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U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Cardin and Co-Chairman Hastings Release Statement on Plight of Roma

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

WASHINGTON - Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) and Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), today released the following statement in advance of International Roma Day on April 8, 2009: 

“Twenty years ago, the fall of communism brought historic change. But for Roma, Europe’s largest ethnic minority (estimated at 12 to 15 million), the political transformations that began in 1989 unshackled long-standing prejudices against them, and the nascent rule of law in the region proved weak and ineffective at protecting Roma for most of the 1990s. In various countries, Roma were drowned, burned and beaten to death. Police were as likely to be perpetrators as protectors. Discrimination in all walks of life was rampant. 

Roma were also among the greatest losers in the transformation from command to market economies. It is a cliché that Roma benefited from access to education and full employment under communism. But communism’s dirty little secret was that Roma were often given just enough education for the unskilled or semiskilled jobs to which they were assigned. When the time came for the transformation to a market economy, Roma were especially vulnerable. 

More to the point, no post-communist country had effective mechanisms to protect Roma from even the most blatant workplace discrimination. Even 20 years after the Velvet Revolution, the Czech Republic – now holding the EU presidency – has failed to adopt the comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation that is required by the European Union itself. As one team of sociologists described it, Roma are not at the bottom of the economic system; they have been altogether left outside of it. 

Unfortunately, there are few positive examples of tolerance and inclusion of Roma in older democracies either. When Roma started to flee violence in Central Europe in the late 1990s, they were met by near hysteria in some quarters of the British press. Belgian officials were so intent on sending Roma back to Slovakia they were willing to violate a European Court order to halt their mass deportation – and even went so far as to ‘identify’ deportees by writing numbers on their forearms, ignoring the chilling images that evoked for a people who lost so many during the Holocaust. Over the past two years, acts of intolerance have been rampant in Italy, including mob attacks on Romani camps, systematic forced evictions, and targeting Roma for fingerprinting. 

In fact, an ironic, if unintended, consequence of the European Union accession process has been the elevated attention paid to Romani minorities throughout Europe ‘whole and free,’ and not just in the post-communist world. 

Some progress has been made. By the beginning of this decade, the worst violence against Roma was on the wane, many governments had begun to pay at least lip-service to the need to improve the situation of Roma, and international organizations were ramping up engagement. But that progress is fragile, and limited gains are now at risk of reversal. As an economic downturn takes hold, the escalation of anti-Roma manifestations (often also targeting Jews, other minorities, and immigrants) seems even more ominous. 

Last November, it took the concerted effort of 1,000 police drawn from all over the country to contain anti-Roma violence in the Czech town of Litvinov. Local officials regularly use the Nazi-era term ‘unadaptable’ to describe Roma, fueling this rabid bigotry. 

In Hungary, an ugly caricature of ‘Gypsy crime,’ echoing Nazi rhetoric, seems to have taken public discourse hostage. Almost 60% of the respondents to a recent Hungarian opinion poll said they thought ‘crime was in the blood of’ Roma. Combined with an outbreak of attacks on Roma in Hungary – reportedly more than 50 attacks in the past 1 ½ years, the firebombing of several homes, six fatalities including 5-year-old Robert Csorba and his father – it is not surprising that Romani politician Florian Farkas has warned that Hungary could be headed toward civil war. 

While some might reject Farkas’ warning as exaggerated hyperbole, it would be a mistake to dismiss out of hand the prospect of inter-ethnic conflict. In 2004, Slovakia’s economic reforms helped trigger massive rioting and looting by Roma and required the largest mobilization of armed forces since the Velvet Revolution. In 2007, a violent assault on several Roma in Bulgaria, followed by rumors of another imminent attack, prompted some 200 Roma in Sofia to take to the streets with knives and axes. 

This year’s International Roma Day, April 8, is a somber rather than a celebratory occasion. Governments should mark this event by ensuring the conviction of those who perpetrate violent crimes against Roma. Twenty years after the fall of communism, more must be done to ensure that the opportunities of freedom are equal opportunities for all.” 

