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Italian Fingerprinting Targeting Romani Communities Triggers Protests; OSCE Pledges Fact-Finding
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

By Erika B. Schlager, Counsel for International Law

On July 10 and 11, the OSCE participating States held the 2nd of this year’s three Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings (SHDMs). This meeting, formally devoted to consideration of “Sustainable Policies for Roma and Sinti Integration,” also became a forum to protest Italy’s announced plans to fingerprint Roma and Sinti – and no one else. (“Sinti” is the term of self-ascription used by a Romani people primarily in historically German-speaking areas of Europe.) The OSCE’s newly appointed Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Janez Lenarcic, announced at the meeting’s opening that the OSCE and Council of Europe would undertake a fact-finding trip to Italy to examine the situation of the Roma there.

Overview of Meeting

The OSCE holds three Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings each year. These are two-day human rights meetings held in Vienna, Austria (where the OSCE is headquartered). As originally conceived, these meetings are intended to bring topical human rights issues closer to the Permanent Council of the 56 participating States, the key decision-making body of the OSCE. The topics for the SHDMs are chosen by the OSCE Chair-in-Office (a post currently held by Finland), in consultation with the participating States. The SHDMs augment the annual two-week human dimension implementation review, typically held in the fall in Warsaw.

Participants at this meeting included representatives from the national delegations to the OSCE in Vienna; government representatives from capitals (including from offices or departments specializing in Romani concerns); local authorities with responsibility for implementing policies relating to Romani minorities; representatives of Romani and other non-governmental organizations (NGO); and international organizations (such as the Council of Europe and United Nations Development Program).

The meeting was divided into successive sessions: 1) an opening session which included keynote remarks presented by Romanian Government State Secretary Gruia Bumba, head of Romania’s National Agency for Roma; 2) a session on the role and responsibility of regional and local authorities to assist in integrating Roma; 3) a session on good practices and major challenges in improving the situation of Roma at the local level; 4) a session on policies to facilitate equal access of Roma and Sinti to public services and education; and 5) closing remarks.

These discussions were enriched by the insights of officials actually implementing policies or programs relating to Roma at the local or regional level, including the Head of the Unit of Attention for the Roma Community from the Catalan Government in Spain; the Director of Empowering Social Work and Basic Security from the City of Jyvaskyla, Finland; the Vice Mayor of the City of Bologna, Italy; and the Mayor of Trikala, Greece, among others.

In addition to these formal sessions, a civil society round-table was held on the morning of the first day, enabling Romani civil society representatives to present shared concerns to the OSCE participating States during the opening session. Three additional side events were held on: the effective use of the European Court of Human Rights judgments; building partnerships between Romani communities and local authorities; and fundament rights and freedom of Roma in Italy.

The Italian Job

As a practical matter, the advanced planning time-line required for these meetings makes it difficult to select topics that are particularly time-sensitive or reflect breaking developments. The timing of this particular SHDM, however, more-or-less coincided with the announcement by the Italian Government that Roma and Sinti – including European Union citizens – would be singled out for fingerprinting by the country’s law enforcement authorities. As a consequence, the meeting was sharply punctuated by discussions of developments in Italy.

The fingerprinting plan, reportedly to be administered with the collection of data on ethnicity and religion, is the latest culmination of a growing anti-migrant and anti-Roma sentiment in Italy. Intolerance in Italy escalated with the latest wave of EU expansion, after which an increased number of Romanian nationals went to Italy to work; a weakened Italian economy; and the election earlier this year of political leaders who campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform.

Sharp criticism of the situation in Italy was therefore a reoccurring theme, beginning with a protest action at the opening session. At a pre-determined moment, several dozen non-governmental activists rose in unison, many wearing t-shirts bearing the image of an out-sized fingerprint and the words “no ethnic profiling” over it, or holding enlarged photos of Romani camps that had been torched by mobs in Italy. They demanded an end to the selective fingerprinting of Roma. Moreover, one Romani non-governmental representative observed that no perpetrators have been held accountable for torching Romani camps or other acts of violence and warned that, if unchecked, such violence would surely result in deaths. He called on Italy to report to the upcoming Human Dimension Implementation Meeting on actions taken to hold perpetrators accountable.

On the second day of the meeting, a similar group gathered in front of the OSCE’s meeting site, and marched through Vienna to the offices of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency. Then, at the side event focused on the situation in Italy, a coalition of NGOs (the European Roma Rights Center, the Open Society Institute, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, Romani CRISS and the Roma Civic Alliance of Romania) launched a report on Italy outlining the “extreme degradation of Roma rights in Italy.” NGO representatives who had visited destroyed camps described finding toys and clothes left behind, as victims fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Italy was well represented at the meeting by representatives from their permanent delegation to the OSCE as well from the Ministry of Interior. They came to all events, including to the side event on the situation of Roma in Italy, and responded politely to the issues raised. In particular, Italian authorities claimed that manifestations of racism against Roma had been widely condemned in Italy. Notwithstanding their conciliatory demeanor, Italian officials stood by their plans to move ahead with the fingerprinting operation targeting Romani communities.

