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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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