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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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    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced a workshop to provide human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. HOW TO GET HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSERS AND KLEPTOCRATS SANCTIONED UNDER THE GLOBAL MAGNITSKY ACT Tuesday, March 13, 2018 3:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 212-10 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Sanctions experts will describe, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also will discuss the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists will share investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates. Panelists include: Rob Berschinski, Senior Vice President, Human Rights First; former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brad Brooks-Rubin, Managing Director, The Sentry; formerly with the Departments of State and Treasury Bill Browder, Founder and Director, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Mark Dubowitz, CEO, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Adam Smith, Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; formerly with the National Security Council and Department of Treasury Josh White, Director of Policy and Analysis, The Sentry; formerly with the Department of Treasury The Global Magnitsky Act is a powerful new tool for deterring human rights violations and fighting corruption. Presence on this list freezes any U.S. assets an individual may hold, blocks future transactions within the U.S. financial system, and bans any travel to the United States. By sanctioning individuals who engage in the worst abuses of power, the United States hardens its own system to external abuse while extending moral support and solidarity to those whose fundamental freedoms are curtailed or denied.

  • Screening and Discussion: "And We Were Germans"

    To celebrate Black History Month, the Helsinki Commission screened “And We Were Germans: The Life of Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi and Ralph Giordano.” The 30-minute film chronicles the journey of Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi, an Afro-German survivor of the Holocaust who emigrated to the United States and became the editor of Ebony magazine, one of the first monthly publications for African-Americans.  The film connects the experience of Afro-German and Jewish-German survivors of the Holocaust by recounting Massaquoi’s experience in Germany, including his relationship with Ralph Giordano, a lifelong Jewish friend. To introduce the film, Dr. Mischa Thompson of the Helsinki Commission spoke about the Commission’s focus on diverse and vulnerable populations from Roma and Jewish populations to national minorities and migrants in Europe and the United States since its inception. She also discussed Commissioner’s work on the situation of People of African Descent in Europe or Black Europeans, including hearings and legislation in the U.S. Congress and resolutions and events in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and OSCE.  The film was followed by a conversation with director John A. Kantara about the film and current situation of people of African descent in Germany and across Europe. Kantara discussed his motivation for making the film and what he considered to be the most moving parts of the process. He found inspiration after traveling with young Afro-Germans to Chicago and attending a cultural exchange with African-Americans where he met Hans Massaquoi. He was concerned that Black German history was not widely taught in schools, nor was there a strong awareness of the Afro-German population’s history from Germany's colonization of Namibia, Burundi, and Tanzania to the children of African-American soldiers stationed in Germany. Kantara made the film with the hope that he could change the lack of education regarding black history in Germany. Kantara also elaborated on what moved him during the filmmaking process, noting the importance of African-American struggles during the U.S. civil rights movement to Afro-Germans. He indicated that trying to organize people who have been affected by discrimination and racism is an important task, and was his primary aim throughout the filmmaking process. Kantara also offered his thoughts on the new release Black Panther, noting the large turnout in Berlin and special initiatives to screen the film for Afro-German youth. Kantara revealed that it was remarkable to see young black Germans relate to the movie, and identifying with the people and plot of the film.

  • European Security in 2018

    From the Kremlin-engineered conflict in Ukraine, which has killed over 10,000 people, wounded tens of thousands, and displaced over a million, to military exercises designed to intimidate Russia’s neighbors, Moscow’s actions have severely undermined security and stability throughout Europe – including that of U.S. allies and partners. From November 2014 until his retirement in December 2017, Lieutenant General (Ret.) Frederick Benjamin “Ben” Hodges helped lead the U.S. response to Russia’s military aggression as Commanding General of U.S. Army Europe. Hodges was credited by Gen. Curtis M. Scapparrotti, commander of European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, with leading American land forces during one of the most volatile periods in recent European history and driving an increased U.S. force presence to deter further aggression and reassure allies. During the briefing, General Hodges offered his perspective on the importance of Europe to the United States, NATO’s success in maintaining stability in Europe, and the significance of the United States’ relationship with Germany. The economic relationship between Europe and the United States and the reliability of European partners underlined the continued strategic relevance of Europe to the U.S., Hodges argued. General Hodges also emphasized the importance of the strategic relationship between Germany and the United States. He noted the importance of Germany to our own economic prosperity, as well as access to military bases throughout the country, asserting, “We’ll always have a special relationship with the UK, for historical, cultural reasons. But in terms of what’s most important, it’s Germany.” In response to questions from Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Alex Tiersky, General Hodges outlined the U.S. Army’s support to Ukraine in the wake of ongoing Russian aggression, noting the utility of the training mission in Yavoriv to both sides, with American soldiers gaining critical insights on Russian tactics and technology. General Hodges also addressed the provision of lethal military assistance to Ukraine in the context of supporting Ukrainian sovereignty and, ultimately, a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Tiersky also asked about ZAPAD 2017, a Russian military exercise which took place across Russian and Belarus, as well as broader trends in Russian military exercises. Hodges underlined the lack of Russian transparency regarding ZAPAD, and described its broad scale and ambition.  The exercise had the positive effect of forcing impressive intelligence sharing among Allies, Hodges revealed, a dynamic he hoped would endure. Hodges also commented on Turkey’s strategic direction; NATO reform and defense spending commitments; cyber conflict; and the role of multilateral institutions.

