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Helsinki Commission Welcomes Unveiling of Berlin Memorial for Romani Genocide Victims
Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On October 24, more than 600 people in Berlin attended the unveiling of the Memorial for the Sinti¹ and Roma of Europe Murdered under National Socialism. Leaders of the Helsinki Commission, who had underscored the importance of the monument, welcomed the event.

Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, observed that the memorial “marks an important step in acknowledging and teaching about the fate of Roma at the hands of the Nazi regime and the Axis powers: persecution, confiscation of property, forced sterilization, slave labor, inhumane medical experimentation, and ultimately genocide.”

Proposals to erect a memorial to the Romani victims of genocide emerged in the early 1990s after the unification of the Federal Republic of Germany and German Democratic Republic and at a time when German acknowledgement and remembrance took on additional dimensions. Those efforts, however, bogged down over questions regarding the location of the proposed memorial and the content of inscriptions. (Concerns raised by the artist over materials and weather-related construction complications also contributed to interruptions.) German government officials also suggested some delays were caused by differing views among Romani groups, particularly regarding the inscriptions; some critics of the delays suggested there was an insufficient sense of ownership and political will on the part of the government.

Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman of the Commission, noted the singular role of Romani Rose, Chairman of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, and “his tireless work to ensure that Romani victims of genocide are remembered and honored.” Rose, who lost his grandparents at Auschwitz and Ravensbrueck, was a driving force to see the memorial completed. Cardin added, “I am deeply heartened that efforts to build this memorial, underway for over a decade, have finally been realized.”

German government officials at the most senior level attended the unveiling of the genocide memorial, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Joachim Gauck, Bundestag President Norbert Lammert, Bundesrat President Horst Seehofer, and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit. Former President Richard von Weizsacker, in spite of advanced years and frail health, was also present. Federal Minister of Culture Bernd Neumann described the memorial “a pillar of German remembrance.”

U.S. Ambassador to Germany Patrick Murphy and Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Douglas Davidson represented the United States. Dr. Ethel Brooks, who has served as a public member with the U.S. Delegation to the 2011 and 2012 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meetings, also attended the ceremony.

The memorial, designed by Israeli artist Dani Karavan, was widely hailed as a deeply moving testimony to the genocide of Romani people.

Dutch Sinto survivor Zoni Weiss addressed the hundreds of people who attended the event. As a 7-year-old, Weiss narrowly avoided being placed on the Westerbork transport from the Netherlands due to the intervention of platform policeman, but watched as his immediate family was sent to Auschwitz where they perished.

The unveiling ceremony was also accompanied by a week of events in Berlin focused on Romani history, culture and contemporary issues. Gert Weisskirchen, former German Member of the Budestag and former OSCE Personal Representative on Anti-Semitism, organized a round-table focused on contemporary challenges faced by Roma.

In her remarks at the event, Chancellor Merkel also acknowledged the on-going struggle for human rights faced by Roma throughout Europe, saying bluntly, “let’s not beat around the bush. Sinti and Roma suffer today from discrimination and exclusion.” Romani Rose warned more pointedly, “In Germany and in Europe, there is a new and increasingly violent racism against Sinti and Roma. This racism is supported not just by far-right parties and groups; it finds more and more backing in the middle of society.”

Background

The Nazis targeted Roma for extermination.

Persecution began in the 1920s, and included race-based denial of the right to vote, selection for forced sterilization, loss of citizenship on the basis of race, and incarceration in work or concentration camps.

The most notorious sites where Roma were murdered include Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland, the Jasenovac camp in the so-called Independent State of Croatia, Romanian-occupied Transnistria, and Babi-Yar in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.

In other parts of German occupied or German-allied territory, Roma were frequently killed by special SS squads or even regular army units or police, often left in mass graves.

Many scholars estimate that 500,000 Roma were killed during is World War II, although scholarship on the genocide of Roma remains in its infancy and many important archives have only become available to a broader community of researchers since the fall of communism.

In recent years, for example, Father Patrick Desbois has helped document the location of 800 WWII-mass graves in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, including 48 mass graves of Roma.

