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Helsinki Commission Leaders Commend Romania's Historic Holocaust Remembrence Observation

Friday, October 22, 2004

Washington– United States Helsinki Commission leaders lauded Romania’s first Holocaust Remembrance Day on October 12, 2004.  President Ion Iliescu presided over  a  ceremony marking the event  in the Romanian Parliament.  The ceremony -- attended by national religious leaders, Holocaust survivors and Romanian schoolchildren -- attempted to bring national attention to Romania’s wartime complicity for the brutal ethnic cleansing and stressed the importance of educating Romanians about their history.

Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) noted, “Over the last decade, our concerns regarding anti-Semitic trends in Romania, as well as efforts by some groups in Romania to rehabilitate Marshall Antonescu and honor him as a war hero, have been raised often.”

“The establishment of a National Day of Holocaust Remembrance, the work of the Wiesel Commission, and President Iliescu's direct statements about Romania's role in that tragedy are important steps in reversing those trends and in educating the people of Romania about that dark and important part of their country's history,” said Smith.

“It is important that this tragic chapter in Romania’s history be publicly commemorated and the victims mourned,” said Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD).  “Only by learning from its past can Romania look forward to a bright, democratic future.”

In his address, President Iliescu stated, “Holocaust Day must represent a moment of reflection to us all, an opportunity to ponder on totalitarianism and its tragic consequences, on community relations and the values of human solidarity, the perennial democracy, legality and observance of fundamental citizen rights and freedoms.”

During the communist era, Romania’s education system was silent regarding the extent of Romania’s role in the Holocaust.  This legacy has denied many Romanians a proper understanding of their history.  By directly confronting the issue of the Holocaust, President Iliescu’s speech and the events of the Holocaust Memorial Day serve to strengthen Romania against resurgent anti-Semitism and the dangers of extreme nationalism.

In the past year, Romania's government has made encouraging strides toward bringing a dark period of its history into the public consciousness.  Romania has added curriculum changes and textbooks teaching the history of the Holocaust to primary school students and at the National Defense College.  President Iliescu also established an International Historic Commission on the Holocaust in Romania, a panel of experts and historians led by Dr. Elie Wiesel, to make recommendations on how Romania can address its role in the Holocaust.  Dr. Wiesel is a Romanian-born Jew, Holocaust survivor and the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Under the Fascist government of Marshall Ion Antonescu, Romanian soldiers and gendarmeries targeted Jews and Roma in pogroms, deportations, confiscation of property and genocide.  Hundreds of thousands of Romania’s 760,000 pre-war Jewish population were killed in the Holocaust.  Today an estimated 6,000 Jews live in Romania.  Approximately 25,000 Roma were deported from Romania en masse to Transnistria in 1942 where half of them perished.

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    WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) marked the 70th anniversary of the mass deportation of Hungary’s Jews and the Romani revolt at Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. “On May 16, 70 years ago, 6,000 Roma at Auschwitz used improvised weapons to resist efforts to transport them from their barracks to the gas chambers. Sadly, their desperate and heroic efforts only delayed their mass murder," said Chairman Cardin. “I am appalled,” he continued, “when government officials, sometimes at the highest level, characterize Roma as criminals or ‘unadaptable’ using stereotypes that are reminiscent of Nazi racial theories. Remembering and teaching about Romani experiences during the Holocaust is critical in combating anti-Roma prejudices today.” Approximately 3,000 of those who participated in the Romani revolt were sent to Buchenwald and Ravensbruck concentration camps as forced labor, where most of them died. On August 2-3, 1944, the so-called ‘Gypsy Family Camp’ was liquidated and the remaining 2,879 Romani men, women and children were sent to the gas chambers. Altogether, 23,000 Romani people from 11 countries were deported to Auschwitz and approximately 19,000 perished. Some died as a result of inhumane medical experiments by Dr. Joseph Mengele. “This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the final wave of Hungary’s war-time deportation of Jews,” noted Chairman Cardin. “Plans to empty the Romani camp at Auschwitz were, in fact, intended to make room for Jews arriving from Hungary.” Anti-Semitic legislation was introduced in Hungary with the 1920 Numerus Clausus, which established limits on the number of Jewish university students. In 1941, more than 17,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to German-occupied Kamenets-Podolsk, where they were executed. Between May 15 and July 9, 1944, 437,402 Hungarian Jews were deported in the largest deportation of Jews to Auschwitz in the shortest period of time from any country. One of every three Jews who died at Auschwitz was from Hungary. Cardin concluded, “I welcome the participation of Czech Prime Minister Sobotka in the memorial service held on May 10 at the site of the concentration camp for Roma at Lety. I urge the Czech Government to take steps to reflect the historic significance of this site for Romani survivors and their families everywhere.” Lety was the site of one of two concentration camps for Roma in the war-time Czech Republic. The construction of a large pork processing plant on the site during the communist period has generated continuing criticism. The Helsinki Commission supported the transfer of microfilm copies of its archives – the only known complete surviving archives of a Romani concentration camp – to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2000. On September 18, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial will hold a public symposium on new research regarding Roma and the Holocaust.