  • The Ongoing Tragedy of International Parental Child Abduction

    Each year, between 600 and 800 American children are taken from the United States by one parent without the consent of the other.  The parent left behind can only wonder if the children are safe, warm, well-fed, and loved, and what – if anything – their precious children are being told about them.  Many children are intentionally misled by the taking parent to hate and distrust the left-behind parent.  Abducted children also suffer tremendously from the abduction and the subsequent loss of contact with the left-behind parent.  Research shows that abducted children who are recovered often experience a range of serious short- and long-term emotional and psychological problems, including anxiety, eating disorders, nightmares, mood swings, sleep disturbances, aggressive behavior, resentment, guilt, and fearfulness.    In 1988, the United States became a party to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which seeks to deter parents from putting their children through the trauma of an international abduction by—absent a grave threat to a child’s well-being—returning abducted children back to their home country and home courts to determine the best interests of the child.  The Convention affirms that if a custody decision has already been made, it should not be re-litigated thousands of miles away in a foreign court. If a custody decision needs to be made, the courts in the home country are the courts with the best access to school records, police reports, neighbors, teachers, friends, and many other resources to help determine the child’s best interest.  The Convention also protects an abducted child’s relationship with the left-behind parent, requiring that a child should have access to the parent for the duration of court proceedings for return, and should have access to the parent even if the return is denied. Seven of eleven Partners for Cooperation, including Japan, are party to the Hague Convention, as are fifty-one of fifty-seven participating States, including Slovakia.   However, as the Cook and Frisancho families know all too well, securing implementation of the Convention can be a financially and emotionally draining nightmare. Japan James Cook learned just weeks ago that Japan has again failed to return his four children to him.  He has been kept from contact with them for more than three years in a family vacation-turned-abduction case.  More than two years ago, Japan’s high court ordered Cook’s ex-wife to return the children to their father in the U.S., per the Hague Convention. However, despite the court ruling, Japanese authorities failed to enforce the return decision for a year.  As a result, Mr. Cook spent thousands of dollars on legal fees and travel to Japan to fight for his children.  When the financial burden forced Mr. Cook to move to an apartment, Japanese courts revoked the return because they did not consider an apartment a “stable home”—a conclusion that would surprise the millions of families in Japan and the U.S. who live happily in apartments.   That conclusion also would surprise the writers of the Convention, who provided as an exception to return “grave threats that would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation”—situations that would include war, famine, a disease epidemic, or very serious abuse or neglect of the child from which the home country could not protect the child.    “Japan’s own Hague courts twice ordered return of my children, but Japan ignored the orders until they could find a way to revoke them,” said Mr. Cook. “I followed the rules, respected the process, and trusted in the Convention—but Japan remains the ‘black hole’ of child abduction.” Slovakia Dr. Augusto Frisancho knows all too well the heartache of winning in court, only to have enforcement of a judgment delayed until it is eventually reversed.  Dr. Frisancho, a medical doctor at the Johns Hopkins University, has not seen or even been allowed to speak to his three sons after their mother abducted them to Slovakia seven years ago.   Like Mr. Cook, Dr. Frisancho opted to use the Hague Convention rather than seek the criminal prosecution of his estranged spouse in the United States or Slovakia for kidnapping.  The Slovak courts ordered that his children be returned to the United States to resolve any custody questions.  Although the court order returning custody to Dr. Frisancho was—according to standard procedural rules governing such legal actions—final, a year later the decision was reversed in a closed-door proceeding from which Dr. Frisancho was excluded. Dr. Frisancho took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, which found unanimously that his rights had been violated by Slovakia.  Slovakia paid the court-imposed damage award and changed its laws on closed proceedings and appeals in abduction cases.   However, seven years after the abduction, Dr. Frisancho still has no access to his children, much less custody.  He has not even been given a photo of his children and relies on age-enhanced images from the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children to see a glimpse of what his children may look like today. When Slovakia ordered Dr. Frisancho’s estranged wife to bring the children to court to verify their well-being with a psychologist, she refused.  When Slovakia ordered her not to remove the children from Slovakia, she moved the children across the border into Hungary. Although the children regularly visit their grandparents in Slovakia and Dr. Frisancho’s estranged wife works in Slovakia, Slovakia has not enforced the court orders or ruled on Dr. Frisancho’s petition to finish the case.  Were Slovakia to finish the case, Dr. Frisancho could enforce the ruling in Hungary using the Brussels II Regulation.  As it is, Dr. Frisancho is facing the fact that he may have to translate thousands of pages of Slovakian court proceedings into Hungarian and restart his case in Hungary—losing more precious time with his children. “I want to see my children.  I want my children to know they have a father who loves them dearly and who prays every night that somehow this wrong to them will be righted,” said Dr. Frisancho.  “Despite every opportunity over 7 years, Slovakia has inexplicably failed to meet the two main goals of the Hague Convention—return and access.”

