Thoughts about Achievements, Challenges, the Past and the Future

03 November 2006

The European Roma Rights Centre conducted short interviews with six prominent Roma rights activists to learn their opinions about the development of Roma rights and the role of ERRC in this development. We are grateful to the following people for their precious comments:

Mr Costel Bercus: Chair of the Board of the Roma Education Fund. He was previously the Executive Director of Romani CRISS, a Romani NGO in Romania.

Mr Karel Holomek: Member of ERRC Board; Chairman of the Society of Roma in Moravia; Honorary Chairman of the Society of Professionals and Friends of the Museum of Romani Culture; Director of the International Roma Center attached to the Helsinki Citizen's Assembly; Member of the Czech government's Commission for Human Rights; and Editor-in-Chief of the magazine Romano Hangos.

Mr Cristi Mihalache: Roma rights defender.

Ms Isabela Mihalache: Program Coordinator of the Roma Programs at the Open Society Institute, Budapest.

Ms Beata Olahova: Project Coordinator of the League of Human Rights Advocates, a Slovak Human Rights NGO defending the rights of the Roma. She has recently been appointed Program Officer of the Roma Education Fund, a Budapest-based international NGO.

Mr Iulius Rostas: Deputy Director of the Roma Initiatives Office at the Open Society Institute, Budapest.

ERRC: What were the three best and the three worst things that happened to Roma in the last decade?

Costel Bercus: I think that one of the best things is that Roma issues finally get attention not only on the national but on the international level as well. So there is a growing political will, followed by various policy papers and strategies, which can lead to an improvement of Roma people's lives. I would also highlight the positive judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, which provided just satisfaction for Roma victims. The third best thing is that the Council of Europe and its Member States agreed upon the establishment of the European Roma and Travellers Forum, which brings new hope for effective advocacy for Roma rights on a pan-European level.

It is more difficult to list three negative things as there were too many bad things that happened to Roma. For example, all those talks, policy papers, action plans failed so far to bring real changes into the daily life of the Roma communities. Education and housing should be treated as absolute priorities. Housing conditions of Roma are worsening, and this has a direct impact not only on the children's education but also on the family's health condition.

Karel Holomek: There was only one good thing that happened to Roma: the democracy which followed the revolutions in communist countries. This had an absolutely good influence on other Romani communities in Western European countries too. The three major achievements of the transition were the following: 

  • acknowledgement of Roma nationality in most constitutions;
  • freedom with self responsibility;
  • the relationship between Romani and non- Romani people became an important marker for the quality of democracy.

The most important bad thing that happened to Roma is the same: the transition. Romani communities were not prepared for democracy and as a consequence, they had to face unemployment, inferior or lack of access to education, lack of participation in politics and in social processes and a bunch of other unpleasant matters.

Cristi Mihalache: It is hard to grade the importance of events related to Roma in the last decade, as we are talking about probably the most discriminated and excluded group in Europe. To keep an optimistic approach, I will, as asked, name three positive developments: the most important one I believe is the fact that the Roma "issue" went on almost every agenda of intergovernmental actors as well as relevant governments as a distinct, in almost every case important item. Another relevant development would be that Roma are now starting, let us say, not to be ignored by policymakers and their voice – in a number of instances – is being heard. A third positive aspect is that, theoretically, Roma have the possibility in most of the countries, to get represented in elected and/ or appointed bodies and positions in central, and most importantly, local administration. My three worst things are somehow related with the positive ones. The most important failure is, to my perception, the situation of Kosovo Roma after the war, and the way it is dealt with by intergovernmental actors and agencies, as well as by governments. The second problem is the societal racism leading to Roma not being effective partners in decision-making processes concerning their situation. Last but not least, the third problem is the failure to transpose the governmental strategies across the Central Eastern European region, where most of the Roma live, into practice, in fact taking visible steps towards improving the Roma situation.

