the United Nations, Fernando Ortiz '79 works to construct legal
systems in Kosovo and Afghanistan
By Laura Butchy
the fall of 1999, Fernando Ortiz '79 was well on his way toward
earning his pension, having worked for the New York Police
Department for 14 years. He'd become heavily involved in alumni
affairs at Columbia, was midway through his two-year term as vice
president of the alumni Outreach Committee and was working with
current students through the Latino Mentor program. He was enjoying
time with his wife, Ofelia, and their two children, who were
rapidly approaching high school.
Then, one Saturday, he received a phone call from the 38th
floor of the United Nations building, the floor that houses
Secretary General Kofi Annan.
you go to Kosovo for us on Monday?
took the leap of faith," Ortiz says, "and I went to
Within two days, arrangements had been made, plane tickets and
visas were ready and Ortiz began working for the U.N. Mission in
Kosovo (UNMIK), a world away from Columbia and New York City.
Arriving in Pristina as a legal officer, he immediately was faced
with the devastation: empty streets and smoking ruins, no one
working or going to school, little water or food — and no one
Ortiz's arrival, much of Pristina, Kosovo's capital, looked like
this site behind the U.N. building.
Ortiz's role, as part of the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping
Operations, was to help establish a law enforcement system in
Kosovo. "I set up the local judicial system including the Supreme
Court, the Five District Courts and the Municipal and Commercial
courts," Ortiz explains.
also wrote a guide for a tribunal to prosecute war criminals. He
says the hope is to make Kosovo more secure while working toward a
political framework, economic reconstruction and humanitarian
"Fernando played an important role," says Michael Jorsback, who
was deputy police commissioner in charge of UNMIK police in Kosovo.
"[He] gave advice within the Judicial Affairs Department and
liaised with the legal officers in the UNMIK Police legal
While much remains to be done in Kosovo, Ortiz now has an
additional focus: Afghanistan. At first, he was asked to go there
in early December, but then it was decided it would be safer to
send two non-American delegates for the initial U.N. survey team.
"Police and judicial experts will conduct a preliminary assessment
of Afghanistan's needs," Ortiz says, "to help develop the
that mandate has been approved, Ortiz expects to be dispatched to
Afghanistan, where he anticipates a difficult time trying to
develop a judicial system. "Kosovo had judges, lawyers and
prosecutors who had been out of practice for 10 years because of
[Slobodan] Milosevic," he says. "The problem with Afghanistan is
that there is no middle class. We don't have trained people already
member of the U.N. Secretariat, Ortiz represents 189 member
countries. "If terrorism is an attack on the civilized world, then
it is by definition an attack on the United Nations as an
organization," he says. "It is both a challenge and a warning
— a challenge to do better in all spheres, and a warning that
conflicts and poverty and injustice, if allowed to take root, will
fester and give rise to frustration, desperation and
government office building that served as Ortiz's workplace is
clearly part of a nation in turmoil.
Ortiz was encouraged in his humanitarian pursuits by his
parents, who emigrated from Puerto Rico and worked multiple jobs to
put him through Catholic school in the South Bronx. He became the
first person in his family to earn a college degree, followed by
his younger sister, who works for the U.N. in The Hague.
After studying political science and Spanish literature at
Columbia, Ortiz pursued his master's in Madrid, then attended NYU
Law School on a full scholarship. From 1982-84, Ortiz interned for
a think tank as a U.N. Institute for Training and Research Fellow.