In this context, it was particularly interesting to hear an alternative view from a local government official from Bologna. She clearly sought to distance herself from the national policies under fire, and described the challenges local officials had absorbing or responding to an increased number of Romani migrants, without assistance from or a strategic plan on the part of the national government.

The Romanian Government was restrained, but circulated a formal document of protest, “request[ing] the European Union to recommend the Italian Government to give up the fingerprinting measures of Roma persons and to observe and enforce the aquis communitaire regarding the fundamental rights of European Union citizens, including of Romanian citizens of Roma origin.”

Although the ECONOMIST recently described Europe’s diverse and dispersed Romani communities as “bound only by music,” one might have added, “and an extensive network of electronic devices.” Even as the OSCE held its human dimension meeting in Vienna, email messages arrived on participants’ cell phones and blackberries reporting that the European Union Parliament had adopted a resolution calling on Italy to stop the fingerprinting.

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    An independent US government agency is calling on the Biden administration to push for Russia to be permanently expelled from Interpol — a step further than the suspension the administration has already sought — citing the invasion of Ukraine and previous abuses by Russia, according to a letter obtained by CNN. Earlier this week, Attorney General Merrick Garland joined justice ministers from several allied countries to demand that Interpol immediately suspend Russia from accessing its systems, according to Justice Department spokesperson Anthony Coley.   Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, is a global agency which facilitates police across its 195 member countries to collaborate on criminal investigations. Interpol issues what are known as Red Notices to request the location and arrest of an individual pending their extradition. Friday’s letter from the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe commended the steps the US has taken so far, but added that the administration should call for the permanent suspension of Russia. “We urge you to use the U.S. position in Interpol (and in particular Interpol's Executive Committee and its Advisory Group on Financial Matters) to make it clear that any failure to act against Russia's abuse of lnterpol will have grave consequences for the U.S. contribution to Interpol's budget and Interpol's legal immunities in the United States,” the letter, directed to Garland and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, reads. The commission — also known as the US Helsinki Commission — was created by Congress in 1976 with a focus on human rights, military security, and economic cooperation. It is led by Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Steve Cohen. If Russia is suspended from Interpol, it would bar the country from continuing to participate and therefore put in requests for Red Notices, but it would not remove Red Notices that are already in the system, said Ted Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and an expert in Interpol.

  • Helsinki Commission Recognizes Key Contributions from Allies and Partners

    WASHINGTON—In light of Russia’s continued criminal war on the peaceful citizens of Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s barbaric war against the Ukrainian people has inspired global outrage and condemnation. Many countries have risen to the moment, especially our Baltic Allies, Poland, and Romania. We also recognize those other OSCE participating States that have taken particular risks and stepped up during this moment of great danger and clear moral purpose.  “We thank the Government of Turkey for its significant and robust support for Ukraine. Turkey has long been among Ukraine’s most ardent and consistent advocates, and its closure of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits to warships from Russia and Ukraine, consistent with the Montreux Convention, effectively supports Ukraine and the cause of European security. Turkey plays an indispensable role as a NATO Ally and strategic linchpin in Europe. We look forward to working closely with our Turkish allies on additional steps to support Ukraine. “We also recognize Moldova for serving as a safe haven for refugees and for its strong support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. To date, on a per capita basis, Moldova has welcomed more refugees than any other country. Despite limited resources and the unlawful presence of Russian troops on its soil, President Maia Sandu and the Government and people of Moldova have shown their mettle. We congratulate Moldova on its European Union application. We see your heroic efforts and will continue to work diligently towards supporting Moldova’s transatlantic aspirations. “In addition, despite initially concerning and confusing statements, we applaud the Government of Georgia for its increasingly robust support for the people of Ukraine, particularly given Russia’s threats and occupation of Georgia’s territory. We are grateful for Georgia’s co-sponsorship of the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its participation in a call for the International Criminal Court to investigate Russian war crimes, and the strong statements of support by Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili in particular. We congratulate Georgia on its application to the European Union and look forward to doing our part to reinvigorate our bilateral partnership and deepening our transatlantic bond. “We are moving to limit Russia’s ability to wage war on its neighbors and will work closely with our friends to navigate this dangerous moment in history.” On February 28, the Turkish government exercised its authority as a custodian of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, per the 1936 Montreux Convention, and closed their use to warring parties in the Black Sea. On March 2, Turkey provided the Ukrainian military with additional Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial combat vehicles. Since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Moldova was among the first to open its borders to Ukrainian refugees and hosts more refugees per capita compared to any other European state. Russia illegally maintains a garrison of approximately 1,500 troops on Moldovan territory in Transnistria and supports a separatist government. On March 2, the Government of Georgia co-sponsored a UN General Assembly resolution that condemned Russia’s war against Ukraine. On the same day, Georgia joined 37 other countries formally calling for an International Criminal Court investigation of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. 

