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Chairman Hastings Marks Roma Genocide Remembrance Day

Friday, July 31, 2020

WASHINGTON—Ahead of Roma Genocide Remembrance Day on August 2, Helsinki Commission Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement:

“As we mourn the mass murder of up to 5,000 Romani people in the so-called ‘Gypsy Family Camp’ at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944, I urge all OSCE participating States to remember the genocide of Roma and to acknowledge the impact this genocide continues to have on Romani communities.  

“Earlier this year, Roma were among the victims of the deadly terrorist attack in Hanau, Germany, where nine people were murdered.  That heinous tragedy underscores the urgency with which we must counter racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and xenophobia today.  The fight against the grave threat of violent extremism and racism is far from being won.

“I commend the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for its support of scholarship on the genocide of Roma, its role as a repository of critical archives, and as a guardian for the remembrance of the Holocaust and the all the victims of the Nazi regime.”

The Helsinki Commission has supported the inclusion of Romani voices in research and remembrance, such as the appointment of Dr. Ethel Brooks to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council; acknowledgment and remembrance of the genocide of Roma, such the Berlin Memorial; archival access for survivors, their families, and scholars, including the Bad Arolsen archives; and proper preservation of and memorialization of sensitive sites of remembrance, such as the Lety Concentration Camp site.

In 2019, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Steve Watkins (KS-02), and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced resolutions in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.Res.292) and the U.S. Senate (S.Res.141) celebrating Romani American heritage. In addition to recognizing and celebrating Romani American heritage and International Roma Day, the resolutions commemorated the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the so-called “Gypsy Family Camp” at Auschwitz.

 

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Stacy Hope
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OSCE Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues Andrzej Mirga stressed the importance of early education in order to lower the dropout rate and raise the number of Roma children continuing on to higher education. Unfortunately, Roma children in several OSCE States are still segregated into separate classes or schools - often those meant instead for special needs children - and so are denied a quality education. Governments need to prioritize early education as a strong foundation. Too often, programs are donor-funded and NGO run, rather than being a systematic part of government policy. While states may think such programs are expensive in the short term, in the long run they save money and provide for greater economic opportunities for Roma. The meeting heard presentations from several participating States of what they consider their "best practices" concerning minority education. 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Notable responses to some of these issues included remarks from Archbishop Silvano Tomasi that parents had the right to choose an education for their children in line with their beliefs. His remarks addressed specific concerns raised by the Church of Scientology, Raelian Movement, Jehovah Witnesses, Catholic organizations, and others, that participating States were preventing religious education and in some cases, even attempting to remove children from parents attempting to raise their children according to a specific belief system. Additionally, some speakers argued that religious groups should be consulted in the development of any teaching materials about specific religions in public school systems. In response to concerns raised by participants that free speech protections and other human rights often seemed to outweigh the right to religious freedom especially amidst criticisms of specific religions, UN Special Rapporteur Bielefeldt warned against playing equality, free speech, religious freedom, and other human rights against one another given that all rights were integral to and could not exist without the other. Addressing ongoing discussion within the OSCE as to whether religious freedom should best be addressed as a human rights or tolerance issue, OSCE Director Lenarcic stated that, “though promoting tolerance is a worthwhile undertaking, it cannot substitute for ensuring freedom of religion of belief. An environment in which religious or belief communities are encouraged to respect each other but in which, for example, all religions are prevented from engaging in teaching, or establishing places of worship, would amount to a violation of freedom of religion or belief.” Statements by the United States made during the meeting also addressed many of these issues, including the use of religion laws in some participating States to restrict religious practice through onerous registrations requirements, censorship of religious literature, placing limitations on places of worship, and designating peaceful religious groups as ‘terrorist’ organizations. Additionally, the United States spoke out against the introduction of laws and other attempts to dictate Muslim women’s dress and other policies targeting the practice of Islam in the OSCE region. Notably, the United States was one of few participating States to call for increased action against anti-Semitic acts such as recent attacks on Synagogues and Jewish gravesites in the OSCE region. (The U.S. statements from the 2010 Review Conference and High-Level Conference can be found on the website of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE.) In addition to the formal meeting, four side events and a pre-SHDM Seminar for civil society were held. The side events were: “Pluralism, Relativism and the Rule of Law,” “Broken Promises – Freedom of religion or belief in Kazakhstan,” “First Release and Presentation of a Five-Year Report on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe” and “The Spanish school subject ‘Education for Citizenship:’ an assault on freedom of education, conscience and religion.” The side event on Kazakhstan convened by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee featured speakers from Forum 18 and Kazakhstan, including a representative from the CiO. Kazakh speakers acknowledged that more needed to be done to fulfill OSCE religious freedom commitments and that it had been a missed opportunity for Kazakhstan not to do more during its OSCE Chairmanship. In particular, speakers noted that religious freedom rights went beyond simply ‘tolerance,’ and raised ongoing concerns with registration, censorship, and visa requirements for ‘nontraditional’ religious groups. (The full report can be found on the website of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.) A Seminar on Freedom of Religion and Belief for civil society members also took place on December 7-8 prior to the SHDM. The purpose of the Seminar was to assist in developing the capacity of civil society to recognize and address violations of the right to freedom of religion and belief and included an overview of international norms and standards on freedom of religion or belief and non-discrimination.

  • The Western Balkans: Developments in 2010 and Hopes for the Future

    This hearing focused on the Western Balkans: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. The witnesses commended the enormous progress that the region has made in the 15 years since the Dayton Agreement ended the Bosnian conflict and in the decade since Milosevic was ousted in Belgrade. The hearing discussed E.U. visa liberalization and U.S. democracy-building assistance programs to support further progress in the region. The Commissioners proposed that the U.S. government prioritize continuing the democratization effort in the Balkans.

  • U.S. Commission Denounces France's Roma Evictions

    An independent US commission of elected officials that monitors human rights in Europe denounced Wednesday the controversial forced deportations of Roma from France to Romania and Bulgaria. "The situation of Roma in Europe will not be fixed by playing a shell game with them," said Florida Democratic representative Alcee Hastings, co-chairman of from the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. "I perceive such actions as wrong-headed political maneuvers, particularly the discriminatory policy of targeting Roma for expulsion," Hastings added, saying that France and other countries "should focus on integrating Roma where they are." French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his administration have been under fire for weeks, and now face possible legal action from the European Union for a policy of deporting members of the traveling communities. The French government has in recent months expelled thousands of Roma, whom the government accuses of acts of criminality, including aggressive begging and theft. "Minority communities are part of a larger fabric of society and we are all put at risk when those who seek to divide for political gain are allowed to take the lead," Hastings said in commission statement to Congress, at a hearing on the situation facing minorities in France. French Ambassador Pierre Vimont insisted to US lawmakers however that there was "nothing like a collective action against this so called community," referring to the Roma. The French government, he said, was "taking measures against individual citizens that are creating a problem relating mostly to public order." France has charged that one in five thefts in the Paris area was carried out by a citizen of Romania, noting that many Romanians in Paris are from the Roma minority. France has deported some 1,000 Roma migrants to Bulgaria and Romania since last month, and more than 8,000 Roma have been deported since the beginning of the year, after 9,875 were expelled in 2009.

