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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  The last explicitly anti-Roma law in the United States was repealed in New Jersey in 1998.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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  • The OSCE at Twenty: Its Relevance to Other Regions - Part 2

    This two day briefing was a response to legislation that called for the CSCE to conduct an analysis of the OSCE’s strengths and weaknesses and to ascertain the feasibility of creating similar institutions in other geographic regions. The briefing was divided into six panels. This second panel, entitled “Asia: Market Driven Reform or Repression?” was introduced by Congressman Jim Lightfoot. Rep. Lightfoot believed an OSCE-like process should be considered in Asia and that an organization like the Helsinki commission be created to monitor such a process. Other panelists generally agreed that while the OSCE model held some insights for Asia, including an enhanced role for NGOs, it would be difficult to envision its effectiveness in the vast and varied Asia-Pacific region. Mr. T. Kumar of Amnesty International added that it would be helpful to have a more institutionalized role for NGOs, as they have often become victims themselves when confronting rights abuses. On security matters, the panelists agreed that further development of the ASEAN process would be beneficial in maintaining both bilateral and multilateral ties to the U.S. Finally, in the economic sphere, Mr. Kamm of Market Access Ltd. argued that the promotion of human rights has positive implications for productivity, and that it would thus be in the interest of businesses to establish a human rights protection regime.

  • Religious Liberty in the OSCE: Present and Future

    Speaking on behalf of Congressman Christopher H. Smith and Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato, chairman and co-chairman of the Helsinki Committee, the Committee’s Director for International Policy, Samuel G. Wise, addressed the improvements made by the countries of the OSCE in religious liberty since the demise of communism. Observed deficits in this particular subject were also evaluated, including acts of OSCE governments perpetrating religious intolerance and discrimination against people of faith by passing laws favoring certain religions, turning a blind eye to harassment, and establishing bureaucratic roadblocks to prevent religious minorities from practicing their faith. Each panelist – including Dr. Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow of Political Theory for the Institute for Christian Studies; Dr. Khalid Duran, Senior Fellow for the Institute for International Studies; and Micah Naftalin, National Director for the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews – spoke to the overall factors affecting religious freedom in the OSCE, including: respect for other freedoms such as freedom of speech and religion, ethno-cultural tensions, and the relevance of old prejudices. These ideas were presented in the context of moving towards a more comprehensive respect for religious freedom among OSCE member states in the future.

  • Banja Luka-Ethnic Cleansing Paradigm

    Samuel Wise, international policy director of the Commission, addressed the political setting in Bosnia before elections in 1995 and the possibility of having a free and fair environment, especially in regards to human rights like freedom of movement, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. The briefing focused on Banja Luka, the second largest city in Bosnia-Herzegovina that is located in the northwest. Since the beginning of the Bosnian conflict, the city was firmly in the hands of the Bosnian Serb rebels until the Dayton Accords placed the city in the Republika Srpska, the newly created Serbian republic. The city and the region surrounding it had a significant non-Serb population (Bosniacs or Muslim Slavs, Croats, Ukrainians, and ethnically mixed Yugoslavs), which was ethnically cleansed on behalf of the Serbian government. While some instances of ethnic cleansing there took the form of subtle measures, the most notorious concentration camps, including Omarska, were in the Banja Luka region. The witnesses – Catholic Bishop of Banja Luka  Franjo Komarica,  Obrad Kesic from the International Research and Exchanges Board, and Diane Paul, a nurse from Baltimore – discussed the city as a scene of apparent differences among Serb political activists with highly divergent points of view. They emphasized that Bosnia’s future hinged on whether moderates or radicals won in the elections in that region.

  • Human Rights in Turkey

    Sam Wise, director for international policy at the Commission, led a discussion on the human rights situation in Turkey in 1995, specifically regarding Turkey’s Kurdish minority and the human rights implications of terrorism.  Wise highlighted the human costs of both terrorism itself and efforts to combat it, which has mainly affected civilians. Panelists Akin Birdal and Yavuz Onen spoke of the assassinations and disappearances of prominent human rights activists, journalists and others that unfortunately became routine by 1995. Those who publicize human rights violations in Turkey faced official harassment or jail for their efforts.

