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International Roma Day 2017
Friday, April 07, 2017

International Roma Day is observed annually on April 8, commemorating the anniversary of the1971 London meeting of Romani activists from across Europe.

The 1971 London meeting, convened as the "World Romani Congress," was one of the first transnational gatherings of Roma.  Since 1990, International Roma Day has been an opportunity to celebrate Romani culture and counter anti-Roma prejudice that fosters political and economic marginalization. 

Roma—Europe’s Largest Ethnic Minority

Roma live throughout all European countries as well as the Americas and Australasia. In Europe, the Roma population is very conservatively estimated at 15 million, with large concentrations in Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe. 

Roma have migrated to the United States since the colonial period. There are an estimated one million Americans with some Romani roots (recent or distant Romani ancestry).  Roma live throughout the United States, with larger communities in New York City, Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They are sometimes the victims of racial profiling by law enforcement.  The last explicitly anti-Roma law in the United States was repealed in New Jersey in 1998.

Romani Americans have served as public members on the U.S. delegation to several OSCE human dimension meetings.  In 2016, the President appointed Dr. Ethel Brooks to serve on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, bringing a Romani voice to that body.

Helsinki Commission Advocacy on Romani Human Rights

The Commission has long record of addressing human rights issues relating to Roma.  Dr. Mischa Thompson, Helsinki Commission policy advisor, at ODIHR workshop on Roma and Sinti participation | Photo: Michael ChiaAs early as 1990, a Helsinki Commission delegation in Bucharest raised alarm orchestrated attacks on Roma conducted as part of a larger crackdown on dissent. 

Helsinki Commissioners have continued to engage regarding the situation of Roma through hearings, briefings, and congressional meetings with Roma in Europe and the United States.  In recent years, the Commission has supported Romani inclusion in annual initiatives for political leaders such as the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference (TMPLC) and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN). 

On March 27-28, the Commission worked in cooperation with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to hold a workshop during “Roma Week” at the European Parliament in Brussels titled, “Strengthening diverse leadership, participation and representation of Roma, including women and youth, in public and political life.” 

Roma Day Events in the United States

Harvard will host its fifth Annual Roma conference on April 10, where Helsinki Commission staff will participate. Scholars of Romani culture and Roma who work as academics, activists, and performers will convene a conference at New York University April 28-29. Later in the spring, on May 6, the 20th Annual Herdeljezi Music Festival will be held in the San Francisco area at the Croatian American Cultural Center.

In the Washington area, the Embassy of the Czech Republic supported a March 30 screening of the documentary about the prejudice faced by the FC Roma football club. On May 17, the Czech Embassy will support a concert at the national Gallery of Art by Romani-Czech pianist Tomas Kaco.

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  • Concerning Anti-Semitic Statements by Members of the Duma of the Russian Federation

    Mr. Speaker, I move to suspend the rules and agree to the concurrent resolution (H. Con. Res. 37) concerning anti-Semitic statements made by members of the Duma of the Russian Federation, as amended. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume. Mr. Speaker, H. Con. Res. 37 condemns anti-Semitic statements made by members of the Russian Duma and commends actions taken by fair-minded members of the Duma to censure the purveyors of anti-Semitism within their ranks. H. Con. Res. 37 further commends President Yeltsin and other members of the Russian Government for their rejection of such statements. Finally, this resolution reiterates the firm belief of the Congress that peace and justice cannot be achieved as long as governments and legislatures promote policies or let stand destructive remarks based on anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia.   Mr. Speaker, with the fall of the ruble last August and the associated economic problems in Russia, there has been a disturbing rise in anti-Semitic statements by high Russian political figures. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism has always had a certain following in Russia; and it would be disingenuous of us to suggest that there is no anti-Semitism in the United States or other parts of the world. But I believe we cannot remain silent when members of the national legislature of Russia, a participating state of the OSCE and the Council of Europe, should state at a Duma hearing, as did the chairman of the Duma Security Committee, Mr. Ilyukhin, that Russian President Yeltsin's “Jewish entourage” is responsible for alleged genocide against the Russian people. It is an affront to human decency that Duma member and retired General Albert Makashov, speaking twice in November 1998 at public rallies, should refer to “the Yids” and other “reformers and democrats” as responsible for Russia's problems and threaten to make a list and “send them to the other world.”   Mr. Speaker, this man, and I have seen a tape recording of him, as a matter of fact I played it at a Helsinki Commission hearing that I chaired last January, has said, “We will remain anti-Semites and we must triumph.” These are dangerous, hate-filled sentiments. Mr. Speaker, it should be noted and clearly stated that President Yeltsin and his government have condemned anti-Semitism and other expressions of ethnic and religious hatred. There have been attempts in the Duma to censure anti-Semitic statements and those who utter them. However, the Duma is controlled, as we all know, by the Communist Party, where anti-Semitic statements are either supported, or at least tolerated, and these attempts to censure have failed. So we must go on the record and censure. In fact, Communist Party Chairman Zyuganov has tried to rationalize anti-Semitic statements by fellow party members. He explains that the party has nothing against Jews, just Zionism. He has also stated that there will be no more anti-Semitic statements by General Makashov. But this is the same Mr. Zyuganov who has asserted that, and I quote, “too many people with strange-sounding family names mingle in the internal affairs of Russia.” And this is the party that claims to inherit that internationalist mantle of the old Communist Party.   Mr. Speaker, on January 15 of this year, I chaired a Helsinki Commission hearing regarding human rights in Russia, at which time we heard testimony by Lyuda Alexeeva, a former Soviet dissident and chairperson of the Moscow Helsinki Group. She testified that the Russian people themselves are not anti-Semitic but that the Communist Party is tolerating this crude attitude among its ranks. She called upon parliamentarians throughout the world to protest in no uncertain terms the position of the Communist Party and its anti-Semitic leaders. Let us make that a priority for us today, to censure, to speak out so that the democratic forces in Russia, the decent people who are trying to create a civil society in Russia, are not silenced by these demagogues of hate. I urge strong support for this resolution. We must go on record. Mr. Speaker, I reserve the balance of my time.

