The blood feud phenomenon

British Ambassador Nicholas Cannon speech at the blood feud phenomenon round table, organised by the Prosecutor General in Shkodra

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Nicholas  Cannon  OBE

I am grateful to Mr Adriatik Llalla, the Prosecutor General, for the invitation to attend this round table on the important subject of blood feuds. It is good to be back in Shkodra in the university where I learned, or at least tried to learn, Albanian. I do not claim to be an expert on blood feuds. It would probably be more beneficial for me to listen to what you think rather than tell you what I think. So the following are just some preliminary and personal thoughts.

The phenomenon of blood feuds is important in two ways. Firstly, of course, it blights the lives of families involved. It leads to unnecessary loss of life, each killing a tragedy for the individual and his relatives and a waste of human potential. It creates a climate of fear that casts a shadow over families, including children, depriving them of free interaction with their neighbours and communities. But secondly, the blood feud phenomenon, and the way that it has been manipulated, has damaged the reputation of Albania and the Albanian people right across Europe and beyond. It creates an impression of Albanians as a uniquely violent and dangerous people. This is something that those of us who live here know is not true. But that reputation makes the lives of Albanians living outside the country more difficult in their interaction with neighbours. It also discourages tourism and foreign investment.

From my perspective, there are four main problems in tackling the blood feud phenomenon. The first is lack of objective information. Nobody seems to have a clear idea of how common blood feuds are. Whenever my embassy has asked the Albanian State Police, their advice and statistics suggest that blood feuds of the classic type are relatively rare, and the number of killings as a result of such feuds is very few. Of course the climate of fear created by feuds is not necessarily linked directly to the number of deaths. But this would suggest that the blood feud phenomenon is a small and localised problem. The press, which reports murders every day in Albania, also rarely carries stories of what one might describe as the classic blood feud situation. However, NGOs and the Office of the Ombudsman are convinced that official figures do not reflect the reality of a much wider problem involving thousands of families. They argue that there is either a deliberate or inadvertent official cover-up of a grave situation. So we don’t even know the scale of the problem we are dealing with.

Secondly, there is the problem of defining a blood feud. Often is discussing this issue, there is a confusion between a blood feud and simple revenge killings. A blood feud is a long term process, which can involve threats to the lives of people who are only marginally involved in the original dispute. But revenge killings are a much more common phenomenon. Revenge killings and vendettas are frequent among organised crime gangs in any country, including England. The practice of revenge killings is also more common in many Balkan and other southern European countries. There are two reasons for this. Attitudes to honour and masculinity, and a willingness to recourse to violence, tend to be stronger in Mediterranean countries than in northern Europe. On the other hand, respect for and trust in the rule of law and the law enforcement authorities are less. In Albania, people feel obliged to take personal, violent action to resolve disputes that in England these days would usually be solved by the courts or the police. There is also much easier access to weapons here and knowledge of how to use them. So family disputes, business disputes, land disputes between neighbours are often resolved in Albania with guns and bombs rather than legal procedures. This is a serious social problem and one that needs to be addressed. But it is not the same thing as the blood feud phenomenon and not unique to Albania.

The third problem is the literary and romantic associations, the mythology of the blood feud. The historical associations of blood feuds, and the notion of parallel systems of justice, are very exciting to scholars, anthropologists, historians and folklore enthusiastics. Scholars love to read the Kanun of Luk Dukagjini and see in it the driving forces of the Albanian national character. It is seen as a unique part of Albanian culture. Homesick Albanian migrants in western Europe enjoy sitting in bars and telling their new British or Dutch friends exciting stories about blood feuds. The subject is also a great literary inspiration. Ismail Kadare’s book “Broken April” is a brilliant description of the human, individual impact of a blood feud. It is very interesting to read the Kanun and try and find in it lessons about Albanian culture and history or even current Albanian politics. But we should not get over-excited about this or lose perspective. Is there anybody in 21st century Albania who really tries to live their life according to the code of Luk Dukagjini ? Is there anybody in Albania today really trapped in the world of “Broken April”? I may be wrong, but I find this hard to believe.

The fourth problem is what one might call the blood feud industry. There are NGOs in this country that have profited by exploiting this subject to obtain international funding. Every year, thousands of migrants try to claim asylum in western Europe with complicated stories of blood feuds, most of which I believe to be untrue. I cannot blame migrants from poor backgrounds for trying to improve their standard of living and that of their family. But by repeating these stories over and over again, they perpetrate myths about Albania and bring shame on their country. There are NGOs and local government officials who have developed a business in so-called blood feud certificates. These are documents intended to facilitate asylum claims outside Albania. If such officials and NGOs have information about crime, one would expect them to report it to the police or the prosecutor rather than to charge money for such certificates. I have even come across shameful cases where police officers themselves have issued such certificates instead of doing their duty to protect the public.

So what should be done to deal with this problem ? There are several things we can do.

We need accurate and unbiased information about the scale of the problem. There should be a serious and professional assessment by the Albanian government, if necessary drawing on foreign expertise.

Robust police action should be taken against those who kill those not involved in a dispute, in pursuit of a blood feud. In this context, we should approve the initiative by the former Minister of Justice, Mr Eduard Halimi, in May of this year to change the Criminal Code to increase prison sentences for blood feud killers.

We need to devise better methods of intervention and arbitration to manage violent disputes between families. Here NGOs and the Church have an important role to play.

We need to break the link between the blood feud phenomenon and migration. European countries should refuse to accept asylum claims based on stories of blood feuds. The issuing of so-called blood feud certificates should be made illegal. NGOs that sell them should be shut down. This is a racket that harms society and smears the nation’s reputation.

You need to learn from your neighbours. The Kosovars share Albanian culture and tradition. But it seems that in recent years, in particular since the coming of independence, they have been more successful in eliminating the blood feud phenomenon.

Most of all, we need to strengthen the rule of law in this country. Albania needs courts and police that the public can trust. The appropriate response to a murder is to send the murderer to prison, if necessary for the rest of his life. If the public are convinced by a fair but also strong legal system, the pressure for personal violence will fall away.

We used to have blood feuds in England too. The great 19th century novel “Lorna Doone” describes a family feud in a remote area of the west of England. It is part of our past and we enjoy reading romantic novels about it. I hope that soon blood feuds will be part of the Albanian past, not the Albanian present. I believe that this can be achieved with political will, robust law enforcement action, and the coordination of civil society, local authorities and the Church. I hope that today’s discussions will contribution towards eliminating this curse on Albanian society.

Published 16 December 2013