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From Promises to Practice: Implementation of National Policies on Roma, Sinti and Travellers
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law

A recent conference on Romani issues provided a positive benchmark on how far the international community has come in addressing discrimination toward Europe’s largest ethnic minority group.  The meeting also served to highlight how much more national governments have to do to address the needs of Roma in their countries.  On May 4 and 5, 2006, the Government of Romania, along with several inter-governmental and non-governmental partners, hosted an “International Conference on the Implementation and Harmonization of National Policies for Roma, Sinti, and Travellers:  Guidelines for a Common Vision.”  The two-day meeting, conducted in Romani, Romanian, and English, was well attended and focused on housing, employment, community policing, and the status of Roma in Kosovo.

Although one opening speaker joked that the magnitude of logos on display for the numerous hosts reminded him of medieval European heraldic insignia, the meeting demonstrated that at least in one area – Romani issues – two major players in this field, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe, are able to put aside institutional rivalries in favor of cooperation.  The conference hosts included the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the Council of Europe, the European Commission, the European Union Monitoring Center, the European Roma and Travellers Forum, the OSCE, the Project on Ethnic Relations, and the Romanian Government in its capacity as Chair of the Council of Europe and as President of the Decade of Roma Inclusion.  The Bucharest conference was convened to follow up on a similar meeting held in October 2005 in Warsaw.

The title of the meeting underscored one of the key goals of Romani activists: turning promises into practice.  For national governments, this means developing both the legal framework as well as the political will necessary for the full implementation of national policies and practices that meet the needs of their Romani minorities.  

Currently eight countries – Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, and Slovakia – participate in the “Decade of Roma Inclusion.”  The Decade is a multilateral initiative, supported by the Open Society Institute (OSI) and the World Bank, designed to establish measurable national goals for improving the situation of Roma in four priority areas:  education, employment, health, and housing.  In the context of this initiative, all of the countries involved have adopted national action plans as a basis for addressing these specific areas during the period 2005-2015.

Romani leaders look to opportunities like the Bucharest conference to push for improved implementation of the action plans.  Nicolae Gheorghe, a veteran of the Romani civil rights movement who will soon conclude his tenure as the OSCE Senior Advisor remarked that, 16 years ago, he thought the impetus for change would come from international organizations.  Today, he suggested, change must be implemented by national governments.

The focus of the conference was by no means exclusively on the eight Decade countries.  While these eight countries collectively are home to roughly half of Europe’s Romani population, the addition of Central Europe’s large Romani minority into an expanded European Union has also served to heighten the attention given to Romani issues in Western Europe.  This heightened awareness was reflected in the inclusion of speakers from countries such as Finland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.  Indeed, one Council of Europe speaker drew pointed attention to problems “in some of the oldest members of the European Union.”

The situation of Roma in Kosovo as well as Kosovo Romani refugees and internally displaced person was addressed in a plenary session that underscored the widespread concern over the precarious situation of that particular Romani community.  The plight of Kosovo Roma remains a top priority for Romani activists across the region.  Some speakers argued that Romani representatives should be included in the ongoing status talks on Kosovo.

The conference also addressed the issues of housing, employment, and police relations as they relate to the Romani communities.  A Council of Europe official suggested that, in the aftermath of Romania’s recent floods, the Romanian Government should take advantage of the opportunities presented in the post-emergency context to regularize the legal status of Romani housing in flood-affected areas.  A Hungarian Romani police officer noted that the inspiration for his transnational Romani Police Officers Association came from a meeting in New York with representatives of the National Black Police Officers Association.

Changes Bring New Challenges

As a benchmark for progress, the conference clearly showed how far the international community has come in addressing Roma issues.  In 1994, the OSCE held its first seminar on Romani human rights issues.  At that meeting, two interventions illustrated clearly the chasm that separated governments from the experiences and perspectives of their most vulnerable citizens.  On one side stood Florina Zoltan, who described the brutal pogrom in Hadareni, Romania, that one year earlier had left her a young widow.  On the other side, an Italian Government official welcomed the opportunity to attend a meeting where one could finally talk about that pesky “Gypsy crime problem.”  There was little room for dialogue, let alone mutual cooperation.

Twelve years later, the landscape has changed dramatically.  Many government delegations to the Bucharest conference included Romani officials, and the improvements made in protecting the basic human rights of Roma now leaves enough political space for the discussion of other factors which contribute to the marginalization of Europe’s largest minority.  (At the same time, this development prompted one Romani NGO to lament the virtual decapitation of the Romani civil rights movement:  as more Roma move into government and inter-governmental positions, there are fewer independent Romani voices to hold those authorities accountable.)

As the number of international meetings on Romani issues has increased in recent years, organizers of such meetings face considerable challenges in meeting the ever higher expectations for them, and governments, non-governmental actors, and international organizations must work hard to avoid duplication and create a sense of forward motion and real change.  And, as suggested in concluding remarks by a Council of Europe representative, such conferences must figure out how to reach out to local governments, national parliaments and, above all, the majority populations which are the source of the discrimination Roma face.

