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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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Smith, and ranking members Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Steny Hoyer, have raised our concern about developments in Slovakia with Slovak officials on a number of occasions. Unfortunately, all we hear from the Slovak leadership is one excuse after another, and all we see is a search for one scapegoat after another: it's the Hungarians, it's the Czechs, it's the Ukrainian mafia, it's the hostile international community seeking to destroy Slovakia's good name, it's a public relations problem abroad, not real problems back home: in short, there is always somebody else to blame besides the people that are, in fact, running the country.   I don't mean to suggest that there have been no positive developments in Slovakia over the past 4 years. In fact, I have been especially heartened by the emergence of a genuine civil society that is increasingly willing to express its views on a broad range of issues. 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    This compendium of statements illustrates the U.S. perspective that one of the key and distinguishing features of the OSCE is the interlocking framework of critical, politically binding commitments which provide a common set of principles to which all participating States can aspire. The OSCE draws its real strength and practical flexibility from participating states' commitments to the values of the original Helsinki Act, rather than from a legalized, treaty-based institutional structure. A fundamental strength of the OSCE is the review process, which provides a regular opportunity to assess a participating states' efforts to further the realization of the Helsinki Accords within its own borders, and in its relations with other OSCE states. The OSCE is increasingly a pillar of European security. By facilitating honest implementation review the OSCE can strengthen security links based on common values.

  • Ex Post Facto Problems of the Czech Citizenship Law

    When the Czechoslovak Federal Republic dissolved on January 1, 1993, the newly independent Czech Republic adopted a citizenship law that provided citizenship to only some of the former Czechoslovak citizens then resident in the Czech Republic. An undetermined number of people, including long-term residents and even some people born in the Czech Republic, have been left stateless or with an unclear legal status. Almost all of these people belong to the Czech Republic's largest minority, Roma (Gypsies). As a consequence, this law has been heavily criticized at meetings of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In particular, the law presents numerous and serious questions regarding its conformity with international standards, such as those relating to recognition before the law (the status of orphans), equal protection before the law (different requirements for citizenship established for different classes of former Czechoslovak citizens), the right to a fair hearing (lack of adequate hearing procedures and opportunities for appeal), and actual or arbitrary discrimination (original intent of the law). Non-governmental organizations in the Czech Republic and abroad have heavily criticized the law both as drafted and as applied. This memorandum examines one discrete aspect of the current Czech citizenship law: its conformity with the Czech Republic's international obligation to refrain from increasing criminal penalties after the crime in question was committed.

