MINELRES: Fwd: CoE HR Commissioner: Europe's Roma: Making Amends

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Wed Sep 24 19:09:42 2008

Original sender: Roma Virtual Network <romale@zahav.net.il>

Europe’s Roma: Making Amends 
by Thomas Hammarberg

2 September 2008 

A handful of countries are leading the way in giving Roma a greater
stake in government. 

STRASBOURG | Roma populations are grossly under-represented in local and
national assemblies and government administrations all over Europe. This
is a serious shortcoming in our democracies. It violates the right to
political participation and perpetuates a situation of exclusion and
marginalization of some 10 million to 12 million people.

There are several explanations for the political alienation of Roma. One
is the long history of discrimination and repression of this minority in
Europe. Even after the genocide of Roma by the Nazis there was no
genuine change of attitude among the majority population, and it took
years before the issue of compensation to surviving family members even
came up for discussion. 

The persecution did not end with the fall of the Nazi regime. Roma
families, not welcome anywhere, were chased from place to place in a
number of European countries many years after World War II. Afterward,
governments were slow to apologize to the Roma community for these human
rights violations.

It is not surprising that this history has created bitterness and a
feeling of exclusion and alienation among the Roma. All efforts to
encourage Roma participation in public life must recognize this basic

In many cases Roma communities are socially isolated and fragmented. As
a result they may be less aware about political and electoral processes,
and may lack vital information .They are therefore also vulnerable to
electoral malpractices. Another major impediment is that many are not
included in civic and voter registers. They frequently lack the
necessary identity documents and are therefore not allowed to vote.
Informed and conscious political participation also comes with higher
levels of education. The dramatic gap in this area between the majority
and the Roma represents yet another obstacle to participation.

Majority mainstream political parties have a responsibility for this
state of affairs. By and large, they have shown very little interest in
Roma communities. Roma representatives not been invited onto their
electoral lists, and their views have seldom been sought. 

As Roma populations generally have a low voter turnout, they have not
been seen as an interesting audience in election campaigns. Political
parties are also aware that campaigning for Roma might hurt their own
election chances. At the same time, extremist parties have targeted the
Roma in xenophobic statements in order to exploit reactionary tendencies
among the electorate. This is one reason why some of the poisonous
cliched lies about the Roma have spread so widely.

Unfortunately, some of the established political parties have not made
it clear that such anti-Gypsyism is unacceptable. I have noticed with
deep disappointment that even some top-level politicians have made
clearly prejudicial statements about the Roma – without making a
distinction between a few misbehaving individuals and the whole ethnic
community. This does not encourage the next generation of Roma to enter


There is, of course, no simple and quick solution to these problems,
which are so deeply ingrained in attitudes among both the Roma and the
majority population. However, efforts in several countries could be
analyzed and conclusions drawn. A good model is set by the two Hungarian
Roma members of the European Parliament. The inclusion of Roma
candidates in electoral lists for the upcoming European Parliamentary
elections should be encouraged.

Lessons and inspiration can also be drawn from the efforts of the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has tried for
several years to contribute to solutions in this area. It has run
campaigns like “Roma, Use Your Ballot Wisely!” and convened meetings to
draft standards such as the Lund recommendations in 1999 and the
Guidelines to Assist National Minority Participation in the Electoral
Process in 2001. In February the Council of Europe’s Advisory Committee
on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities
adopted a document on the effective participation of people belonging to
national minorities in cultural, social, and economic life and in public

One lesson is that proactive measures are absolutely necessary. It is
not sufficient to remove some hindrances – there is a need to compensate
for the long history of exclusion and marginalization through positive

By way of example, reserved seats for Roma representatives in national
or local assemblies have been tried in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia,
Romania, and Slovenia with largely positive results. When in Slovenia I
found that the practice of reserving one seat in local assemblies had
created a channel in some municipalities between the Roma communities
and the authorities. Another example of good practice is to have various
consultative bodies for Roma affairs or for general minority issues with
Roma inclusion at the government or ministry level. This type of
solution is especially important in countries with dispersed and
numerically small Romani populations like Finland or Poland.

Another lesson learned is to focus on the local level. Roma
participation will not be successful on the national level unless it is
also encouraged in the municipalities. Efforts to encourage
participation must of course be undertaken with Roma participation. The
Roma themselves should represent their community’s interests and voice
their concerns.

On the basis of these principles there is a need to develop a
comprehensive approach in order to empower Roma populations. Action
should include the following: 

• Governments should repeal any laws and regulations that discriminate
against minorities, including the Roma and non-settled communities, in
terms of political representation.

• Nongovernmental organizations should be encouraged to support programs
in civic education for Roma communities. Such programs should include
human rights components and practical information about the electoral
system. It is important that such support programs reach women and young
Roma. Written information should be available in the Romani language.

• More outreach efforts are needed to ensure voter registration. Again,
it is also important to reach women. The widespread problem of lack of
personal identification documents must be resolved with high priority.
This must include effective measures to ensure the rights of those who
are stateless.

• Public life is not only about elections. Participation in public life
also includes the possibility to influence authorities on a daily basis.
More organized consultation is needed, for instance, in the
municipalities, between the local authorities and the Roma population on
housing and other concrete problems. Such consultation must be genuine
and meaningful; any tendency of tokenism will backfire.

• Mechanisms for equal, direct, and open communication are needed.
Advisory bodies could be set up to give such consultations more
continuity and promote the legitimacy of the Roma representatives.
Authorities should support Roma cultural centers. Where such centers
have been tried in the past, they have also had a positive effect on
inter-Roma communications.

• More needs to be done to recruit Roma into civil service on both local
and national levels. Again, a pro-active policy is justified. It is
particularly important that Roma are invited into the police profession
and as staff in schools.

• The impact of all this will depend on progress in the efforts to put
an end to anti-Gypsyism. Comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation
must be adopted and enforced and the various Roma communities recognized
as national minorities.. 

• Further efforts to raise awareness among officials and the general
public are necessary. Clear reactions must be made against any
xenophobic discourse and jargon. In this our elected politicians carry a
great responsibility.

Thomas Hammarberg is the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human
rights. This commentary is also available at the commissioner's website
- http://www.coe.int/t/commissioner/default_en.asp