  • Anti-Roma Actions Erupt in France, Europe

    Madam Speaker, I rise today to address the comments made by French President Nikolas Sarkozy that have caused quite the media flurry in the past few weeks. On July 16, French police shot and killed a Romani man when he apparently tried to run a roadblock. This shooting sparked two days of rioting by some 50 members of his community damaging the local police station and private property. In a story that has now been covered by the media from Vancouver to Moscow, French President Sarkozy subsequently announced that he would look into ``the problems created by the behavior of certain travelers and Roma,'' with a view toward the closing down Romani camps and driving out Roma. Government statements have indicated these measures would focus on finding and expelling Romani citizens from Bulgaria and Romania--two European Union countries. Despite the fact that the Romani man in the July 16 incident was actually a French citizen--Mr. Sarzkozy later spoke of stripping citizenship from nationalized French citizens convicted of serious offenses. Not surprisingly, human rights groups have condemned the President's remarks with one voice. Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg rejected the notion of holding Romani people collectively responsible if one among them commits a crime. Good for you, Mr. Hammarberg. (It is a shame that the European Union has been so utterly silent and paralyzed in the face of this downward spiral.) Many of the reports and analyses of these events, such as last Friday's editorial in the New York Times, rightly placed these developments in the context of French politics and President Sarkozy's political imperatives. Understanding the current political dynamic in France, particularly the ongoing debate over ``national identity'' and the situation of Muslim and African-origin minorities in France, is extremely helpful in understanding the President's expansion into anti -Roma mudslinging. But there is a wider, broader European context for his remarks that I think must be addressed. French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux has stated that the new measures targeting Romani camps are not aimed at ``stigmatizing a community'' but rather at stopping illegal activity. This sounds remarkably like the rhetoric of Hungary's far right wing party, Jobbik, which claims it is not against ``Gypsies,'' just ``Gypsy crimes.'' In fact, rhetoric linking Roma to criminal activity or broadly portraying Roma as criminals--traffickers, prostitutes, thieves, and so forth--is pervasive throughout Europe. In early July, in the wake of a mass expulsion of Roma from Copenhagen, Danish Minister of Justice reportedly made remarks tying Romani culture to criminal behavior. Romania's foreign minister remarked in February about ``the natural physiology of Roma criminality.'' For two years now, Italy has been gripped by anti -Roma policies, included targeting Roma for fingerprinting, that are built on a perception of the Roma as criminals. The idea of Romani people as inherently criminal is not new. In fact, it was at the very center of Nazi racial theories regarding Roma. According to these theories, Roma --as descendants of an Aryan people--we're just fine on their own. But Nazi racial hygienists concluded that, as a result of intermarriage between Roma and non-Roma, Roma had been left with mixed, ``degenerate'' blood and were genetically predisposed to criminality. Moreover, Roma were ``unadaptable''--that is, this condition could never be changed. These Nazi racial theories provided the rationale for the sterilization, persecution, and eventual extermination of Roma. Unfortunately, as Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, has observed, ``Even after the..... Nazi killing of at least half a million Roma, probably 700,000 or more, there was no genuine change of attitude among the majority population towards the Roma.'' In other words, Nazi racial theories regarding Roma remain remarkably entrenched and are regularly given voice in the rhetoric about ``Romani crime.'' Madam Speaker, last year Senator Cardin and I, as Chairman and Cochairman of the Helsinki Commission, wrote to Secretary Clinton regarding the situation of Roma in Europe. In particular, we noted that ``racist rhetoric directed against Roma today often uses terminology or images that have been in continuous use since the Nazi era,'' and we argued that teaching about Romani experiences during the Holocaust is essential to successfully combat prejudice against Roma today. Perhaps this could start in France. 

  • Copenhagen Anniversary Conference

    By Orest Deychakiwsky, Policy Advisor Representatives from a majority of the 56 OSCE participating States and several dozen non-governmental organizations (NGOs) gathered in Copenhagen on June 10-11 to mark the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the 1990 Copenhagen Document and to assess implementation of key provisions of that landmark document. The anniversary conference, titled “20 years of the OSCE Copenhagen Document: Status and Future Perspectives,” was co-organized by the Kazakhstani OSCE Chairmanship and Denmark, and held at the Eigtveds Pakhus, Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Michael Haltzel led the U.S. delegation, which was joined by U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE, Ian Kelly and representatives from the OSCE Mission in Vienna, the State Department and the Helsinki Commission. Five substantive working sessions, reflecting some of the major themes of the groundbreaking Copenhagen Document, were held: Democratic processes – elections and human rights; Rule of Law; National Minorities; Freedom of Movement; and Measures to improve implementation of the human dimension commitments. Many speakers highlighted the historic importance of the Copenhagen Document, which offered a blueprint for pluralistic democratic development, rooted in the rule of law and protection of human rights, throughout the OSCE region – a revolutionary document at the time and one that remains highly relevant two decades later. The June 1990 Copenhagen Meeting came at a unique time in history when dramatic changes were taking place; the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent collapse of one-party regimes in Eastern Europe had taken place only months earlier. And the following year – 1991 -- witnessed the emergence of 15 independent states with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Truly, those were dynamic days during which sweeping new commitments -- which would have been impossible to garner consensus for years or even months prior -- received universal support. Indeed, it is questionable as to whether consensus to the Copenhagen agreement would be found today, given the democratic and human rights backsliding that has occurred in a number of participating States. The Copenhagen Document underlines the centrality of political pluralism, civil society and human rights as fundamental elements of functioning democracies. As Ambassador Max Kampelman, the head of the U.S. delegation to the 1990 conference summed it up, “In effect, the Copenhagen document represents the first formal proclamation, by the States themselves, of a Europe both whole and free.” It identified the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms as one of the basic purposes of government and acknowledged that democracy is an inherent element of the rule of law. Among the achievements of the Copenhagen Document were the far-reaching commitments on democratic elections which laid the groundwork for the OSCE’s future activities with respect to election observation. Copenhagen also represented a significant step forward with respect to the protection of minorities, and for the first time there was a direct reference to Roma and to anti-Semitism. While participants at the anniversary meeting underscored the significant progress over the last 20 years, many also called for fuller compliance with the Copenhagen commitments, noting, for instance, backsliding in holding democratic elections in some participating States; suppression of civil society, including independent media, NGOs and human rights defenders; the deficit of impartial and independent justice; and the lack of separation of powers – especially the concentration of power in the executive. The last session of the conference discussed measures to improve implementation of human dimension commitments, including the prevention of human rights violations through the use of reporting before the violations occur; enhancement of standards and commitments; strengthened monitoring mechanisms, including a U.S. proposal to dispatch special representatives to investigate reports of egregious human rights violations and make corrective recommendations before the violations become entrenched; and improved cooperation with, and involvement of, civil society actors in advancing democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Ultimately, however, compliance with existing standards enshrined in the Copenhagen Document, the Helsinki Final Act and all other OSCE commitments remains the primary responsibility of the participating State.

