ERRC press statement: Roma in the Macedonia conflict
15 August 2001
On July 13, 2001, the ERRC issued a public statement on Roma in the Macedonia conflict, timed to coincide with a panel discussion involving ERRC staff on the same theme, organised by the US-based non-governmental organisation American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) at the Central European University in Budapest. The text of the ERRC statement follows:
The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), an international public interest law organisation that monitors the situation of Roma in Europe and provides legal defence in cases of serious human rights abuse, is concerned about the situation of Roma in Macedonia, as ethnic relations in the country deteriorate and violence escalates to the point of war. The ERRC is concerned that:
- The serious human rights issues facing Roma in Macedonia even prior to the conflict have never been addressed adequately by Macedonian authorities.
- There are currently more than 5000 Romani refugees from Kosovo in Macedonia - persons unable to return to Kosovo since they were ethnically cleansed from the province following the cessation of NATO bombing and the return of ethnic Albanian refugees to Kosovo after June 1999. These persons are in a unique state of exposure and should be brought without delay to countries where conditions exist such that refugees can be provided with adequate protection and support.
- In the present conflict, there are early reports of attacks on Roma by ethnic Macedonians, indicating that the widely held view in Macedonia that Roma who are loyal to the Macedonian state will not suffer attack by ethnic Macedonians on grounds of their ethnic origin is unfortunately not true. In light of events in Kosovo since 1999, the possibility of attacks on Roma by ethnic Albanians must unfortunately be taken very seriously.
- In the context of negotiations aimed at resolving the conflict in Macedonia, there is a distinct danger that (i) Roma will continue to be excluded from official discussions (as they have been to date) and (ii) in the face of pressure by both ethnic Albanians and ethnic Macedonians, the concerns of other ethnic groups in Macedonia will be forgotten. Present and future arrangements in Macedonia must begin from the premise that Macedonia is a multi-ethnic society.
ERRC concerns in detail follow:
1. The Human Rights Situation of Roma in Macedonia Prior to the Present Conflict
Prior to the present conflict, Macedonian authorities systematically denied that Roma suffer human rights abuse in Macedonia. On the basis of field research conducted in Macedonia, in 1998 the ERRC published the Country Report A Pleasant Fiction: The Human Rights Situation of Roma in Macedonia, concluding that the serious human rights issues that have given rise to concern elsewhere in the region, such as rampant police abuse and violence against Roma, as well as discrimination in many areas of life, exist in Macedonia. The prevailing view that Macedonia is somehow "exceptional" with respect to Roma has contributed to a consistently inadequate state response to human rights violations of Roma.
ERRC concerns in Macedonia, as detailed in its 1998 report and subsequent publications, have included especially:
- A high number of Romani persons rendered de facto stateless following Macedonian independence in 1992. Authorities have, to date, not engaged effectively to end Romani statelessness in Macedonia;
- Forced homelessness and other abuses of Roma by municipal authorities;
- Exclusion of and discrimination against Roma in access to social protection, health care and housing;
- Numerous reported instances of police brutality, including cases in which violence by state officials has led to the death of the victim. Officers who physically abuse Roma are rarely if ever punished for their actions.
In connection with the latter concern, earlier this year, the European Roma Rights Center filed an application to the European Court of Human Rights in connection with the 1998 police abuse of Mr Pejrusan Jasar, and the subsequent failure of Macedonian authorities to take adequate measures to punish the officers concerned. The full text of the ERRC report, as well as other ERRC publications on the situation of Roma in Macedonia, is available on the Internet at: www.errc.org.
2. Romani Refugees from Kosovo in Macedonia
Following the return of the ethnic Albanians to Kosovo in June 1999 and the entry of NATO (KFOR) troops into the province, ethnic Albanians conducted a sustained and brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against Kosovo's Roma and other persons regarded as "Gypsies", a campaign which continues to today. Ethnic Albanians killed and kidnapped Roma and raped them in front of their family members, broke into Romani houses during the night and threatened to kill them if they were there in the morning, removed property en masse from Romani houses, stopped Roma on the street and took their automobiles and burned entire Romani settlements to the ground. The situation in Kosovo remains, today, extremely dangerous for persons regarded as "Gypsies": according to information from KFOR and UNMIK, only for the period February-June 2001, one Romani man was found dead in his home as a result of repeated stabbing; at least eleven instances of assault on Roma were reported; in separate incidents, two Romani children were abducted or otherwise reported missing; six Romani-owned houses were set on fire; and in three cases grenades were thrown at Romani houses. The true number of attacks may be much higher. A joint report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) published on April 3, 2001, states: "The degree of sophistication and planning behind these recent attacks [...] challenges the characterisation of continued violence against minorities as isolated attacks motivated by individuals' desire for revenge. It would appear there is an orchestrated campaign or campaigns organised by, as yet, unidentified elements whose aim is clearly to terrorise minority populations, destabilise the province and prevent democratisation and peaceful co-existence. The number of perpetrators arrested and successfully prosecuted for these attacks remains very low.