  • THE ROAD TO THE OSCE ISTANBUL SUMMIT AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE REPUBLIC OF TURKEY

    The hearing focused specifically on the human rights situation in the Republic of Turkey, an original signatory of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. These two issues, OSCE and Turkey, intersected in this hearing due to the decision taken in Oslo the previous December by the OSCE Ministerial Council to convene a summit Meeting of Heads of State or Government in Istanbul in November 1999. The Commissioners expressed concern over Ankara’s failure to implement a wide range of OSCE human dimensions commitments, the United States labored to secure a consensus in support of Turkey’s bid to host the OSCE Summit in Istanbul. The hearing touched on how the U.S. should respond to make improved human rights implementation in Turkey a priority. Though, one year after a Commission delegation visited Turkey, the Commission’s conclusion is that there has been no demonstrable improvement in Ankara’s human rights practices and that the prospects for much needed systemic reforms are bleak given the unstable political scene that seemed likely to continue.

  • The Serbia and Montenegro Democracy Act of 1999

    Mr. Speaker, today I am introducing the Serbia and Montenegro Democracy Act of 1999, a bill which will target much needed assistance to democratic groups in Serbia and Montenegro. I am joined by Representatives Ben Gilman, Steny Hoyer, John Porter, Dan Burton, Eliot Engel, Dana Rohrabacher, Louise Slaughter and Jim Moran, all strong promoters of human rights worldwide and the original cosponsors of this Act. It is fitting that this important piece of legislation be introduced today, as a high-level envoy for the United States is in Belgrade to seek the blessing of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for a political settlement which hopefully will restore peace to the troubled region of Kosovo. We are dealing directly with the man most responsible for the conflict in Kosovo, not to mention Bosnia and Croatia. Milosevic has maintained his power from within Serbia throughout the 1990s at the cost of 300,000 lives and the displacement of 3 million people. He has relied on virulent Serbian nationalism to instigate conflict which will divide the people of the region for decades. The most fundamental flaw in U.S. policy toward the region is that it relies on getting Milosevic's agreement, when Milosevic simply should be forced to stop his assaults on innocent civilians. It relies on Milosevic's dictatorial powers to implement an agreement, undermining support for democratic alternatives. In short, U.S. policy perpetuates Milosevic's rule and ensures that more trouble will come to the Balkans. There can be no long-term stability in the Balkans without a democratic Serbia. Moreover, we need to be clear that the people of Serbia deserve the same rights and freedoms which other people in Europe enjoy today. They also deserve greater prosperity. Milosevic and his criminal thugs deny the same Serbian people they claim to defend these very rights, freedoms and economic opportunities. Independent media is repeatedly harassed, fined and sometimes just closed down. University professors are forced to take a ridiculous loyalty oath or are replaced by know-nothing party hacks. The regime goes after the political leadership of Montenegro, which is federated with Serbia in a new Yugoslav state but is undergoing democratic change itself. The regime goes after the successful Serb-American pharmaceutical executive Milan Panic, seizing his company's assets in Serbia to intimidate a potentially serious political rival and get its hands on the hard currency it desperately needs to sustain itself. The regime also goes after young students, like Boris Karajcic, who was beaten on the streets of Belgrade for his public advocacy of academic freedom and social tolerance. Building a democracy in Serbia will be difficult, and it is largely in the hands of those democratic forces within Serbia to do the job. However, given how the regime has stacked the situation against them, through endless