  • Putin Says Stalin Massacred Poles Out of Revenge

    Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made an unprecedented gesture of good will to Poland on Wednesday by attending a memorial ceremony for 22,000 Poles executed by Soviet secret police during World War II. But hours later he soured the mood by offering a controversial justification for the massacres. After attending the solemn event with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Putin said Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ordered the atrocity as revenge for the death of Red Army soldiers in Polish prisoner of war camps in 1920. Putin said 32,000 troops under Stalin's command had died of hunger and disease in the Polish camps. "It is my personal opinion that Stalin felt personally responsible for this tragedy, and carried out the executions (of Poles in 1940) out of a sense of revenge," Putin said, the RIA Novosti news agency reported. The Polish side had no immediate response to this suggestion. U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, who has advocated greater Russian recognition of the atrocities, said there can be no justification for the murder of innocent people. "I think trying to rationalize the massacre in any way is unwarranted. You can't justify that under any scenario. It was senseless and there was no just cause. Those are the facts," Cardin, who chairs the U.S. Helsinki Commission, told The Associated Press. Earlier on Tuesday, Putin offered a gesture of reconciliation to Poland by becoming the first Russian leader to ever commemorate the Katyn massacres with a Polish leader. He said earlier in the day that the two nations' "fates had been inexorably joined" by the atrocities. The 22,000 Polish officers, prisoners and intellectuals were massacred by Stalin's secret police in 1940 in and around Katyn, a village near Russia's border with Belarus. During the ceremony, Putin also offered what appeared to be his harshest condemnation of Stalin's rule to date on Tuesday, saying: "In our country there has been a clear political, legal and moral judgment made of the evil acts of this totalitarian regime, and this judgment cannot be revised." But his speech stopped short of offering any apology to Poland or calling the massacres a war crime, as some officials in Poland and the United States had urged him to do. Also, while giving the go-ahead to a joint historic commission on the matter, Putin gave no concrete pledge that all Soviet archives documenting it would finally be unsealed. Tusk used his emotional speech about the Polish victims to push Putin on this point. "Prime minister, they are here. They are in this soil. The eye sockets of their bullet-pierced sculls are looking and waiting to see whether we are able to transform violence and lies into reconciliation," Tusk said. But at an evening news conference, Putin said Russia already has disclosed everything except for the perpetrators' names, which are being kept secret out of "humanitarian" regard for their surviving relatives. Putin also said Russian people should not be blamed for the atrocities at Katyn. "For decades, attempts have been made to cover up the truth about the Katyn executions with cynical lies, but suggesting that the Russian people are to blame for that is the same kind of lie and fabrication," he said. For half a century, Soviet officials claimed that the mass executions had been carried out by Nazi occupiers during the Second World War. But the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev's rule admitted in 1990 that the crimes had been committed by Stalin's NKVD secret police, a precursor to the KGB. The disclosure opened the floodgates of historical consciousness across the Soviet Union, speeding its demise as nations across the Eastern bloc awoke to the horrors of the Soviet regime and sought independence. As recently as December, Putin resisted a broad denunciation of Stalin's reign. He told a call-in show with the Russian public that it was "impossible to make an overall judgment" against Stalin because he had industrialized the nation and played a key role in defeating the Nazis. Russia also has clashed with its neighbors in Eastern Europe over what it has perceived as offenses to the legacy of Stalin and the Red Army. The relocation of a Soviet war memorial in Estonia in 2007 was met with a bristling reaction from Moscow, as was a resolution made by European lawmakers in 2009 equating Stalinism and Fascism. Putin's meeting with Tusk seems to be part of a broader Kremlin effort to avoid similar confrontations and improve ties with Europe. President Dmitry Medvedev wrapped up a two-day visit to Slovakia on Tuesday, and said in the capital, Bratislava, that the EU-member state was a "very convenient and open door for Russia to the European Union." "We are ready to actively go through this door," Medvedev said during a televised news conference with his Slovak counterpart, Ivan Gasparovic. During the visit — marking the 65th anniversary of the Slovak capital's liberation from Nazi rule — Medvedev gave Slovak officials World War II documents from Russia's state archives.

  • Meeting of Russian, Polish Leaders Could Shed Light on 1940 Massacre

    A historic meeting scheduled for Wednesday between top leaders of Russia and Poland is expected to provide new details about Russia's mass execution of 22,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest in 1940 and may open the way toward improved relations between the two countries. The mass slaying of the Polish prisoners of war by the Soviet secret police is one of the darker and less known chapters of World War II, said Kyle Parker, a Russian expert and policy adviser to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, an independent U.S. agency that helps formulate American policy for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The mass graves were discovered in 1943 by the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces, after their defeat at Stalingrad. The discovery caused a diplomatic crisis.  

  • Ethnic and Racial Profiling in the OSCE Region

    In this briefing, held by Commissioners Alcee L. Hastings and Benjamin L. Cardin, the topic of discussion was combatting ethnic and racial profiling. To this end, years ago, Hastings and Cardin began such efforts for the OSCE. Consequently, the OSCE established a tolerance unit that publishes an annual hate crimes report, has three personal representatives to address these issues, and has developed numerous initiatives to address prejudice and discrimination. Likewise, the OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities has convened experts to discuss the issue of multiethnic policing. In spite of substantial progress made, there continues to be a lot of work to be done to address ethnic and racial profiling. In fact, the Commission, U.S. Government, and organizations like the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and Human Rights First have, quite recently, called for a response to the profiling of Roma, Muslims, persons of African descent or blacks, and other groups in Europe and the U.S.

  • 65th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

    Mr. President, on January 27, 1945, the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, including Birkenau and other related camps near the Polish city of Oswiecim, was liberated by the Soviet Army. This week, people have gathered at Auschwitz and in many other places to mark the 65th anniversary of that event. I am pleased that President Obama presented a video address in which he underscored--using Elie Wiesel's words--the sacred duty of memory. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the principal and most notorious of the six death camps built by Nazi Germany to achieve its goal of the mass extermination of the Jewish people of Europe. Built in Nazi-occupied Poland initially as a concentration camp for Poles and later for Soviet prisoners of war, it soon became a prison for a number of other nationalities. Ultimately, a minimum 1,300,000 people were deported to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945, and of these, at least 1,100,000 were murdered at that camp. An estimated 6 million Jews--more than 60 percent of the pre-World War II Jewish population of Europe--were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators at Auschwitz and elsewhere in Europe. In addition, hundreds of thousands of civilians of Polish, Roma, and other nationalities, including in particular disabled individuals, homosexuals, political, intellectual, labor, and religious leaders, all of whom the Nazis considered `undesirable,' as well as Soviet and other prisoners of war, perished at Auschwitz . On that day of liberation , 65 years ago, only 7,000 camp prisoners who had passed through the infamous Auschwitz gates, the ones who promised "Arbeit Macht Frei" -- "Work Will Make You Free" -- managed to survive the selections, torture, starvation, disease, inhuman medical experiments, and executions that occurred at Auschwitz. According to a new survey published this week by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, at least 41 of the OSCE's 56 participating states commemorate the Holocaust with official events. Thirty-three participating states have established official memorial days for Holocaust victims, and January 27 is the official Holocaust Memorial Day in many European countries, including Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. I am deeply gratified that since 2005, the United Nations has also observed January 27 as a day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust. In fact, Auschwitz -Birkenau was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979. I personally visited Auschwitz in 2004 and cannot overstate the importance of the Memorial Museum there today in the effort to teach future generations about the Holocaust. The recent theft of the "Arbeit-Macht-Frei" sign -- which, fortunately, was recovered -- has certainly heightened awareness of the need for additional security measures there, and I support the efforts to secure increased funding for the preservation of the Memorial Museum. Teaching about the Holocaust is an obligation that must be met not only at Auschwitz , but at places where people learn around the globe. As chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I am deeply concerned by the rise of anti-Semitism and violent extremism in some OSCE participating states. In particular, I am deeply troubled by the continued prevalence of Nazi-era discourse to describe Roma. As Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, has said: Even after . . . the Nazi killing of at least half a million Roma, probably 700,000 or more, there was no genuine change of attitude among the majority population towards the Roma. With this concern in mind, I was pleased to learn that the United Nations invited the OSCE senior advisor for Romani issues, Andrzej Mirga, to participate in the commemoration they organized this year. Sadly, as Mr. Mirga observed, although approximately 23,000 Romani people were sent to Auschwitz , none were among the survivors liberated there 65 years ago.  

