Title

Helsinki Commission Calls for Renewed Commitment to Defending Human Rights of Roma

School Segregation of Europe’s Largest Ethnic Minority Remains Major Concern
Wednesday, April 08, 2015

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman of the Commission, released the following statement regarding the observation of International Roma Day: 

“In a number of OSCE countries, Roma continue to be denied equal access to housing, suffer disproportionately from high unemployment, and routinely face discrimination in public life. Racial profiling by police, mass evictions, and forced expulsions are commonplace.

“Roma children are underserved by governments that fail to guarantee them access to a quality education. In some countries, systematic segregation removes Roma from regular schools and places them into educational institutions designed for children with learning disabilities. Some Roma children succeed against overwhelming odds; the vast majority of them are left behind.

“In response to this human tragedy, European governments have promoted ‘action plans’ and ‘framework strategies’ for Roma over the past two decades. However, these efforts have largely lacked a key ingredient for success: political will. On International Roma Day, we strongly urge the governments of OSCE participating nations to renew their commitment to defending and promoting basic human rights of Roma throughout the region.”

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Phone: 
202.225.1901
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    By Erika B. Schlager, Counsel for International Law Overview From September 26 to October 7, 2011, the OSCE participating States met in Warsaw, Poland, for the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). The meeting was organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, according to an agenda approved by consensus of all 56 participating States. The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights gathering and provides a venue for participating States and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to review the implementation of the full range of core human rights and fundamental freedoms (e.g., freedoms of speech, assembly and association; prevention of torture; right to a fair trial), as well as rule of law, free elections and democracy-building issues. National minorities, Roma, tolerance and non-discrimination are also on the agenda. In accordance with OSCE procedures, the agenda included three specially selected topics, each of which was given a full day of review. In 2011, those subjects were: 1) “Democratic elections and electoral observation,” 2) “Freedom of movement,” and 3) “Enhancing implementation of OSCE commitments regarding Roma and Sinti.” U.S. Delegation The U.S. Delegation was headed by Ambassador David Johnson. Other members of the delegation included Ambassador Ian Kelly, Head of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE; Ambassador Cynthia Efird, Senior State Department Advisor to the Helsinki Commission; Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom; and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Thomas Melia. Helsinki Commission staff participated in all aspects of the delegation’s work. Patrick Merloe, National Democratic Institute, Kathleen Newland, Migration Policy Institute, and Ethel Brooks, Rutgers University, served as Public Members of the delegation, addressing democratic elections, freedom of movement, and the situation of Romani people in the OSCE region respectively. Public Members have traditionally been included in U.S. delegations to OSCE human dimension meetings as a means of bringing special expertise to the U.S. delegations and to promote greater knowledge of the OSCE process in civil society. Highlights of This Year’s Meeting The severe crackdown in Belarus which followed elections last December was a focus of attention throughout the two-week meeting, both in formal sessions and special side events. During the final session, the United States delivered a statement focused on the use of the Moscow Mechanism regarding Belarus -- an OSCE tool used in exceptional circumstances to conduct fact-finding regarding extreme human rights concerns. The mechanism had been invoked in April by 14 participating States and a report was presented to the OSCE Permanent Council by the Mechanism Rapporteur, Professor Emmanuel Decaux, on May 28. NGOs also demonstrated throughout the meeting on behalf of Belarusian political prisoner Alex Bielatskiy. The United States also raised issues which remain unresolved following the 2003 invocation of the Moscow Mechanism regarding Turkmenistan. In particular, Ambassador Johnson drew attention to the continued disappearance of Ambassador Batyr Berdiev, the former representative of Turkmenistan to the OSCE. Although Turkmenistan officials did not to participate in the HDIM, human rights groups concerned with Turkmenistan were present and members of the opposition-in-exile made a statement expressing their willingness to return to Turkmenistan and participate in the February 2012 presidential elections. They also called for the OSCE to conduct a full election observation mission for those elections. In its opening statement, the United States observed that Kazakhstan had failed to fully implement the commitments on domestic reform it had made in 2007 in Madrid upon receiving the Chairmanship for 