propaganda, harassment and violence, they need help. This Act intends to do just that. It would allocate $41 million in various sectors of Serbian society where democratic forces can be strengthened, and to encourage further strengthening of these forces in neighboring Montenegro. It would ensure that this funding will, in fact, go to these areas, in contrast to the Administration's budget request which indicates that much of this funding could be siphoned off to implement a peace agreement in Kosovo. Another $350,000 would go to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly, which could provide assistance on a multilateral basis and demonstrate that Serbia can rejoin Europe, through the OSCE, once it moves in a democratic direction and ends its instigation of conflict. This Act also states what policy toward Serbia and Montenegro must be: to promote the development of democracy and to support those who are committed to the building of democratic institutions, defending human rights, promoting rule of law and fostering tolerance in society. This funding, authorized by the Support for East European Democracy Act of 1989, represents a tremendous increase for building democratic institutions in Serbia and Montenegro. This fiscal year, an anticipated $25 million will be spent, but most of that is going to Kosovo. The President's budget request for the next fiscal year is a welcome $55 million, but, with international attention focused on Kosovo, too much of that will likely go toward implementing a peace agreement. Make no mistake, I support strongly assistance for Kosovo. I simply view it as a mistake to get that assistance by diverting it from Serbia and Montenegro. We have spent billions of dollars in Bosnia and will likely spend at least hundreds of millions more in Kosovo, cleaning up the messes Milosevic has made. The least we can do is invest in democracy in Serbia, which can stop Milosevic from making more problems in the future. Building democracy in Serbia will be difficult, given all of the harm Milosevic has done to Serbian society. The opposition has traditionally been weak and divided, and sometimes compromised by Milosevic's political maneuvering. There are signs, however, the new Alliance for Change could make a difference, and there certainly is substantial social unrest in Serbia from which opposition can gain support. In addition, there are very good people working in human rights organizations, and very capable independent journalists and editors. The independent labor movement has serious potential to gain support, and the student and academic communities are organized to defend the integrity of the universities. Simply demonstrating our real support for the democratic movement in Serbia could convince more people to become involved. Finally, Montenegro's democratic changes in the last year place that republic in a difficult position. A federation in which one republic is becoming more free and open while the other, much larger republic remains repressive and controls federal institutions cannot last for long, yet Montenegrins know they could be the next victims of Milosevic. It would be a mistake to leave those building a democracy in Montenegro out on that limb. They need our support as well. In conclusion, Mr. Speaker, I am today introducing the Serbia and Democracy Act of 1999 because I feel our country's policy in the Balkans has all too long been based on false assumptions about the region. Granted, social tensions, primarily based on ethnic issues, were bound to have plagued the former Yugoslavia, but it is an absolute fact that violence could have been avoided if Slobodan Milosevic did not play on those tensions to enhance his power. As we prepare to debate the sending of American forces to Kosovo to keep a peace which does not yet exist, we must address the root cause of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia from 1991 to today. This Act, Mr. Speaker, does just that, and I urge my colleagues to support its swift and overwhelming passage by the House. The Senate is working on similar legislation, and hopefully the Congress can help put U.S. policy back on the right track.