  • Ukraine Lauded for Nixing Hotel Near Babi Yar

    Two U.S. lawmakers hailed Ukraine for halting the construction of a hotel near the site of a Nazi massacre. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) co-chair the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, an agency charged with monitoring and encouraging compliance with the Helsinki Final Act and other commitments. "The city authorities of Kiev deserve credit for their rapid response to concerns from human rights and Jewish groups on this issue," Cardin, who last visited the memorial park in 2007, said last week. "I applaud their swift action to overturn the city council's insensitive decision and respect the memory of the victims at Babi Yar." The hotel was to be built close to the site of Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev, where more than 33,000 people were murdered over a two-day period from Sept. 29, 1941. Half were children. Cardin also commended Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko for his pledge "to protect as a sacred spot the site of the Nazi massacre." Between September 1941 and 1943, some 150,000 people were executed by Nazi troops in wooded areas on the outskirts of Kiev. Most were Jews, but the total also included ethnic Ukrainians, Russians, Poles and Roma, or gypsies.  

  • Hard Times and Hardening Attitudes: the Economic Downturn and the Rise of Violence Against Roma

    This briefing focused on the economic downturn and the rise of violence against Roma, the largest ethnic minority of Europe. It was presided by Hon. Alcee L. Hastings, the Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and he was join by Katalin Barsony, Stansilav Daniel, Isabela Mihalache,and Andrzej Mirga, an advisor on Roman issues. The briefing was held during the 20th anniversary of the fall of Communism, in which Eastern and Western needed to work together to meet the challenges to defend the basic human rights of Roma. The panelists gave their opinion about the causes of the spike in violence, the implications of these trends, and what the OSCE could do.    

  • Helsinki Commissioners Condemn Violence Against Roma

    Bipartisan Members of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) today voiced strong concerns for growing violence against the Roma – Europe’s largest ethnic minority group. At a briefing examining the growing prejudice against Roma in Europe and subsequent acts of violence against Roma across Europe, Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) expressed concern for the treatment of Roma, who have been victimized in their own homes – from the killing of elderly to young children burned by fire bombs. “Governments must act with a sense of urgency in combating the pernicious racism that has contributed to the social, economic, and political marginalization of Roma, resulting in the gruesome and deadly attacks on Roma in recent months,” Co-Chairman Hastings said. “But beyond the violence, the continual dislocation of Roma most recently from their historic home in Sulukule, outside Istanbul, Turkey, shows a disregard for minorities and further sends a signal of exclusion. I call on all European countries to reverse this troubling trend.” Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) added: “In the wake of the recent European Parliamentary elections, we are seeing growth of political parties who espouse anti-immigration, anti-minority, and anti-Semitic policies. I urge governments across Europe to respect Roma human rights. They should fully integrate the continent’s largest ethnic minority group, do away with segregated schooling, and when crimes are committed, thoroughly investigate and hold criminals accountable for their acts of hate.” Helsinki Commissioner Congressman Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) added: “Some people have compared the firebombing and other attacks on Roma in the Czech Republic and Hungary to the sniper attacks that took place in the area a few years ago. For Roma, who are the singular targets in this case, we can only imagine the fear that grips those communities. I urge the Czech and Hungarian Governments to do everything possible to bring the perpetrators of those attacks to justice and to ensure that they are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

