Racial Justice and the Helsinki Commission
The Helsinki Commission has long supported racial justice in the United States and worldwide through its commitment to champion the tenets of the Helsinki Final Act, which states “. . . for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” The commission promotes understanding of critical issues including minority rights, anti-Semitism, discrimination against Roma, and racism through hearings, briefings, events, legislation, and other initiatives. In 2020, the commission launched a series entitled "Human Rights at Home" that gathered the testimony of subject matter experts through public hearings on the current human rights situation in the United States and the U.S. commitment to adhere to its promises as an OSCE participating State. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and other commissioners including the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance Senator Ben Cardin regularly introduce and support legislation addressing diversity, inclusion, and racial justice issues in the United States and abroad. For example, the National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act of 2019 requires national security agencies to publicly report diversity and inclusion efforts; the African Descent Affairs Act of 2019 establishes a “U.S. strategy to protect and promote the human rights of people of African descent worldwide;” and the LITE Act strengthens partnerships with U.S. allies, protects democratic institutions, and supports transatlantic leadership. Through statements, articles, reports, and podcasts, the commission explores and comments on discrimination, intolerance, and racial justice. The commission also enlists and engages with diverse leaders across the OSCE region through initiatives like the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference (TMPLC) and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN). Hearings, Briefings, and Events Legislative Initiatives Articles and Reports Statements and Speeches Political Participation and Leadership "Helsinki on the Hill" Podcast Series In the News Hearings, Briefings, and Events Hearings 2020 Human Rights at Home: Values Made Visible Human Rights at Home: Implications for U.S. Leadership 2019 Public Diplomacy, Democracy, and Global Leadership The State of Diversity and Inclusion in Europe Responding to Hate 2012 The Escalation of Violence Against Roma in Europe 2008 Racism in the 21st Century: Understanding Global Challenges and Implementing Solutions The State of (In)visible Black Europe: Race, Rights, and Politics Human Rights, Civil Society, and Democratic Governance in Russia: Current Situation and Prospects for the Future The Challenges to Minority Communities in Kosovo 2007 Combating Hate Crimes and Discrimination in the OSCE 2002 Romani Human Rights: Old Problems, New Possibilities 2000 Human Rights of the Romani Minority 1998 Romani Human Rights in Europe Briefings 2020 8:46 (George Floyd) 2019 Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing 2018 Race, Rights, and Politics Attacks on Roma in Ukraine Screening and Discussion: “And We Were Germans” 2017 Parliamentarians and Commissioners Discuss Europe’s Changing Landscape and Brexit Muslims & Minorities in the Military The Situation of Roma 2014 Anti-Semitism, Racism and Discrimination in the OSCE region 2013 Europeans of African Descent ‘Black Europeans’: Race, Rights and Politics 2010 Roundtable Discussion: Minorities in France Minority Political Participation in the Obama Era Ethnic and Racial Profiling in the OSCE Region Fostering Effective Ethnic Minority Political Participation in the OSCE Region 2009 Hard Times and Hardening Attitudes: The Economic Downturn and the Rise of Violence Against Roma 2007 Combating Hate Crimes and Discrimination in the OSCE Events 2019 Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future 2018 Inaugural Padweek Addresses Racial Discrimination Across Europe 2017 International Roma Day 2017 Helsinki Commission to Screen Acclaimed Film Aferim! (Bravo!) Parliamentarians and Commissioners Discuss Europe’s Changing Landscape and Brexit #MovetheCouch: Transatlantic Leaders Convene in Brussels 2012 Diversity, Inclusion, and U.S. Foreign Policy Wisdom Session 2009 Black European Summit: Transatlantic Dialogue on Political Inclusion Legislative Initiatives 2021 Chairman Hastings Introduces Federal Jobs Act to Increase Diversity, Ensure Access to Federal Jobs for All Americans Chairman Hastings Introduces Initiatives to Promote Rights and Recognize Achievements of People of African Descent Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Foster Shared Values, Restore Faith in Democratic Institutions on Both Sides of the Atlantic 2020 Chairman Hastings, Helsinki Commissioners Moore, Cleaver, and Veasey Lead Call for Comprehensive Action to Address Anti-Black Racism Abroad Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Strengthen Ties with U.S. Allies, Support Visionary Leadership on Both Sides of the Atlantic (H.R. 6239) Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce (H.R. 6240) 2019 Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Protect and Promote Rights of People of African Descent Worldwide (H.R. 1877) Chairman Hastings Recognizes Black European Fight for Inclusion (H.R. 256) National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act of 2019 (S. 497) Hastings, Wicker, Watkins, and Cardin Introduce Resolutions Celebrating Romani American Heritage (H.R. 292 and S. 141) Articles, Reports, and News 2020 The Future of American Diplomacy OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting Examines Intolerance and Discrimination during Pandemic The Shared Experiences of African-American and Roma Communities Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of Pandemic 2019 On the Road to Inclusion Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future Inclusive Leadership Summit 2018 Fighting Racism and