2010, that leading human rights activist Yevgeniy Zhovtis remained in prison as a result of a trial that lacked due process, that Kazakhstan had adopted measures in a one-party parliament giving the current president continued power and immunity from prosecution for life and had held a poorly-conducted snap presidential election following an attempt to push through a referendum to obviate future elections for the incumbent. Although Kazakhstan protested the U. S. characterization of 2010 as “a year of missed opportunities for reform,” Kazakhstan’s adoption of a new restrictive religion law during the course of the human dimension meeting illustrated the very point the United States was making. In fact, of the topics restricted to three-hour sessions, the subject of religious liberties was the most oversubscribed, with Kazakhstan’s new religion law generating particular criticism. As at previous meetings, the allocation of time during the meeting was highly problematic, with speaking time at some of the sessions limited to only one or two minutes to accommodate dozens desiring the floor, while other sessions ended early with time unused. Other real-time developments during the HDIM also found their way into discussions. Following the outbreak of fighting on September 27 at a Kosovo border crossing with Serbia, Serbian representatives at the meeting engaged in a sharply worded exchange with Albanian officials. (Serbia's engagement at the meeting was of particular note in light of Belgrade's bid to serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2014.) The outbreak of anti-Roma rioting in every major Bulgarian town or city during the HDIM underscored the urgency of addressing the chronic human rights problems affecting Roma as well as the acute and escalating crises. Many participants also raised concern regarding continuing human rights abuses against ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan in the wake of widespread violence last year and in advance of Kyrgyzstani elections in October. During the formal sessions, NGOs demonstrated on behalf of Kyrgyzstani political prisoner Azhimzhon Askarov. The United States engaged fully in all aspects of the meeting, holding bilateral meetings with other OSCE participating States and extensive consultations with NGOs. The United States also organized two side events. The first focused on on the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Professor Louise Teitz from the Hague Permanent Bureau (an intergovernmental organization that administers this and other Hague Conventions), and Corrin Ferber from the Department of State, made presentations, with additional comments provided by Consul General Linda Hoover, U.S. Embassy Warsaw. The second event focused on fundamental freedoms in the digital age. DAS Thomas Melia moderated the discussion, which included comments by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic; Agata Waclik-Wejman, policy counsel for Google; and Nataliya Radzina, a Belarusian journalist who faces a lengthy prison sentence in Belarus. Conclusions The Human Dimension Implementation Meeting served as an important forum for the United States to raise issues of concern, both formally and informally, and to hold extensive consultations with governments, OSCE officials, and representatives of civil society. That said, this year's HDIM was somewhat diminished relative to past meetings. First, member states of the European Union appeared divided or preoccupied (or both). As a consequence, on a number of subjects – for example, the session that included migrant workers, refugees, and displaced persons -- there was neither a coordinated European Union statement nor statements by individual EU member states speaking in their national capacity. This voice was missed. Second, the level of participation on the part of governments as well as civil society was reduced. This may be in part due to economic factors. But it may also reflect other factors. Prior to the HDIM, for example, Belarus and Russia dragged out the adoption of an agenda until the last possible moment, making it especially hard for NGOs to plan their participation. In addition, OSCE has, in recent years, scheduled so many human dimension meetings throughout the year that it is difficult for government and non-governmental experts to cover them all. (In addition to the discussion of tolerance and non-discrimination at the HDIM, those issues have been or will be addressed at three different ad hoc meetings, as well as one of the Supplementary Human Dimension Implementation Meetings.) The Lithuanian Chairmanship also scheduled some meetings in Vienna during the HDIM, although the modalities call for all Vienna meetings to be suspended during the HDIM to facilitate participation by the representatives to the OSCE. Similarly, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly fall meeting overlapped with the final sessions of the HDIM. In fact, the modalities for the OSCE's human dimension activities were a dominant theme during the HDIM's closing session -- presaging the opening of discussions in Vienna on that issue held immediately after the HDIM at the insistence of Belarus. While many governments, including the U.S., believe the way in which the OSCE organizes its human dimension activities could be improved, the discussions themselves risk being held hostage by those countries inimical to the OSCE's human rights work.

