Mr. President, as chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I welcomed the recent visit of Romanian Foreign Minister Razvan Ungureanu, and I regret that I was not in Washington D.C. to meet with him. Our countries have forged closer links, and I hope that trend will continue.
While there have been many positive reforms implemented in Romania, unfortunately the situation of the Romani minority has remained the same. Romania has the largest Roma minority in Europe, estimated at 1.5-2 million people yet they remain profoundly marginalized and subjected to pervasive discrimination and prejudice.
A soccer match in Bucharest on April 13th was a clear example of the explicit acts of hatred that have been widespread throughout the country. Fans of one team, Steaua Bucharest, unfurled a banner reading “We have always had and will always have something against Gypsies.” They chanted, “We have always hated Gypsies and we have always urinated on you.” During the game, the stadium announcer played an anti-Roma song called “Gypsies and UFOs” and made anti-Roma remarks. The coach of Steaua Bucharest called the coach of the opposing team a “stinking Gypsy.” The opposing team, Rapid Bucharest, is from a district with a significant Romani minority.
Response to this rabid anti-Roma manifestation was swift with mixed results. On April 20th, the Romanian Football League suspended the stadium announcer for 6 months. However, the League sanctioned both teams that were present at the April 13th match: Steaua Bucharest, the team responsible for hurling racist invective was fined, as well as Rapid Bucharest, the team against whom these slurs were directed. While it is completely appropriate for a sports league to police itself and its members, sanctioning those who were the targets of this abuse is absurd. No one will be fooled by the League’s effort to appear pro-active and even-handed while punishing the very people who were the victims of abuse.
The National Council for Combating Discrimination, a Romanian Government body, also sanctioned the offending team about $1400 and fined the stadium announcer about $600. The fact that a governmental body so quickly recognized the racist nature of these events was a positive signal. However, any time a state positions itself to regulate speech, there is the risk that free speech, which may include unpopular or controversial views, will be unduly limited. I strongly believe that there are other ways to combat racist, xenophobic, or anti-Semitic manifestations. In particular, it is critical that Romania’s public leaders, including President Traian Basescu, speak out against such acts of discrimination.
Unfortunately, the April 13th events were not an isolated phenomenon, but part of a larger pattern of racist abuse in Romania. In 2002, scores of fans at a Bucharest soccer match worked in concert to display a massive sign reading “Die, Gypsy.” In 2003, like-minded fans displayed a sign reading “One million crows, one solution–Antonescu.” In this context, “Crow” is a pejorative slang term in Romanian for a member of the Romani minority and General Ion Antonescu was Romania’s World War II fascist dictator who spearheaded the selection of Roma for deportation to Transnistria.
These manifestations tell us two things. First, it is not enough for public leaders to leave it to the National Council for Combating Racism to speak out against these manifestations. Romania’s highest leaders must stand up themselves to confront such outrages. Those who would foment racism, and who potentially incite racist violence, must be given no safe harbor. Invoking praise for the World War II dictator who oversaw the persecution of Romania’s Jews and Roma is despicable.
Second, these manifestations underscore the need for continued efforts to improve Holocaust education in Romania.
Following decades of denial, the Government of Romania has made great strides in the past year in recognizing Romania’s role in the Holocaust and in the deportation and death of Jewish and Romani citizens. The government is to be commended for taking steps to examine this dark and painful chapter in the country’s history. Last November, the International Commission for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania, led by Elie Wiesel, officially issued its findings in Bucharest. In addition to the establishment of a national Holocaust Remembrance Day, which Romania marks on October 9th, the Commission recommended that Romania establish a national Holocaust memorial and museum in Bucharest, annul war criminal rehabilitations and develop a Holocaust education curricula and courses in secondary schools and universities. I hope the Government of Romania will move quickly to implement the Wiesel Commission’s recommendations.
With this in mind, I was heartened to learn that in April the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest hosted the premier of “Hidden Sorrows,” a documentary about the tragic deportation of 25,000 Roma from Romania to Transnistria during the Holocaust. In this time, more than 11,000 men, women and children died from the horrific conditions of their internment. Several, nearly 100-year-old survivors attended the premier, adding a deeply personal element to the documentary’s message.
From the Inquisition to the Holocaust, Roma have suffered some of humanity’s worst abuses. They were enslaved in Romania until the formation of the modern Romanian state in 1864. They were persecuted and deported and murdered during the Holocaust. Even after the fall of Ceausescu, they were subjected to dozens of pogroms. And yet after all this, they have survived.
The Romani people, who have endured so much, should not be made to suffer at a time that otherwise holds so much promise and hope for others. We must ensure that these people, their culture, and their heritage are not destroyed by hatred and violence. We must call upon the Romanian Government to abolish these ongoing acts of discrimination.