  • 1999: A Critical Year for Belarus

    Mr. Speaker, last month, a Congress of Democratic Forces was held in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The Congress demonstrated the resolve of the growing democratic opposition to authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the determination by the opposition to have free, democratic elections consistent with the legitimate 1994 constitution.   Earlier last month, on January 10, members of the legitimate Belarusian parliament, disbanded by Lukashenka after the illegal 1996 constitutional referendum which extended his term of office by two years to 2001, set a date for the next presidential elections for May 16. According to the 1994 constitution, Lukashenka's term expires in July. Not surprisingly, Lukashenka rejects calls for a presidential election. Local elections are currently being planned for April, although many of the opposition plan not to participate, arguing that elections should be held only under free, fair and transparent conditions, which do not exist at the present time. Indeed, the law on local elections leaves much to be desired and does not provide for a genuinely free and fair electoral process.   The local elections and opposition efforts to hold presidential elections must be viewed against the backdrop of a deteriorating economic situation. One of the resolutions adopted by the Congress of Democratic Forces accuses Lukashenka of driving the country to “social tensions, international isolation and poverty.” As an example of the heightening tensions, just last weekend, Andrei Sannikov, the former deputy minister of Belarus and a leader of the Charter '97 human rights group, was brutally assaulted by members of a Russian-based ultranationalist organization. Additionally, Lukashenka's moves to unite with Russia pose a threat to Belarus' very sovereignty. Thus, Mr. Speaker, this year promises to be a critical year for Belarus.   Recently, a staff delegation of the (Helsinki) Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which I chair, traveled to Belarus, raising human rights concerns with high-ranking officials, and meeting with leading members of the opposition, independent media and nongovernmental organizations. The staff report concludes that the Belarusian Government continues to violate its commitments under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) relating to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and that at the root of these violations lies the excessive power usurped by President Lukashenka since his election in 1994, especially following the illegitimate 1996 referendum. Although one can point to some limited areas of improvement, such as allowing some opposition demonstrations to occur relatively unhindered, overall OSCE compliance has not improved since the deployment of the OSCE's Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) almost one year ago. Freedoms of expression, association and assembly remain curtailed. The government hampers freedom of the media by tightly controlling the use of national TV and radio. Administrative and economic measures are used to cripple the independent media and NGOs. The political opposition has been targeted for repression, including imprisonment, detention, fines and harassment. The independence of the judiciary has been further eroded, and the President alone controls judicial appointments. Legislative power is decidedly concentrated in the executive branch of government.   The Commission staff report makes a number of recommendations, which I would like to share with my colleagues. The United States and OSCE community should continue to call upon the Belarusian Government to live up to its OSCE commitments and, in an effort to reduce the climate of fear which has developed in Belarus, should specifically encourage the Belarusian Government, inter alia, to: (1) Immediately release Alyaksandr Shydlauski (sentenced in 1997 to 18 months imprisonment for allegedly spray painting anti-Lukashenka graffiti) and review the cases of those detained and imprisoned on politically motivated charges, particularly Andrei Klymov and Vladimir Koudinov; (2) cease and desist the harassment of opposition activists, NGOs and the independent media and permit them to function; (3) allow the opposition access to the electronic media and restore the constitutional right of the Belarusian people to free and impartial information; (4) create the conditions for free and fair elections in 1999, including a provision in the election regulations allowing party representation on the central and local election committees; and (5) strengthen the rule of law, beginning with the allowance for an independent judiciary and bar.   With Lukashenka's term in office under the legitimate 1994 Constitution expiring in July 1999, the international community should make clear that the legitimacy of Lukashenka's presidency will be undermined unless free and fair elections are held by July 21. The United States and the international community, specifically the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, should continue to recognize only the legitimate parliament, the 13th Supreme Soviet, abolished by Lukashenka in 1996, and not the post-referendum, Lukashenka-installed, National Assembly. At the time, the United States, and our European allies and partners, denounced the 1996 referendum as illegitimate and extra-constitutional. The West needs to stand firm on this point, as the 13th Supreme Soviet and the 1994 Constitution are the only legal authorities. The democratically oriented opposition and NGOs deserve continued and enhanced moral and material assistance from the West. The United States must make support for those committed to genuine democracy a high priority in our civic development and NGO assistance.   I applaud and want to encourage such entities as USIS, the Eurasia Foundation, National Endowment for Democracy, International Republican Institute, ABA/CEELI and others in their efforts to encourage the development of a democratic political system, free market economy and the rule of law in Belarus. The United States and the international community should strongly encourage President Lukashenka and the 13th Supreme Soviet to begin a dialogue which could lead to a resolution of the current constitutional crisis and the holding of democratic elections. The OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) could be a vehicle for facilitating such dialogue. The Belarusian Government should be encouraged in the strongest possible terms to cooperate with the OSCE AMG. There is a growing perception both within and outside Belarus that the Belarusian Government is disingenuous in its interaction with the AMG. The AMG has been working to promote these important objectives: an active dialogue between the government, the opposition and NGOs; free and fair elections, including a new election law that would provide for political party representation on electoral committees and domestic observers; unhindered opposition access to the state electronic media; a better functioning, independent court system and sound training of judges; and the examination and resolution of cases of politically motivated repression.   Mr. Speaker, there is a growing divide between the government and opposition in Belarus, thanks to President Lukashenka's authoritarian practices, a divide that could produce unanticipated consequences. An already tense political situation is becoming increasingly more so. Furthermore, Lukashenka's efforts at political and economic integration with Russia could have serious potential consequences for neighboring states, especially Ukraine. Therefore, it is vital for the United States and the OSCE to continue to speak out in defense of human rights in Belarus, to promote free and democratic elections this year, and to encourage meaningful dialogue between the government and opposition.