  • Hungary's Relations with her Neighbors

    Mr. Speaker, I want to bring to the attention of my colleagues the joint declaration adopted in Budapest on July 5 by representatives of the Hungarian Government and by representatives of Hungarian communities abroad- the so-called Hungarian-Hungarian summit declaration. The status of the various and sizable Hungarian minority communities in Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia are of considerable interest to many in Congress. How governments treat their minority communities is often a significant barometer of how they will treat their citizens as a whole, and a strong indicator of the progress of democratization in countries in transition. In fact, I remain concerned about the minority situation in each of these countries, and, as Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, have raised such concerns on a number of occasions.   Many hoped the Hungarian-Hungarian summit document would provide some useful insight into the concrete concerns of Hungarian minorities. Unfortunately, the summit document adopted in Budapest does not address the kind of specific and concrete issues that are usually raised with the Commission, such as minority language schooling or electoral districting. Instead, the declaration stands as a broad and somewhat ambiguous endorsement of `autonomy' and `self-government.' Those terms, guaranteed to alarm those already afraid of alleged Hungarian irredentism, were unfortunately left undefined, fostering the perception in some quarters that the declaration represents only a thinly veiled effort by Budapest to extend its influence beyond current Hungarian borders and, implicitly, to turn back the clock to the days when Hungarians were united in a single country.   I appreciate the Hungarian Embassy's willingness to clarify for the Commission the underlying intent of his declaration. In particular, the Embassy asserted that the word `autonomy' was in no way intended to signal `territorial autonomy.' I also believe the declaration's positive emphasis on the importance of the accession of all Hungary's neighbors into NATO and the European Union should not be overlooked and, indeed, is especially important in light of the recent congressional debate on NATO expansion. Nevertheless, I believe that the declaration, through the use of wording that is ambiguous at best and, at worst, predictably inflammatory, stands in contradiction to Hungary's stated goal of pursuing `good neighbor' policies. Surprisingly, Hungary implies that its goal of gaining admission to NATO and other European organizations should be dependent on `the fundamental interests of Hungarian national communities abroad'--a message that suggests a qualified interest in accession to NATO.   Finally, I must note that concerns about this declaration were only heightened by the statement of the Hungarian representative to the OSCE in Vienna, Ambassador Martin Krasznai. In defending the use of the word `autonomy,' Ambassador Krasznai presented the Basques, Catalans, and South-Tyroleans as positive examples of Europe's experience with autonomous movements. The irony of these particular references was probably not lost on the representatives of Italy or Spain--especially in the wake of the numerous terrorist bombings attributed to Basque separatists last month. Mr. Speaker, while a rare opportunity for discussion about real minority concerns may have been missed, I also see the Hungarian-Hungarian summit declaration as an aberration from the current government's usually constructive approach. I will continue to follow the situation of minority communities in central Europe and the inseparable issue of the progress of democratization in general. As I do so, I hope that Hungarian representatives will join with the Commission in seeking to promote democracy for all the citizens of all the countries of the OSCE.

  • Serbia and Montenegro: The Prospects for Change

    A staff delegation of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission) traveled to Serbia and Montenegro for one week in April 1996 to assess the situation in these republics in light of changes in the region resulting from the implementation of the Dayton Agreement and the end of the conflict in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. In addition to meetings in the Federal and Serbian capital, Belgrade, and the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, the delegation traveled to Vojvodina, Kosovo and the Sandzak, where large non-Serb/Montenegrin populations reside. A seminar on refugees in the former Yugoslavia, held in Kotor, Montenegro, was also attended. The delegation met with federal, republic and regional officials, as well as representatives of independent media, opposition political parties, and human rights or humanitarian groups in each location. Upon the conclusion of their visit, the staff reported the delegation's findings and recommendations to the countries belonging to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and gave a public briefing immediately upon its return to Washington. Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, has been viewed as largely responsible for the conflict associated with former Yugoslavia's demise, especially in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and for un- democratic and ethnically intolerant conditions within Serbia itself. Montenegro, having some cultural af- finities with Serbia but also a desire for distinctness, is viewed as Serbia's reluctant accomplice, especially when the two proclaimed a new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. The new, or "rump," Yugoslavia has largely been isolated by the international community as far as bilateral relations and multilateral activity. After almost four years of conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, the signing of the Dayton Agreement in December 1995 changed the regional environment in southcentral Europe significantly. Not only did the Agreement propose a settlement for Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is now being implemented, but it also created a more positive regional environment in which other problems plaguing the region might be resolved. Dayton could not have been achieved without the international community again working with the Serbian regime.

  • Property Restitution, Compensation and Preservation: Competing Claims in Post-Communist Europe

    This hearing, which Rep. Christopher H. Smith (NJ – 04) presided over, focused on how to rectify transgressions against individuals by former totalitarian regimes, which Smith called one of the most challenging issues confronting post-Communist societies in the OSCE region. This specifically related to the wrongful confiscation of property. Even though some Communist regimes were required by the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty to make restitution of Jewish property, these governments duly ignored such directives. In fact, Communist regimes were infamous for their complete disregard for private property, nationalizing factories, etc. Likewise, more recently, efforts to return property to former owners had been uneven and oftentimes unsuccessful, stymied by complex moral and legal obligations.