Xenophobia Against People of African Descent The OSCE and Roma 2017 Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2017 Workshop Commissioner and Special Representative Ben Cardin Counters Anti-Semitism and Promotes Diversity Report of U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, 2017 Winter Meeting Romani Political Participation Key to Change 2014 Diversity on the Rise 2012 Helsinki Commission Welcomes Unveiling of Berlin Memorial for Romani Genocide Victims 2010 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference OSCE Holds Conference in Astana on Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Copenhagen Anniversary Conference U.S. Commission Denounces France’s Roma Evictions The Burqa Ban and the Erosion of Human Rights 2009 Black European Summit International Roma Day Bracketed by Rising Extremism and Violence 2008 Report on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Review of the US and Seventh Annual Meeting of the UN Working Group on People of African Descent Racism and Xenophobia: The Role of Governments in Addressing Continuing Challenges Italian Fingerprinting Targeting Romani Communities Triggers Protests; OSCE Pledges Fact-Finding Commission Staff Participates in Conference on Roma; Greece Slated to Serve as OSCE Chair in 2009 Iraq Refugee Crisis: The Calm Before the Storm? 2007 Continuing the Fight: Combating Intolerance and Discrimination Against Muslims Sustaining the Fight: Combating Anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Intolerance within the OSCE 2006 Accountability and Impunity: Investigations Into Sterilization Without Informed Consent in the Czech Republic and Slovakia 1996 Ex Post Facto Problems of the Czech Citizenship Law Statements and Speeches 2020 Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control During States of Emergency Statement at the Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Bureau Chairman Hastings, Rep. Meeks Issue Statement on Foreign Affairs Funding for Diversity and Global Anti-Racism Programs Chairman Hastings Marks International Roma Day, Notes Consequences of Systemic Racism Exposed by Pandemic 2019 Chairman Hastings Welcomes Release of Country Reports on Human Rights Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Mob Attacks on Roma in Europe 2015 Helsinki Commission Calls for Renewed Commitment to Defending Human Rights of Roma 2014 Statement from Helsinki Commission Chair on the Grand Jury Decision in the Michael Brown Shooting Case U.S. Helsinki Commission Commemorates Romani Revolt at Auschwitz, Deportation oh Hungarian Jews 2012 Roma Bridge Building 2011 Senator Cardin’s Response to Rep. King’s U.S. Anti-Muslim Hearings Attacks in Hungary and the Czech Republic 2010 Helsinki Commission Statement on International Human Rights Day Anti-Roma Actions Erupt in France, Europe 2009 Helsinki Commissioners Condemn Violence Against Roma U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Cardin and Co-Chairman Hastings Condemn Turkish Government Destruction of nearly 1,000-year-old Roma Neighborhood Helsinki Commission Applauds Unveiling of Romania Holocaust Monument Slovak Romani Sterilization Victims Win Damages U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Cardin and Co-Chairman Hastings Release Statement on Plight of Roma 2008 Helsinki Commission Welcomes Groundbreaking of Romani Memorial in Berlin U.S. Helsinki Commission Urges Respect for Human Rights of Roma Teach About the Genocide of Roma Recognizing Europe’s Black Population 2007 Remarks at the OSCE Conference on Combating Discrimination and Promoting Mutual Respect and Understanding 2005 Racist Manifestations in Romania Deserve Government Response The Decade of Roma Inclusion 2004 Mass Murder of Roma at Auschwitz Sixty Years Ago Roma Still Waiting for Their “Brown V. Board of Education” 2003 Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area Political Participation and Leadership Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference (TMPLC) Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2019 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2018 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2017 Legislators Roundtable "Equity and Inclusion Policies for a Changing World" 2016 Second Annual Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2011 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2010 Black European Summit: Transatlantic Dialogue on Political Inclusion 2009 Black European Summitt Report 2009 Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network Workshop 2019 TILN Leading Through Change 2019 Transatlantic Inclusive Leaders Network Workshop 2018 TILN Stregthening Our Democracies Through Inclusive Leadership 2018 Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) Workshop 2017 #MovetheCouch: Transatlantic Leaders Convene in Brussels 2017 Five Years of the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2016 TILN Fifth Anniversary: Celebrating Five Years and Looking Toward the Future TILN Workshop 2015 TILN Workshop 2014 TILN Workshop 2012-2013 TILN Conference U.S. State Department Remarks 2012 OSCE/ODHIR Romani Political Participation Key to Change Advancing Empowerment, Equity, and Human Rights Article Advancing Empowerment, Equity, and Human Rights Report GMF/DOD Mission Critical: Inclusive Leadership for the Security Sector 2017 Mission Critical: Diversity and Inclusion Best Practices for Military 2013 “Helsinki on the Hill” Podcast Series 2020 Communities at Risk The Roma 2019 Equitable and Inclusive Democracies
Podcast: Communities at Risk
