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Commission on Slavery Established in Romania

  • Hon. Alcee L. Hastings
    US












House of Representative

110th Congress, First Session

Madame Speaker, two hundred years ago, the movement for the abolition of slavery achieved a major victory with the passage of a British law banning the trade in slaves – an anniversary that is getting heightened attention with the release of a new movie chronicling those events. Ending the trade in slaves was not the same as actually ending slavery, but it was a critical beginning to the end. 

Other developments have also caused us to revisit the legacy of slavery in our own country. This includes the decision by the legislature of the Commonwealth of Virginia to apologize for that state’s role in the slave trade, and reports that Maryland and Missouri are considering similar steps. 

With a view to our own country’s painful and complicated history of slavery, and as the first African-American Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I was particularly interested to learn about commemorations held on February 20th in Romania, marking the beginning of the end of slavery in that country. In the case of Romania, however, slaves were not kidnapped and transported from a faraway land. Instead, those enslaved were Roma, a people that had settled in Romania by the 14th century. 

This ethnic group – somewhere around 1,000 years ago – migrated to Europe from what is now India. Today, Roma make up the largest ethnic minority in the European Union, conservatively estimated at 10 million people. 

Romania, with an estimated 2 million Roma, has the largest Romani minority on the continent. And in that country, beginning in the 14th century and ending with the establishment of the modern Romanian state in 1864, slavery to the crown, to nobility, and to the monasteries was the exclusive status of Roma. 

To be clear, Roma were not serfs; they were slaves, bought and sold like cattle. In 1837, the great Romanian historian and statesman Mihail Kogalniceanu described their situation as follows: 

On the streets of the Iasi of my youth, I saw human beings wearing chains on their arms and legs, others with iron clamps around their foreheads, and still others with metal collars about their necks. Cruel beatings, and other punishments such as starvation, being hung over smoking fires, solitary imprisonment and being thrown naked into the snow or the frozen rivers, such was the fate of the wretched Tsigan [Rom]. The sacred institution of the family was likewise made a mockery: women were wrested from their men, and daughters from their parents. Children were torn from the breasts of those who brought them into this world, separated from their mothers and fathers and from each other, and sold to different buyers from the four corners of Romania, like cattle. Neither humanity nor religious sentiment, nor even civil law, offered protection for these beings. It was a terrible sight, and one which cried out to Heaven. 

Unfortunately, it appears that the history of slavery in Romania — and the impact of slavery on the lives of Roma — has received little scholarly attention. As a corollary, little is taught in Romanian schools about this important chapter in the nation’s history. 

I was very heartened, therefore, to learn that Romanian Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu announced on February 20 that the Romanian Government will establish a commission to study the enslavement of Roma. The National Agency for Roma will play a central role in setting up this commission, and the commission will produce recommendations for the teaching of Romani history and promoting Romani culture. 

Madame Speaker, there is an awful lot of hand wringing about the deplorable situation of Roma today. Across the OSCE region, they face profound discrimination, sometimes manifested in the worst forms of racially motivated violence. Moreover, in 2003, the United Nations Development Program issued a report on the situation in five Central European countries, concluding that, “by measures ranging from literacy to infant mortality to basic nutrition, most of the region’s Roma endure living conditions closer to those of Sub-Saharan Africa than to Europe.” 

But if you want to know where you’re going, you have to know where you came from; if we want to change this status quo, we have to understand the past, which makes this new commission vital for Roma.

With respect to Roma, that means three things. First, it means understanding the history of Roma before World War II, and in the case of Romania and Moldova, that requires teaching, studying, and acknowledging the enslavement of Roma. Second, the genocide of Roma during World War II must also be remembered, and more must be done to study and understand the diverse experiences of Roma during the war in different European countries. Finally, we must put an end to the pernicious, dangerous myth that communism was “good” for Roma. 

With all this in mind, Prime Minister Tariceanu’s initiative is really an extremely important step in addressing so many of the problems that Roma face today. I commend him for his leadership and I look forward to following closely the work of this body.

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