  • Prosecuting War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia: an Update

    This memorandum is part of a continuing series of reports prepared by the staff of the Helsinki Commission on the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. In the summer of 1991, Members of Congress and representatives of non-governmental organizations began to call for the establishment of a war crimes tribunal that would hold those responsible for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia personally and individually accountable for their actions. As atrocities mounted over that summer and information about concentration camps became public, these calls began to reverberate at on-going meetings of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) then being held in Prague, Vienna and Helsinki.

  • Report on the March 5, 1995 Parliamentary Election in Estonia and Status of Non-Citizens

    The election on March 5, 1995, for Estonia'’s national parliament, the Riigikogu, were conducted normally, without any serious violations of the election law or international standards. A seventeen-member delegation of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCEPA) concluded that the election was “free and fair.” The OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) reported that “[the election was] carried out in accordance with the principles contained in the electoral law and there are no major matters which the representatives wish to highlight.” ODIHR has submitted several suggestions to the Riigikogu and the National Electoral Committee for improving technical aspects of the process. Political party structures are noticeably undeveloped in the northeast, and in none of the polling stations were any local observers encountered. Discussions at the National Electoral Commission in Tallinn and with local precinct officials revealed some disagreement about the procedure for admitting local observers, around 700 of whom had registered with the National Electoral Commission prior to the election. In any case, the lack of local observers probably indicated general confidence by the citizenry that the government was capable of holding an orderly and honest election without the need for monitors. Checks with other international observers indicated that the only local observers noted were in Tallinn, and precious few of these.  

  • The United Nations, NATO and the Former Yugoslavia

    This hearing focused on policy questions related to United Nations efforts and coordinated assistance from NATO in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. The hearing reviewed a historical timeline of the events and atrocities associated with the war. The hearing covered the issue of genocide and the actions in which the United States ought to respond. In relation to the war, the hearing touched based on the effectiveness of the Bosnian arms embargo and whether its intended approached has alleviated the conflict in any matter. The witnesses and the Commissioners touched on the logistical difficulties faced by the United Nations and what the general perspective and desires of the local population.

  • The Crisis of Chechnya

    Apart from horrendous human rights violations, the war in Chechnya has brought to the fore all the underlying fissures in Russia’s political and economic structures, as well as highlighted the tensions in Russia’s relations with its neighbors and the rest of the international community. Chechnya confronts Russia’s Government, and by extension, all OSCE governments with the key issue of self-determination. Though Principle VIII of the Helsinki Final Act guarantees the equal right of all peoples to self-determination, the international community has never worked out rules and mechanisms for pursuing that right. Since many countries face actual or potential separatist movements based on demands for self-determination, governments have tended to side-step the issue.

  • Nagorno-Karabakh

    In this briefing, which CSCE Staff Director Samuel G. Wise chaired, the focus was on the conflict that had then recently transpired between the countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan. More specifically, the two countries had had a territorial dispute regarding the area of Nagorno-Karabakh. This dispute had manifested itself into all-out violence that had claimed around 15 million lives at the time of the briefing, as well as creating well over a million refugees. The briefing was the fifth in a series of briefings and hearings that the Helsinki Commission had held since 1988 regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. Fortunately, also at the time of this briefing, there had been very few armed clashes for a couple of months, and the warring factions had observed an informal cease fire. Actually, just three days prior to the briefing, the Defense Ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh jointly noted the success of the cease fire and looked forward to a more comprehensive resolution of the conflict. With this decrease in violence, attention had shifted to the international diplomatic plane. The CSCE and the Russians had put forward at least somewhat similar cease fire plans, albeit with competition for adherence. The ultimate end of both approaches was a broader agreement about the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and making peace in the region. The purpose of the briefing, then, was to discuss the possible framework of a political settlement.

  • Banned Turkish Parliamentarians Discuss State of Democracy in Turkey

    The briefing addressed the limitations of free speech in Turkey, which fell victim to the government’s war against the Kurdish minority. The Commission brought to attention the arrests and detention of Democracy Party parliamentarians and others who spoke out in support of rights for Turkey’s Kurdish citizens, which brought the Turkish government’s commitment to free speech and other basic human rights into question. On June 16th, the Democratic Part was banned by the Turkish Constitutional Court. Remzi Kartal, a member of Turkish Parliament, was among those who were forced to flee the country as a result. He was joined by Ali Yigit, a member of the Turkish Parliament who was also stripped of his status. At the briefing, Kartal and Yigit jointly addressed the political and economic problems in Turkey, centered on the 20 million Turkish Kurds who do not have a voice in Turkey’s government.