German postwar restitution legislation and its implementation effectively excluded almost all Romani survivors. Those most directly responsible for actions against Roma escaped investigation, prosecution and conviction. Several officials responsible for the deportations of Roma before and during the war continued to have responsibility for Romani affairs after the war.

In 1979, the West German Federal Parliament acknowledged the Nazi persecution of Roma as being racially motivated.

In 1982, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt recognized that the National Socialist persecution of Romani people constituted genocide.

The first German trial decision to take legal cognizance that Roma were genocide victims during the Third Reich was handed down in 1991.

In 1997, Federal President Roman Herzog opened a Documentation and Cultural Center of German Sinti and Roma, saying “The genocide of the Sinti and Roma was carried out from the same motive of racial hatred, with the same intent and the same desire for planned and final annihilation as that of the Jews. They were systematically murdered in whole families, from the small child to the old man, throughout the sphere of influence of the Nazis.”

At the 2007 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, Thommas Hammarberg, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, observed that, “[e]ven after the [ . . . ] Nazi killing of at least half a million Roma, probably 700,000 or more, there was no genuine change of attitude among the majority population towards the Roma.”

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    The briefing reviewed the current condition of life in Crimea under Russian rule. Panelists highlighted the illegal nature of Russian rule over the peninsula and described the human rights abuses commited by the new authorities. Several of the panelists described the propaganda campaign and censorship that the Russian government has been carrying out to tighten its grip on the peninsula. Participants also outlined possible responses by the international community -- particularly sanctions -- to address the situation in Crimea.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Probe Human Rights Violations in Occupied Crimea

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “Human Rights Violations in Russian-Occupied Crimea” Friday, December 11 2:00 PM Rayburn House Office Building Room B-318 Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory of Crimea in March 2014 – which flagrantly violated numerous international agreements, including core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act – resulted in a deplorable human rights situation that continues today.   Changes in government and the legal framework in Crimea following Russia’s annexation have had a toxic impact on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Violations of civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights are widespread, especially against those who openly oppose the Russian occupation, including Crimean Tatars and other ethnic, political, and religious groups. The Helsinki Commission briefing will present key findings of the recent report, “Human Rights on Occupied Territory: Case of Crimea,” prepared by an international team of lawyers led by Ivanna Bilych.  Panelists from Ukraine will provide valuable insights about the situation on the ground. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Ivanna Bilych, Co-founder and President of VOLYA Institute, board member of the Ukrainian American Bar Association Andriy Klymenko, Chief Editor of Black Sea News; prominent economist, originally from Crimea Bohdan Yaremenko, Chairman of the board of the Ukrainian non-governmental organization, Maidan of Foreign Affairs, former Ukrainian diplomat Yuriy Yatsenko, Activist of the Maidan Revolution of Dignity who was illegally imprisoned in Russia on political grounds and recently released after a year of imprisonment