  • 1999: A Critical Year for Belarus

    Mr. Speaker, last month, a Congress of Democratic Forces was held in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The Congress demonstrated the resolve of the growing democratic opposition to authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the determination by the opposition to have free, democratic elections consistent with the legitimate 1994 constitution.   Earlier last month, on January 10, members of the legitimate Belarusian parliament, disbanded by Lukashenka after the illegal 1996 constitutional referendum which extended his term of office by two years to 2001, set a date for the next presidential elections for May 16. According to the 1994 constitution, Lukashenka's term expires in July. Not surprisingly, Lukashenka rejects calls for a presidential election. Local elections are currently being planned for April, although many of the opposition plan not to participate, arguing that elections should be held only under free, fair and transparent conditions, which do not exist at the present time. Indeed, the law on local elections leaves much to be desired and does not provide for a genuinely free and fair electoral process.   The local elections and opposition efforts to hold presidential elections must be viewed against the backdrop of a deteriorating economic situation. One of the resolutions adopted by the Congress of Democratic Forces accuses Lukashenka of driving the country to “social tensions, international isolation and poverty.” As an example of the heightening tensions, just last weekend, Andrei Sannikov, the former deputy minister of Belarus and a leader of the Charter '97 human rights group, was brutally assaulted by members of a Russian-based ultranationalist organization. Additionally, Lukashenka's moves to unite with Russia pose a threat to Belarus' very sovereignty. Thus, Mr. Speaker, this year promises to be a critical year for Belarus.   Recently, a staff delegation of the (Helsinki) Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which I chair, traveled to Belarus, raising human rights concerns with high-ranking officials, and meeting with leading members of the opposition, independent media and nongovernmental organizations. The staff report concludes that the Belarusian Government continues to violate its commitments under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) relating to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and that at the root of these violations lies the excessive power usurped by President Lukashenka since his election in 1994, especially following the illegitimate 1996 referendum. Although one can point to some limited areas of improvement, such as allowing some opposition demonstrations to occur relatively unhindered, overall OSCE compliance has not improved since the deployment of the OSCE's Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) almost one year ago. Freedoms of expression, association and assembly remain curtailed. The government hampers freedom of the media by tightly controlling the use of national TV and radio. Administrative and economic measures are used to cripple the independent media and NGOs. The political opposition has been targeted for repression, including imprisonment, detention, fines and harassment. The independence of the judiciary has been further eroded, and the President alone controls judicial appointments. Legislative power is decidedly concentrated in the executive branch of government.   The Commission staff report makes a number of recommendations, which I would like to share with my colleagues. The United States and OSCE community should continue to call upon the Belarusian Government to live up to its OSCE commitments and, in an effort to reduce the climate of fear which has developed in Belarus, should specifically encourage the Belarusian Government, inter alia, to: (1) Immediately release Alyaksandr Shydlauski (sentenced in 1997 to 18 months imprisonment for allegedly spray painting anti-Lukashenka graffiti) and review the cases of those detained and imprisoned on politically motivated charges, particularly Andrei Klymov and Vladimir Koudinov; (2) cease and desist the harassment of opposition activists, NGOs and the independent media and permit them to function; (3) allow the opposition access to the electronic media and restore the constitutional right of the Belarusian people to free and impartial information; (4) create the conditions for free and fair elections in 1999, including a provision in the election regulations allowing party representation on the central and local election committees; and (5) strengthen the rule of law, beginning with the allowance for an independent judiciary and bar.   With Lukashenka's term in office under the legitimate 1994 Constitution expiring in July 1999, the international community should make clear that the legitimacy of Lukashenka's presidency will be undermined unless free and fair elections are held by July 21. The United States and the international community, specifically the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, should continue to recognize only the legitimate parliament, the 13th Supreme Soviet, abolished by Lukashenka in 1996, and not the post-referendum, Lukashenka-installed, National Assembly. At the time, the United States, and our European allies and partners, denounced the 1996 referendum as illegitimate and extra-constitutional. The West needs to stand firm on this point, as the 13th Supreme Soviet and the 1994 Constitution are the only legal authorities. The democratically oriented opposition and NGOs deserve continued and enhanced moral and material assistance from the West. The United States must make support for those committed to genuine democracy a high priority in our civic development and NGO assistance.   I applaud and want to encourage such entities as USIS, the Eurasia Foundation, National Endowment for Democracy, International Republican Institute, ABA/CEELI and others in their efforts to encourage the development of a democratic political system, free market economy and the rule of law in Belarus. The United States and the international community should strongly encourage President Lukashenka and the 13th Supreme Soviet to begin a dialogue which could lead to a resolution of the current constitutional crisis and the holding of democratic elections. The OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) could be a vehicle for facilitating such dialogue. The Belarusian Government should be encouraged in the strongest possible terms to cooperate with the OSCE AMG. There is a growing perception both within and outside Belarus that the Belarusian Government is disingenuous in its interaction with the AMG. The AMG has been working to promote these important objectives: an active dialogue between the government, the opposition and NGOs; free and fair elections, including a new election law that would provide for political party representation on electoral committees and domestic observers; unhindered opposition access to the state electronic media; a better functioning, independent court system and sound training of judges; and the examination and resolution of cases of politically motivated repression.   Mr. Speaker, there is a growing divide between the government and opposition in Belarus, thanks to President Lukashenka's authoritarian practices, a divide that could produce unanticipated consequences. An already tense political situation is becoming increasingly more so. Furthermore, Lukashenka's efforts at political and economic integration with Russia could have serious potential consequences for neighboring states, especially Ukraine. Therefore, it is vital for the United States and the OSCE to continue to speak out in defense of human rights in Belarus, to promote free and democratic elections this year, and to encourage meaningful dialogue between the government and opposition.