  • At OSCE PA Winter Meeting, U.S. Legislators Unite with International Counterparts to Condemn Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine

    By Ryn Hintz, Max Kampelman Fellow From February 20 – 26, 2022, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) led a bipartisan Congressional delegation to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) in Vienna, where he served as the Head of the U.S. Delegation. Other participating Helsinki Commissioners included Ranking House Commissioner Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). They were joined on the delegation by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18). Ranking Senate Commissioner Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) participated remotely as members of the U.S. Delegation. The OSCE PA, consisting of 323 legislators from the 57 countries of the OSCE, has been particularly useful in defending democracy and promoting security in the face of numerous threats and challenges across the OSCE region.  The Winter Meeting, held in a hybrid format due to ongoing but easing COVID restrictions, allows parliamentarians an opportunity to engage OSCE officials and diplomatic representatives, as well as to initiate work for the coming year.  Prior to the Winter Meeting, the delegation visited Lithuania to demonstrate the strong U.S. support for this close NATO ally, which not only faces security threats on its borders but also provides refuge to independent voices from Russia and Belarus. OSCE PA Winter Meeting The 2022 Winter Meeting coincided with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s large-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine, a horrific escalation of a conflict that began with Russia’s illegal occupation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and ongoing aggression in the eastern portion of Ukraine. Ahead of the Winter Meeting, the OSCE PA Secretary General Roberto Montella and members of OSCE PA leadership (including Sen. Wicker as a Vice President and Rep. Hudson as Chair of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security) met in an emergency session and issued a statement condemning the Kremlin invasion as a “clear and gross violation of the most basic norms of international law as well as OSCE principles and commitments.” The group also issued a subsequent statement standing “in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and its elected government” and noting the “extraordinary courage” exhibited by “civilians, the armed forces and national leaders, including President Volodymyr Zelensky.” Statements condemning Vladimir Putin for the deliberate assault of Russian forces on Ukraine dominated the formal sessions of the meeting, despite an agenda originally designed to consider ongoing OSCE PA work on a wide range of issues. Co-Chairman Cohen spoke for the United States, decrying Putin’s claim that the Ukrainian government is led and run by Nazis. In a poignant end to the Standing Committee’s second session, the Ukrainian Head of Delegation, Mykyta Poturaiev, reported on violence in his neighborhood of Kyiv and bid farewell as he sought to return to his family in Ukraine. The 2022 Polish Chair-in-Office of the OSCE for 2022 outlined Poland’s priorities in an utterly transformed era in European security. During the general debate, nominally on the topic of “security guarantees and the indivisibility of security in Europe,” delegations resumed their near-universal condemnation of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Rep. Hudson opened the meeting of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security by denouncing the invasion of one participating State by another, in total opposition of Helsinki principles. He also underlined the committee’s particular relevance in the context of the security crisis precipitated by Russia, a view reinforced by a panel of senior OSCE officials present as guest speakers.  Finally, Rep. Hudson moderated a debate on “heightened tensions in the OSCE area and the need for inter-parliamentary dialogue.” The debate focused heavily on the attack on Ukraine, with Sen.Wicker remotely joining those in Vienna condemning Russia’s outrageous behavior, and Rep. Jackson Lee forcefully urging members to recall the role of the Belarusian government in the events leading to the invasion. In the economic and environmental affairs committee, Rep. Smith spoke alongside OSCE official Valiant Richey about their efforts as special representatives on human trafficking issues of the Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE, respectively. They specifically discussed supply chains as they relate to human trafficking matters. Representative Wilson spoke for the United States in the subsequent debate. In the committee dealing with democracy and human rights, Rep. Wilson condemned Russian human-rights violations in occupied Ukraine and in Russia itself, as well as ongoing repression in Belarus. Rep. Aderholt defended free media in his statement to the committee following presentations by recent Nobel laureate and Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitriy Muratov and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro. On the margins of the Winter Meeting, the U.S. delegation gathered key parliamentarians from a range of participating States over dinner, fostering an opportunity for frank and candid exchanges of views on important topics confronting the OSCE. The event emphasized the depth of the U.S. commitment to European security, going beyond diplomatic representatives to include elected Members of Congress. The delegation also was briefed by diplomats representing the United States in the OSCE, including Ambassador Michael Carpenter, and held bilateral meetings with the heads of the Azerbaijani and Mongolian OSCE PA Delegations. Visiting Lithuania The delegation’s presence in Europe also afforded an opportunity to visit Lithuania to underscore U.S. support for a crucial NATO ally at a time of deep concern caused by Russian aggression. In Vilnius, the delegation met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and senior members of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) to discuss the Russian assault on Ukraine, the deterioration of regional security, and Lithuania’s values-based foreign policy, including relations with China. Officials emphasized to the delegation the game-changing nature of recent developments, especially the total capitulation of the Lukashenko regime in Belarus to Moscow. These actions resulted in a dramatically more challenging situation on Lithuania’s border, leaving the country essentially no warning should Putin choose to act against the Baltic states.  The delegation also visited the Pabrade Training Area, a Lithuanian initiative which provides facilities for U.S. and Allied military activities in the region. Members also met with Belarusians and Russians who had fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders, civil society organizations, and the media.