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    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: MUSLIMS AND MINORITIES IN THE MILITARY Changing Demographics in the OSCE Region and Implications for Europe’s Security Sector Wednesday, July 26, 2017 11:00AM to 12:00PM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Demographers predict that aging, shifting birth rates, and immigration will change the face of European and North American populations over the next few decades. For example, researchers predict that persons of Muslim origin will make up a quarter of the French and third of the German populations by 2050. At the briefing, European security practitioners will discuss how demographic change is impacting the security workforce, and the subsequent implications for the OSCE region.  Panelists will also highlight the ways in which recruitment, personnel, and other security workforce policies and practices are changing in light of Europe’s increasing ethnic and religious diversity. Speakers include: Dominik Wullers (Germany), Economist, Spokesman of the Federal Office for Federal Ministry of Defense Equipment, and Vice President of Deutscher.Soldat Samira Rafaela (Netherlands), Organizational Strategy Advisor, Dutch National Police  Rozemina Abbasi (United Kingdom), Assistant Head, Armed Forces Targets, Ministry of Defense Dr. Elyamine Settoul (France), Professor, Institute for Strategic Research at the Military College, French Ministry of Defense

  • Helsinki Commission Staff Meet with Special Envoys on Holocaust Issues

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law Thomas Yazdgerdi, Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues at the State Department, and The Rt Hon Sir Eric Pickles, the UK's Special Envoy for post-Holocaust Issues and Anti-Corruption Champion, met with staff of the U.S. Helsinki Commission on July 14, 2017, to discuss Holocaust-related issues. Sir Eric Pickles was appointed Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust issues in September 2015. He works closely with Holocaust survivors, scholars, educational and other civil society organizations in the UK.  The State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues develops and implements U.S. policy with respect to the return of Holocaust-era assets to their rightful owners, compensation for wrongs committed during the Holocaust, and Holocaust remembrance. The meeting touched on issues related to the needs of elderly Holocaust survivors.  The Special Envoys praised the adoption of a bill in Serbia last year that provides compensation to Serbian Holocaust survivors both in Serbia and abroad. The compensation is derived from property rendered heirless as a result of the Holocaust. Although, generally speaking, states claim property that is without heirs, the specific circumstance of genocide makes that general rule unsupportable. The 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, adopted at the conclusion of a 46-nation meeting, noted that “in some states heirless property could serve as a basis for addressing the material necessities of needy Holocaust (Shoah) survivors and to ensure ongoing education about the Holocaust (Shoah), its causes and consequences.” They also addressed issues regarding Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, and elsewhere. Poland remains the only country in central Europe that has not adopted a general private property compensation or restitution law. Special Envoys Yazdgerdi and Pickles discussed their work within the 31-nation International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, including the breakthrough adoption in April of last year of a working definition of anti-Semitism, and the OSCE’s engagement in this area.  Germany, in its 2016 capacity as OSCE Chair-in-Office, committed funds for a multiyear project called “Turning Words Into Action” which seeks to improve implementation of the OSCE’s significant body of existing commitments regarding combating anti-Semitism and discrimination. Finally, participants in the meeting exchanged views on prospects for removing the pig farm from the Lety concentration camp site in the Czech Republic. The pig farm has been the target of criticism and is seen by some as a desecration of a sensitive site of remembrance. At the 2016 OSCE Human Dimension implementation Meeting, Czech government officials discussed efforts to remove the pig farm. The Helsinki Commission played an instrumental role in securing the agreement of the Czech government to share a complete microfilm copy of the Lety concentration camp archives with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Although there were other World War II concentration camps established specifically for Roma, the only known complete surviving archives are from Lety. More Information Roundtable on Fighting Anti-Semitism Looks at Turning Words into Action