  • Chairman Wicker Statement on Lethal Arms Sales to Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has issued the following statement in response to the Trump Administration’s approval of lethal arms sales to Ukraine: “The President’s decision is a good first step to give the Ukrainian people the means to defend themselves. ‎The best way to stop Russian aggression is to deter it. I am hopeful that approval will also be given to future sales of anti-tank weapons and other heavy arms.” The decision by the Department of State was reported as the fighting in eastern Ukraine has sharply escalated to levels not seen in months, following Russian unilateral withdrawal from a coordination mechanism critical to prior de-escalations and local ceasefires. The conditions of civilians in Eastern Ukraine was the focus of a November 30 Helsinki Commission briefing featuring a senior OSCE monitor.

  • The International Tribunal and Beyond: Pursuing Justice for Atrocities in the Western Balkans

    Between 1991 and 2001 the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, made up of six republics, was broken apart by a series of brutal armed conflicts. The conflicts were characterized by widespread and flagrant violations of international humanitarian law, among them mass killings of civilians, the massive, organized and systematic detention and rape of women, torture, and practices of ethnic cleansing, including forced displacement. In 1992 the U.N. established a Commission of Experts that documented the horrific crimes on the ground and led to the 1993 creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). This month, after more than two decades of persistent, ground-breaking efforts to prosecute the individuals responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, the ICTY is concluding its work. As it prepares to close its doors, this briefing will assess the tribunal’s achievements and limitations, and most importantly, what still needs to be done by the countries of the region to seek justice in outstanding cases, bring greater closure to victims, and foster greater reconciliation among peoples. Panelists discussed these questions and suggested ways that the United States, Europe, and the international community as a whole can encourage the further pursuit of justice in the Western Balkans.

  • Helsinki Commission, Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Announce Briefing on Justice in Western Balkans and Closing of International Tribunal

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) today announced the following briefing: THE INTERNATIONAL TRIBUNAL AND BEYOND: PURSUING JUSTICE FOR ATROCITIES IN THE WESTERN BALKANS Tuesday, December 12, 2017 10:00 AM - 11:30 PM Rayburn House Office Building Room 2255 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Between 1991 and 2001 the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, made up of six republics, was broken apart by a series of brutal armed conflicts. The conflicts were characterized by widespread and flagrant violations of international humanitarian law, among them mass killings of civilians, the massive, organized and systematic detention and rape of women, torture, and practices of ethnic cleansing, including forced displacement. In 1992 the U.N. established a Commission of Experts that documented the horrific crimes on the ground and led to the 1993 creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). This month, after more than two decades of persistent, ground-breaking efforts to prosecute the individuals responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, the ICTY is concluding its work. As it prepares to close its doors, this briefing will assess the tribunal’s achievements and limitations, and most importantly, what still needs to be done by the countries of the region to seek justice in outstanding cases, bring greater closure to victims, and foster greater reconciliation among peoples. Panelists will discuss these questions and suggest ways that the United States, Europe, and the international community as a whole can encourage the further pursuit of justice in the Western Balkans.  Panelists: Serge Brammertz, Chief Prosecutor, International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia Nemanja Stjepanovic, Member of the Executive Board, Humanitarian Law Center (from Belgrade, Serbia, live via video) Diane Orentlicher, Professor of Law, Washington College of Law, American University Additional panelists may be added.  

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