  • Europeans of African Descent ‘Black Europeans’: Race, Rights and Politics

    Racist acts targeting Black cabinet-level officials in Italy and France have put a spotlight on the experiences of the 7-10 million people of African Descent in Europe / Black Europeans. A visible minority in Europe often unacknowledged despite a centuries’ long presence in Europe, Black Europeans have increasingly become the targets of discrimination, pernicious racial profiling, and violent hate crimes impacting equal access to housing, employment, education, and justice. Europe today grapples with the complex intersection of national identity, decreasing birth rates, increasing immigration, security concerns, and a rise in extremist political parties and vigilantism. In this context, the experiences of Black Europeans increasingly serve as a measure of the strength of European democracies and commitments to human rights. The briefing discussed the work of Black European rights organizations and the efforts of the international community to address issues of inequality, discrimination, and inclusion for Black Europeans, in addition to discussing similarities and work with African-American civil rights organizations.

  • Bulgaria Holds Early Parliamentary Elections; OSCE Mounts Full-Scale Election Observation Mission

    By Helsinki Commission Staff Country-Wide Street Protests Trigger Snap Elections In early 2013, 30 Bulgarian cities were rocked by demonstrations. In some instances, violence erupted between demonstrators and police. In addition, in the months immediately preceding the elections, six people committed suicide by self-immolation in acts of public protest and desperation. The street demonstrations were triggered by sharply rising electricity rates in a country widely described as the poorest of the EU’s 27 members. Discontent was further fueled by dissatisfaction with political leaders across the board and widespread corruption. In February, following the street demonstrations, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov resigned, paving the way for May 12’s early parliamentary elections. For those elections, 8,100 candidates stood for seats in the 240-member unicameral National Assembly allocated by proportional representation from 31 multi-mandate constituencies (with a 4% threshold for both parties and coalitions to enter parliament). Altogether, 63 parties (38 outside of coalitions and 7 coalitions) were registered as well as two independent candidates. The resulting ballot was roughly a yard long. OSCE Mounts Full-Scale Election Observation Mission The OSCE mounted a full scale Election Observation Mission (EOM) – the first in Bulgaria since 1997 and the first ever in an EU country. Eoghan Murphy (MP, Ireland) was appointed by OSCE Chair-in-Office Leonid Kozhara to serve as Special Coordinator and leader of the short-term observer mission (parliamentarians and observers seconded by OSCE participating States). The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) long-term observer team was headed by Miklos Haraszti. Roberto Battelli (MP, Slovenia) headed the OSCE PA delegation. Andreas Gross (MP, Switzerland) headed the observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). On Election Day, there were 158 observers deployed from 39 countries. Of an estimated 6.9 million voters (a number that, in any case, the OSCE and Council of Europe Venice Commission suggest may be high), 3,541,745 went to the polls. Voter turnout was at about 50 percent – the lowest turnout since the fall of communism – reflecting the voters’ antipathy even more than apathy. Approximately 850,000 votes were cast for parties that failed to overcome the 4% threshold to get into parliament. Reportedly 107,799 Bulgarian citizens voted abroad, with 63,152 votes cast in Turkey. The Mysterious Case of the Extra Ballots The administration of the elections on E-Day was largely unremarkable. It was, however, preceded by two separate but related wiretapping scandals suggesting that the Ministry of Interior had bugged journalists and state officials. The day before the elections, an “extra” 350,000 ballots were discovered in a printing house in Sofia. (A week after the elections, it was reported that more than 2,000 extra stamps for electoral commissions had also surfaced.) In its preliminary findings, the Election Observation Mission drew particular attention to the alienation of voters, lack of confidence in the electoral process, concerns over ballot security (the “extra” ballots), and persistent allegations of vote buying or voter intimidation. (A final report from the Mission is forthcoming.) Roma and Other Minorities in the Electoral Context Bulgaria has a population of 7.36 million (from almost 8 million in the 2001 census and roughly 8.4 million in the 1992 census). This continuing drop reflects declining birth rates and labor migration to other parts of Europe. The ethnic Turkish minority comprises 8.8 percent of the population. Almost 5 percent of the population self-identified as Romani on the last census, but Roma are estimated to be roughly 10 percent of the population. Last year, the Bulgarian Government estimated that 23 percent of the working age population is Romani. The Bulgarian Constitution prohibits the formation of political parties on ethnic, racial or religious lines, which is contrary to OSCE and other international norms on freedom of assembly. The OSCE has criticized this restriction in previous reports on Bulgarian elections. The Electoral Code stipulates that the election campaign must be conducted in the Bulgarian language only, also contrary to standards on free speech and minority language use set out in the 1990 Copenhagen Document. These restrictions also impede get-out-the-vote efforts. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms is, de facto, an ethnic Turkish minority party, although it has largely been allowed to function with a wink and a nod from the authorities. After the elections, it was reported that Lyutvi Mestan, head of the MRF party, was fined in Sliven for campaigning in Turkish. Bulgaria's last two local and Presidential elections (which were held simultaneously in 2007 and 2011) were preceded by outbreaks of anti-Roma violence. In 2011, just a few weeks before the elections, 14 Bulgarian cities erupted into anti-Roma riots. In July 2012, the headquarters of the EuroRoma political party were firebombed, killing one man. The investigation has not produced any results. On April 8, 15 Romani civil society organizations withdrew from their advisory role with the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues, effectively deeming the government’s work in this area and the consultative process to be a sham. There were no Roma in electable positions on the lists for any of the leading parties. As a result, the National Assembly produced by the May 12 elections will be the first Bulgarian parliament since the fall of communism to have no Romani MPs.