  • Addressing Anti-Semitism through Intersectional Advocacy

    By Dr. Mischa Thompson, Policy Advisor “[There were so many victims of the Holocaust] but we engage in competitive victimhood, where we take the oppressor’s view of a victim’s worth.” – Words into Action participant Misko Stanisic, Terraforming From June 21 to June 23, 2017, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) hosted the second in a series of workshops focused on addressing anti-Semitism.  The workshop, titled “Gender and Intersectional Activism: Coalition-Building for a More Tolerant Society,” provided a forum for 50 civil society leaders to discuss their efforts to address prejudice and discrimination across the 57 European and North American countries of the OSCE.  The forum was part of the OSCE/ODIHR’s “Turning Words into Action to Address Anti-Semitism” (WiA) project, which increases the capacity of countries and civil society to prevent and respond to anti-Semitism through security, education, and coalition-building measures.  According to Cristina Finch, Head of the ODIHR Tolerance and Discrimination Department, the forum will also assist with “creation of a coalition-building manual that ODIHR will publish to assist civil society in these efforts.”  Noting the problem of “underreporting,” the forum educated participants about OSCE/ODIHR efforts to collect hate crimes statistics, and highlighted methods by which civil society could work with local law enforcement and the OSCE/ODIHR to report hate crimes.  At the forum, OSCE/ODIHR shared recent findings that indicate that while Jewish men are more likely to be victims of anti-Semitic speech or physical violence, Jewish women fear anti-Semitic attacks more.  This suggests gender may play an important role in addressing anti-Semitism, prompting the need for more gender-rich and intersectional prevention efforts. For instance, Misko Stanisic of Terraforming, an organization focused on Holocaust and human rights education, noted that thousands of women participated in crimes of the Holocaust, but that gender stereotypes resulted in women often not being viewed as perpetrators, resulting in “female perpetrators [being] seldom investigated for their crimes and rarely prosecuted during the post-war trials.” He also described how socially constructed perceptions of gender, race, and other identities not only impacted who is – and who is not – included in text books and other educational tools on the Holocaust, but also how this has impacted efforts to address anti-Semitism.  “[There were so many victims of the Holocaust] but we engage in competitive victimhood, where we take the oppressor’s view of a victim’s worth,” he said. Other participants highlighted the forum’s relevance to American scholar Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectionality theory, which details how hierarchal systems of gender and race resulted in African-American women often being excluded from the mainstream feminist movement in the United States.  In particular, participants discussed how efforts to address anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice and discrimination have been stymied by approaches that have reinforced gender and other hierarchical power structures preventing men and women within communities from effectively working together.  Invoking American luminary James Baldwin, Finnish journalist Maryan Abdulkarim stated, “No one is free until we are all free.” She stressed the need for more inclusive efforts that move away from a focus on differences that separate the “majority” and “minorities,” and to restore humanity by challenging harmful societal constructs and working across communities, including with the “majority” to address problems. While the forum explored the importance of inclusive approaches to addressing anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance, some participants warned that intersectionality could become an ineffective trend if care is not taken in its implementation.  Specifically, the differences between academic discussions and practice were raised.  In particular, participants cited the need for clear laws, processes, and procedures that protect all, as well as equal access to justice.   For example, laws and policies should be understandable to police, judges, and ordinary citizens, and straightforward to implement.  Researchers, funders, and advocates should be particularly mindful as to whether their efforts advance equality, or simply check a box. The art and commentary of speaker Dan Perjovschi underscored and offered insight into the societal challenges forum participants faced in efforts to address anti-Semitism, gender and other inequities in countering prejudice and discrimination at large, and the need for their continued efforts. More Information Roundtable on Fighting Anti-Semitism Looks at Turning Words into Action OSCE/ODIHR Turning Words into Action Project

  • Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2017 Workshop Report

    The Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) advances leaders who are global in outlook, representative, culturally competent, and inclusive. TILN is the premier venue for young, diverse U.S. and European elected and civil society leaders to meet, enhance their inclusive leadership portfolio, and engage senior policymakers. Now entering its sixth year housed within the German Marshall Fund in cooperation with the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), TILN has been honored to be supported through partnerships with the U.S. Department of State, Balkan Trust for Democracy, Open Society Foundations, Meridiam, IMPACT, ONCE Foundation, Operation Black Vote, Unitas Communications, New American Leaders Project and the World Jewish Congress. At the center of the initiative is an annual leadership workshop for young diverse leaders from Europe and the United States. TILN workshops have created an empowered and highly upwardly mobile network that bridges the Atlantic and strengthens transatlantic relations for the future. TILN alumni utilize their experiences to reach new heights from mounting campaigns for the European and national Parliaments to becoming Members of the U.S. Congress, Ministers, and regionally and locally elected officials. Alumni include U.S. Congressman Ruben Gallego, Swedish Parliamentarian Said Abdu, UN Expert on Minority Issues Rita Iszak, and other Parliamentarians, Ministers, Mayors, City Councilpersons, regional and local leaders. Download the full report to learn more about the 2017 Annual Workshop.