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    Journalists in Ukraine risk their lives daily to report the reality of war. Credible, on-the-ground reporting has documented war crimes committed by Russian forces and the continued bombardment of Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure and displacing millions. So far, at least seven journalists have been killed, and others injured, while covering Russia's genocidal war against the people of Ukraine. During a briefing, held April 20, 2022, attendees heard from three journalists currently reporting from Ukraine: Oz Katerji, a freelance conflict journalist; Asami Terajima, a journalist with the Kyiv Independent; and Olga Tokariuk, an independent journalist based in Ukraine and a non-resident fellow with CEPA. All of the panelists are journalists currently in Ukraine, whose diverse backgrounds bring important perspectives on the war. The discussion centered on their personal experiences, the contributions their diverse backgrounds bring to their coverage, and the experiences of individual Ukrainians they have encountered during the war. The briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Bakhti Nishanov. Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) opened the hearing by expressing his gratitude and appreciation to the panelists and stressed the importance of listening to voices on the ground in Ukraine. In opening remarks, Nishanov highlighted the rampant deceit surrounding narratives on the war in Ukraine and emphasized the purpose of the briefing: to spotlight diverse voices reporting in Ukraine, to listen to their stories, and to respond with action. Oz Katerji gave an account of the horrifying tactics utilized by the Russian military in Syria, which are now being repeated in Ukraine. He stated that Putin has been given impunity for decades in response to Russian aggression in Syria, Georgia, Chechnya, and now in Ukraine. “Syria was the opening shot and Ukraine is the continuation of Putin’s war of expansion into Europe,” he said, “Putin won’t stop unless he is stopped.” Asami Terajima shared a moving account of the Ukrainian people’s spirit and resilience, and denounced claims of Nazism in Ukraine as absurd. She described Ukrainians as brave, freedom-loving people and said that even in such difficulty, they are already rebuilding their lives as best they can. Olga Tokariuk reiterated the danger faced by all those in Ukraine, whether in the eastern or western regions. Russia has attacked Lviv and injured dozens in the region, in addition to the massive human rights violations it already has committed in every region of Ukraine. Tokariuk warned that unless Russia is stopped, it will continue to perpetrate genocide on a massive scale in Ukraine. She said, “Russia will not stop in Donbas…No one in Ukraine is safe or can be safe unless Russia is defeated and Ukraine wins this war.” Attendees raised a number of questions to the panelists, ranging from the logistics of transporting military equipment to the value of counteracting propaganda within Russia. Related Information Panelist Biographies Oz Katerji: "In the Liberated Kyiv Suburbs, Two Tales of War Emerge" Olga Tokariuk: "Syrian Doctors Are Teaching Ukrainians How to Prepare for Chemical Attacks"

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Mourn the Death of Finnish Politician Ilkka Kanerva

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of Finnish parliamentarian Ilkka Kanerva, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are saddened by the death of our former OSCE colleague Ilkka Kanerva. We send our deepest condolences to his family and friends. “An outspoken advocate for democracy and human rights, Ilkka was the only person to have served as both the OSCE Chairman-in-Office and the president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. “He was first elected to the Finnish parliament in 1975, the year the Helsinki Final Act was signed, and started his tenure as president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in 2014, the year Russia first invaded Ukraine. He was an able leader who shaped the OSCE PA’s robust response at that time, speaking out against Russia’s violation of its OSCE commitments and its violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. “Ilkka will be missed.” Ilkka Kanerva served as the OSCE Chairman-in-Office in 2008 and as president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) from 2014 to 2016. He subsequently served as OSCE PA president emeritus and remained active as a member of the Finnish delegation to the OSCE PA.

  • Journalists Reporting from Ukraine to Speak at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online staff briefing: DIVERSE VOICES REPORTING FROM UKRAINE Wednesday, April 20, 2022 10:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3E89IZX Journalists in Ukraine risk their lives daily to report the reality of war. Credible, on-the-ground reporting has documented war crimes committed by Russian forces and the continued bombardment of Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure and displacing millions. So far, at least seven journalists have been killed, and others injured, while covering Russia's genocidal war against the people of Ukraine. This briefing will convene journalists currently in Ukraine, whose diverse backgrounds bring important perspectives on the war. The discussion will center on their personal experiences and those of individual Ukrainians they have encountered during the war. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Oz Katerji, Freelance conflict journalist Asami Terajima, Journalist, Kyiv Independent Olga Tokariuk, Independent journalist based in Ukraine; Non-Resident Fellow, CEPA  

