European Forum For Roma and Travellers: From the Finnish initiative to the Franco-Finnish proposal
7 February 2004
The question of Romani leadership and representation in a wider context started to interest Romani activists during the mid-1990s. During the 1997 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation meeting, the first official Round Table on Roma and Sinti Questions took place. At the Round Table, the US-based non-governmental organisation Project on Ethnic Relations (PER) distributed the publication "The Roma in the Twenty-First Century: A Policy Paper", which presented for the first time the Roma actors in Europe to the wider audience.2
The authors of the policy paper, Mr Nicolae Georghe and Mr Andrzej Mirga, evaluated the traditional Romani leadership and the new generation Romani leaders, partly comparing the two models of leadership to the challenges that the issue of international Romani representation brings along. This raised a new kind of interest in the question of leadership and representation. Do Roma need the old type of traditional community leaders - chero rom - or the emerging non-governmental organisation (NGO) leaders or the few academically educated Roma expert intellectuals? Which type of these various representations is needed and who could speak on behalf of Roma? Is it enough to have educated persons as representatives or is there a need for persons with a strong commitment to the Romani cultural identity and community structures? Who would be qualified enough to take part and represent the various European Roma groups in the international context? Who has the legitimacy to be the voice of the rank and file Roma, to represent their interests and to be also capable of tackling the issues affecting Roma in the European framework?
Many round tables and seminars were organised during the final years of the 1990s, focusing on these questions. One of the conclusions of all these discussions was the recognition of the fact that the European Roma were facing a new phase of participation and a need of permanent representation. The understanding of leadership was in a period of transition - the old community leaders, the NGO leaders, the Romani intellectuals, Romani women and youth - all had their role and have to be tolerated and accepted as actors, if Roma are to build a better future and participate equally with gadje - non-Roma - in Europe.
On January 24, 2001, the President of Finland, Ms Tarja Halonen, proposed in her speech to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly that "serious consideration be given to a need to create for the Roma some kind of consultative assembly to represent them on the pan-European level".
A Seminar on Roma Participation, held in Helsinki on October 22, 2001, and attended by members of the Group of Specialists on Roma/Gypsies (MG-S-ROM), Finnish authorities, and representatives of Roma organisations, considered the initiative of Ms Halonen to set up a European Forum for the Roma. The Romani representatives issued the following statement at the end of the seminar:
Referring to the initiative of the President of Finland made at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg on 24 January 2001 to consider some kind of representative forum to be created for Roma on a pan-European level, we, representing Romani people from 13 European countries, would like to once more express our support and interest in developing the idea further. Therefore, we propose that a working group be established for a period of 6-12 months to carefully look at all the details and work out outlines for the consultative body. The working group should be composed of representatives of Roma experts, representatives of IRU, RNC, representatives of some governments, as well as representatives of the EU, Council of Europe and the OSCE.
The Specialist Group on Roma/Gypsies (MG-S-ROM), at its biannial meeting in Helsinki on October 23-24, 2001, took note of the proposal by the Romani representatives and considered that the initiative had to be examined more in depth.
Information on the Initiative to the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers
At the 109th session of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers on November 8, 2001, the State Secretary replacing the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland, Mr J. Laajava, declared that:
Given its broad membership and extensive expertise in human rights, the Council of Europe provides in our view the most appropriate framework for such a body. An ad hoc group will study in detail the various aspects related to establishing such a body. My Government looks very much forward to working together with all interested parties in order to develop this initiative.
An informal exploratory group headed by Mr Gunnar Jansson, Chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, was set up in the autumn of 2001. It was composed of members of international Romani organisations, Roma and government experts, as well as the EU, the Council of Europe and the OSCE. This ad hoc group studied for a year the feasibility of the proposal for establishment of a European Roma Forum. The study, however, revealed more than the feasibility of the project - it demonstrated the need of establishing a body representing the Roma in Europe.
It showed that the unity of purpose of Romani organisations and communities - to improve the situation of Roma - needed to be complemented by a unity of action which could only be achieved through a coordinated instrument.
It showed that action is effective if carried out in accordance with democratic processes. There was a need for Romani organisations and communities to develop negotiating abilities and political know-how which would allow them to undertake action within the democratic process.
And it showed that a forum of Roma, on its own, would be a voice in the wilderness. It would need the partnership of one or more inter-governmental organisations and institutions which would not only listen to what the forum has to say but also act on what the forum wants to achieve.
During this period, international Romani organisations - the International Romani Union (IRU), the Roma National Congress (RNC) and the Gypsies and Travellers International Evangelical Fellowship (G.A.T.I.E.F.) - showed a great sense of responsibility and managed to go beyond some conflicting interests to reach a consensus. A debate also took place between those Roma who favoured a transnational representation, based on belonging to international organisations, tribes and religious groups, and those who opted for a country-based composition.
Why the Council of Europe
Because the idea was launched within the Council of Europe, it was felt that this Pan-European human rights organisation was well-suited to provide the necessary infrastructure for the Forum. Council of Europe standards have served as a platform also for other inter-governmental actors, and have provided the basis for combating discrimination and racism for all multilateral legal instruments in Europe.
The informal working group that debated the feasibility of the proposal foresaw a partnership which went well beyond the Council of Europe and included the OSCE, the European Union and United Nations agencies. A forum for the Roma would only become meaningful if it had a real partnership with international actors. These considerations made it possible to present a reasonable and plausible proposition to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe for the setting up of this Forum.