  • CSCE Implementation Meeting on Human Dimension Issues

    Against a backdrop of savage conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nagorno Karabakh, and Georgia, attendant refugee crises throughout the region, and a wave of sometimes violent racism and xenophobia even in long-established European democracies, the participating states of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) met in Warsaw, Poland in 1993 for the first biannual Implementation Meeting on Human Dimension Issues As specified by the 1992 Helsinki Document, the meeting included a thorough exchange of views on the implementation of Human Dimension commitments, consideration of ways and means of improving implementation, and an evaluation of the procedures for monitoring compliance with commitments. The dramatic unfolding over the course of the meeting of the showdown within the Russian government-- culminating in the shelling of the Russian Parliament building by government troops-- served as a sober reminder to participants of the vulnerability of democracy in transition and the importance of shoring up Human Dimension compliance.

  • Human Rights and Democratization in Bulgaria

    The Helsinki Commission's last comprehensive report on Bulgarian CSCE implementation was published in 1988. (The Commission also published a report in 1991 on the ethnic Turkish minority in Bulgaria). At that time, Bulgaria was in violation of many of its CSCE commitments. Its human rights record was among the worst of the Helsinki signatory states. Clearly, much has changed since then. Since the fall of communism in November 1989, Bulgaria has made impressive strides towards becoming a democratic state based on the rule of law. Bulgaria is experiencing a rare historical opportunity in which it can genuinely forge its own fate. Unshackled from the external Soviet empire of communist rule with which it had especially close links, Bulgaria is developing a democratic, rule of law state where the rights of all of its citizens are being met with greater respect. While Bulgaria faces considerable problems in its post-communist transition, and will continue to in the foreseeable future, it is doing much better than most of its Balkan neighbors. Moreover, it is exceeding the expectations of those who until recently viewed Bulgaria through the prism of being the Soviet Union's “16th republic” and the home of papal assassination plots and forcible assimilation campaigns. Despite its very real problems, Bulgaria is indicating that it is more tolerant, pluralistic, democratic and stable than many would have supposed.

  • Ethnic Violence in Trans-Caucasia

    Chairman Dennis DeConcini addressed rising ethnic violence in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia and emphasized this region as more violent than other post-Soviet states. He referred to the continuing violence in Abkhazia, a separatist region in Georgia, and the rising concerns about further deterioration of stability in the region and Russia’s role in the conflict. Witnesses - Dr. Paul Henze, Ross Vartian, Mourad Topalian, Ambassador Hafiz Pashayev, and Ambassador John Maresca - highlighted the conflict between proponents of self-determination and governments insisting on territorial integrity and the difficulty of negotiating with sides that see completely different situations.

  • The CSCE's High Commissioner for National Minorities

    The CSCE created the post of High Commissioner on National Minorities at its July 1992 summit meeting in Helsinki, in response to the emergence of minority-related unrest as one of the main sources of conflict in Europe. Originally proposed by the Netherlands, the proposal received wide support as an innovative approach to national minority problems unleashed by the disappearance of superpower confrontation in Europe. Some of the most innovative aspects of the original proposal for a High Commissioner were substantially watered down in response to individual state's concerns. The High Commissioner may not become involved where armed conflict has already broken out or in areas already under consideration by the CSO, unless the permission of the CSO is given. Communication with or response to communications from organizations or individuals who practice or publicly condone terrorism is prohibited, as is involvement in situations "involving organized acts of terrorism." Former Dutch Foreign Minister Max van der Stoel was appointed the first High Commissioner in December 1992; his office began to function in January 1993, with premises donated by the Dutch government and a staff of three diplomats seconded from the Dutch, Polish and Swedish foreign ministries.

  • Situations of Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey

    This briefing focused on the Kurdish minority, the fourth largest nationality in the Middle East primarily concentrated in the States of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, a CSCE signatory state. The lack of institutional protection of human rights and individual freedoms that the Kurdish minority suffers from in each of these states was addressed. Additionally, the principles of territorial integrity, self-determination, and respect of human rights were explored in the context of the Middle East. Witnesses at the briefing – including Ahmet Turk, Chairman of the People’s Labor Party and Barham Salih, a Representative of the Iraqi Kurds – offered descriptions of the historical context and the political framework in which the issue of violations of the human rights of the Kurdish minority has arisen. Mr. Salih presented his personal experience as the evidence of the process of forced assimilation that Kurds were enduring in Turkey at the time.

