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5 January 1999
István Fenyvesi interviews István Haller1
The Minority Rights Group International organised a four-day training session in Geneva starting on May 18, 1998 and a two-day seminar after that starting on May 22. The training focused on international minority rights instruments, especially UN instruments. The topic of the seminar was The Role of the Media in Protecting Minorities and it was organised in co-operation with the International Service for Human Rights. The participants of the Minority Rights' training also participated in the Working Group on Minorities between May 25 and May 29. The aim of Working Group was to review the possibilities for practical implementation of the Declaration on the Rights Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. Mr István Haller made a presentation at the Working Group which called the attention of the participants to Roma issues in Romania and engendered a process which culminated in the adoption in August 1998 of Article 22 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination by the Romanian government.
- Mr Haller, in what capacity did you participate in the conference?
- I participated as the Programme Co-ordinator of a Romanian non-governmental organisation, the Liga Pro Europa's Human Rights Office. The presentation about the human rights situation of Roma in Romania which I delivered there was prepared spontaneously, on the spot. It was not planned in advance. I elaborated the presentation during the training. What triggerred it off was an incident, an action against a Romani leader in my town, Tîrgu-Mureş, on May 18.
- What happened?
- The initial information was that military police officers had entered the house of N. G., a Romani leader, and destroyed the furniture in his house. It all looked like revenge. When I came back from Geneva, it turned out that the supposed military police officers were drunk and were wearing military police badges illegally, and in reality they were regular soldiers.
- What Roma-related issues were raised?
- I delivered two presentations about the human rights situation of Roma in Romania. Also the Romanian delegation presented the official standpoint on the issue, and so did the official Hungarian delegation.
- What was the official position of the Romanian government representatives? Did you engage in an argument with them on any of the points?
- The person who represented the Romanian government admitted the existence of problems, but, in his opinion, the government had made the necessary steps to remedy them since the 1996 election. His positive example was the Hădăreni trial in which persons who committed mob violence against Roma in 1993 (three Romani persons were killed, 14 houses set on fire and another four destroyed) were finally taken to court in 1997. In my answer, I argued that the steps were sufficient and that discrimination against Roma does exist, and that the Hădăreni case, unfortunately, was a show-trial, not a real implementation of justice. My message was that the Romanian government should get strong support from the Working Group on Minorities, including a visit of its Chairman to Romania. In Romanian politics the Roma issue is not very popular; therefore, international support is needed to promote it.
- Was there any reaction from other participants?
- A lot of people came to me and asked questions about the Roma issue in Romania. Many minority rights experts requested relevant documents. In my opinion, what I said aroused interest.
- What were your goals for participation in the Working Group?
- I had two goals: a short and a long-term goal. My short-term goal was to have the official standpoint on discrimination of Roma spelled out by the representatives of the Romanian government. I also invited Mr Asbjorn Eide, Chair of the Working Group, to pay a visit to Romania. My long-term goal was a change in the official position of the Romanian Government regarding the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
- Has any kind of change taken place since then?
- My hope was that the Romanian Government would recognize Article 14 of the Convention. It did not, but something did change. In August 1998 Romania withdrew its reservation regarding Article 22, recognising in this way the right of states to file complaints against Romania. But this is not enough.
- All kinds of human rights abuses - from job discrimination through segregation in public places to instances of police abuse - go unpunished in Romania because its legislators have not passed an anti-discrimination law yet. What international force do you think is needed to "help" Romania pass an anti-discrimination law?
- In the first place, it is crucial for Romania to recognise Article 14 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and to recognize the competence of the UN Committee within its jurisdiction to receive and consider communications from individuals or groups of individuals claiming to be victims of discrimination. But this is only the first step. In my opinion it is indispensable that a domestic law which would make it possible to create institutions unveiling and punishing discrimination be passed. I have been to the USA and I know how the law functions there. Romania needs something similar.
- Which articles of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities are regularly violated in Romania?
- Article 4, first of all paragraph 1 on the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms without any discrimination and in full equality before the law, paragraph 3 on the opportunities to learn their mother tongue or to have instruction in their mother tongue, paragraph 4 on education and paragraph 5 on participation in the economic progress and development of their country.
- Suppose an anti-discrimination law is soon passed in Romania. Have the conditions for it to be an implementable law been prepared or will it be only a symbolic law?
- We have hundreds of "symbolic" laws created only to show a nice window to the outside world. In the domain of negative discrimination we need an implementable law with clear results because the situation is tragic. For this reason, in my opinion, the International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination without Article 14 is only an empty declaration.
- One tends to presume that sooner or later the Romanian government will yield to international pressure and will pass an anti-discrimination law, ratify all relevant conventions, etc. But that will solve only half of the problem, since the second half, which is not less worrying, is the bias of the majority that is probably more difficult to change.
- The Liga Pro Europa is a non-Roma organisation. Among several goals that we are pursuing, an important goal is to change the mentality and the mostly negative stereotypes regarding minorities, among them stereotypes of Roma. This is long-term work and can be achieved only through a civil society. The future of civil society depends on our success, and we are aware of our responsibility.
- Do you think that the experience and policy of the developed western world in handling minority problems can be adapted in Romania?
- Yes, it can be adapted, provided that the local conditions are considered seriously. Romania has not only negative experience to offer. We see the mistakes, but we also recognise the success. Without the experience and policy of the developed democracies we would have to discover what they discovered fifty years ago, and we do not have time for this. But we also have to use our good traditions and experience in the general domain of minorities. Although, unfortunately, as far as Roma are concerned, we cannot boast about good traditions.
- Does the human rights advocacy of Romanian non-governmental organisations have a proved positive impact on the minority policy of the Romanian government? If yes, would you give an example?
- The positive impact cannot be measured, though in the last nine years policy regarding minorities has partially changed for the better due to the internal pressure of minority parties and NGOs and due to external recommendations, first of all to those made by the Council of Europe. All of them have had a great impact on the changes.
- Are there any other Romanian non-governmental organisations that address international fora with the same issue?
- What I know for sure is that the Romanian Helsinki Committee and the APADO (Lawyers for Human Rights), as non-Roma organisations, have made public statements at international fora about the existence of discrimination. Also Roma organisations such as, for instance, Romani CRISS. It is a very positive thing that now not only NGOs, but the Romanian Government recognises this problem also. The Department for Ethnic Minorities is currently working on the draft of an anti-discrimination law.
- István Haller is Programme Co-ordinator of Liga Pro Europa, a human righs NGO in Romania, and local monitor of the ERRC.