At its fifth meeting on September 19-20, 2002, the exploratory group drew up a final report containing proposals for the setting up of a pan-European Roma advisory body. The recommendations covered the aims and objectives, the composition (non-governmental representatives only) and functions of the Forum, its funding and possible links with the Council of Europe and other international organisations.
This report was submitted in October 2002 to the Committee of Ministers and to the Specialist Group on Roma, Gypsies and Travellers (MG-S-ROM). The latter, which is composed of governmental experts and some Roma NGO representatives, is the unique inter-governmental body dealing specifically with Roma/Gypsy and more recently Traveller issues. It drafts recommendations3 in order to assist governments developing appropriate comprehensive policies for their Roma populations.
The Committee of Ministers, in a communiqué dated November 2002,
noted with interest the Finnish initiative concerning a 'European Forum for Roma' and invited their Deputies to continue considering this issue, bearing in mind its topical nature, with a view to determining suitable follow-up.
The Deputies instructed one of their working group (GR-SOC)
to continue its work relating to the Finnish initiative concerning a European Roma Forum, bearing in mind its topical nature, and to submit proposals to them concerning suitable follow-up to be given to that initiative.
The GR-SOC expressed itself in its majority in favour of setting up an open-ended working party (GT-ROMS) under the chairmanship of the Finnish ambassador.
The GT-ROMS has so far met three times. After approving its terms of reference, it drew up a list of issues to be addressed, and it examined whether the proposal to establish such a forum was appropriate and compatible with the principle of non-discrimination as contained in Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The GT-ROMS also circulated a questionnaire to collect information about the level of participation of Roma in the Council of Europe member states.
This concept of partnership has now been further developed through a joint proposal of the French and Finnish governments. It has been proposed that the forum be an autonomous body, independent of the Council of Europe and/or any other institution. It will, however, when set up, establish a special relationship with the Council of Europe through a partnership protocol containing a juridical cooperation contract between the association set up by Roma and Travellers under French law, the Council of Europe and, hopefully, other international organisations, with a view to informing discussion and influencing decisions concerning Roma. This proposal is currently being examined by the aforementioned working group, GT-ROMs, of the Committee of Ministers. The interest of such a partnership lies in the financial and practical contribution, that the Council of Europe can make in having representatives of the Forum attend meetings of the various organs and bodies of the Council of Europe.
At their last meeting of the GT-ROMS in July 2003, the governments of France and Finland stressed that the aim of the Forum was not to accord special rights but to help with the process of integration of Roma into the societies in which they live. In July, the GT-ROMS also discussed the heterogeneity of the population to be represented, the need for a geographical and gender balance, and the funding of the Forum. The question of composition and representation of the Forum still remains a particularly important and difficult issue. The GT-ROMS is concerned about ensuring a proper representation in the Forum, and feels that certain terms, such as "tribes" and "religious groups" need further clarification.
The discussions among international Romani organisations stress the importance of a wide representation aimed at covering international and regional European Romani organisations, main Romani groups (tribes) in Europe, religious confessions and political parties, taking into account gender balance and representation of Romani youth. In order to find the utmost democratic representation and avoid manifold and too-centralised representation, there is a need to also create some kind of criteria on candidacy and representation.
The goals to be pursued by the future Forum have been seen, by the Romani NGO leaders, to include human rights and fundamental freedoms, political and civil rights, economic, social and cultural rights and the full enforcement of international treaties and conventions.
The idea of a forum is today no longer a novelty. It is seen by many as a natural development of the international movement to improve the social and political status of the Roma. Many of the original doubts and hesitations are slowly disappearing.
Undoubtedly, issues remain to be solved. The forum must have credibility and legitimacy - and that can only be achieved by appropriate representation. Funding is another issue which still requires intensive discussion.
But where there is a will there is a way - and the will is there. The Romani community desires it; foremost human rights organs of the Council of Europe such as the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) and the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities want it; and the OSCE and the European Commission have constantly and unreservedly supported the proposal throughout the process. The OSCE and the World Bank have expressed similar feelings at the recent conference "Roma in an Expanding Europe" held in Budapest in June 2003.
Developments in the Autumn of 2003
On September 17, 2003, the MG-S-ROM (Specialist Group on Roma/Gypsies) held an extraordinary session in Strasbourg to provide its opinion about the Finnish-French proposal to create a forum for Roma and Travellers, as well as the way in which the Group sees its collaboration with this possible future partner. The basic opinion of MG-S-ROM supports the establishment of such a forum as well as future collaboration. The opinion of the Group of Specialists was presented the next day at the fourth GT-ROMS meeting, which also heard representatives of several international Romani organisations, which supported the establishment of the Forum unanimously.
Although the issue of the establishment of the European Roma and Travellers' Forum still remains under examination in the Council of Europe, and the negotiations were expected to go on at least until the end of 2003, the tendencies make obvious the fact that Roma have reached a phase when they feel that they have the right and trust to be full members of European societies and are ready to fight and work for these rights and equal participation.
Common efforts are needed to make this Forum a reality. The Forum will need the support of all major European organisations and actors involved in European Roma politics if it is to make its voice heard effectively. It is the duty of all of us to empower the Roma to take their rightful place in our societies.
- Miranda Vuolasranta is Special Advisor on Roma related issues at the Roma/Gypsies Division of the Social Cohesion General Directorate of the Council of Europe. This article was written in cooperation with Henry Scicluna and Michael Guet from the Roma/Gypsies Division Secretariat.
- Document available at: http://www.per-usa.org/21st_c.htm.
- See documents at: http://www.coe.int/T/E/social_cohesion/Roma_Gypsies/Documentation/Recommendations/.