  • Violence in Slovakia

    Mr. Speaker, I am alarmed by recent violence in Slovakia that may be part of a larger pattern of politically motivated violence. During the weekend of May 4-5, a device that may have been a hand-grenade exploded in front of the home of Bela Bugar. Mr. Bugar is not only a member of the Hungarian minority's opposition coalition, he is also, according to opinion polls, its most popular member. Shortly before that incident, Robert Remias, a former policeman who has been questioned in connection with the kidnaping of President Michal Kovac's son last year, died when his propane-fueled BMW exploded. Although it is not yet certain who is responsible for these acts, it is clear that violence coincides with politics in Slovakia at a suspiciously high rate. I also recall, for example, that Frantisek Miklosko, the opposition leader of the Christian Democratic Movement, was assaulted by unknown attackers near his home last August; Peter Toth, a journalist investigating the Kovac case, has also been assaulted; last April, a bomb went off in the car of Arpad Matejka, a member of the Prime Minister's party. The Helsinki Commission, which I chair, is no stranger to Slovakia. We were a close observer of developments there well before the breakup of the Czechoslovak Federation in 1992 and have issued two major reports on that country. Since last summer, I have been joined twice by Senator Alfonse D'Amato, the Commissions' cochairman, and the Commission's ranking minority members, Representative Steny H. Hoyer and Senator Frank Lautenberg, in sending letters to Slovak Ambassador Lichardus regarding continuing challenges to the democratization process in his country. Although the Commission has raised a number of serious concerns in these letters, we have, remained generally optimistic about developments in Slovakia. Last week, for example, I hosted a conference in New Jersey on business opportunities in Central Europe, where I discussed some of the positive economic changes in Slovakia that are creating new opportunities for Slovak society as a whole. I appreciate the willingness of the Slovak Parliament to consider the views of a number of international interlocutors regarding draft legislation and note the active and constructive role of the President and the Constitutional Court in guiding the passage of legislation consistent with democratic values and human rights norms. I commend Prime Minister Meciar for his decision last week to seek, in his words, a wider democratic discussion of the draft law on the protection of the Republic. Most of all, I have been greatly heartened by the increasing involvement of Slovak citizens in all areas of public life. The message sent by the most recent developments in Slovakia, therefore, is all the more discouraging. And that message is dangerous: take on a high political profile, and you are possibly a more visible--and more likely--target of violence. I welcome the May 9 statement of the Government of Slovakia condemning acts of violence and promising a thorough investigation of these matters. I believe it is particularly important that the death of Robert Remias be examined in an open and transparent manner, in a manner that makes information available to all those concerned with this case, and in a manner that will foster credibility in its results. Mr. Speaker, the Helsinki Commission will continue to follow closely developments in this case, and I expect to report further to this body as information becomes available.

  • The Legacy of Chernobyl

    Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) presided over this hearing, which marked the tenth anniversary of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, the worst of its kind. Ten years out, what transpired had grave implications for Ukraine and Belarus. More specifically, according to Smith, “The explosion of the reactor at Chornobyl released 200 more times more radioactivity than was released by the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.” Likewise, thyroid cancer in Belarusian children was extremely entrenched. Perhaps most worryingly, at the time of this hearing, the obliterated fourth nuclear reactor’s “sarcophagus” had developed serious cracks, which, if uncontained, could have released tons of radioactive dust into the environment.

  • THE CHECHEN CONFLICT AND RUSSIAN DEMOCRATIC DEVELOPMENT

    The hearing addressed the OSCE-brokered military agreement in July 1995 between Russian and Chechen representatives to end ethnic conflict among Chechens, Russians, Ingush, and other ethnic groups caught up in the terror of war. The Commissioners discussed the disappearance of people, including a prominent American humanitarian aid worker and an American freelance journalist.  The witnesses gave testimony on the visible breakdown in law and order which has forced humanitarian organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders, to withdraw to a safer location.

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