  • From Arab Spring to Coptic Winter: Sectarian Violence and the Struggle for Democratic Transition in Egypt

    On Sunday, October 9, 2011, 25 people were killed and more than 300 injured when the Egyptian military attacked a peaceful group of Coptic Christians protesting the burning of a church in Aswan. In what has been deemed the “Massacre at Maspero,” referring to the location of the demonstration, witnesses say the army fired on the demonstrators with live ammunition and plowed into the crowd with armored vehicles. The military denied the use of live ammunition and claimed that their soldiers were attacked by an armed mob. The military has arrested at least 28 people, almost all Copts, including prominent blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, and brought them before military prosecutors. The hearing focused on violence perpetrated against the Coptic Christians in Egypt, the implications of the events for that community and the current Egyptian leadership, and prospects for the consolidation of democracy in Egypt.

  • Belarus: The Ongoing Crackdown and Forces for Change

    Nearly one year after the brutal post-December 19, 2010, election crackdown, the human rights picture in Belarus remains bleak. Brave and committed individuals who attempt to promote a democratic future for Belarus continue to be crushed by the dictatorial Lukashenka regime. Civil society continues to be under assault, with NGOs facing ever greater constraints, and freedoms of assembly and expression are severely curtailed. Yet the ongoing economic turmoil has produced growing disaffection, as manifested in Lukashenka’s plummeting popular support, and a changing domestic and international environment. The hearing will focus on the extent and impact of the crackdown on the lives of its victims and on the larger society, and what more can be done by the U.S. and our European partners to promote democratic change in Belarus.

  • U.S. Policy and the OSCE: Making Good on Commitments

    This hearing examined the United States' policy towards the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in particular  how to support the OSCE’s human rights work in the face of opposition to it from several countries within the OSCE. The witnesses and commissioners discussed ways in which the U.S. can strengthen the priority given to human rights and humanitarian concerns within the OSCE.  Priorities identifed were: supporting oppressed people of Belarus; turning back the trend to restrict Internet and media freedoms, supporting democracy in Kyrgyzstan and democratic activists throughout all of central Asia.   The discussion also focused on using the OSCE partnership program to promote human rights for minorities, particularly the Copts in Egypt.

  • Minority at Risk: Coptic Christians in Egypt

    This hearing, chaired by Commissioner Christopher H. Smith (NJ-04), focused on the current state of affairs of Coptic Christians in Egypt and their future in light of the Arab Spring. Coptic Christians, who make up eight percent of Egypt’s population, have historically been marginalized, discriminated against, persecuted, and even physically attacked. The perpetrators have been not only Muslim extremists, but also the Egyptian government itself. However, violence against Copts has escalated since the revolution. Witnesses present at this hearing included Caroline Doss, JD, Vice President of Coptic Solidarity; Michele A. Clark, Adjunct Professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs; and Jean Maher, president of the French Office at the Egyptian Union for Human Rights Organization.

  • Addressing Ethnic Tensions in Kyrgyzstan

    During four days in June, 2011, ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks clashed in the southern region of Osh, leaving some 470 dead and over 400,000 displaced.  Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. Although international assistance prevented a humanitarian disaster, rebuilding has barely started. Human rights abuses continue and ethnic nationalism is on the rise. An independent international investigative report made numerous recommendations to the Government of Kyrgyzstan about addressing the serious ethnic situation.  So far, the reaction by the Kyrgyz authorities has been mixed, and it is unclear which proposals Bishkek will accept. In this complicated atmosphere, Kyrgyzstan is also facing presidential elections this fall, the final step in putting in place a new governmental system following the revolution that overthrew former President Bakiyev in April 2010