  • WHITHER HUMAN RIGHTS IN RUSSIA?

    This hearing focused on the human rights situation in Russia. Russia is no longer an authoritarian dictatorship and civil liberties have improved. However, the decline in Russia’s recent economic fortunes has been accompanied by disturbing developments in the area of human rights and civil liberties. A religion law developed in 1977 has led to legal difficulties and complications for some religious organizations in their dealings with local authorities, most notably the declaration of Jehovah Witness as a “destructive sect.” Also recent cases of a crackdown on activist has led to Russia’s first political prisoner since the defunct Soviet Union with the arrest of the environmental whistleblower, Alexandr Nikitin.

  • The Ombudsman in the OSCE: An American Perspective

    This briefing assessed the role of ombudsmen institutions in the countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from an American perspective. The ombudsman institution was described as a flexible institution; adaptable to national and local government structures in a wide variety of countries, and a brief evaluation of the evolution of this institution was presented. Dean M. Gottehrer, a consultant on ombudsmen in human rights institutions for the United Nations Development Program, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the OSCE, and the United States Information Agency, presented a personal analysis of the role of ombudsmen institutions in protecting human rights in OSCE participating states.

  • The Status of Human Rights in Russia

    This briefing addressed the recent changes in the Russian government and what they might portend for human Rights in Russia. Specifically, economic troubles that led to the emergence of extremist politics and subsequent human rights abuses were the main topic of discussion. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch; Mark Levin, Executive Director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry; and Lauren Homer, President of Law and Liberty Trust – evaluated the status of human rights abuse in Russia resulting from a mix of repression, corruption, inertia, and neglect. Freedom of speech, freedom of information, and freedom of religion were especially emphasized as aspects of human rights that Russia needs to improve in the future

  • Romani Human Rights in Europe

    Commission Co-Chairman Christopher H. Smith presided over this hearing that discussed the rights of the Romani population in Europe. While ostensibly of Central and Eastern European descent, Romani, or Roma, individuals have existed in almost every European state. The Roma consist of a dispersed minority that, at the time of this hearing, was the fastest growing European population, numbering between 8 million and 10 million people. Unfortunately, their numbers did not protect the Roma from being the only population whose situation had actually worsened since the fall of Communism. From the first signs of anti-Romani discrimination in Romania to the dissolution of the Czechoslovak Federation in January of 1994, the reasons to justify holding this hearing to discuss the plight of the Romani were many. At this hearing, besides Commissioner Chris Smith, were Commission Chairman Steny Hoyer, and witnesses James Goldston of the European Roma Rights Center, Livia Plaks of the Project on Ethnic Relations, and Drs. David Crowe and Ian Hancock, professors at Elon and the University of Texas-Austin, respectively.

  • Pluralism and Tolerance in Croatia

    This briefing moderated by Commission Policy Advisor Robert Hand focused on the many developments in Croatia at the time, including the issue of human rights- an area that Croatia needed to improve upon.  Likewise, in order to be fully embraced by the European community, as Hand said, the country needed to democratize. At that point in time, the country of Croatia stood at a crossroads. In January 1998, Croatia resumed control over eastern Slavonia, its last enclave occupied by Serb militants since the fall of 1991. Before resumption of Croatian control, the area was under U.N. administration the two years before. As sovereignty was reached on the entire state territory, priorities began to shift and the Croatian government came under strong internal and external pressure to allow acceleration of democratic development.