  • Situation of Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey

    The briefing, introduced by Mary Sue Hafner, was another chapter in the Commission’s ongoing examination of minority issues within the CSCE and focused on the issue of the Kurdish minority, who constitute the fourth largest nationality in the Middle East, of approximately 20 to 25 million, primarily concentrated in the states of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, in Syria. What is common to the Kurdish minority in all of the countries in which they live is the lack of institutional protection of human rights and individual freedoms. The witnesses - Dr. Mark Epstein, Ahmet Turk from the People’s Labor Party, and Barham Salih, the Iraqi Kurdish Representative - spoke of the need for recognition of human rights and self-determination for Kurdish people in the region. They provided the audience with a historical context and political framework in which the situation existed in 1993 and discussed the possibility for progress in recognizing Kurdish rights.

  • Human Rights in Turkey Part 2

    In this briefing, Mary Sue Hafner, Deputy Staff Director to the Commission, addresses the state of human rights in Turkey and its failure to build effective, enduring democratic institutions.  Hafner highlights the most pressing issues as being torture, the rights of minorities, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. This continuation of the transcript includes Maryam Elahi’s and Namik Tan’s statements on the human rights conditions in Turkey in 1993. Elahi summarizes Amnesty International’s concerns regarding Turkey’s increase in torture, its extrajudicial killings and “disappearances,” and the general targeting of minorities and opposition members. Tan emphasizes the dissolution of the Soviet Union as catalyzing the instability in the region surrounding Turkey and insisted on the importance of Turkey’s security to the West.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Delegation to Romania, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Vienna

    The Commissions Delegation's visit to Romania, the first since April 1990, had two main objectives. The first was to assess, though meetings with a broad spectrum of non-governmental and official actors, Romania's current level of democratic and market reform. The second was in recognition of Romania's critical role in the effort to enforce U.N. sanctions against Serbia and Macedonia, and the broader political strategic role of Romania in the Balkans. The delegation also traveled to Macedonia to complete the itinerary of a visit to the area in November 1992, which had to be cut short because of inclement weather conditions. Indeed, the signs of the oncoming winter which the Commission saw at that time led it to raise concern over the deteriorating condition which Macedonia and the tens of thousands of Bosnian refugees residing there faced. The April 1993 visit afforded a useful opportunity to see firsthand the extent to which the country had satisfactorily coped with these deteriorating conditions and the prospects generally for the stability and democratization of an independent Macedonia. The delegation then visited Kosovo to observe firsthand the volatile situation there. The situation is a matter of considerable international concern given the chances for the war in nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina to have a spillover effect in which the tension exist between the Serbian authorities and th majority Albanian population could erupt into violence, either by intent or by spontaneous incident. The delegation wanted to hear the views of the authorities as well as of the leaders of the Albanian community, and to raise its concerns, particularly to the authorities regarding human rights. Finally, the delegation wanted to learn about the activities of the CSCE mission of Long-Duration based in Kosovo to monitor developments in the area and to ease tension in society. The delegation finished its trip in Vienna, Austria to meet with the U.S. delegation to the CSCE. Vienna is becoming the CSCE's operational center, with the Conflict Prevention Center, which provided logistical support to the missions as well as the ongoing arms control and security forum, the Forum on Security Cooperation (FSC), and regular meeting of the participating States.  

  • War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia

    This hearing focused on the ongoing conflict in the former Yugoslavia and the international community’s commitment to prosecuting those guilty of war crimes and providing humanitarian relief. In particular, the hearing looked into systemic rape and forced impregnation in the former Yugoslavia. The hearing also largely focused on what measures the U.S. should adopt to assist communities and women affected by gender violence from the conflict. In addition, the Commissioners and witnesses discussed measures to prosecute individuals guilty of war crimes and how to address the refugee crisis.

  • War Crimes and the Humanitarian Crisis in the Former Yugoslavia

    This hearing focused on the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and the international community’s commitment to prosecuting those guilty of war crimes. Confidence and security building measures, in relation to the territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina were discussed, as well as the stability of the multi-ethnic layering of the newly formed countries. The hearing also focused on possible U.S. measures to improve regional stability and to relocate displaced persons. Such measures included disbanding the arms embargo on Bosnia and improving economic conditions for the millions affected by the conflict.

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