  • International Roma Day Bracketed by Rising Extremism and Violence

    By Erika B. Schlager, Counsel for International Law On April 8, Romani communities throughout the OSCE region celebrated International Roma Day. Numerous recent events, however, underscored the profound prejudice Roma continue to face. Background On April 8, 1971, Roma from across Europe met in London for the first congress of the International Romani Union (IRU). At the 4thcongress of the IRU, convened in Warsaw in 1990, participants designated April 8 as “International Roma Day” and, in subsequent years, International Roma Day has been an occasion not only to celebrate Romani language, history and culture, but also to draw attention to the often deplorable conditions in which Roma live. In 2000, the day was marked by an appeal by Pope John Paul II for “full respect for the human dignity of these brothers and sisters.” His remarks – coming after the beatification of Spanish Romani martyr Ceferino Gimenez Malla – reflected a growing awareness of the plight of Roma and simultaneously contributed to better understanding of Romani experiences. This Year’s International Roma Day International Roma Day was marked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a video address posted on the Department of State website and broadcast at events at several U.S. Embassies in Europe. (Her remarks were also translated into Romani and circulated on the internet by Romani NGOs.) Many United States embassies in Europe hosted or participated in a diverse array of related events. In Vienna, the United States Mission to the OSCE used the occasion to raise Romani human rights issues at the weekly meeting of the Permanent Council (see statement below). In particular, the Mission urged the Italian and Hungarian delegations to provide information on efforts to prosecute violent attacks against Roma in those countries. In addition, many human rights organizations drew attention to continuing violations of the human rights of Roma and many Romani nongovernmental organizations hosted cultural or other activities. For example, the San Francisco-based NGO Voice of Roma organized a series of activities including music, traditional crafts, dance, film and discussion. At the international level, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Rights, the Council of Europe, and other human rights bodies also observed International Roma Day. Rising Extremism In recent months, however, there has been an alarming rise in manifestations of profound prejudice directed against Roma. Hungary Notoriously, there have been dozens of violent attacks against Roma in Hungary over the course of the past year, including six murders. The most shocking attack occurred in February, when 27-year-old Robert Csorba and his five-year-old son, Robert, were murdered. Their home was set on fire and then, apparently, father and child were riddled with bullets to prevent them from escaping the blaze. Several other attacks against Roma have also involved Molotov cocktails used to set houses on fire. Other children have been injured in various attacks. Thus far, there has not been a single successful prosecution for any of these attacks. Moreover, the Hungarian government has asserted that only a court can determine if an attack is ethnically motivated and therefore it is inappropriate to characterize this wave of violence as racist or ethnically motivated. (Incongruously, Hungarian government officials continue to raise concern about ethnically motivated acts against Hungarian minorities in neighboring states. In early April, for example, Hungarian officials called on Serbian authorities to address crimes that Budapest characterized as anti-Hungarian.) On April 7, the home of a local Romani official, Lidia Horvath, was set on fire. She subsequently asserted that the attack was directed at her as retaliation for her efforts to shed light on the murder of the Csorba family, which investigators initially dismissed as death by accidental fire. Separately, controversy erupted in April regarding an interview with Mate Szabo, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Civil Rights, who referred to “Tsigan [loosely translatable as “Gypsy”] crime.” His remarks come at a time when not only extremist organizations but often mainstream public figures and media outlets are fixated on the notion of alleged “Gypsy criminality.” Almost 60% of the respondents in a recent Hungarian opinion poll said they believed that “crime is in the blood of Roma.” Five leading human rights groups in Hungary denounced the ombudsman’s comments and Szabo subsequently retracted his remarks. (Specifically, they objected to the association – by the civil rights commissioner, no less – of a particular ethnic group with crime.) In contrast, National Police Chief Jozsef Bencze participated in an event celebrating International Roma Day at which he stated, “There is no collective guilt because crime cannot be associated with color.” The Czech Republic In November 2008, hundreds of extremists rioted in the Czech town of Litvinov, requiring a thousand Czech police officers marshaled from around the country to hold them at bay. Some human rights activists believe that, with the Litvinov experience in mind, extremists hoped to exploit the focus of security agencies on Prague during the April 5 summit meeting there, attended by President Obama. Accordingly, on April 4, an estimated 700 radicals descended on the town of Prerov, reportedly with the intent of intimidating and attacking Romani residents. As it happened, Czech authorities in Prerov were able to deploy enough law enforcement personnel, including riot police, to largely contain the extremists. “Extremism” in the Czech Republic may be spurred by the extent to which intolerance manifests itself in what passes for mainstream political discourse. Among some public officials, overtly anti-Roma statements continue to be uttered without any discernible political consequences. For example, in 2005 President Vaclav Klaus denied that the Lety concentration camp was actually a concentration camp. Instead, using a common Nazi description of Roma, Klaus asserted that Lety was a place for “people who refused to work”. (Lety was established during the Nazi occupation of the Czech Republic as a concentration camp for Roma. Hundreds died at the camp and many more were deported to Auschwitz.) While still serving as a local mayor, Czech Senator Liana Janackova was recorded describing herself as a racist and saying she would like to get rid of local Roma with dynamite. Some local officials continue to describe Roma as “unadaptable” – another Nazi-era concept – and some Czech media outlets quote these officials, albeit, without an apparent understanding of the historical use of this term. Slovakia On April 7, the Slovak daily Sme broke the story of six Romani boys who had been detained on March 21 by police in Kosice, forced to strip naked and commit violent acts against each other – all captured on film by the arresting officials. The video, quickly posted on You Tube, records the laughter and jeers of the police as they abuse the