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Racism at the Heart of Romani Human Rights Abuses, Witnesses Tell Helsinki Commission

WASHINGTON – Roma throughout Europe still encounter human rights conditions which lack the basic elements of human dignity, according to testimony delivered today before a hearing of the Untied States Helsinki Commission.

The hearing focused on the age-old human rights struggle of Roma, insidious barriers to education opportunities for Romani children, activities of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and recent initiatives undertaken in Bulgaria to curb such abuses.

“A few years ago, a Hungarian Romani activist said to our Commission, ‘We don’t want the fish, we want the net’,” said Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ). “Those words were echoed in the messages we heard here today. Education is clearly the net.”

“Our own experience with de-segregation has not been easy, but it has always been necessary,” Smith added. “If American experiences have any relevance for others, perhaps it is because of what can be learned from our failures, as well as our successes. Communities around this country continually strive to ensure that our schools are places that teach tolerance, not bigotry, and are places that bring people together, not places that drive them apart.”

“The more I learn about the plight of Roma, the more I am struck by certain parallels with the experience of American Indians here in our own country,” Commission Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) said in prepared remarks. Chairman Campbell is currently the only American Indian serving in the U.S. Senate. “Increasingly, Roma have begun to raise their voices not in search of special treatment, but for an opportunity to freely exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms without discrimination.”

“Unfortunately, as clearly documented by various organizations, ethnic persecution and discrimination persist against the Roma in most nations in Europe,” said Commissioner Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA). “Stereotypes of the Roma abound throughout Eastern and Western Europe. Unfortunately, there is not overwhelming evidence that the majority ethnic groups in Europe desire to help end these stereotypes and the racism that does exist.”

The hearing featured the testimony of Her Excellency Elena Borislavova Poptodorova, Ambassador of Bulgaria to the United States of America; Nicolae Gheorghe, Section Head, Contact Point on Roma and Sinti Issues, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights; Dimitrina Petrova, Executive Director, European Roma Rights Center; and Rumyan Russinov, Director, Roma Participation Project.

The hearing highlighted the fact that a wide range of barriers currently exist that limit Romani access to education in a number of OSCE countries, from racist abuse inflicted on Roma by peers and teachers, to channeling Roma into separate, unequal schools. Human rights advocates stressed the need for political will and urged government leaders to acknowledge that barriers exist and should foster popular support for demolishing them.

The OSCE remains an important forum for addressing Romani human rights issues, including the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The ODIHR continues to support initiatives to enhance voter education among Roma, work with interested governments on ways to legalize Romani settlements, and bring Roma and non-Roma policy makers together.

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