  • Marking 20 Years Since the Signing of the Dayton Peace Accords

    Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, November 21 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Dayton Agreement, which ended the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995.  As a member and later Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I remember those events vividly—many Bosnians and Serbs testified before the Helsinki Commission in the 1990s (including victims of human rights abuses and human rights defenders) and some have since played leading roles as elected officials. In 1991, Frank Wolf and I visited Vukovar in neighboring Croatia while it was still under siege. With a group of other Helsinki Commissioners and Members of Congress, I urged a decisive international response under U.S. leadership from the very beginning of the war. In 1995 we spearheaded a movement to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia, so that it would not present such an inviting target to Serb militias. Sadly the embargo was lifted too late for the Bosniaks in Srebrenica.  Just last month I met with a group of young Bosniaks belonging to Voices of the Bosnian Genocide. It was so moving to meet with these young people—many of them were from Srebrenica—and to learn how many of them had taken up work or study that sought to bring some good out of the horrors of 1995. Many studied human rights law, or conflict resolution, or medicine.  Their lives were shaped not only by Srebrenica but also by Dayton, which brought an end to the killing. Yet as public officials we have a responsibility to remember that robust action earlier in the conflict could have saved many more lives and produced better prospects for the future.  Twenty years later, this Dayton anniversary offers the opportunity to assess what has been achieved in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The agreement should rightly be remembered for restoring a peace that has held to this day, and for ensuring the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Dayton gave the country time to begin to heal from a horrific conflict infamous for ethnic cleansing and atrocities against innocent civilians, including the genocide at Srebrenica— which we remembered with the unanimous passage of House Resolution 310 this past July—as well as the shelling of Sarajevo and other urban centers, and the rape and death camps established by Serb militant forces at the beginning of their aggression. In this small country, over two million were displaced by the conflict, more than 100,000 were killed, and tens of thousands were raped or tortured. Scars made by crimes of this scale still remain.  Dayton was a central part of an effort that helped the international community transition from a world divided between East and West in order to meeting post-Cold War challenges, including the extreme and violent nationalism and its inherent hatred for others which manifested itself elsewhere in the Balkans and Europe. For the first time since World War II, an international tribunal was established to hold persons accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Determining the fate of missing persons, using new technology such as satellite photography to locate mass graves and DNA testing to identify remains, became a priority. The NATO Alliance, previously confined to the borders of its member states, expanded its security role to operate ‘‘out of area,’’ first to restore peace and then to keep it. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also evolved to include significant field operations and new mandates ranging from election observation to police training. These developments remain relevant today.  As we commemorate the accomplishments of Dayton, Mr. Speaker, we also must remember that the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina must live in its wake. It is my hope that, at the 30th anniversary of the end of the conflict, Bosnia will have made more progress and we will have more to celebrate.

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Honored by Voices of the Bosnian Genocide

    WASHINGTON—Voices of the Bosnian Genocide honored Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) on Thursday with an award recognizing his efforts to ensure that the genocide at Srebrenica is acknowledged. “It is moving to receive this award from young people, many of whom are survivors of the genocide or lost relatives at Srebrenica and are now working to promote human rights,” said Rep. Smith. “Today the international community is nearly unanimous when it proclaims that the Srebrenica massacre was a genocide, although shockingly, there are those who continue to deny that the policies of aggression and ethnic cleansing implemented by Serb forces meet that criteria.” For more than 20 years, Rep. Smith has worked tirelessly to see that the perpetrators of the horrific acts at Srebrenica and elsewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina are punished and that closure is provided to survivors and victims’ families. In July 2015, Rep. Smith authored H. Res. 310 defining the Srebrenica massacre as a genocide, which was passed unanimously by the U.S. House of Representatives.   Voices of the Bosnian Genocide is a Seattle-based nonprofit organization devoted to raising awareness and educating the public about the genocide that took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s and the ongoing effects that the genocide is having on Bosnia and the world. The group is made up of individuals who are passionate about genocide education and prevention and human rights.

  • Smith Resolution to Help Protect Jewish Communities in Europe Passes House Unanimously