children. Several news stories have compared the incident to the notorious Abu Ghraib photos, and some have recalled the 2001 incident in which a Slovak Romani man, Karol Sendrei, died after being chained to a radiator in a police station and beaten over the course of a night. The abuse has been widely condemned in Slovakia and led to the immediate suspension of nine police officers. Additional investigation into the incident is continuing. In a less widely reported incident on April 4, 10 Romani men traveling to a construction site were attacked on a bus in Bratislava. Three of them had to be hospitalized. Off the Front Pages and Under the Bridges While these incidents have all garnered headlines, a broad range of chronic problems continue to gnaw away at the fabric of Romani life, including endemic discrimination in education, employment, and social services. Discrimination in housing has a multiplier effect on the lives of Roma, and large-scale forced evictions of Roma are a regular occurrence in many parts of the OSCE region. As a consequence, some Romani families that have been settled for generations find themselves forced into a kind of 21st century involuntary “nomadism.” At the same time, deeply entrenched stereotypes about exotic Roma lifestyles have made it easier for majority societies to ignore the long-term implications of social policies that further marginalize Romani children. On March 13, Amnesty International expressed concern about imminent plans by authorities in Milan to evict a community of some 150 Roma living under an overpass. Amnesty noted that there appeared to be no provision of adequate alternative housing and, accordingly, the Roma were at risk of falling into a cycle of such evictions. Similarly, on International Roma Day, Human Rights Watch drew attention to the plight of 47 Roma families forcibly evicted in Belgrade on April 3, 2009. They were removed from housing that was deemed by authorities to be “substandard” – but the families were left without an adequate alternative. In Kosovo, several NGOs, as well as the Ombudsman Institution, noted that Roma continue to live in lead-contaminated areas of northern Mitrovica, and called for their immediate and sustainable relocation. In Romania, NGOs continue to monitor displacements of Roma in Miercurea Ciuc, Piatra Neamt, and elsewhere – displacements that are hard to reconcile with a stated government policy of integrating Roma and improving access to education for Romani children. Aberrations or Trends? As reflected in the joint statement issued on International Roma Day by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, many observers are concerned that Roma will be the scapegoats of the current economic crisis. Yet the ongoing wave of violence against Roma escalated in Hungary and Italy for many months before the onset of the current economic crisis, and is therefore most likely rooted in longstanding prejudices against Roma. Accordingly, it is necessary for governments to re-double their efforts to combat prejudice against Roma. Given that much of contemporary bigotry against Roma still exploits the racist ideology grounded in 20th century eugenics most notoriously embraced by the Nazis, raising awareness of the content of that ideology, as it applied to Roma, is critical. Some governments have, in fact, improved efforts to commemorate Romani Holocaust losses – including Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. More of this effort needs to be brought into the classroom and, of course, reflected in the discourse of public leaders. Statement on International Roma Day U.S. Committed to Protecting and Promoting the Human Rights of Roma United States Mission to the OSCE Statement on International Roma Day As prepared for delivery by Chargé d' Affaires Kyle Scott to the Permanent Council, Vienna April 2, 2009 Madam Chairwoman, On April 8, we will celebrate International Roma Day, an opportunity to call attention to the history, experiences, and human rights of Europe’s largest ethnic minority. The United States is committed to protecting and promoting the human rights of Roma. Despite important progress that has been made in the last decade, too many Roma still live on the margins of society. Roma continue to experience racial profiling, violence, discrimination, and other human rights abuses. Too often, they lack identity documents or citizenship papers, which exclude them from voting, social services, education, and employment opportunities. During the last year, the participating States and the OSCE have given much-needed attention to the situation of Roma, including through the Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting last July, the visits by the High Commissioner on National Minorities and the ODIHR to Italy, and in our Ministerial Decision 6/08 adopted in Helsinki. We look forward to the discussion of early education for Romani children during the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw later this year. The United States also welcomes efforts by governments and nongovernmental organizations to ensure that the genocide of European Roma is never forgotten. We encourage all participating States to consider ways to better incorporate the genocide of European Roma into educational curricula, including the publication this month of a book in Romania on the deportation of Roma to Transnistria. We note that a monument to Romani victims of the “Porajmos,” the term some Roma use to describe Nazi attempts to exterminate Romani people of Europe during the Holocaust, will be unveiled in Berlin later this year, and also welcome plans to establish an educational and documentation center on the site of a former Romani concentration camp in South Moravia. Unfortunately, as Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg observed at the 2007 HDIM, even after the genocide of Roma, “there was no genuine change of attitude among the majority population towards the Roma.” Today, in some of OSCE participating States, local officials continue to describe Roma as “unadaptable,” routinely using a Nazi-era term. Governments have a special responsibility to ensure that minority communities have the tools of opportunity that they need to succeed as productive and responsible members of society. The United States is deeply concerned about the escalation of anti-Roma hate crimes in some OSCE participating States. In this regard, we would welcome information from the Italian delegation regarding efforts to prosecute individuals for participating in mob attacks on Romani camps in 2007 and 2008, when Italian police provided protection to camp residents. We also support efforts by the Hungarian government to prosecute those responsible for recent violent attacks against Roma, including the February murder of Robert Csorba and his five-year-old son. In closing, the United States urges OSCE participating States to honor their commitment—first made a decade ago at the 1999 Istanbul Summit—to ensure that national laws and policies fully respect the rights of Roma. Furthermore, governments must commit to effectively enforcing these laws. Thank you, Madam Chairwoman.