  • Helsinki Commission Mourns Death of Ukrainian OSCE Mission Member During Russian Attack on Kharkiv

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of a Ukrainian member of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine during a Russian attack, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are saddened and angered by the tragic death of Maryna Fenina, a Ukrainian member of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, during shelling in Kharkiv on March 1. We offer our deepest condolences to her family and friends. “Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s ruthless attack against the people of Ukraine is targeting men, women, and children; destroying homes, businesses, and cultural treasures; and forcing millions to flee for their lives. Putin’s unprovoked war is shredding the European security architecture that brought peace after the Second World War. Individuals like Maryna Fenina remind us of the terrible human toll of war. “Russia must cease its brutal and criminal invasion and withdraw its forces from the sovereign territory of Ukraine.” Maryna Fenina was the second OSCE SMM member to die as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving with the SMM, was killed In April 2017 when his vehicle struck a landmine in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that has served as the international community’s eyes and ears on the security and humanitarian situation in the conflict zone. On February 25, the SMM decided to withdraw its international mission members from Ukraine. Ukrainian national mission members remain in the country. 

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest February 2022

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Leads Bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Defend Democracy and Ukrainian Sovereignty at OSCE PA Winter Meeting

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) last week led a bipartisan Congressional delegation to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) in Vienna, Austria, which focused almost exclusively on responding to the full-scale Russian assault on Ukraine.  A sizable and active U.S. presence at the hybrid event helped generate nearly united condemnation of the Kremlin attack and provided assurance of the U.S. commitment to European security during a time of great uncertainty. “Our bipartisan delegation actively and adamantly defended Ukraine’s rights as a sovereign nation in the face of unchecked Russian aggression,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “The European security architecture that has supported peace and prosperity on the continent and around the world for decades must not be allowed to crumble at the whim of a dictator with grandiose aspirations of returning to some imagined past glory. It is long past time that democratic nations—including all other OSCE participating States—unite to firmly put Putin back where he belongs: isolated and outside the bounds of international society.” Other members of Congress traveling to Vienna included Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), as well as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18). Remote participants in the Winter Meeting included Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). Although the meeting included a wide range of OSCE issues of concern, Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine dominated all discussion.  “Fundamental underpinnings of our security order, including commitments to respect other countries’ territorial integrity, sovereignty, and choices of security alliances, are at this moment being breached, flagrantly and deliberately, by one of our participating States, which is—as we speak—conducting an unprovoked invasion of another participating State,” said Rep. Hudson, who chairs the OSCE PA General Committee on Political Affairs and Security. “If Vladimir Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he will not stop there—just as he did not stop with Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, and the Donbass. How can any of us realistically believe he will stop with Ukraine?” asked Sen. Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA. “According to Putin’s twisted rationale, every former republic of the USSR is at risk. NATO is at risk. Every member of the peace-loving international community is at risk of being swept up into this conflict.” Members of the U.S. delegation directly challenged the egregious assertions of the few Russian delegates who attempted to justify their country’s naked aggression. Other issues raised by the U.S. delegation included human rights violations within Russia, as well as in Belarus and in areas of Ukraine under illegal occupation; ongoing concerns regarding human trafficking; and the assault on free media throughout the OSCE region.  Ahead of the Winter Meeting, members of the in-person delegation traveled to Lithuania to underscore U.S. support for a crucial NATO Ally at a time of deep concern caused by Russian aggression. In Vilnius, they met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and senior members of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) to discuss the Russian assault on Ukraine, the deterioration of regional security, and Lithuania’s values-based foreign policy, including relations with China. The delegation also visited the Pabrade Training Area for briefings on U.S. and Allied military activities conducted in the region, and met with Belarusians and Russians who have fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders, members of the business community, civil society organizations, and the media.

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