    WASHINGTON—Following the recent upswing in violent anti-Semitic attacks in several European nations, the U.S. House of Representatives today unanimously passed legislation urging the United States and European governments to take key steps to help keep Jewish communities safe. The legislation was introduced by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). “The number of violent anti-Semitic attacks has increased from 100 to 400 percent in some European countries since 2013,” said Rep. Smith, who co-chairs the Bipartisan Taskforce for Combating Anti-Semitism. “The murders in Paris, Copenhagen, and elsewhere reminded us that there are those who are motivated by anti-Semitism and have the will to kill.” H. Res. 354 calls on the U.S. Administration to encourage European governments, law enforcement agencies, and intergovernmental organizations to formally recognize and partner with Jewish community groups to strengthen crisis prevention, preparedness, mitigation, and responses related to anti-Semitic attacks. “This resolution calls for the United States Government to work with our European allies on specific actions that are essential to keep European Jewish communities safe and secure,” Rep. Smith continued. “It is based on consultations with the leading experts who are working directly with these communities.” The legislation passed today was endorsed by leading Jewish community groups including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Orthodox Union, the Secure Community Network, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The 89 bipartisan co-sponsors included all seven of the other co-Chairs of the House of Representatives Bipartisan Taskforce for Combating Anti-Semitism: Reps. Ted Deutch (FL-21), Nita Lowey (NY-17), Eliot Engel (NY-16), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), Kay Granger (TX-12), Steve Israel (NY-03), and Peter Roskam (IL-06). “Jewish Federations are grateful to the House of Representatives for passing a responsive resolution today, which provides a needed framework for how the U.S. government and Jewish community security groups like the Secure Community Network can work with their European counterparts to combat increasing anti-Semitic attacks in Europe,” said William C. Daroff, Senior Vice President for Public Policy and Director of the Washington Office of the Jewish Federations of North America. “Jewish Federations are proud to have worked with Congress on this resolution's language and passage.” “Battling the anti-Semitic threats facing European Jewish communities is vital to ensure the democratic and pluralistic fabric of Europe for all its citizens,” said American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris. “This resolution sends a powerful message that battling the anti-Semitic threats facing European Jewish communities is a shared responsibility.” “As a former law enforcement executive responsible for the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes, I applaud the unwavering leadership and determination of Congressman Smith for bringing this resolution to fruition,” said Paul Goldenberg, National Director of the Secure Community Network.  “It is a time of tremendous need, concern and uncertainty for all faith-based communities who face intimidation, hate crimes and fear of violence.” Rep. Smith has a long record as a congressional leader in the fight against anti-Semitism.  He is the author of the provisions of the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004 that created the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism within the U.S. State Department. Following his 2002 landmark hearing on combating the escalation of anti-Semitic violence in Europe, “Escalating Anti-Semitic Violence in Europe,” he led a congressional drive to place the issue of combating anti-Semitism at the top of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) agenda, as a result of which in 2004 the OSCE adopted new norms for its participating States on fighting anti-Semitism.  In 2009, he delivered the keynote address at the Interparliamentary Coalition Combating Anti-Semitism London conference. In the 1990s, he chaired Congress’s first hearings on anti-Semitism and in the early 1980s, his first trips abroad as a member of Congress were to the former Soviet Union, where he fought for the release of Jewish “refuseniks.”

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Honored by American Hungarian Federation

    WASHINGTON—The American Hungarian Federation honored Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) on October 22 with its Colonel Commandant Michael Kovats Medal of Freedom, awarded to outstanding individuals to recognize their life's achievements, dedication to freedom and democracy, promotion of transatlantic relations, and meritorious contribution to society. “I am delighted to have received the Kovats award, which represents the long-standing commitment of Hungarian Americans to the United States and is a testament to the special ties between our two nations,” said Rep. Smith. “Colonel Kovats gave his life for the cause of freedom during the American Revolution, and truly embodied the courage and patriotism of the Hungarian people. This courage was reflected during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet-installed communist dictatorship, which remains a model of patriotism, heroism and resistance against tyranny.” Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL-03) was also honored with the Kovats Medal by the American Hungarian Federation, which was founded in 1906. It is the largest Hungarian-American umbrella organization in the United States and among the oldest ethnic organizations in the country. “Rep. Smith is a strong supporter of good bilateral relations with Hungary, and recognizes that the U.S. has a strategic interest in maintaining good ties with that country,” said Frank Koszorús, Jr., National President of the American Hungarian Federation.  “He steadfastly promotes human rights and democracy, and has traveled to Budapest to better gauge what is happening on the ground and to understand the country, its people, its hopes and fears, and its accomplishments over the centuries.” Also attending Thursday’s event, which marked the 59th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, were Hungarian Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25), and Rep. Dennis Ross (FL-15). “It was in the month of October, on the twenty-third day in 1956, that the small Eastern European nation of Hungary rose up in a revolution against the Soviet Union that represented the first major challenge to its military dominion since World War II… this was David facing down Goliath in the modern era, and as such it remains and will remain an inspiration to freedom loving people everywhere,” said Dr. Louis S. Segesvary of the American Hungarian Federation. “Hungary and the United States share a similar past. Both risked revolutions against the greatest powers of their times.” “Almost 60 years after the Hungarian revolution, and more than 25 years after the regime change, it is more important than ever for Hungarians and Americans alike to remember that communism was not a beautiful utopia,” said Marion Smith, Executive Director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which co-hosted the program. “It was and is an ideology that enables tyranny. Communist regimes everywhere systematically killed a portion of their own people as a matter of policy in peacetime, denied citizens their basic rights, robbed them of their food and of their labor, and tore families apart in maintaining a police state.”

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