  • Statement on the Death of Max van der Stoel

    Mr. President, as the Senate Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I rise today to pay tribute to Max van der Stoel, the first High Commissioner on National Minorities at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who died last week at his home in The Hague at the age of 86. Van der Stoel, a two-time Dutch foreign minister, worked tirelessly throughout the OSCE region as High Commissioner from 1992 to 2001 to prevent crises involving minority issues.  Max van der Stoel had a life-long commitment to human rights. From his early life in Nazi-occupied Netherlands to defining moments spent with Soviet-era dissidents, van der Stoel was deeply affected by the abuses he witnessed. He described one such encounter, in then-Czechoslovakia in 1977, when as foreign minister he met with Charter 77 activist, Jan Patocka in full view of Czechoslovak authorities. Van der Stoel commented that, “This support was of great concern to the Communist authorities. After our short meeting, Professor Patocka was arrested and rigorously interrogated. He died of a heart attack the next day.”  Following the first Gulf War, van der Stoel was appointed UN Human Rights Representative for Iraq, and he continued to raise human rights concerns in Iraq throughout the 1990s.  In 1992, he was appointed as the OSCE’s first High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM), with a mandate aimed at preventing conflict through quiet diplomacy and early warning to the OSCE countries. His successes in that role are largely unrecognized, as they lie in what did not happen rather than in what did. He traveled to countries where tensions were rising, encouraged dialogue, and made practical recommendations to address underlying issues related to ethnic tension.  He worked in Estonia and Latvia in the early 1990s to address the processing for acquiring citizenship – which at the time disadvantaged particularly ethnic Russians in the newly independent states because of stringent language testing. He was the OSCE Chairmanship’s Personal Representative on Kosovo – although unfortunately his early warnings in 1997 and 1998 went unheeded by policymakers. His work on inter-ethnic relations and education in Macedonia resulted in the establishment of the South Eastern European University in Tetovo in 2001, which is still a model for integrated education. Throughout his time as HCNM, he promoted rights for Roma, the single largest minority in the OSCE region as a whole.  His job was not easy, but his integrity, commitment, and diplomatic skills paved the way for his successors and built the position of the HCNM into one of the most effective OSCE tools for conflict prevention. His legacy to the OSCE is not only the work he did as HCNM, but the advice he left behind on the importance of early action to prevent conflict.  In his last statement to the OSCE Permanent Council in 2001, he said, “Governments should see the self interest in protecting minority rights and living in peaceful and prosperous multi-ethnic states. The only people who profit from inter-ethnic conflict are nationalist entrepreneurs. That is not a business that reaps long term profits. In the end, intolerance, violence and instability hurt us all.  “I maintain that preventing inter-ethnic conflict will continue to be one of the organization's biggest challenges in the near future. Despite improvements in many OSCE states, conflicts still rage and tensions boil below the surface. We have to sharpen our tools and invest sufficient resources to ensure that we remain on the cutting edge of conflict prevention. ... Collectively, we must do more to act in response to the warning signs. It is not enough to admonish States for falling short of their commitments. A concerted response by the international community must be resolute, targeted, and timely.  “...When a crisis becomes acute, everyone wonders what went wrong or what steps should be taken to contain the situation. Things do not need to get to that point. While Foreign Ministries seem to be increasingly sensitive to the benefits of relatively limited funding, treasuries are still hesitant to invest in preventing the conflicts of tomorrow. We need to put our money where our mouth is. It makes political and financial sense to put resources into keeping multi-ethnic states together, rather than bailing them out after they have fallen apart.”  His words are as timely and relevant today as they were ten years ago. It is my hope that, inspired by the dedication and accomplishments of Max van der Stoel, the United States and its allies will strive to ensure that ethic tension and human rights violations are not allowed to fester until they erupt into conflict. Thank you, Mr. President.

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