  • #MovetheCouch: Transatlantic Leaders Convene in Brussels

    By Dr. Mischa Thompson, Policy Advisor “If we cannot be entrusted as leaders to do the small things, why should the public trust us to do the big ones, including governing international relations?” –Svante Myrick Mayor of Ithaca, New York TILN 2016 From March 20-26, 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, in partnership with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), the U.S. State Department, and other stakeholders, hosted the sixth annual Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) workshop in Brussels, Belgium.     Twenty-five young leaders representing more than fourteen European countries and the United States came together to learn from one another, expand their leadership skills, and offer a more inclusive vision for the world. As participants in the Brussels Forum Young Professionals Summit, TILN participants engaged with senior U.S. and European public and private sector leaders on the most pressing issues impacting the transatlantic relationship today, ranging from U.S. elections and the international workforce to Russia and counterterrorism. Several TILN participants also visited a high school in Brussels, exploring opportunities for international exchange and collaboration between administrators, educators, and students related to the educational needs of increasingly diverse student bodies and the future workforce on both sides of the Atlantic. Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick closed Brussels Forum with powerful cautionary comments to all leaders. “While here in Brussels thinking about global problems, I received an email from a constituent who has been annoyed by an abandoned couch for days. It might seem like a small issue, but I'm going to make sure I move that couch,” he stated.  “I had to move it because, if we cannot be entrusted as leaders to do the small things, why should the public trust us to do the big ones, including governing international relations?” Sharing the vision for a more inclusive world, in the week following the workshop, TILN alumni from previous years led GMF-funded alumni leadership action projects in the Netherlands, Finland, Italy, and during the European Union’s Roma Week.  For more information on this year's Brussels workshop, please see the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2017 Workshop Report. The Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) “inspires, informs, and connects diverse young leaders to excel in elected office and other leadership roles, advance inclusive policies, and engage with senior transatlantic policymakers.” Participants are from diverse U.S. and European communities, including the Balkans, with a proven commitment to advancing diversity and inclusion best practices in their policymaking and society.  For more information on TILN, please see the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2017 Workshop Report.   TILN 2016 Participants Umut Aydin | France | Analyst, Meridiam Delio Diaz Garcia | Spain | Secretary General, Juventudes de Unidad Progresista Nebojša Dobrijević | Croatia | Independent Advisor, Joint Council of Municipalities Judith Garcia | United States | City Councillor, Chelsea, Massachusetts Diana Horvat | Serbia | Editor, Radio Televison of Vojvodina Maryam Jamshid | Belgium | Social Council Elected Member, City of Hasselt, Flanders Paulette Jordan | United States | State Representative, Idaho Natascha Kabir | Germany | Green Party Faction Leader, City Parliament of Offenbach Aroosa Khan | Netherlands | Board Member, PvdA Party, Amsterdam-East Edin Koljenović | Montenegro | Program Coordinator, Civic Alliance Oleksii Krasnoshchokov | Ukraine | Board President, Pidmoga.info Hayatte Maazouza | France | Municipal Council Member, Trappes Sammy Mahdi | Belgium | President, Work Group on Diversity, Youth, CD&V Party Martin Mata | Czech Republic | City Council Member, Usti nad Labem Svante L. Myrick | United States | Mayor, City of Ithaca, New York Frances O'Donovan | Denmark | City Council Member, Fredericia Anna Poisner | Ukraine | Counsel, Dragon Capital Aida Salketić | Bosnia and Herzegovina | Cultural Heritage Professional Athena Salman | United States | State Representative, Arizona Brandon Scott | United States | City Council Member, Baltimore, Maryland Karen Taylor | Germany | Advisor to of Member of Parliament Dr. Karamba Diaby David Walsh | United Kingdom | International Relations Officer, Board of Deputies of British Jews John Vargas | United States | Secretary, NALEO Alex Yip | United Kingdom | City Councillor for Sutton New Hall, Birmingham City

  • Commissioner and Special Representative Ben Cardin Counters Anti-Semitism and Promotes Diversity

    When the U.S. funding bill commonly known as the Omnibus passed in May 2017, it included a number of provisions outlining U.S. foreign policy and national security measures.  It also included provisions supporting diversity and human rights in foreign affairs in the face of increased violence and discrimination across the 57 North American and European countries that make up the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “Continuing anti-migrant and refugee sentiments, anti-Muslim backlash following terrorist attacks, and a surge in anti-Semitic and racist incidents in this country and abroad are just some of the reasons I was compelled to act,” said Helsinki Commission Ranking Senator Ben Cardin (MD), who is also the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s first Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. “These legislative provisions are just a few recent efforts I have advanced to ensure diverse populations in our country and throughout the OSCE region are afforded the same rights, protections, and opportunities as others that are enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and numerous OSCE tolerance and non-discrimination commitments,” said Senator Cardin, whose U.S. spending bill provisions include: Increased funding to counter global anti-Semitism. U.S. support for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to advance new initiatives to counter anti-Semitism, racism, and intolerance. Expansion of the Department of State workforce diversity programs. Prior to the passage of the Omnibus, on April 25 Senator Cardin introduced the National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act (NSDIWA) of 2017, building on legislation he passed in December 2016 to diversify the State Department and USAID labor force.  “I have championed these equality and anti-discrimination provisions because America’s diversity is one of our greatest assets as a nation, and our government should reflect that reality,” said Senator Cardin. “When America leads with our values on display, whether we are promoting human rights abroad or helping resolve conflicts to help societies heal and move forward, including our own, it should be done with personnel who reflect the entire tapestry of the United States,” Senator Cardin continued. “Inequities and discrimination are not just a U.S. problem.  The hope is that this legislation can also serve as a model for other countries grappling with similar issues from hate crimes to inequality.” Senator Cardin was appointed the OSCE PA's Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance in March 2015. More on his mandate and efforts can be found at http://www.oscepa.org/about-osce-pa/special-representatives/anti-semitism.