  • Protecting Ukrainian Refugees from Human Trafficking

    More than 4 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russia’s massive invasion on February 24, in the largest migration of people in Europe since the Second World War. Given Ukraine’s exit restrictions on males from 18-60, the vast majority of those are women and children. Most cross the Ukrainian border without resources or a place to go, making them extremely vulnerable to human trafficking. Reports indicate that traffickers already are trolling border areas trying to lure refugees with promises of accommodation, onward transportation, or employment. Ukrainian orphans and unaccompanied minors are particularly susceptible to such predators, and they need not only to be safely evacuated from Ukraine, but also securely tracked and transferred into national child protection systems so they do not fall prey to human traffickers or otherwise disappear. To address these concerns, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on April 7, 2022, featuring experts on human trafficking and practitioners working directly with Ukrainian refugees. Witnesses testified on efforts by frontline states, the international community, NGOs, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to prevent refugees from becoming victims of human traffickers by raising awareness, vetting those working with refugees and those providing housing and employment, and countering online solicitation. They also discussed the need to safely transport vulnerable populations, particularly children, safely out of warzones and properly register them to ensure that they do not go missing or become trafficking victims. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) commended the recent efforts of European countries to support refugees fleeing Ukraine. He stressed the need for governments and NGOs to coordinate in ensuring the care and safety of child refugees to avoid a crisis of missing children similar to the one that occurred in Europe in 2015. He said, “Not only do we need to ensure that children are safe and taken care of, but we must be able to reunite them with family after the war if possible.” Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) expressed his alarm over the humanitarian crisis occurring in Ukraine and condemned Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s disregard for human life and spirit. “This flow of refugees caused by Putin’s war will cause us and require us to oversee as closely as possible the welfare of the women and children [to protect them from] people who have about the same consciousness and concern for others and human spirit as Vladimir Putin,” he said.  Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) advocated for further military support for Ukraine so that Ukraine can reclaim its territory and refugees can return home safely. “Evicting the murderous Putin from Ukraine is the only way to help Ukrainian civilians and allow refugees to return to Ukraine,” he said.  Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), OSCE Parliamentary Special Representative on Human Trafficking issues, thanked the witnesses for their leadership in the fight against human trafficking and called for increased international cooperation in protecting women and children from traffickers. Senior Official and Principal Deputy Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. State Department Dr. Kari Johnstone described the dire situation refugees face as they flee. Many are further endangered and exposed to human trafficking by extenuating circumstances, such as being unable to access information in their language or belonging to an already marginalized group such as Roma. Dr. Johnstone emphasized the need for trauma-informed, age-appropriate, gender-sensitive approaches to support refugees. Making sure refugees have access to appropriate work, housing, and schooling helps to keep refugees out of vulnerable situations and prevent trafficking. “While there’s no simple solution, working together…we are hopeful that we will be able to at least reduce the impact of this war,” Dr. Johnstone said. Tatiana Kotlyarenko, advisor on anti-trafficking issues at ODIHR, called for unity on all fronts to combat human trafficking and asked for continued support from Congress in strengthening ODIHR’s work on anti-human trafficking in Ukraine. She also stressed the importance of implementing strong national referral mechanisms to better identify and assist victims of human trafficking “If you want to prevent trafficking of Ukrainian women and children, we need to unite to address demand on policy, legislative, and practical levels,” she said. Mykola Kuleba, director of the NGO Save Ukraine, shared a firsthand account of the horrific conditions on the ground in Ukraine that he has witnessed while evacuating children from the war zone, emphasizing that the first step to protect Ukrainian refugees is to help Ukraine defend itself so its people don’t become refugees. He also highlighted the need for more humanitarian assistance, including food, water, and medicine. “Millions of Ukrainian children are now refugees wandering around the world.  The world must help this great democratic country that has faced unprecedented evil.  Each of you has the ability to aid in the rescue.  Each of you can resist this evil,” Kuleba said. Nic McKinley, founder and CEO of DeliverFund, described the importance of disrupting the human trafficking market on the demand side by deterring potential buyers and attacking traffickers’ ability to profit from the exploitation of vulnerable populations. He also discussed how traffickers use social media to lure victims through advertisements for housing and employment for refugees. “You cannot have a human trafficking victim,” he said, “without a human trafficker.” Members brought a number of concerns and questions to witnesses, ranging from how best to distribute information on preventing human trafficking to refugees, to how government and NGO efforts can be coordinated to most effectively deliver assistance and provide protection for vulnerable populations. Related Information Witness Biographies

  • Helsinki Commission Remembers Late Chairman Alcee Hastings

    WASHINGTON—On the anniversary of the death of former Helsinki Commission Chairman Alcee Hastings of Florida, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Alcee Hastings was a giant in foreign affairs, knowledgeable on all issues relating to security in Europe. As the only American to serve as President of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, he led that organization in cementing its members’ commitment to peace, security and human rights. Wherever he traveled on OSCE business, he was universally respected and liked. A year after his passing, he remains a revered figure and world-renowned leader.”

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