By Mischa Thompson, PhD, Staff Advisor, Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law, and Ron McNamara, International Policy Director
The OSCE Conference on Combating Discrimination and Promoting Mutual Respect and Understanding, held in Bucharest, Romania was the much anticipated follow-up to the 2005 OSCE Cordoba Conference on Anti-Semitism and on Other Forms of Intolerance. A goal of the Bucharest Conference was to continue to provide high level political attention to the efforts of participating States and the OSCE to ensure effective implementation of existing commitments in the fields of tolerance and non-discrimination and freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. In addition to Cordoba, prior conferences took place in 2003, in Vienna, and in 2004, in Berlin, Paris and Brussels. The conference was preceded by a one-day Civil Society Preparatory Meeting in which the three Personal Representatives to the Chair-in-Office on tolerance issues participated and NGOs prepared recommendations to the Conference.
Official delegations from the OSCE countries took part in the conference, including participation from the U.S. Congress. Representative Alcee Hastings, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), participated as head of the Official OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegation in his role as President Emeritus of the Parliamentary Assembly (PA). Representative Eric Cantor served as Chair and Ranking Republican Member of the Commission, Christopher H. Smith served as Vice-Chair of the U.S. delegation. (Delegation listed below.)
The conference was divided into two parts, with the first part focusing on specific forms of intolerance and discrimination and the second part devoted to cross-cutting issues. Side events on various topics ranging from right-wing extremism to forced evictions of Roma were also held during the conference.
Romanian President Traian Basescu opened the conference addressing tolerance concerns in his country. Romania’s desire to host this conference — assuming a considerable organizational burden and drain on Foreign Ministry resources — reflected the government’s recognition of the importance of these issues and a desire to play a leadership role in addressing them. However, in advance of the meeting, several developments underscored the extent to which Romanian society still struggles to combat anti-Semitism and racism. First, in December 2006, a Romanian court partially rehabilitated the reputation of Romania’s World War II leader, Ion Antonescu, who had been executed after the war for a variety of crimes including war crimes. Second, right up to the start of the meeting, government leaders struggled to find a way to withdraw a national honor (the Star of Romania) that had been awarded to Corneliu Vadim Tudor, a notorious extremist, by President Ion Iliescu in 2004. (Although a mechanism was found to withdraw that award prior to the OSCE conference, after the conference a court suspended the withdrawal of the award.) Third, during a Romanian Senate confirmation hearing in April for Romania’s Ambassador to Israel, nominee Edward Iosiper was subjected by some members of the Senate to a degrading inquiry regarding his Jewish heritage. Finally, only weeks before the conference started, President Basescu made unguarded comments — unaware that they were being recorded — in which he called a Romanian journalist an “aggressive stinking Gypsy.”
Like developments in many countries, these events served to underscore the continuing challenges that OSCE participating States face in promoting tolerance and combating anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of bigotry.
President Basescu opened the conference linking the importance of tolerance to democratic development and the need for his country to improve its efforts to combat anti-Semitism and discrimination, especially against Roma. His remarks were followed by a speech from a Romanian civil society group – Executive Director of Romani CRISS, Magda Matache – underscoring the unique opportunity the OSCE accords NGOs at some OSCE meetings to have equal footing with governments. Ms. Matache addressed the need for the Romanian Government to better address the discrimination directed towards its Romani population (the largest in Europe) and called upon government officials to set an example, making reference to the negative comments the President made prior to the conference.
Following the conference opening, Chairman Hastings, representing the OSCE PA, delivered remarks at the opening plenary session. He highlighted the OSCE PA’s role in instituting the tolerance agenda within the OSCE in response to a spike in anti-Semitic acts in Europe in 2002. He also urged the OSCE to sustain its work in combating all forms of intolerance and addressed the plight of Roma, making special note of his recent visit to Roma camps in northern Kosovo. Rep. Cantor also delivered remarks on the need to sustain efforts to combat anti-Semitism.
As in previous years, a major focus of the conference was on anti-Semitism with the first plenary session being dedicated to the issue. Many OSCE participating States reiterated their concerns about the continued presence of anti-Semitism throughout the OSCE region and the need to maintain the fight. States detailed the specific legal, educational, and cultural tools they were employing to counter anti-Semitism, such as Holocaust education in the schools.
In the session on discrimination against Muslims, many of the same measures designed to address anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of intolerance were being called for to combat intolerance issues in the Muslim community. In particular, the need for data collection, education, and increased civil society work were highlighted.
Religious discrimination issues concentrated mainly in Eastern Europe included government enforced laws requiring registration of religious groups, increased taxes, property disputes, and other harassing behaviors. The rights of ‘non-believers’ were also raised. Race and xenophobia issues focused on the increase in physical attacks on racial minorities in both Eastern and Western Europe. Of note, religious issues raised were often acts of discrimination as opposed to hate crimes, and perpetrated by state actors through government enforced laws, which underscored some participants’ calls for religious issues to be viewed and treated as a fundamental right.