  • Repression and Violence in Kosovo and Hearing on Kosovo: The Humanitarian Perspective

    This hearing, chaired by Commissioner Alfonse D’Amato, discussed the dire circumstances in Kosovo, specifically Serbian repression of the Kosovar Albanian majority population. In this hearing, D’Amato called for the U.S. to step up and prevent another outbreak of ethnic cleansing and achieve a peaceful resolution to the crisis. More specifically, to facilitate a lasting peace, the Commissioner called on U.S. leadership to make Slobodan Milosevic believe that the world would not stand by while the atrocities in Kosovo and Serbia continued. In addition, any settlement reached between Milosevic and the Kosovo Albanian leadership, D’Amato, continued, must be respected and protect the human rights of all individuals in Kosovo, without preconditions. Witnesses in this hearing discussed these human rights violations and the predicament of the Kosovar Albanians.

  • OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    The purpose of this briefing, which Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Michael Hathaway presided over, was to provide information to the public about the U.S.’s approach to the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, as well as to hear from two highly respected non-governmental organizations regarding issues that they believed should have been taken up in Warsaw. At the point of the briefing, already established issues at Warsaw included freedom of religion, media, association on assembly, the prevention of torture, international humanitarian law, tolerance and non-discrimination, national minorities, and the plight of the Roma. The aim in mind was to encourage improved implementation of human dimension obligations by OSCE member states. Participants in this hearing included State Department Secretary Rudolph Perina, and Holly Cartner and Adrian Karatnycky with Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, respectively.

  • Dogs Have More Freedom

    Mr. Speaker, `Dogs have more freedom than us; at least they are not afraid to go outside.' Mr. Speaker, this is the conclusion of a young Romani father in Slovakia who recounted his experience with growing skinhead violence in his country. His story is, regrettably, just one of the many documented in a January 1997 report prepared by the European Roma Rights Center [ERRC] entitled `Time of the Skinheads: Denial and Exclusion of Roma in Slovakia.' This study describes a grim pattern of violent assaults against Roma perpetrated by skinhead extremists; it also suggests that local police forces have been, at best, unwilling to fulfill their obligation to protect their citizens and, at worst, have themselves actually engaged in violence against Roma.   Descriptions of a 1995 organized attack on the entire Romani community in the town of Jarovnice--something that reads like a pogrom from a bygone era--were especially chilling. Since Slovakia became an independent state in 1993, a great deal of international attention has, rightly, focused on the status of the Hungarian minority in that country, a community that makes up approximately 10 percent of the population. Slovakia also has another large minority population which is less well known abroad. While the exact number of Roma in Slovakia is contested, it is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. These people, the survivors of Nazi efforts to eradicate the Roma altogether, now face increasing violent attacks against their homes, their villages, and their lives.   The problems of Roma in post-Communist European countries are many, and often defy easy answers. But at least three of the problems described in `Time of the Skinheads' do have obvious solutions. First, the Slovak Government has failed to demonstrate any serious effort to acknowledge and address the widespread problem of violent skinhead attacks on Roma. On the contrary, some public officials, members of the ruling coalition, have repeatedly made crude racist remarks about the Roma. As long as such remarks stand uncontested or unchallenged by Prime Minister Meciar, skinheads will believe that they can attack Roma with impunity. Clearly, local police officials take their cues from the top. Accordingly, any improvement in the situation of Roma in Slovakia must begin with the leadership of that country stating that racism and bigotry will not be tolerated.   Second, the ERRC report described a pattern of excessive use of force by the police against Roma. When the victims seek to bring a complaint against the police, the charges are, in effect, reversed and the Rom is charged with assaulting the police. Significantly, the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture released a report on April 3, which also documented a problem of police brutality in Slovakia. That report, like the report of the ERRC, noted that the failure to ensure that those charged with a criminal offense have adequate legal representation has significantly contributed to this miscarriage of justice. One of the purposes of providing such representation is to guarantee a fair trial, consistent with the due process of law, and to ensure that those accused of crimes do not have confessions extracted from them by force. The failure to provide the accused with defense counsel violates one of the most important provisions of the international human rights system: the right to an attorney, a right articulated in Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as paragraph 5.16 of the OSCE Copenhagen Document. I hope the Slovak Government will take immediate measures to redress this problem.   Finally, the ERRC report on Slovakia indicates that Slovak localities continue to use a system of tightly controlled residency permits to restrict the freedom of movement of Roma. Not only does this practice offend the nondiscrimination provisions of the Helsinki process, this system also harkens back to the rigid controls of the Communist days. If people are not permitted to move where jobs are, how can a free market system flourish?   Unfortunately, Mr. Speaker, this pattern of violence against Roma is not unique to Slovakia. The ERRC, which was founded to defend the human rights of Roma, has also issued major reports on Austria and Romania. In addition, its most recent newsletter reported on problems Roma face in several other European countries. Clearly, there is much more that many governments in Central Europe can and should do to address these problems. I realize that Slovakia is in the midst of grappling with a very broad range of fundamental questions regarding its development and future. The basic human rights of Roma should be a part of that agenda. I see no better time. Will Slovakia enter the 21st century as a country which seeks to unite its citizens in achieving common goals, or will it lag behind with those countries which have permitted nationalism and racism to divide their people and weaken the very state they worked so hard to create?

