimedia Commons
Department of Justice Scales of Justice, Wikimedia Commons

The Special Courts in Crisis: Another key priority that I’ve talked about was this war crimes court to deal with alleged war criminals from the Kosovo War period, 1998 to 1989. The court’s actual name is the “relocated specialist’s chambers,” but everybody in Kosovo calls it the Special Court. As I described before, the special court was something that the U.S. and EU worked together on and we persuaded the Kosovo Assembly to pass a constitutional amendment and legislation creating it. Despite being a Kosovo court, it actually sits in the Hague, so it would be harder for defendants to get to the witnesses to threaten or bribe them. Because the court was created under Kosovo law, it could be uncreated under Kosovo law as well. And there was an event.

It was the last work day before Christmas in 2017. Christmas was going to be Monday, so it was Friday, the 22nd of December. We started picking up hints that the assembly was going to vote on a law that would basically eviscerate the special court; but we did not know when. Well, it turns out it’s going to be that day. And so it is the Friday before Christmas and a bunch of the American staff had already left for the United States or for Europe, for Christmas vacation. I had given everybody who was still working the afternoon off. Then all of a sudden in the late afternoon the assembly is convening and it’s going to vote on this bill, and it will almost certainly pass.

“If I had not been a Foreign Service officer for 35 years, I might have been reluctant to call people liars to their faces; but it didn’t bother me a bit at that point.”

Taking Action: One of the political officers is still around, and a couple of local employees are still around. So we just get in the car and drive from the embassy to the assembly building and start meeting with people. I collar parliamentarians in the lobby, I barge into the office of the speaker of the assembly. I later barge into the office of the president of Kosovo and I tell them all that there will be a serious effect on our relations if they do this. I get responses from some of these people that tell me they are not involved in this effort. I tell them I don’t believe them, when they tell me that they don’t know anything about it. If I had not been a Foreign Service officer for 35 years, I might have been reluctant to call people liars to their faces; but it didn’t bother me a bit at that point. I collar the prime minister on the assembly floor, where I am not supposed to be, and tell him it’s a really bad idea.

I called the British ambassador whom I knew was in town; I tell him what’s going on. He comes down to the assembly too to join in the lobbying campaign. I tried to reach some of the other EU ambassadors, but most of them have left the country already. Journalists start collecting in the lobby of the assembly. So I decided this is time for some public diplomacy. I give remarks about the importance of the special court to the United States, that we cared about it, and that this effort to undermine it was a stab in the back to the United States. That had a big effect in Kosovo. And I said our relations will be fundamentally changed if they take this step.

Well, finally Washington wakes up at three o’clock in the afternoon Kosovo time. I call back to our deputy assistant secretary, just checking, I want to make sure I’m not off the reservation and our policy is still the same. He says, yes, we still support the special court. I say, I don’t know what I have to do, but if you tell me we support the court, and let me use my judgment about what to say publicly and privately I’d appreciate it. He says, we trust you. So those were the instructions I had from Washington: we support the special court and Delawie should figure out how to keep it.

Kosovo Parliament Building (2008), Wikimedia Commons
Kosovo Parliament Building (2008), Wikimedia Commons

Stopping the Bill: Then the political officer, the political LES, and I just begin meeting with people and heroically improvising. Of course we know everyone in the assembly. It turns out that there are rules that govern the Kosovo assembly; for laws to pass certain things have to happen; they have to be passed out of a committee first. You can’t just take something up on the assembly floor. So we figure that the best way is to get to the members of the right committee that would consider it as law, and try to ensure that they don’t have a quorum because they can’t make a decision if they don’t have a quorum. And ultimately we worked all the way through the evening. The political officer and the local employee are talking with people and ultimately we persuade parliamentarians that they should have other things to do rather than show up at that the meeting and there will be no quorum.

Finally, by 10 o’clock at night, the effort is dead for the night. We get together a rump team from the embassy early Saturday morning to figure out what to do next. I meet with additional people from the assembly, including parties that generally oppose things the United States wants, but who were satisfied with the special court, because they thought they knew who was going to be prosecuted. They wanted their political opponents to be prosecuted. We just kept up this effort through the weekend. And by the next business day, which was Tuesday, the effort had flopped. I went to see the prime minister again. He said, you did too good a job. So that effort died for that period and then the assembly went on winter break and the immediate risk was over.

“It was ultimately a successful effort, but it was the kind of thing where you have to rely on people that have experience, country knowledge, and people knowledge, and use these skills to achieve an American goal.”

The Importance of Experience: So it was a good example of heroic improvisation and teamwork. I didn’t come up with the no quorum idea myself. That was the political officer. We were in the hallway of the assembly building brainstorming what to do and making calls. I called the foreign minister in Africa on the phone. I used my cell phone to make a lot of démarches. Basically what we did was I talked with the political officer and the LES for two minutes, and I say, how about we say this? And they say, no, let’s try this instead. That’s how we developed the talking points, what we worked out in the hallway, the three of us. It was ultimately a successful effort, but it was the kind of thing where you have to rely on people that have experience, country knowledge, and people knowledge, and use these skills to achieve an American goal.

This is the kind of thing that the Foreign Service is good at, because we have people who have years of experience, and have developed interpersonal skills, political analysis skills, and things like that. Now, let’s transition ahead a couple of weeks; the assembly is going to meet again, and we’re trying to put a stake through the heart of this effort. Ultimately we decide that I need to give a big speech explaining why we care about the special court. It turns out we get a dozen TV cameras to film me giving this speech, which is our goal. I explained the history of the court, of American support for Kosovo, and said that we understand the war of liberation was tough. But that doesn’t mean everybody who participated in it was a good guy. Some people did bad things. And, for Kosovo’s future it is important that the people who did bad things face justice, and that the victims deserve justice. So that seems to have ended the problem. This was a terrific effort by the team of people stuck being there between Christmas and New Year’s. They achieved a key American goal.


BA in Economics from Harvard University
Joined the Foreign Service in 1983
Zagreb, Croatia—Deputy Chief of Mission 2004-2007
Washington D.C.—Deputy Assistant Secretary for Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance 2012-2015
Pristina, Kosovo—Ambassador 2015-2018

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