Today, roughly four fifths of the pre-1999 Romani population of Kosovo remain outside the borders of Kosovo and are unable to return due to the threat of violence against persons regarded as "Gypsies" in Kosovo. More than 5000 Roma from Kosovo are presently refugees in Macedonia. In the context of the escalating violence in Macedonia, these persons are in an unique state of exposure. In light of the fact that Roma from Kosovo in Macedonia meet the alienage requirement of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees, and yet are presently sheltered in a country threatened by civil war, the international community should, without delay, bring them to countries where prevailing conditions exist such that refugees can be provided with adequate protection and support.There may additionally be legal grounds for bringing stateless Roma in Macedonia to third countries for protection. Given its present weakness and the large numbers of inadequately sheltered displaced persons there, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia should not be considered as a target country for placement of refugees currently in Macedonia.
3. Attacks on Roma in the Present Conflict
It has been extensively reported in the international media that Macedonia is presently threatened by civil war between, on the one hand, government security forces and, on the other hand, groups who have been variously described as local ethnic Albanian separatists or paramilitaries from Kosovo, or some combination of the two.
In a very worrying development, following a lethal attack by ethnic Albanian paramilitaries against security forces in northern Macedonia, beginning on April 30, 2001, ethnic Macedonians in the southern Macedonian town of Bitola went on a rampage, destroying and looting shops belonging to Muslims - primarily ethnic Albanians, but also Torbeshi, Bosnians and Roma. Among the fifty to sixty shops smashed was the boutique of Mr Edailj Kolminov, a Muslim Romani man. Mr Kolminov told the ERRC during field research on May 5 that the windows of his shop had been broken during the night of the second day of the violence. Mr Kolimov was away from Macedonia on business during the attack, and he returned to find his shop destroyed and all of the clothes in the shop stolen. Mr Kolimov estimated that he had lost goods in the value of approximately 30,000 German marks (approximately 15,300 euros) in the attack. According to Mr Kolimov, police officers came and took down some details, but reportedly were unable to find any witnesses to the attack.
The ethnic cleansing of Roma from Kosovo in 1999 is the single biggest catastrophe to strike the Romani community since World War II. Kosovo lies at Macedonia's border. Every Romani person in Macedonia fears at some level that their country may become another Kosovo and that the Romani community of Macedonia will suffer a similar fate as the Roma of Kosovo. The potential similarity of the ethnic hatred at issue notwithstanding, Macedonian authorities have publicly denied that the conflict in Macedonia bears any relation to that in Kosovo and have instead clung to the idea that "Macedonia is an island of democracy in the Balkans." The attack in Bitola indicates a level of ethnic exclusivity among ethnic Macedonians frequently denied by authorities, experts and internationals, and suggests that proactive measures must be taken by Macedonian authorities and international security forces operative in Macedonia to ensure that minority groups - including Roma - receive adequate protection.
4. Exclusion of Roma from Official Discussions Concerning Macedonia's Future
Roma are severely underrepresented in public affairs in Macedonia. Roma are not adequately represented in government or in the public administration. The absence of Roma from current official discussions about solutions to the inter-ethnic crisis in Macedonia has been particularly glaring. Despite the unequivocal position expressed by Romani political leaders in Macedonia that Roma should be part of public dialogue for a solution to the conflict, Macedonian authorities have not yet undertaken measures to recognise Roma as partners in discussion.
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In view of the concerns elaborated above, the ERRC calls on the Macedonian government and the international community to undertake, at minimum, the following measures:
- Ensure that, in the present situation of conflict and potential conflict, Roma are adequately protected.
- Ensure that perpetrators of human rights abuse against Roma are promptly brought to justice. Take all measures necessary to guarantee Roma in Macedonia equal protection of the law.
- Bring all Romani refugees from Kosovo to third countries, and examine the possibility of bringing all stateless Roma in Macedonia to countries capable of guaranteeing protection and support. Given its present weakness and the large numbers of inadequately sheltered displaced persons there, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia should not be considered as a target country for placement of refugees or stateless persons currently in Macedonia.
- Recognising that Macedonia is a multi-ethnic state, ensure that Romani representatives are included in all relevant discussions aimed at resolving the current crisis and that they participate in all relevant initiatives and bodies responsible for the development of policies and possible legal or constitutional changes aimed at reconciliation, peaceful coexistence and rights protection in Macedonia.
- Adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation and ensure that it is enforced; implement policies to counter anti-Romani racism.
- Take all appropriate measures to resolve the widespread problem of statelessness among Roma in Macedonia, in particular by bringing Macedonian citizenship legislation into conformity with international norms on citizenship in the context of state succession. All persons who can demonstrate genuine and effective links to Macedonia on grounds of the conditions of - and in accordance with the principles set down in - Article 18 of the European Convention on Nationality should be granted citizenship in Macedonia upon request.