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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 - A bipartisan 8-member Congressional delegation led by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), visited Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. In Baku, Azerbaijan, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Commission, headed the U.S. delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) from June 28-July 2 that successfully advanced priority security and human rights initiatives. Key among the U.S. initiatives was a resolution introduced by Chairman Ben Cardin condemning Russia’s violation of international commitments by annexing Crimea and directly supporting separatist conflict in Ukraine. Upon passage of the resolution by a 3 to 1 margin, Cardin stated: “Russia is a member of this organization, but is violating its core principles. We must speak up in the strongest possible way and hold Russia accountable for its destabilizing actions and that is what we did here.” Co-Chairman Smith received overwhelming support for his resolution on efforts to combat child sex trafficking. As the Assembly’s Special Representative on Human Trafficking, Smith’s initiative pressed for the formation of a notification system among countries regarding the travel of persons convicted of sex crimes against children, as well as increased cooperation between law enforcement agencies and with the travel industry to prevent child sex tourism. “This resolution provides a tool to mitigate the horrific abuse of children by sexual tourism,” said Smith. “These predators thrive on secrecy, and so the goal is advance notification of sex offender travel so that children can be protected.” In addition to Chairman Cardin and Co-Chairman Smith, the delegation included Commission Ranking Member Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Commissioner Representative Robert Aderholt(R-AL), Commissioner Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA), Representative David Schweikert (R-AZ) and Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA). The U.S. delegation fielded two of the 18 resolutions considered at the annual session, as well as a total of 19 amendments to several of these resolutions. In an initiative related to Chairman Cardin’s Ukraine resolution, Senator Wicker introduced language adopted by the Assembly recognizing the importance of the OSCE’s military observation missions, including the inspections in Ukraine.  Senator Wicker also participated in a dialogue with fellow parliamentarians on OSCE engagement with partner country Afghanistan. Senator Tom Harkin successfully offered amendments calling for access and equal opportunity for persons with disabilities, including calling for the ratification and implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by all OSCE participating States. Commissioner Representative Robert Aderholt achieved passage of language supporting the integration of Western Balkan countries into the EU and NATO, and, in a separate initiative, highlighted the plight of “disappeared” political prisoners in Turkmenistan and called on that government to finally come clean on the fate of these individuals, one of whom was a former OSCE ambassador. An initiative by Rep. David Schweikert encouraged increased outreach by the OSCE to Mediterranean Partner countries, while Rep. Phil Gingrey brokered an agreement calling for concrete steps to promote clean and affordable energy. Finally, Rep. Smith and Senator Cardin joined an initiative with the Canadian delegation to respond more vigorously to acts of anti-Semitism throughout the participating States. On July 2 the meeting concluded with the adoption of the Baku Declaration, containing broad policy recommendations for the OSCE and its 57 participating States in the fields of political affairs and military security, trade, the environment and human rights. While in Azerbaijan, the delegation also held bilateral meetings with the Government of Azerbaijan, including meeting with President Ilham Aliyev as well as representatives of civil society fighting for media freedom, rule of law and disability rights in Azerbaijan. Bilateral meetings in Georgia and Moldova In addition to attending the OSCE PA’s Annual Session in Azerbaijan, Chairman Cardin led the delegation to stops in Tbilisi, Georgia, and Chisinau, Moldova, for bilateral meetings to discuss expanded ties with the United States as well as regional security in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine. In Georgia the delegation met with the President, Prime Minister, and the leadership of the United National Movement opposition party offering U.S. support and encouraging further democratic reforms, particularly in building a robust and independent judiciary free from corruption and untainted by politically-motivated prosecutions. In Moldova, the delegation met with the Prime Minister and key political leaders across the spectrum on the day the national parliament ratified an historic agreement with the European Union. The delegation also held consultations with the leadership of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, representatives of civil society, and the U.S. Embassy.

  • Chairman Cardin Mourns Passing of Ambassador Todman

    WASHINGTON—In response to the August 13, 2014, passing of Ambassador Terence A. Todman, Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) said, “I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Ambassador Todman. As one of the first African-Americans to serve as an Ambassador in Europe, he demonstrated the strength of our nation’s diversity overseas. Not only did he open doors in the diplomatic service for African-Americans and other minorities, but he also fought for the rights of Afro-descendant and other minority groups abroad. I hope others will join me in continuing the legacy of his work by supporting greater equality, diversity, and inclusion in our diplomatic workforce and societies across the globe.”

  • Cardin Statement on Ukrainian Presidential Elections

    WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Commission, issued the following statement on the May 25 early presidential elections in Ukraine. “Sunday’s vote was a day of destiny for Ukraine and a turning point in the nation’s effort to overcome Russia’s interference in Ukraine’s democratic development.   It also offers Ukraine a chance to turn a corner on a crippling legacy of corruption. The election also was important for the OSCE which is undertaking massive efforts in Ukraine aimed at fostering stability and encouraging democracy in Ukraine.  These elections present an historic opportunity to build and independent, prosperous state based on the rule of law. “I congratulate the Ukrainian people and the interim government on the conduct of yesterday’s free and fair vote.  Along with my colleague, Sen. Rob Portman, I was pleased at the opportunity to observe the elections first-hand and witness ordinary citizens who were clearly determined to freely make their choice and be stewards of their own destiny. “At the same time, I deplore the actions of those who have deprived Ukrainians in Russian occupied Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine their right to vote through violence, intimidation and fear. “Ukraine’s people have shown remarkable courage and perseverance over the last six months in the face of tremendous internal challenges and serious and ongoing external threats.  We will continue to stand by the people of Ukraine and their newly elected president as they work to overcome these challenges and forge a free, independent and democratic future.”

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