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes Unveiling of Berlin Memorial for Romani Genocide Victims

    On October 24, more than 600 people in Berlin attended the unveiling of the Memorial for the Sinti¹ and Roma of Europe Murdered under National Socialism. Leaders of the Helsinki Commission, who had underscored the importance of the monument, welcomed the event. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, observed that the memorial “marks an important step in acknowledging and teaching about the fate of Roma at the hands of the Nazi regime and the Axis powers: persecution, confiscation of property, forced sterilization, slave labor, inhumane medical experimentation, and ultimately genocide.” Proposals to erect a memorial to the Romani victims of genocide emerged in the early 1990s after the unification of the Federal Republic of Germany and German Democratic Republic and at a time when German acknowledgement and remembrance took on additional dimensions. Those efforts, however, bogged down over questions regarding the location of the proposed memorial and the content of inscriptions. (Concerns raised by the artist over materials and weather-related construction complications also contributed to interruptions.) German government officials also suggested some delays were caused by differing views among Romani groups, particularly regarding the inscriptions; some critics of the delays suggested there was an insufficient sense of ownership and political will on the part of the government. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman of the Commission, noted the singular role of Romani Rose, Chairman of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, and “his tireless work to ensure that Romani victims of genocide are remembered and honored.” Rose, who lost his grandparents at Auschwitz and Ravensbrueck, was a driving force to see the memorial completed. Cardin added, “I am deeply heartened that efforts to build this memorial, underway for over a decade, have finally been realized.” German government officials at the most senior level attended the unveiling of the genocide memorial, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Joachim Gauck, Bundestag President Norbert Lammert, Bundesrat President Horst Seehofer, and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit. Former President Richard von Weizsacker, in spite of advanced years and frail health, was also present. Federal Minister of Culture Bernd Neumann described the memorial “a pillar of German remembrance.” U.S. Ambassador to Germany Patrick Murphy and Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Douglas Davidson represented the United States. Dr. Ethel Brooks, who has served as a public member with the U.S. Delegation to the 2011 and 2012 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meetings, also attended the ceremony. The memorial, designed by Israeli artist Dani Karavan, was widely hailed as a deeply moving testimony to the genocide of Romani people. Dutch Sinto survivor Zoni Weiss addressed the hundreds of people who attended the event. As a 7-year-old, Weiss narrowly avoided being placed on the Westerbork transport from the Netherlands due to the intervention of platform policeman, but watched as his immediate family was sent to Auschwitz where they perished. The unveiling ceremony was also accompanied by a week of events in Berlin focused on Romani history, culture and contemporary issues. Gert Weisskirchen, former German Member of the Budestag and former OSCE Personal Representative on Anti-Semitism, organized a round-table focused on contemporary challenges faced by Roma. In her remarks at the event, Chancellor Merkel also acknowledged the on-going struggle for human rights faced by Roma throughout Europe, saying bluntly, “let’s not beat around the bush. Sinti and Roma suffer today from discrimination and exclusion.” Romani Rose warned more pointedly, “In Germany and in Europe, there is a new and increasingly violent racism against Sinti and Roma. This racism is supported not just by far-right parties and groups; it finds more and more backing in the middle of society.” Background The Nazis targeted Roma for extermination. Persecution began in the 1920s, and included race-based denial of the right to vote, selection for forced sterilization, loss of citizenship on the basis of race, and incarceration in work or