Reports from nearly every corner of the OSCE region suggest that minority groups and vulnerable populations have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and sometimes by the policies enacted by governments to address it. This extended episode of "Helsinki on the Hill" takes an in-depth look at the pandemic’s impact on minority groups and vulnerable populations, and the role of governments in addressing that impact. Margaret Huang, president and chief executive officer of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Karen Taylor, chair of the European Network Against Racism, share insight about the reality on the ground for minority communities, including African Americans, who are suffering disproportionately from both the pandemic and systemic discrimination. Lamberto Zannier, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, joins the discussion to offer recommendations on meeting the needs of national minorities and marginalized communities in the new world of the COVID-19 pandemic. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 11 | Communities at Risk: The Impact of COVID-19 on the OSCE’s Most Vulnerable Populations
Human rights within states are crucial to security among states. Prioritizing respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, defending the principles of liberty, and encouraging tolerance within societies must be at the forefront of America's foreign policy agenda. Peace, security, and prosperity cannot be sustained if national governments repress their citizens, stifle their media, or imprison members of the political opposition. Authoritarian regimes become increasingly unstable as citizens chafe under the bonds of persecution and violence, and pose a danger not only to their citizens, but also to neighboring nations. The Helsinki Commission strives to ensure that the protection of human rights and defense of democratic values are central to U.S. foreign policy; that they are applied consistently in U.S. relations with other countries; that violations of Helsinki provisions are given full consideration in U.S. policymaking; and that the United States holds those who repress their citizens accountable for their actions. This includes battling corruption; protecting the fundamental freedoms of all people, especially those who historically have been persecuted and marginalized; promoting the sustainable management of resources; and balancing national security interests with respect for human rights to achieve long-term positive outcomes rather than short-term gains.
Justice at Home
Promoting human rights, good governance, and anti-corruption abroad can only be possible if the United States lives up to its values at home. By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, even under the most challenging circumstances. However, like other OSCE participating States, the United States sometimes struggles to foster racial and religious equity, counter hate and discrimination, defend fundamental freedoms, and hold those in positions of authority accountable for their actions. The Helsinki Commission works to ensure that U.S. practices align with the country’s international commitments and that the United States remains responsive to legitimate concerns raised in the OSCE context, including about the death penalty, use of force by law enforcement, racial and religious profiling, and other criminal justice practices; the conduct of elections; and the status and treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.
By Erick Boone,
Max Kampelman Fellow
While the OSCE participating States have committed to promoting tolerance and protecting the rights of diverse communities, the most ardent advocacy often is done by individuals who are members of those groups. Their activism often leads to changes that benefit not only the disenfranchised but also society at large.
The United States has a rich history of demonstrating for civil rights and social recognition. The 20th century alone saw the birth of a multitude of social movements, including the civil rights movement organized by the African-American community to end racial discrimination and secure equal rights under the law.
African-Americans have faced centuries of injustice in the forms of slavery, segregation, brutality, and discrimination. The racial hierarchy in the U.S. was bolstered by legislation that either ignored discrimination or condoned it. Still, African-Americans resisted subjugation, leading boycotts, protests, and sit-ins. They formed alliances that brought attention to issues and created civil society organizations that pushed for change. Community leaders also campaigned for elected office to change the system from within. Their efforts led to reforms in law that protected the rights of African-Americans throughout the United States. Thanks to the contributions of activists, extraordinary social progress was made.
The fight for social equality continues to this day. In the United States, a new generation of activists contribute to the struggle. Yet, the fight against injustice is transnational—on the other side of the Atlantic, another group whose historical experiences share striking similarities with those of the African-American community is also engaged in a struggle for civil rights.
The Roma Community
Roma, the largest ethnic minority group in Europe, migrated from Northern India nearly 1000 years ago. Romani communities’ migration would eventually bring them to Europe, arriving first in Southeastern Europe and then Western Europe.
Given the vast geographic spread of the Roma, the various European societies in which they settled differed greatly. The ways in which those societies responded to Romani settlement also differed. The one constant, however, was the mistreatment of Romani communities.
For example, in what is present-day Romania, the local rulers as well as members of the monastery and aristocracy forced the Roma into slavery during the 14th century. Romani people worked as servants for the church and the state, with little more than the right to life. Romani men and women were made to work as domestic servants, blacksmiths, ironmongers, and a host of other professions. Roma slaves were seen as property that could be punished or sold as their masters saw fit. After nearly 400 years, Romania finally outlawed slavery in 1855.
