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Commemorating International Roma Day

By Dr. Angel W. Colon-Rivera

April 8th marks International Roma Day – a day to remember that Europe’s largest ethnic minority still faces anti-Roma violence, violations of their human rights, discrimination, and systematic marginalization, so that many have difficulty meeting their basic human needs, such as education, housing, health care and, in some cases, even clean water. In a number of OSCE participating States, Roma live in segregated communities, their children attend segregated schools, and they are discriminated against in employment and other areas of public life. In some OSCE countries, Roma are subject to violence or threat of violence on a daily basis.

The Helsinki Commission has long monitored and reported on human rights violations against Roma and other ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities. In the early 1990s, the commission issued a series of reports on OSCE countries making the transition from communism to democracy – almost every report identified the deteriorating situation of Roma as a problem. Commissioners have addressed violations of Roma rights through hearings and briefings, engagement with representatives of the OSCE participating States, and by encouraging the Department of State to ensure that human rights violations of persons belonging to Romani communities are appropriately reported in the annual Country Reports on Human Rights.

Last year, the Commission hosted two special roundtables in Washington for representatives of OSCE Embassies to elevate the discussion of Romani human rights concerns: the first, in January, was a conversation with Andrzej Mirga, the OSCE Senior Advisor for Romani issues; the second, in October, was with Viktoria Mohacsi, who had served as one of two Romani MPs in the European Parliament and was a recipient of the Human Rights First 2010 award. During the OSCE Review Conference in Warsaw, the Commission also organized a meeting for the U.S. delegation with Romani participants, many of whom are now advisors to their governments. The discussion focused on mass expulsions of Roma from France and the dangerous rise in anti-Roma political rhetoric in much of Europe. Commissioners have paid particular attention to the escalation of anti-Roma violence in the Czech Republic and Hungary, and to comments by public figures in a number of countries associating Roma with criminality – discourse that echoes the rhetoric of the Nazi period.

In September and October of 2011, the OSCE will hold its annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, where one of this year’s special topics will be “Enhancing implementation of OSCE commitments regarding Roma and Sinti.” The OSCE Chair-in-Office, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis has made tolerance education a priority. Part of that effort emphasizes the importance of Holocaust remembrance and education due to a need to educate future generations about the tragedies of the Holocaust where millions of Jewish, Romani, and other victims perished because of intolerance and hatred. Commission leaders have paid particular attention to the goal of Holocaust education and commemoration, as well as access to Holocaust-era archives. Accordingly, the Commission continues to follow on-going efforts to build, in Berlin, a memorial for Sinti and Roma victims of the genocide. Although various complications have delayed this historic undertaking (including weather-related construction delays), German officials have indicated the monument should be completed and unveiled this year.