concentration camps. The most notorious sites where Roma were murdered include Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland, the Jasenovac camp in the so-called Independent State of Croatia, Romanian-occupied Transnistria, and Babi-Yar in Nazi-occupied Ukraine. In other parts of German occupied or German-allied territory, Roma were frequently killed by special SS squads or even regular army units or police, often left in mass graves. Many scholars estimate that 500,000 Roma were killed during is World War II, although scholarship on the genocide of Roma remains in its infancy and many important archives have only become available to a broader community of researchers since the fall of communism. In recent years, for example, Father Patrick Desbois has helped document the location of 800 WWII-mass graves in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, including 48 mass graves of Roma. German postwar restitution legislation and its implementation effectively excluded almost all Romani survivors. Those most directly responsible for actions against Roma escaped investigation, prosecution and conviction. Several officials responsible for the deportations of Roma before and during the war continued to have responsibility for Romani affairs after the war. In 1979, the West German Federal Parliament acknowledged the Nazi persecution of Roma as being racially motivated. In 1982, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt recognized that the National Socialist persecution of Romani people constituted genocide. The first German trial decision to take legal cognizance that Roma were genocide victims during the Third Reich was handed down in 1991. In 1997, Federal President Roman Herzog opened a Documentation and Cultural Center of German Sinti and Roma, saying “The genocide of the Sinti and Roma was carried out from the same motive of racial hatred, with the same intent and the same desire for planned and final annihilation as that of the Jews. They were systematically murdered in whole families, from the small child to the old man, throughout the sphere of influence of the Nazis.” At the 2007 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, Thommas Hammarberg, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, observed that, “[e]ven 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.”

  • Healing the Wounds of Conflict and Disaster: Clarifying the Fate of Missing Persons in the OSCE Area

    The hearing examined efforts by governments and their partners in clarifying the fate of persons missing within a number of OSCE participating States and partner countries, especially in the western Balkans and northern Caucasus. The hearing also appraised the adequacy of assistance to governments and other entities engaged in locating missing persons, the obstacles that impede progress in some areas, as well as how rule of law mechanisms help governments fulfill their obligations to the affected families and society in clarifying the fate of missing persons. Currently, over a million persons are reported missing from wars and violations of human rights. In addition, there are thousands of reported cases a year of persons missing from trafficking, drug-related violence, and other causes. Locating and identifying persons missing as a result of conflicts, trafficking in humans and human rights violations and other causes remains a global challenge, with significant impact within the OSCE area.

  • Dispatches From Moscow: Luke Harding’s Chilling Tale of KGB Harassment

    This briefing, moderated by Kyle Parker, Policy Advisor at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, addressed issues of human rights abuses in Russia in the context of the then imminent elections and widespread protests. The witness – Luke Harding, a journalist with the Guardian – remarked on Russia’s human rights abuses which blatantly ignore their commitments to the Helsinki Accords, citing anecdotal evidence. Harding, who had been the only Guardian correspondent to have actually reported from Russia since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, had suffered more at the hands of the FSB than any other Western correspondent, due to the fact that, during his four year tenure in Moscow, he comprehensively and repetitively busted Russia’s taboos that make it the security state it is today.

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