  • International Roma Day 2017

    International Roma Day is observed annually on April 8, commemorating the anniversary of the1971 London meeting of Romani activists from across Europe. The 1971 London meeting, convened as the "World Romani Congress," was one of the first transnational gatherings of Roma.  Since 1990, International Roma Day has been an opportunity to celebrate Romani culture and counter anti-Roma prejudice that fosters political and economic marginalization.  Roma—Europe’s Largest Ethnic Minority Roma live throughout all European countries as well as the Americas and Australasia. In Europe, the Roma population is very conservatively estimated at 15 million, with large concentrations in Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe.  Roma have migrated to the United States since the colonial period. There are an estimated one million Americans with some Romani roots (recent or distant Romani ancestry).  Roma live throughout the United States, with larger communities in New York City, Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They are sometimes the victims of racial profiling by law enforcement.  The last explicitly anti-Roma law in the United States was repealed in New Jersey in 1998. Romani Americans have served as public members on the U.S. delegation to several OSCE human dimension meetings.  In 2016, the President appointed Dr. Ethel Brooks to serve on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, bringing a Romani voice to that body. Helsinki Commission Advocacy on Romani Human Rights The Commission has long record of addressing human rights issues relating to Roma.  As early as 1990, a Helsinki Commission delegation in Bucharest raised alarm orchestrated attacks on Roma conducted as part of a larger crackdown on dissent.  Helsinki Commissioners have continued to engage regarding the situation of Roma through hearings, briefings, and congressional meetings with Roma in Europe and the United States.  In recent years, the Commission has supported Romani inclusion in annual initiatives for political leaders such as the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference (TMPLC) and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN).  On March 27-28, the Commission worked in cooperation with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to hold a workshop during “Roma Week” at the European Parliament in Brussels titled, “Strengthening diverse leadership, participation and representation of Roma, including women and youth, in public and political life.”  Roma Day Events in the United States Harvard will host its fifth Annual Roma conference on April 10, where Helsinki Commission staff will participate. Scholars of Romani culture and Roma who work as academics, activists, and performers will convene a conference at New York University April 28-29. Later in the spring, on May 6, the 20th Annual Herdeljezi Music Festival will be held in the San Francisco area at the Croatian American Cultural Center. In the Washington area, the Embassy of the Czech Republic supported a March 30 screening of the documentary about the prejudice faced by the FC Roma football club. On May 17, the Czech Embassy will support a concert at the national Gallery of Art by Romani-Czech pianist Tomas Kaco. Learn More International Roma Day: Statement by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Celebrating International Roma Day: Statement by USOSCE Acting Deputy Chief of Mission Michele Siders International Roma Day: Statement by OSCE/ODIHR Director Michael Link