He then worked for NYC in various capacities, beginning as an
examining attorney in the Department of Investigation and moving to
the police department as an assistant advocate and then agency
"Fernando's background from police [work] was important,"
Jorsback says. "[Fernando] was the only legal officer in Judicial
Affairs who understood police legal problems."
came the call from a former co-worker at the U.N. who remembered
his work there 14 years earlier, and in the fall of 1999, Ortiz
joined the U.N. Department of Judicial Affairs. After arriving in
Macedonia, he traveled to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, a
six-hour bus ride that took him past mass gravesites. When he found
an apartment after several days, there was no electricity, water or
heat. Ortiz traveled in an armored vehicle, with military or police
escort, when visiting the five regions of Kosovo to interview
came face to face with the trauma of an entire population that had
been terrified and hounded out of their homes or into hiding,"
Ortiz remembers. "There was little acknowledgment of what these
people had just endured, and true justice still had not been
somber memorial commemorates 19 executions of local community
members in 1999.
Department of Judicial Affairs established intermediary measures to
increase the effectiveness of the legal system. International
judges and prosecutors were employed and existing Kosovo law was
supplemented with regulations against hatred and intolerance. After
five months, though, only 35 trials, in one region of Kosovo, had
been completed for more than 400 murders. According to Ortiz, a
culture of silence was keeping witnesses from
"Biases stemming from decades of ethnic conflict have
negatively impacted the ability of prosecutors and judges to
perform their functions," Ortiz says. "The inability of law
enforcement authorities to provide full protection to members of
the judiciary, victims and witnesses has enabled certain defendants
to manipulate the outcome of criminal proceedings through
Since then, changes to criminal procedure have begun providing
more protection for witnesses and allowing police officers, rather
than international civilian police, a more significant role in
investigations. Appointed judges are being systematically phased
out and replaced by newly elected local and regional
when he was in Kosovo, Ortiz remembered Columbia. "Professor Billy
Thompson had an impact on me because he taught me how important it
was to pay attention to details and symbolisms in medieval Spanish
literature," Ortiz says. "My trip to Kosovo reminded me of the
medieval period, so that course made me feel right at
Ortiz's loyalty to the College has been evident in his
continuing involvement as a devoted alumnus. He has received the
Charles Bjorkwall Prize for outstanding service to the College
community and belongs to the Latino Alumni Association. He was the
first alumnus to be cited for outstanding achievement by the Higher
Education Opportunity Program and has served as a counselor for
HEOP. He also served as the first vice president of the Columbia
College Alumni Association's Outreach Committee.
March 1999, he helped launch the Latino Mentor program, which
matches Latino students with alumni contacts. Jorge Herrera '01,
president of his class, was paired with Ortiz for two years and
successfully campaigned for Ortiz to receive the first Latino
Alumni Mentor Award last April.
instilled a confidence in me," Herrera says of Ortiz. "Even when he
was in Europe, he called me. Our personalities clicked. We both
love the law and aspire to use the law not for personal gain but
for love and desire to help people."
dedicated family man, Fernando Ortiz '79 is devoted to his
daughter, Christine; his son, Fernando III; and his wife,
addition to his dedication to the College, Ortiz is a devoted
family man who hopes to be a positive role model, as his parents
were to him. His wife, Ofelia, who is originally from Peru, has
worked at the U.N. for more than 20 years as special assistant to
the legal counsel. They have two children: Christine (15) attends
Bronx High School of Science, and Fernando III (12) is in parochial
school in Queens. Both, Ortiz says with pride, hope to attend the
After returning to New York in November 2000, Ortiz officially
began working in U.N. headquarters as legal officer to the civilian
police and military divisions, providing legal guidance, developing
doctrine, and serving as legal counsel to the police and military
Ortiz returned to Kosovo for a brief trip in August 2001 to
respond to complaints by accused Serbian war criminals that they
had been jailed for more than a year with no trial dates set. Ortiz
prompted the local courts to set dates and handled other
grievances, but says much remains to be done.
intervention by NATO in Kosovo in the first place was to protect a
minority and to ensure the human rights of the oppressed and
vulnerable," he says. "Our efforts to do the same for the current
minorities, particularly the Serbs, have failed. I believe this is
the single most important issue that will ultimately determine how
we will be judged — our ability to protect the
About the Author: Laura Butchy is a staff writer
for Columbia College Today who is studying dramaturgy at the
School of the Arts.