  • Helsinki Commission Staff Examine Impact of International Efforts in Kosovo on Human Rights

    By Clifford Bond and Robert Hand Helsinki Commission Staff In early December 2008, Helsinki Commission staff visited Kosovo to review the changing mandates of a wide range of international actors in Kosovo. The visit coincided with the European Union’s deployment of a Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, known as EULEX, which took place successfully but revealed the potential for regional instability. The Commission staff delegation met with a variety of international and local actors in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. It traveled to the Visoki Decani, a monastery of the Serbian Orthodox Church where it met with church representatives, and to the nearby town of Peja/Pec where it met with field representatives of the International Civilian Office (ICO) and the OSCE. The delegation also visited both sides of the divided northern city of Mitrovica where it visited displacement camps and the rebuilt neighborhood for the city’s Romani population in addition to other meetings. The International Community Kosovo asserted its independent statehood in February 2008, in the context of the plan put forward by former Finnish President, UN official, and Nobel laureate Martti Ahtisaari. In so doing, Kosovo’s leadership pledged to implement the plan in full, which means accepting international supervision and providing decentralized authority and numerous rights and privileges to the Serb and, to a lesser extent, other minority communities. The Ahtisaari plan, however, assumes agreement by all parties, but Serbia, backed by Russia at the United Nations, refuses to accept the loss of what it considers still to be its province. The United States and most European countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, but a few European Union members remain either reluctant or strongly against doing so, either due to ties with Serbia or fear of separatist movements within their own borders. Spain was frequently singled out as the one country that not only opposes Kosovo’s independence but seems intent on undermining its recognition by others. Combined with the widespread need for consensus decision-making, most of the international community’s field missions must, to one degree or another, act neutrally on questions of status, to the detriment of their effectiveness and the enormous frustration of Kosovar Albanians who desire that Kosovo’s independence be respected. The EULEX deployment brought these differing perspectives to the fore. In order to obtain an EU-wide agreement, a UN blessing and the acquiescence of Belgrade and local Serbs under Belgrade’s control, a compromise effort known as the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s “6-point plan” was put forward that prompted angry protest among the Kosovar Albanian majority and an official rejection from Pristina. Posters throughout the city proclaimed EULEX to be “Made in Serbia”. After several delays and despite continued ambiguity regarding which government was the actual host, the Mission deployed on December 9 throughout Kosovo, not just in areas under Pristina’s control. That the deployment proceeded smoothly and peacefully was viewed as a success, although ambiguities purposefully placed in its mandate to allow both Albanians and Serbs to maintain their positions, as well as the lack of political oversight and coordination among EULEX’s three areas of responsibility (police, courts and customs), likely mean that EULEX will face additional tests of its resolve in the future. For now, the most noteworthy result of the deployment is the anticipated end of inefficient UNMiK operations, which have come to symbolize the holding pattern in which Kosovo has found itself since 1999. The deployment could also signal a more cooperative tone among Kosovo’s Serbs. In northern Mitrovica and contiguous areas bordering Serbia, there are signs that Belgrade may no longer support more militant and corrupt Kosovo Serb leaders. In the enclaves to the south, where the majority of Kosovo Serbs live, there may also be more room for local accommodation and inter-ethnic cooperation, with questions of status put to the side. Following Serbian elections in May that strengthened pro-democratic and pro-European forces in society, Belgrade seems to want at least more transparency and accountability in the “parallel institutions” it has so far financed, and it may try to reduce its subsidies. It also seems to want to avoid violence, especially any violence that could be blamed on the Serb side. It is unclear how far it will push to assert control and responsibility in light of UNMiK’s dwindling role, or whether it will allow EULEX and eventually the ICO to fill the void. Unfortunately, divisions within the European Union almost invite continued Serbian intransigence. Without being given a clear choice between trying to hold onto Kosovo and achieving European integration, the Serbian Government still plays the “Kosovo card,” which garners popular support at home without any apparent repercussions. The situation on the Kosovar Albanian side is a bit clearer. Despite internal political posturing, there is really little difference within this community when it comes to defending Kosovo’s independence. The deliberations that led the EULEX deployment pushed the Kosovo government about as far as it could go. While the achievement of independence has so far made the Ahtisaari plan worth embracing, many of its provisions relating to Serb communities have been no easy sell, especially in the many localities where nationalism and intolerance continue to prevail. When governments of European countries which have recognized Kosovo’s independence nevertheless treat it as something less than an independent and sovereign state, the Kosovars are naturally outraged and increasingly distrustful. This could be countered somewhat by the establishment of embassies in the capitals of those countries who have thus far recognized Kosovo, particularly in Europe, staffed by competent diplomats in order to ensure that the Kosovo point-of-view is made clear to policy-makers. The United States should also counter European diplomatic tendencies to placate traditional regional powers and treat the new states of Europe as second-class states. In the meantime, as those in government may try to adhere to their Ahtisaari commitments, those in opposition have also been able to capitalize on the situation. This poses a challenge to Kosovo’s shaky democratic institutions, which are still very much in transition. Some have expressed concern that the further development of democratic capacities could be thwarted by the need to meet unpopular international demands. While EULEX moves forward and UNMiK winds down, other international players need to find their role. As one analyst commented, the international community has lost the coherence of its structure and has become a confusing maze to local parties. The International Civilian Office is perhaps the most important, yet vulnerable, of the current players. A creation of the Ahtisaari plan, it is by definition not status neutral, and has a relatively strong mandate to supervise post-status Kosovo. Serb opposition to cooperation with the ICO makes this difficult, but the hesitancy of the status-neutral players to cooperate, coordinate and support the ICO will severely weaken its effectiveness to Kosovo’s long-term detriment. The OSCE Mission in Kosovo, the organization’s largest, is facing even more difficult times. Once known for its solid monitoring of events throughout Kosovo and for developing democratic capacity, the early threat of Belgrade and Moscow to close the Mission cast a shadow over its future and a considerable portion of its personnel have moved to the ICO or otherwise left the OSCE in Kosovo. Mission leadership has also been controversial; while this may have stabilized with a new Head of Mission, the OSCE lost some serious ground. Most interlocutors felt that the Mission is a bit oversized, and needs to focus on core areas such as promoting free media, human rights and inter-ethnic dialogue, where the OSCE has genuine expertise and credibility. KFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping force, seems to be the one constant of the international presence that garners unquestioned respect and seems prepared to handle whatever instability may lie ahead. It is the acknowledged last resort for providing security, but its presence helps ensure a security baseline that will deter provocations and enhance confidence at the local level. KFOR representatives seem confident that lessons were learned from the violence of 2004 and that greater flexibility across lines of operations, more consistent rules for engagement and an unwillingness to let the particulars of status from getting in its way will be effective in keeping the peace in Kosovo. A Need for Dialogue Many of the problems which exist among both the Kosovar Albanian majority and the Kosovo Serb minority could be resolved through greater dialogue, both within Kosovo and between Belgrade and Pristina. There is some effort to achieve this through civic organizations and religious institutions, as well as business contacts. There is also some interaction in technical areas such as regarding missing persons from the 1998-99 conflict, or in the reconstruction of churches and other religious sites damaged or destroyed in the March 2004 riots. Unfortunately, a suitable venue for direct contact between Belgrade and Pristina needs to be found. Pristina is ready, at least in principle, but Belgrade is not. One area where the Kosovo authorities could act more swiftly, without precondition, and likely to their own long-term benefit, is the resolution of outstanding property claims. The resolution of property claims is a major hindrance to the return of displaced persons, and it holds up legal usage of property even when a return is unlikely. In some cases at least, displaced Serbs and others may only wish to get their property back so they can sell it. While there may be solid reasons for wanting to encourage displaced persons to return to Kosovo -- and some efforts to do this were underway in December – ultimately each individual needs only the opportunity to make a free choice. To do this, those with outstanding property claims need to have their cases resolved. The issue of property claims came up repeatedly in meetings, and seems a greater issue than security and freedom of movement at present. Some hope the EULEX deployment could provide a second chance for property restitutions and returns. Both sides, but especially some Kosovo leaders who formerly fought with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), could probably also help facilitate the resolution of more missing persons cases, of which just under 2,000 remain. While there has been success in bringing government representatives and surviving family members together under international auspices, local efforts to help locate grave sites appear to be half-hearted, at best. It is unlikely that progress in this area will enhance community reconciliation efforts in any major way, but a positive signal to do more could lead to a broadening of dialogue on other issues. Ultimately, this remains a humanitarian issue that deserves additional effort no matter what. At present, Kosovo authorities seem committed to implementing the Ahtsaari plan in its entirety. Relevant laws have been passed, and those involved in developing local self-government seem committed to implementation. The real test, of course, will come when the Kosovo Serbs decide to respond and engage and are able to do so without worry of retribution from Belgrade. One local analyst noted that developing the necessary trust between the two sides will be a process, and should be taken one step at a time rather than pushed. The Plight of Roma in the North A continual concern to the Helsinki Commission has been the plight of displaced Roma in northern Mitrovica, most of whom fled their original neighborhood, or mahalla, which was destroyed in 1999. Growing criticism of the conditions in the camps, particularly the health hazards caused by lead contamination, finally convinced the international community in 2005 first to establish a temporary relocation facility that was safer and to make a concentrated effort to rebuild housing where the original mahalla in the south was located. Romani families resisted the move, due to warranted lack of trust in the international community and a lack of awareness of how severe the health threat really was. Local Serbian leaders as well as Romani community leaders living elsewhere in Europe, however, originally also did much to discourage the move, both benefiting from a situation in which successful returns did not take place. Commission staff visited the last of the original camps, Cesmin Lug, as well as the new camp adjacent to it, a former KFOR base known as Osterode. They also visited the original mahalla, which had additional apartment buildings and some private houses constructed since the last Commission visit in May 2007. Despite the availability of housing, residents of the camps continue to resist moving, despite continued concerns about health conditions. Local Serbian leaders, who now want the land where Osterode is located, seem no longer to be discouraging the move, and Roma living abroad likewise seem to have less influence on the situation. Security for Roma in the south, once a concern, seems less so now. Those who remain in the camps seem primarily motivated by a continued distrust of the international community as well as lingering hopes for a better offer. The inability of the local economy to provide income, particularly in the south, also plays a significant role, as does the desire to keep children in Serb-run schools, despite being segregated into separate classes. Meanwhile, there is increasing pressure from foreign governments to prioritize the resettling of Kosovo Roma they intend to deport, rather than those displaced in Kosovo and living in camps. It is clear that, while there has been some progress on this issue, a limited set of additional options will need to be considered to resolve the situation, including the possibility of permanent resettlement in the north.