  • Romani Political Participation Key to Change

    On March 27 and 28, 2017, thirty-five Romani elected officials and civil society representatives participated in a two-day event held by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in cooperation with the U.S. Helsinki Commission, as part of the European Union’s “Roma Week.”  The event focused on opportunities to enhance Romani political participation as a means of strengthening the long-term strength and stability of the OSCE region.  As citizens of many OSCE participating States, Roma have long contributed to the prosperity of their countries in numerous ways, ranging from serving in the military to educating the next generation.  However, Roma are often described and perceived in negative terms, leading political leaders and others, to consider Roma a problem rather than a solution. Referring to the political rhetoric that instigated the tragic murders of Roma in 2008 and 2009, Romani-Hungarian researcher and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network alumni Roland Ferkovics stressed, “Political narratives should not only motivate and influence people but should also unite…Political leaders must take Roma as equal partner(s) using narratives [that] focus on similarities instead of differences.” Diverse speakers from across the OSCE region also shared experiences and practices that have been successful in inspiring democratic change. “Standing for elected office and using one’s right to vote is a powerful tool for Roma communities in Europe to counter anti-Roma rhetoric, hate crimes and racism,” said Mee Moua, former President of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), who also served as a Minnesota State Senator in the United States. Noting the importance of united communities, Killion Munyama, a member of the Polish Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, noted the importance of Roma having a seat at the decision-making table:  “Societies benefit from broad and diverse participation representing the voices of all communities in the public and political spheres.” Participants also stressed the urgency in ensuring the success of current Romani legislative initiatives and the importance of ensuring that legislative initiatives aimed at Roma, such as the EU Framework Strategy for Integration, are designed and implemented with the participation of Roma at all levels of government.  Other speakers at the event included MEP Terry Reintke, former MEP Livia Jaroka, and Jamen Gabriela Hrabanova of the European Roma Grassroots Organizations Network. Dr. Mischa Thompson of the Helsinki Commission participated as a facilitator.

  • Panelist Profile: Dr. Margareta Matache

    Dr. Margareta Matache was a speaker at the Helsinki Commission’s February 16, 2017 panel discussion on the challenges faced by Romani communities in Romania. The event followed a screening of the acclaimed Romanian film “Aferim!” (“Bravo!”), which addresses the forgotten history of 500 years of Roma slavery in two former Romanian principalities. Margareta is a Romani activist and scholar from Romania with over 18 years of experience in the field of human rights. She joined the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights team in 2012, where she currently works as an instructor and director of the Roma Program. Before this position, for seven years Dr. Matache served as the executive director of Romani CRISS, a leading Romani non-profit in Romania. Margareta grew up under the first wave of Romani activism in post-communist Romania. Her father, a construction worker of Romani descent, was a community activist himself, which played a role in fostering her interest in the field of human rights. “This activist environment taught me about our ancestors, some of whom on my mother’s side may have been slaves, and so I am trying to document that now,” she says. Margareta was the first child in her family and community to attend high school. She has a B.A. in Social Work, an M.A. in European Social Policies and a PhD, magna cum laude, from the University of Bucharest. However, her educational path was no easy feat. “As an adolescent, I felt the pressure and pain of race and class constructs and wanted to drop out from school way too often,” she admits.   She says that those feelings later became one of the triggers of her motivation to dedicate a large portion of her work to fighting racism and stigma against Romani adolescents. Margareta became involved with the Romani movement in 1999 as a volunteer for the Roma Students Association, working with association director Emilian Nicolae in a local community in Bucharest. Six years later, she became the executive director of Romani CRISS. “Taking a stand in cases of anti-Roma racism was at the core of our work at Romani CRISS,” Margareta says. Since the 1990s, the organization has documented countless cases of Romani rights violations which were later ruled upon by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and included in reports from Amnesty International, the U.S. State Department, and other institutions. “In 2006, we assisted the community in the town of Apalina, after the police used violence against 37 Roma, including elders. Based on a complaint filed by Romani CRISS, the ECHR condemned the way the Romanian government had conducted the investigation and awarded the victims €192,000 in damages,” she recalls.   Yet, she also recalls that they lost cases before the court in many instances. “We had quite a lot of failures or so called ‘lessons learnt,’” she adds. Margareta’s work was also dedicated to fostering the right to education. “When I took over the Romani CRISS leadership, I continued prioritizing the issues of Romani children segregated in separate schools and classes from their non-Roma peers. We set up a coalition of five renowned nonprofit and intergovernmental organizations that worked with the Ministry of Education to develop a legal document that prohibits segregation. In 2007, our advocacy led to the issuing of a School Desegregation Bill,” she recounts. In 2011, along with other partners, Margareta’s organization convinced the Romanian Parliament to include an article that targets the misdiagnosis and abusive placement of children in special schools based on their ethnicity or another discriminatory criterion in the new Education Law. Despite these successes, Margareta feels that there is still a lot to be done as Romani children continue to be placed in segregated schools and classes to this day. In 2012, Margareta decided to take a break from activism and shifted to academia. At the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, she has been pursuing and piloting participatory approaches for assessing the needs of Romani youth and suggest better-informed policies and measures. Moreover, the Roma Program has provided support for Romani and non-Romani youth to conduct culturally sensitive and participatory research. Margareta is also contributing to strengthening ties and joint advocacy efforts between Roma and other social movements, working on reparations claims across historical and geographical spheres.  Slavery in Romania is an example of past state-sponsored injustices around which Margareta’s program try to create awareness and solidarity. “Romania has not even advanced symbolic reparations, including memorials, museums to acknowledge this episode in our country history. Roma and Romanian children are simply deprived from learning about this central episode in their collective history. We need to help the next generations of children, Roma and non-Roma, to learn about the origins of the present-day biases, racist behaviors, and also, to understand the effects of the unseen gadjo or non-Roma privilege,” she says. Margareta also champions the idea to use films and other artistic productions as a tool to ignite discussions and raise awareness of difficult topics. She points out that "Aferim!" helped lay the foundations for the acceptance, recognition, and memorialization of the past of injustice in Romania. “It was remarkable to me that the film was produced and directed by fellow Romanians, who told the world the hidden truth about the uncomfortable past of 500 years of slavery on Romanian territories. I think that 'Aferim!' started the public conversation on the history of slavery while The Great Shame, a play written and directed by the brilliant mind of Alina Serban, continues the conversation on slavery and takes a step further, by looking at the past through the eyes of the present,” she says. According to Margareta, what makes the film exceptional is that “'Aferim!' shifts the emphasis on the non-Roma and their moral responsibility for past injustices and the roots of present-day injustice, including exploitation and discrimination, pulling to pieces the discourse on Roma vulnerability and  the ‘Roma problem.’” “We would not need any integration policy if we benefited from a just treatment throughout our history, she says. “'Aferim!' speaks, in many ways, to all embedded biases in our Romanian culture, and also mocks them in a manner that could potentially help Romanians understand present-day discrimination against Roma and other groups, and how ridiculous and outdated racism should be.” Asked why learning about Roma is important for Americans, Margareta points out that there is a need to build solidarity with the Roma. However, she also stresses that Romani communities face stigmatization on the American soil as well: “There is an idea in the U.S. that the gypsies are not a people; it’s rather a way of life: bohemian, free spirit. The truth is that we have quite a large Romani population here in the United States, about a million people. Also, reality shows, Hollywood movies, and many other cultural products continue to portray Roma solely in stereotypical images and that adds to the stereotypical ways in which some Americans perceive this population. Fearing stigma, many Roma in the U.S. hide their identity.  In this context, there is a need for mobilization of Romani people in the U.S. in view of building a new discourse to balance the stereotypical ways in which some Americans perceive this population."