  • The Current Situation in Croatia

    This briefing addressed the political situation in Croatia in the context of impending elections for offices at the municipal and county levels, as well as for seats in the Chamber of Counties of the Croatian Sabor, that would be an important step in the process of reintegrating Easter Slavonia. Some issues that had been noted during past election monitoring operations, such as problems with the development of the independent media, a lack of transparency in the electoral system, and a tendency for decisions to favor the ruling party, were discussed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Jonas Rolett of the National Democratic Institute; Vesna Pusic, a professor for the University of Zagreb; Milbert Shin of Human Rights Watch; and Nenad Porges, Deputy Chief of Mission for the Croatian Embassy – evaluated the opportunity for improvement in the elections, and the role that nongovernmental organizations like NDI and Human Rights Watch would play in this process. Several tactics for improving the electoral process in Croatia, including strengthening political parties and providing neutral, accessible information, were topics of discussion.

  • The Future of Chechnya

    Former senatosr and commissionesr chaired this hearing, which focused on the efforts of the citizens in Chechnya to free themselves from Russian power. Russia’s “transgressions” against the Chechnyan populace entailed lack of recognition of international principles. More specifically, the 1994 OSCE Budapest Document, with which the Russians agreed, stipulates that each participating state will ensure that its armed forces are commanded in a way that is consistent with the provisions of international law. Moreover, even when force cannot be avoided, each state will ensure that its use must be commensurate with the needs.  At the time of this hearing, anywhere between 30,000 and 80,000 people had been killed because of the conflict in the territory, and tens of thousands of men, women, and children had been driven from their homes. In addition, there had been a cease-fire in Chechnya. However, the dangers had not recently ended.

  • U.S. Statements on the Human Dimension, 1996 OSCE Vienna Review Conference and Lisbon Summit

    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.

  • 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.

  • Report: US Helsinki Commission Delegation to Georgia and Azerbaijan

    From April 22-26, 1996, Commission staff attended, along with 30 media professionals, the International Conference on Conflict in Trans-Caucasus [sic] and the Role of Mass Media, held in Kobuleti, Ajaria (an Autonomous Republic in Georgia). The conferences organizers were the OSCE Office of Democratic Institu- tions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Mission to Georgia, the Council of Europe and the Tbilisi-based Black Sea Press Information Agency. The project was co-sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, through the Eurasia Foundation. Participants came from Baku, Tskhinvali (South Ossetia), Stepanakert (Nagorno-Karabakh), Tbilisi and Yerevan. Organized by the ODIHR as a follow-up to the 1995 Human Dimension Implementation Review Meeting in Warsaw, the conference was one in a series on the role of the media in conflict situations and in systems undergoing the transition from communism. The stated aim of these conferences is to develop aware- ness of and working recommendations for the journalists working in conflict regions on the role the media can play in preventing and resolving conflicts. A secondary goal is to give journalists from states or regions in conflict the opportunity to meet, discuss common problems and establish personal contacts to promote the exchange of information. Other scheduled conferences examine the role of the media in the former Yugoslavia (June 1996) and the situation of the media in Uzbekistan (October 1996). One important reason conference organizers chose Kobuleti was that Ajaria has managed to avoid the destruction and disruption visited upon the rest of Georgia in the last several years by ethnic conflicts and by gangs of marauding criminals associated with various paramilitary groups. Under the iron grip of Aslan Abashidze, the Chairman of Ajarias Supreme Soviet, Ajaria has been relatively calm, and has taken in refugees from Georgias ethnic-separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Since these conflicts are technically unre- solved, Tbilisi, the capital, would have been problematic for Abkhaz and South Ossetians, whereas Ajaria seemed a more neutral site.

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