By Erika B. Schlager,
Counsel for International Law
On April 8, Romani communities throughout the OSCE region celebrated International Roma Day. Numerous recent events, however, underscored the profound prejudice Roma continue to face.
On April 8, 1971, Roma from across Europe met in London for the first congress of the International Romani Union (IRU). At the 4thcongress of the IRU, convened in Warsaw in 1990, participants designated April 8 as “International Roma Day” and, in subsequent years, International Roma Day has been an occasion not only to celebrate Romani language, history and culture, but also to draw attention to the often deplorable conditions in which Roma live. In 2000, the day was marked by an appeal by Pope John Paul II for “full respect for the human dignity of these brothers and sisters.” His remarks – coming after the beatification of Spanish Romani martyr Ceferino Gimenez Malla – reflected a growing awareness of the plight of Roma and simultaneously contributed to better understanding of Romani experiences.
This Year’s International Roma Day
International Roma Day was marked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a video address posted on the Department of State website and broadcast at events at several U.S. Embassies in Europe. (Her remarks were also translated into Romani and circulated on the internet by Romani NGOs.)
Many United States embassies in Europe hosted or participated in a diverse array of related events. In Vienna, the United States Mission to the OSCE used the occasion to raise Romani human rights issues at the weekly meeting of the Permanent Council (see statement below). In particular, the Mission urged the Italian and Hungarian delegations to provide information on efforts to prosecute violent attacks against Roma in those countries.
In addition, many human rights organizations drew attention to continuing violations of the human rights of Roma and many Romani nongovernmental organizations hosted cultural or other activities. For example, the San Francisco-based NGO Voice of Roma organized a series of activities including music, traditional crafts, dance, film and discussion.
At the international level, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Rights, the Council of Europe, and other human rights bodies also observed International Roma Day.
In recent months, however, there has been an alarming rise in manifestations of profound prejudice directed against Roma.
Notoriously, there have been dozens of violent attacks against Roma in Hungary over the course of the past year, including six murders. The most shocking attack occurred in February, when 27-year-old Robert Csorba and his five-year-old son, Robert, were murdered. Their home was set on fire and then, apparently, father and child were riddled with bullets to prevent them from escaping the blaze. Several other attacks against Roma have also involved Molotov cocktails used to set houses on fire. Other children have been injured in various attacks.
Thus far, there has not been a single successful prosecution for any of these attacks. Moreover, the Hungarian government has asserted that only a court can determine if an attack is ethnically motivated and therefore it is inappropriate to characterize this wave of violence as racist or ethnically motivated. (Incongruously, Hungarian government officials continue to raise concern about ethnically motivated acts against Hungarian minorities in neighboring states. In early April, for example, Hungarian officials called on Serbian authorities to address crimes that Budapest characterized as anti-Hungarian.)
On April 7, the home of a local Romani official, Lidia Horvath, was set on fire. She subsequently asserted that the attack was directed at her as retaliation for her efforts to shed light on the murder of the Csorba family, which investigators initially dismissed as death by accidental fire.
Separately, controversy erupted in April regarding an interview with Mate Szabo, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Civil Rights, who referred to “Tsigan [loosely translatable as “Gypsy”] crime.” His remarks come at a time when not only extremist organizations but often mainstream public figures and media outlets are fixated on the notion of alleged “Gypsy criminality.” Almost 60% of the respondents in a recent Hungarian opinion poll said they believed that “crime is in the blood of Roma.” Five leading human rights groups in Hungary denounced the ombudsman’s comments and Szabo subsequently retracted his remarks. (Specifically, they objected to the association – by the civil rights commissioner, no less – of a particular ethnic group with crime.) In contrast, National Police Chief Jozsef Bencze participated in an event celebrating International Roma Day at which he stated, “There is no collective guilt because crime cannot be associated with color.”
The Czech Republic
In November 2008, hundreds of extremists rioted in the Czech town of Litvinov, requiring a thousand Czech police officers marshaled from around the country to hold them at bay. Some human rights activists believe that, with the Litvinov experience in mind, extremists hoped to exploit the focus of security agencies on Prague during the April 5 summit meeting there, attended by President Obama.
Accordingly, on April 4, an estimated 700 radicals descended on the town of Prerov, reportedly with the intent of intimidating and attacking Romani residents. As it happened, Czech authorities in Prerov were able to deploy enough law enforcement personnel, including riot police, to largely contain the extremists.
“Extremism” in the Czech Republic may be spurred by the extent to which intolerance manifests itself in what passes for mainstream political discourse. Among some public officials, overtly anti-Roma statements continue to be uttered without any discernible political consequences. For example, in 2005 President Vaclav Klaus denied that the Lety concentration camp was actually a concentration camp. Instead, using a common Nazi description of Roma, Klaus asserted that Lety was a place for “people who refused to work”. (Lety was established during the Nazi occupation of the Czech Republic as a concentration camp for Roma. Hundreds died at the camp and many more were deported to Auschwitz.) While still serving as a local mayor, Czech Senator Liana Janackova was recorded describing herself as a racist and saying she would like to get rid of local Roma with dynamite. Some local officials continue to describe Roma as “unadaptable” – another Nazi-era concept – and some Czech media outlets quote these officials, albeit, without an apparent understanding of the historical use of this term.
On April 7, the Slovak daily Sme broke the story of six Romani boys who had been detained on March 21 by police in Kosice, forced to strip naked and commit violent acts against each other – all captured on film by the arresting officials. The video, quickly posted on You Tube, records the laughter and jeers of the police as they abuse the children. Several news stories have compared the incident to the notorious Abu Ghraib photos, and some have recalled the 2001 incident in which a Slovak Romani man, Karol Sendrei, died after being chained to a radiator in a police station and beaten over the course of a night.