  • Roundtable on Fighting Anti-Semitism Looks at Turning Words into Action

    On March 1, 2017, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) hosted a roundtable discussion in Washington focusing on the active role of civil society organizations in the United States and Europe to combat anti-Semitism and violent hate crime.  “Turning Words Into Action: Addressing Anti-Semitism and Intolerance in the OSCE Region” featured opening remarks by ODIHR Director Michael Link and Senator Ben Cardin, who serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker offered closing remarks.  Director Link underscored the continuing importance of the OSCE in helping participating States meet their human rights commitments, including through the new OSCE/ODIHR Words Into Action to Address Anti-Semitism project to prevent and respond to anti-Semitism through security, education, and coalition-building initiatives.  “We...assist the participating States, state authorities, parliaments, civil society, [and] media, …concentrating especially...on security, on education and on coalition-building [including] the development of resources to better equip governments and civil society, to address the security needs of Jewish communities.  It includes the development and publication of the practical security guide, an online platform for reporting anti-Semitic hate crimes, hate speech, discrimination and other incidents of intolerance.” Noting the need for immediate action in response to recent threats made against Jewish institutions in the United States over the past month, OSCE PA Special Representative Senator Cardin reiterated the importance of the ODIHR project and collective responsibility of political leaders to act, including by supporting coalitions and youth-led initiatives.  He highlighted the importance of collaboration between local law enforcement, school administrators, and civil society in addressing security needs for Jewish communities citing recent incidents in the state of Maryland.  “Now, it’s not just Maryland.  It’s happening throughout the entire country...This is a problem throughout the OSCE region," he said. Senator Cardin continued, "It’s not limited to anti-Semitism...Nothing would help more to stop these calls about bomb scares or to stop the desecration of cemeteries or what we see at places of worship than [to] get some people prosecuted for these crimes and convicted for these crimes.  Any act of vandalism or violence is wrong.  But when it’s motivated by hate, it should be elevated to a higher level.  And that’s what we’ve done by our hate crime laws, and that’s what we’ve done by our special units in law enforcement.  And we need to support those efforts, put the spotlight on it and let the public know that we won’t tolerate that type of hate activities in our community.” Following the introductory remarks, expert panelists Cristina Finch, Head, Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department, OSCE/ODIHR, Stacy Burdett, Director of Government Relations, Anti-Defamation League, Mark Weitzman, Director of Government Affairs, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Susan Corke, Director, Antisemitism and Extremism, Human Rights First, moderated by  Dr. Mischa Thompson of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, explored current challenges and recent initiatives in addressing anti-Semitism and increased prejudice and discrimination in the 57 participating States of the OSCE. Roundtable participants focused on the need for increased efforts to address the surge in anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. and Europe, and ways to strengthen relationships between the Jewish community, law enforcement and other actors to address continuing prejudices and violence.  Additionally, they provided concrete recommendations for next steps for the OSCE/ODIHR and Members of Congress.    The event closed with remarks from Chairman Wicker, who emphasized the importance civil society and leadership to address the problem, noting, “It has to be encouraging that the president would mention Black History Month and anti-Semitism... in the first 60 seconds of his speech [before the Joint Session of Congress and] something that the international community would take notice of.”