In other parts of Europe, Roma faced discrimination driven by beliefs of their racial inferiority. When the Nazi party took power in Germany, they turned their sights on addressing the so-called “Gypsy problem.” This began with discriminatory laws that targeted the Roma and ended with the systematic slaughter of Romani men, women, and children throughout Europe. An estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Roma were murdered during the Holocaust, representing 25 percent of the continent’s Roma population.
Today, Roma still face stark inequalities. The European Commission launched infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic in 2014, Slovakia in 2015, and Hungary in 2016 for discriminating against Roma in their educational systems. In all three countries, Roma are channeled into almost completely separate schools and classrooms—with disturbing parallels to the segregation African-Americans faced for decades.
A Cause for Collaboration
Comparisons between the struggles of African-Americans and the Roma are not new.
Romanian activists first drew parallels in the 19th century when Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book depicting the harsh realities of slavery in the United States, was translated into Romanian. Its criticism of slavery helped energize the campaign to abolish slavery in Romania.
This shared historical experience, along with several others, is the basis on which many African-American and Roma activists form modern partnerships. These partnerships have expanded thanks to the efforts of both individuals and organizations.
For example, in 1995 in the town of Szentendre, Hungary, former U.S. civil rights activist Michael Simmons organized what would come to be known as the Szentendre Exchange. African-American Veterans of the U.S. civil rights movement met with Romani activists to discuss their efforts to further civil rights in their respective communities. Each group was invited to share stories of victories, challenges, and the methods that were the most successful.
In 2018, Harvard’s Center for Health and Human Rights hosted a similar event for its annual celebration of International Roma Day. The event featured a panel discussion titled, “Alone Together: Strength and Solidarity between the Roma and African-American Communities.” Margareta Matache, leading Roma rights activist, and Cornel West, renowned political philosopher, served as speakers on the panel. The two noted that with increased solidarity and cooperation, African-American and Roma advocates can learn from one another and achieve greater change.
Ivan Ivanov, the executive director of the European Roma Information Office, also cites the U.S. civil rights movement as an inspiration for his work. Ivanov, who studied international human rights law at Columbia University, heads an organization that focuses on anti-discrimination policies in the fields of education, employment, healthcare and housing.
The OSCE has facilitated dialogue through its Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Larry Olomoefe, former ODIHR Adviser on Combating Racism and Xenophobia, has worked with Roma to advance their rights and lead workshops on civil disobedience and political activism. Olomoefe notes that a component of these seminars entails teaching the history of protests like those led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and determining how it relates to the issues the Roma face today.
Helsinki Commission efforts build on this history of exchange and collaboration. Helsinki Commission staff invited Soraya Post and Romeo Franz, two Roma Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), to participate in congressional events on Roma and meet with U.S. government officials and civil society. This included meeting with members of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus and a visit to Howard University in Washington, D.C. The two learned of the role that Howard University and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have had in supporting African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights.
The campaign for greater civil protections for Roma has seen moderate success due in large part to the work of the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), a strategic law organization comprised of human rights lawyers and activists inspired by the NAACP’s legal victories during the U.S. civil rights movement.
The ERRC enjoyed a major victory in 2007 when the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the Czech Republic for its practice of placing Romani children in separate classrooms under the guise of special education.
Dubbed “Europe’s Brown v. Board of Education” after the seminal court ruling that outlawed de jure segregation in the United States, the “Ostrava Case” outlawed this form of school segregation and paved the way for future desegregation cases.
The ERRC has achieved similar success in cases involving illegal deportations of Roma, disparities in access to clean water, and police brutality.
The Helsinki Commission has supported Roma and minority rights since its inception. It has advocated for the recognition of the enslavement and genocide of Roma. Helsinki Commissioners have also spoken out against the systemic inequities that many Romani communities still face. Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), the commission’s first African-American chair, has frequently highlighted the importance of International Roma Day and, along with other Helsinki Commission leaders, in 2019 introduced a resolution celebrating the contributions of Romani Americans.
Despite these victories, Roma continue to face discrimination and prejudice. A 2015 study found that an average of one out of five Europeans would feel “completely uncomfortable” working with a Roma colleague. In some countries that number rose to 50 percent. Still, promoting tolerance can only be achieved through a concerted effort.
Although government support is necessary to create substantive change, it is not enough. The most successful campaigns for social change occur when governmental institutions form meaningful partnerships with civil society organizations.
The grassroots organizations that found success during civil rights movements were bolstered by progressive legislation and generous funding from the private and public sector. Similar partnerships can be formed to support the work of not only the organizations that focus on Roma issues but also those who seek to collaborate. The history of African-American and Roma collaboration suggests that there are possibly shared solutions to be gained out of a shared experience.