The abuse has been widely condemned in Slovakia and led to the immediate suspension of nine police officers. Additional investigation into the incident is continuing.
In a less widely reported incident on April 4, 10 Romani men traveling to a construction site were attacked on a bus in Bratislava. Three of them had to be hospitalized.
Off the Front Pages and Under the Bridges
While these incidents have all garnered headlines, a broad range of chronic problems continue to gnaw away at the fabric of Romani life, including endemic discrimination in education, employment, and social services. Discrimination in housing has a multiplier effect on the lives of Roma, and large-scale forced evictions of Roma are a regular occurrence in many parts of the OSCE region. As a consequence, some Romani families that have been settled for generations find themselves forced into a kind of 21st century involuntary “nomadism.” At the same time, deeply entrenched stereotypes about exotic Roma lifestyles have made it easier for majority societies to ignore the long-term implications of social policies that further marginalize Romani children.
On March 13, Amnesty International expressed concern about imminent plans by authorities in Milan to evict a community of some 150 Roma living under an overpass. Amnesty noted that there appeared to be no provision of adequate alternative housing and, accordingly, the Roma were at risk of falling into a cycle of such evictions. Similarly, on International Roma Day, Human Rights Watch drew attention to the plight of 47 Roma families forcibly evicted in Belgrade on April 3, 2009. They were removed from housing that was deemed by authorities to be “substandard” – but the families were left without an adequate alternative. In Kosovo, several NGOs, as well as the Ombudsman Institution, noted that Roma continue to live in lead-contaminated areas of northern Mitrovica, and called for their immediate and sustainable relocation. In Romania, NGOs continue to monitor displacements of Roma in Miercurea Ciuc, Piatra Neamt, and elsewhere – displacements that are hard to reconcile with a stated government policy of integrating Roma and improving access to education for Romani children.
Aberrations or Trends?
As reflected in the joint statement issued on International Roma Day by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, many observers are concerned that Roma will be the scapegoats of the current economic crisis.
Yet the ongoing wave of violence against Roma escalated in Hungary and Italy for many months before the onset of the current economic crisis, and is therefore most likely rooted in longstanding prejudices against Roma. Accordingly, it is necessary for governments to re-double their efforts to combat prejudice against Roma. Given that much of contemporary bigotry against Roma still exploits the racist ideology grounded in 20th century eugenics most notoriously embraced by the Nazis, raising awareness of the content of that ideology, as it applied to Roma, is critical.
Some governments have, in fact, improved efforts to commemorate Romani Holocaust losses – including Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. More of this effort needs to be brought into the classroom and, of course, reflected in the discourse of public leaders.
Statement on International Roma Day
U.S. Committed to Protecting and Promoting the Human Rights of Roma
United States Mission to the OSCE
Statement on International Roma Day
As prepared for delivery by Chargé d’ Affaires Kyle Scott to the Permanent Council, Vienna
April 2, 2009
On April 8, we will celebrate International Roma Day, an opportunity to call attention to the history, experiences, and human rights of Europe’s largest ethnic minority. The United States is committed to protecting and promoting the human rights of Roma. Despite important progress that has been made in the last decade, too many Roma still live on the margins of society. Roma continue to experience racial profiling, violence, discrimination, and other human rights abuses. Too often, they lack identity documents or citizenship papers, which exclude them from voting, social services, education, and employment opportunities.
During the last year, the participating States and the OSCE have given much-needed attention to the situation of Roma, including through the Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting last July, the visits by the High Commissioner on National Minorities and the ODIHR to Italy, and in our Ministerial Decision 6/08 adopted in Helsinki. We look forward to the discussion of early education for Romani children during the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw later this year.
The United States also welcomes efforts by governments and nongovernmental organizations to ensure that the genocide of European Roma is never forgotten. We encourage all participating States to consider ways to better incorporate the genocide of European Roma into educational curricula, including the publication this month of a book in Romania on the deportation of Roma to Transnistria. We note that a monument to Romani victims of the “Porajmos,” the term some Roma use to describe Nazi attempts to exterminate Romani people of Europe during the Holocaust, will be unveiled in Berlin later this year, and also welcome plans to establish an educational and documentation center on the site of a former Romani concentration camp in South Moravia.
Unfortunately, as Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg observed at the 2007 HDIM, even after the genocide of Roma, “there was no genuine change of attitude among the majority population towards the Roma.” Today, in some of OSCE participating States, local officials continue to describe Roma as “unadaptable,” routinely using a Nazi-era term.
Governments have a special responsibility to ensure that minority communities have the tools of opportunity that they need to succeed as productive and responsible members of society. The United States is deeply concerned about the escalation of anti-Roma hate crimes in some OSCE participating States. In this regard, we would welcome information from the Italian delegation regarding efforts to prosecute individuals for participating in mob attacks on Romani camps in 2007 and 2008, when Italian police provided protection to camp residents. We also support efforts by the Hungarian government to prosecute those responsible for recent violent attacks against Roma, including the February murder of Robert Csorba and his five-year-old son.
In closing, the United States urges OSCE participating States to honor their commitment—first made a decade ago at the 1999 Istanbul Summit—to ensure that national laws and policies fully respect the rights of Roma. Furthermore, governments must commit to effectively enforcing these laws.
Thank you, Madam Chairwoman.