  • Screening and Panel Discussion: Aferim! (Bravo!)

    The critically acclaimed Romanian film “Aferim!” (Bravo!), directed by Radu Jude, is the first Romanian film to depict the enslavement of Roma in 19th century Romania. Set in 1835 Wallachia, a southern region of what is today Romania, the film’s plot follows a policeman, Costandin, and his son Ionita, who are hired by a nobleman to find a Romani slave who has run away from his estate after having an affair with the nobleman’s wife. As the protagonists travel along the wild stretches of the Romanian countryside, they encounter vivid archetypes of Romanians. With strong emphasis on class divides, the film portrays the stark contrast between the enslaved Roma, Romanian peasantry, and the all-powerful nobility. The film’s remarkable level of detail reflects the use of historical documentation, contributing to a gripping portrayal of Romanian society into which one is quickly immersed. Following the film, Erika Schlager, Helsinki Commission Counsel for International Law, moderated a discussion with Dr. Margareta Matache, Cristian Gaginsky, and Dereck Hogan who each offered unique perspectives into how “Aferim!” serves as both a remarkable piece of cinema, and as an important educational tool on the much neglected issue of slavery in Romania and its lasting impact. Cristian Gaginsky, Deputy Chief of Mission for the Romanian Embassy, outlined the measures undertaken by the Romanian Government to improve the situation of Roma in Romania, as well as the need for a broader level of global awareness on Romani issues. The discussion then passed to Dereck Hogan, Director of the Department of State’s Office for Central Europe. Noting that the United States shares the ugly legacy of slavery and the continuing struggle to address its lasting impacts on our society, politics, and culture, Hogan described State Department engagement on Romani issues and a common goal of preventing acts of discrimination. Finally, Dr. Margareta Matache, a leading Romanian Romani activist and scholar currently at the FXB Center for Health & Human Rights at Harvard University, emphasized the education is one of the most powerful tools that can dismantle power relations and poverty. At the same time, she added, “[w]e need to focus more on anti-Romani racism in schools. I think that children, both Romani and non-Romani children in Romania, need to know what slavery meant for our country and how we can overcome, how we can create solidarity with Roma, and how we can actually have more responsibility for the common past of our country.”

  • Helsinki Commission to Screen Acclaimed Film Aferim! (Bravo!)

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, with the participation of the Embassy of Romania and the U.S. Department of State, will host a screening of the acclaimed Romanian film Aferim! (Bravo!), the first Romanian film to grapple with the enslavement of Roma. The film will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Romani activist Dr. Margareta Matache, FXB Center for Health & Human Rights, Harvard University. Additional remarks will be offered by Cristian Gaginsky, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Romania, and Dereck Hogan, Director, Office of Central European Affairs, Department of State. AFERIM! (BRAVO!) Thursday, February 16 Cannon House Office Building Room 122 2:00PM – Film Screening 4:00PM – Panel Discussion Aferim!, Romania’s 2016 submission for the foreign-language Oscar, follows a constable and his son in 1835 as they track down a run-away slave, encountering various Romanian archetypes along the way.  Roma, Europe’s largest ethnic minority, were enslaved in Romania until their emancipation during the founding of the modern Romanian nation state in the second half of the 19th century. Today, approximately two million of Europe’s 15 million Roma citizens live in Romania. Romania commemorates the end of slavery on February 20.

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