  • Report on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Review of the US and Seventh Annual Meeting of the UN Working Group on People of African Descent

    By Mischa E. Thompson, Policy Advisor Moving into the 21st century, racism and discrimination continue to be a problem throughout the fifty-six European, North American, and Central Asian countries that make up the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), including in the United States. Recent reports by the OSCE, European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency (2008, 2007), and European Network Against Racism have found that racial minorities and increasingly migrants are the targets of hate crimes and racial/ethnic profiling, in addition to experiencing discrimination in employment, housing, education, and other areas. Political parties espousing anti-migrant and racist positions are also on the rise, with the potential to undermine current efforts to implement tolerance and nondiscrimination initiatives throughout the region. Efforts to address these problems over the years have resulted in the development of multi-lateral instruments to stem the tide of racial discrimination. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) is often considered a premier international instrument in this area. Adopted by the United Nations in 1965 and entering force in 1969, over 173 countries including the United States, have agreed to have their government policies reviewed to determine if they create or perpetuate racial discrimination. ICERD defines racial discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.” According to the treaty, countries are required to amend or repeal laws and regulations deemed to be discriminatory and are allowed to introduce positive measures such as affirmative action when necessary. As such, countries are obligated to protect against inequality and discrimination in the enjoyment of human rights, including in the areas of education, housing, criminal justice, health, voting, labor, etc. While the 1975 Helsinki Final Act requires its members to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms “without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion,” no review mechanism comparable to the ICERD currently exists within the OSCE. In recent years, the OSCE participating States have urged ratification of the ICERD (e.g., Copenhagen 1990, Helsinki 1992, Maastricht 2003), adopted complimentary initiatives such as the Annual Hate Crimes Report, and conducted consultations and other activities within the United Nations on relevant initiatives. The ICERD and its implementing committee, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), therefore continue to remain a primary resource in outlining and determining the success of OSCE countries’ efforts to eliminate racial discrimination. For this reason, the 2008 CERD review of the United States and the status of U.S. efforts to combat racial discrimination were widely followed. From February 18 to March 7, 2008 the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) held its seventy-second session in Geneva, Switzerland. The Committee of eighteen independent experts, including a U.S. representative, is charged with periodically reviewing the performance of the 173 countries that have signed and ratified ICERD. During the seventy-second session, the Committee reviewed anti-discrimination efforts undertaken by the Governments of the United States, Fiji, Italy, Belgium, Nicaragua, Moldova, and the Dominican Republic. The United States appeared before the Committee on February 22 and 23 after having submitted a report in April 2007 on its efforts to eliminate racial discrimination after last appearing before the Committee in 2001. Over four hundred U.S. non-government organizations (NGOs) also compiled and submitted a “Shadow Report” to the Committee, which provided supplementary independent information in addition to the government perspective. Twenty-three persons made up the diverse high-level U.S. delegation, headed by Ambassador Warren Tichenor, Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations in Geneva. The delegation also included: Grace Chung Becker, Acting Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, and Ralph Boyd, a former member of the U.N. Committee. Other members of the delegation were from the Departments of Interior, Justice, State, Homeland Security, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. For the first time more than one hundred U.S. NGO representatives also attended the session as a “shadow” delegation. The review began with the United States noting the continuing problem and challenges of combating racial discrimination, but disagreeing with the Committee’s views on causes and solutions. Ambassador Tichenor stated that, “the United States supported the elimination of racial discrimination at home and abroad [...] and had made significant progress in improving race relations in the past [and] continued to work actively to eliminate racial and ethnic discrimination. However, challenges still existed, and a great deal of work remained to be done.” The United States then went on to argue that the causes of continuing racial disparities were poverty and other socio-economic variables, including poor choices made by minorities and discriminatory actions by non-state actors, as opposed to institutionalized practices stemming from past unjust government policies (e.g., slavery, segregation). The United States further argued that it should not bare the primary responsibility for addressing racial disparities because it was not solely responsible for creating the current situation. To bolster this argument, the United States also argued that the Committee’s interpretation of the intent of the ICERD was incorrect in terms of the government needing to play the lead role in combating racial discrimination and disparities. (Find excerpts from the U.S. statements at the end of this report.) This line of argument caused the Committee to question whether the United States still possessed the political will to comply with its ICERD commitments. Indeed, much of the proceedings involved Committee members reiterating the commitments ICERD countries have undertaken as signatories, including augmenting laws and regulations which “have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists.” Confusion was expressed as to why the U.S. government had supported efforts to end affirmative action in schools, while simultaneously highlighting the existence of racial disparities in all sectors of U.S. society. Further puzzlement was displayed as to why the United States was arguing against playing a lead role in combating discrimination, while at the same time introducing widely acclaimed new initiatives to combat discrimination such as the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s E-RACE Initiative and National Partnership for Action to End Health Disparities. The Committee also questioned the status of and anticipated plans for other U.S. efforts to address de facto discrimination, manifested by racial profiling, lack of equal access to quality housing, healthcare, and education, the failure to preserve Native American land rights and return Hurricane Katrina victims to their homes. Committee members also expressed disappointment in the United States. Several Committee members noted that they viewed the U.S. civil rights movement and resulting policies to address past inequities such as affirmative action, as models for policies they were considering and/or using in their own countries to address human rights concerns stemming from inequities and historical injustices. In some cases, these policies were developed following consultations with the U.S. government. Indeed, the Colombian Committee member remarked that he had participated in a visit to the United States as part of an Afro-Colombian delegation invited to view U.S. programs to combat racial discrimination. Members of the Committee also requested that the United States participate in the 2009 Durban Review Conference, a follow-up to the 2001 World Conference against Racism, as a means for continuing the conversation on eliminating racial discrimination. The United States responded that it had withdrawn negotiators from the first Durban Conference “because of pervasive anti-Semitism in its discussions” and would make a decision regarding participation at a later date. A summary of the U.S. Review before the Committee and Concluding Observations of the Committee included recommendations to the United States in areas ranging from affirmative action and immigration to voter disenfranchisement and the rights of Native Americans and tribal peoples. This includes a request for an interim report due in February 2009 on how the United States has implemented the Committee’s recommendations regarding: 1) racial profiling and counterterrorism efforts impacting Arab, Muslim, South Asian and others, 2) protecting Western Shoshone lands, 3) efforts to return displaced Hurricane Katrina victims, 4) decreasing minority youth imprisonment rates, and 5) organizing training programs and other initiatives to make government officials and parties at the state and local levels aware of U.S. responsibilities under the ICERD. This last point was repeatedly raised by the civil society shadow delegation. In particular they were concerned by “U.S. exceptionalism” – or the perception that United States tells other nations to abide by international human rights laws, but refuses to comply with those laws itself. The Committee also called for greater consultation and cooperation between the U.S. government and civil society in preparation of its next report due in November 2011 following concerns that civil society was not sufficiently consulted during the drafting of the 2007 report. Also, of relevance in addressing global efforts to eradicate racial discrimination was the seventh annual meeting of the United Nations Working Group on People of African Descent (WGPAD). Formed in April 2002, the Working Group studies and proposes solutions to the problems of racial discrimination faced by people of African descent living in the Diaspora, with a focus on improving their human rights situation. The Working Group met for its seventh Annual Session on January 14 to 18th, where it reviewed its proceedings of the past seven years on thematic issues that impact the experiences of persons of African descent in the following areas: administration of justice, media, equal access to quality education, employment, health, housing, participation in political, economic, and social sectors, racial profiling, and the empowerment of women of African descent. The WGPAD seventh Annual Session focused on the development of recommendations based upon these past sessions as a UN requirement in preparation for the 2009 Durban Review Conference. The United States participated as an Observer at the meeting. The Final Recommendations included calls for countries to: develop and/or adopt national action plans and monitoring bodies to combat racism and assist victims, address racial profiling and other disparities in the criminal justice system, introduce socio-economic data collection methods that include African descendants, counter negative media stereotypes, develop a best practices report and index on racial equality, and create a fund to support NGO participation in future WGPAD activities and meetings. The next WGPAD meeting is scheduled for January 12-14th and will focus on youth. Within the OSCE context, the WGPAD holds special importance as the only multilateral entity focused on the human rights situation of the more than five million persons that make up the African descendant or Black European population. In recent years, partially as a result of their high visibility in European countries, Blacks have increasingly become the targets of hate crimes and experienced discrimination in education, employment, housing, and other sectors. Additionally, Blacks are often the targets of anti-immigrant campaigns, including racial profiling, regardless of their citizenship (see also U.S. Helsinki Commission Hearing The State of (In)visible Black Europe: Race, Rights, and Politics). Initiatives such as the CERD and WGPAD have been critical to maintaining a global focus on countries’ efforts to monitor and combat racial discrimination in line with their human rights commitments. Additionally, they complement OSCE efforts in this area such as this year’s OSCE Supplementary Meetings in Vienna on Roma and national institutions to fight discrimination against minorities and migrants. Because of the role promoting equality and non-discrimination plays in the protection of human rights and ensuring peace and security in the OSCE region, the U.S. Helsinki Commission has also increased its focus in this area.

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