Chairman Hastings served as introducer for the fourth session on data collection, law enforcement, and legislative initiatives to combat intolerance within the OSCE. Hastings detailed his personal experiences as an African-American during the U.S. civil rights era that spawned anti-discrimination, hate crimes legislation, and other initiatives. Citing statistics on U.S. anti-Semitic incidents, he noted the need for sustained global engagement on anti-Semitism issues, in addition to continued U.S. support for issues affecting Roma, Muslim communities, and the work of the three Personal Representatives on tolerance issues.
Speaking during the closing session, Representative Smith praised the OSCE’s work on Holocaust education and reiterated the need for a focus on anti-Semitism. The Conference ended with a declaration drafted by the Spanish Chair-in-Office noting the continued presence of all forms of intolerance in the OSCE region and the need to continue efforts to combat them.
Generally, the multitude of issues on the agenda of the Bucharest Conference, coupled with scheduling difficulties, left little time to focus on solutions or implementation, despite the many efforts Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Parliamentary Assembly, and participating States had demonstrated in attempting to identify and address tolerance issues. Thus, the larger question of whether sustained engagement on tolerance issues within the OSCE would continue remained unanswered, as the conference did not provide answers to the following three questions:
Whether the current mandates for the three personal representatives with their three distinct portfolios would be extended by the incoming 2008 Finnish chairmanship?
What form future follow-up, including the possible location of future conferences and other initiatives on tolerance-related matters would take?
How to sustain a focus on anti-Semitism, while addressing emerging concerns around discrimination towards Muslims and other religions, and increases in racism and xenophobia?
While it is clear that further consideration must be given as to how best to continue addressing tolerance issues within the OSCE, it is also important to note that much has been accomplished since the OSCE began its intensified efforts in the tolerance arena only five years ago. Some examples include that ODIHR has: developed guidelines for Holocaust memorial days and anti-Semitism and diversity education materials; launched a website dedicated to providing country reports on statistics, data collection, and anti-discrimination legislation (TANDIS http://tandis.odihr.pl/); and drafted annual reports on hate crimes in the OSCE. Within the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, resolutions on tolerance, such as the one introduced by CSCE Commission Co-Chair Senator Ben Cardin this year, have been adopted five consecutive years in a row. Thus, despite the growing pains experienced during the conference, in part due to scheduling and logistics issues, a cautionary note must be sounded. Past efforts, including the role of parliamentarians in supporting these issues, should not go unnoticed and should be continued.
However, this does not mean that improvements cannot be made. In particular, the role of conference organization in terms of scheduling and location of sessions and side events can play in developing perceptions around the importance of an issue should not be overlooked. A greater focus on the planning stages is a necessity for future tolerance events. Further consideration should be given for ways to increase collaborations and support for combating all forms of intolerance by participating States and civil society to prevent perceptions that some forms of intolerance take precedence over others, as it takes focus and energies away from the actual goal of combating intolerance. Delegations should give greater thought to diversity and how members of their delegation can address the various sessions of conferences as well as side and other meetings. The U.S., in particular, has the ability to provide a leadership role in this regard given the diversity of our population and histories in addressing tolerance issues. Topics further exploring the benefits of diversity and means to communicate them to a larger populace must be included. Consideration for whether religious issues should be separated from racism and xenophobia issues at future events should be given. Lastly, a greater focus on implementation is needed to parallel or supplement the substantial conference activity on tolerance issues.
U.S. DELEGATION (All delegates named by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and approved by the White House):
Head of U.S. Delegation, Congressman Eric Cantor
U.S. Delegation Vice-Chair, Congressman Christopher H. Smith
Ambassador Julie Finley, U.S. Mission to the OSCE
Gregg Rickman, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat anti-Semitism
J. Christian Kennedy, U.S. Special Envoy on Holocaust Issues
Jeremy Katz, Special Assistant to the President for Policy and White House Liaison to the Jewish Community
Imam Talal Eid, Islamic Institute of Boston & U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Director, Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations
Dr. Richard Land, President, Southern Baptist Ethics & U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
Deborah Lipstadt, Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies, Emory University
U.S. ADVISORS TO THE U.S. DELEGATION (All advisors named by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and approved by the White House):
Rabbi Andrew Baker, American Jewish Committee
Stacy Burdett, Anti-Defamation League
Dan Mariaschin, B’nai Brith
Mark Weitzman, Simon Wiesenthal Center
Radu Ionid, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Paul Shapiro, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Lesley Weiss, National Conference on Soviet Jewry
Catherine Cosman, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
Joseph Grieboski, Institute Of Religion and Public Policy
Paul LeGendre, Human Rights First
Angela Wu, Becket Fund