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Anti-Discrimination Laws Needed, Witnesses Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing on Roma

Washington – Witnesses testified Thursday before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission) that laws are needed to prevent discrimination against Roma, an ethnic minority present in almost every country in Europe.

“Every single witness who has appeared before us today gave compelling arguments for anti-discrimination legislation, describing the refusal to serve Roma in public places, de facto segregated schooling, and job advertisements that openly solicit only non-Roma applicants,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ). “One witness described laws in Romania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria that are racially blind on their face, but which have heartbreaking effects on Romani families,” Smith added. “The fiction that comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation is not needed in Europe was dealt a mortal blow by our witnesses today.”

Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO), who also serves as the Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman drew parallels between the historic plight of Roma and Native Americans, which has included forced assimilation, forced migration and slaughter. He serves as the first American Indian elected to the United States Congress in more than 60 years. “Many Roma find themselves in societies where violence and other manifestations of racism run rampant and discrimination is something to be confronted daily,” Campbell said. “Such treatment – or more correctly, mistreatment – is easy as long as this segment of society remains a ‘silent majority’.”

“But we Czech Roma will not remain passive in this process,” said Karolina Banomova, a Romani Czech who fled her native country to seek asylum in Canada in 1997. “Europe has become a continent of complicated and painful struggles by all Roma for their rights. This is similar to the situation of African-Americans in the 1950s and ‘60s, under the leadership of Martin Luther King,” she explained. Diane Orentlicher, a professor of law at American University who assisted in the research for a recently released report of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities’ report on Roma, emphasized the report’s central conclusion: “Discrimination and exclusion are fundamental features of the Roma experience.”

Chairman Smith added, “A year ago, the Bulgarian Government took a courageous step forward and adopted a ‘Framework Program for Equal Integration for Roma in Bulgarian Society’ – a program that included a plan for the adoption of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law. Unfortunately, the government has failed to even draft such a law, let alone pass it. I hope the Bulgarian Government will not only fulfill the pledge it has made in that program, but in doing so, stand as a positive example for others.”

Other witnesses testifying before the Helsinki Commission included Monika Horakova, a Member of Czech Republic Parliament; Open Society Institute consultant Celia-Dorina Zoon and Roma Participation Project Director Rumyan Russinov. European Roma Rights Center’s Angela Kocze also testified before the Commission. Opening statements submitted to the Commission from other witnesses are available on the Helsinki Commission web site.

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