Isabela Mihalache: One great achievement is that there are many Roma involved in the work of governments, non-governmental or inter-governmental organizations both on national and international level. In Romania, for example, we have Romani school and health mediators on the local level, Roma advisors at the county level, the Roma Agency at the central level. And we also have Roma experts in international organizations, such as Nicolae Gheorghe in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), who was one of the first Roma hired in such a high position, Andrej Mirga, expert of the High Level group on promoting social inclusion of ethnic minorities in the EU, Miranda Vuolasranta in the CoE and the young generation of Rumyan Russinov, Iulius Rostas, Dan Doghi, etc. The second significant achievement is closely linked to the previous one: due to the involvement of Romani people in various organisations, the Roma issue became high on the policy level and started to appear in almost every international strategy, country report, various recommendations and policy papers of the Council of Europe, European Union, United Nations or OSCE. Another positive thing is the establishment of a common consciousness about being Roma, the shaping of the Roma identity. My generation started collecting memories of our parents and grandparents, about their history, culture, lifestyle and traditions. It is good to see that, based on this reanimation of Romani heritage, we have an increasing number of university departments on Romani studies, books and academics who teach and write about Roma.

One negative thing is that, although we have Roma-related policies and special provisions for Roma on the political and human rights agenda, Roma issues are not mainstreamed but pushed to the pheriphery. This is due to the lack of a strong political will and commitment of the states and other relevant decisionmakers. As regards cooperation among Roma, we seem to be too busy with our everyday work and we lose the big picture of what exactly we are working for and what we finally want to achieve. As a result, we forget to work in a team or we are not keen to co-operate with others who have a similar purpose under various constraints – of the institutions we work for, special or personal. The last negative thing I would like to highlight is the increasing poverty that Roma face, which has gradually deepened in the last decade. And the irony is that, although Roma rights advocates improved their skills and managed to set up NGOs, ordinary Roma people lack basic facilities and social services. The truth is that we have still a long way to go, and we cannot effectively help Roma without a real and constant government commitment and investment in Roma communities. Unfortunately, the social context is much stronger than our efforts alone could ever be. This is one challenge we continue to struggle with.

Beata Olahova: The three best things that happened for Roma in the last decade are: the emergence of international, governmental and non-governmental organizations and local NGOs that focus their activities on the rights of Roma; greater awareness of the situation of Roma in Europe; and the reaction and support of donor institutions and governments towards the cause of Roma.

The three worst things in my opinion were: the continued deprivation of the rights of Roma people in Europe by states and other non-state actors; the unwillingness by European governments to respect and implement legislation in a coordinated manner regarding non-discrimination and social inclusion of Roma; the continued increase of anti-Romani sentiment all around Europe.

Iulius Rostas: Freedom that followed the revolutions and benefited everybody was one of the best and worst things at the same time that happened to Roma. Although it provided freedom to everyone, and secured democracy and the rule of law, it also served as a basis for the gradually worsening living standard of Roma and a turning point for their overt exclusion in terms of education, housing, etc. A second good thing was the European Union enlargement. This process provided a great opportunity to influence public agenda, government policies and the public at large. In Central and Eastern Europe the EU enlargement was the leading vector for Roma policies. The governments acted not because of their commitment to human rights and care for Roma but because the EU demanded that. A third good thing happening to Roma is that a thicker strata of Roma got involved in activism, went into universities and became professionals, working for Roma and non-Roma alike. They set up NGOs and put pressure on governments to improve the situation of Roma.

ERRC: How do these relate to the rights of the Roma?

Costel Bercus: Many of the disadvantaged housing, health or educational conditions arise from the violation of fundamental rights of Roma. And let me say here that the capacity of monitoring and highlighting human rights abuses is still very low in Roma communities. Although such violations happen on a daily basis, when they appear in the media, the majority believes that they are unique cases, which is wrong. Violations of fundamental rights of Roma are not isolated cases but are systematic, and this is what should be made clear for the majority population.

Karel Holomek: I would like to emphasize here that it is important to become a strong fighter for the human rights of Roma, which is very simple and at the same time very difficult. Everybody needs to work very hard to improve herself or himself: to be educated, conscious of her or his own values, honest and hard-working. Nothing more, nothing less. Only people with such qualities have the ability to fight successfully for human rights, and we all have to take efforts to gain and improve those qualities.

Cristi Mihalache: All the above mentioned positive and negative achievements have to do with the rights of Roma. More concretely, they have to do with the extent to which the struggle – to persuade policy making actors at governmental and intergovernmental level and to influence their agenda – is successful towards the improvement of living conditions of each Roma at community level and, most importantly, the way they are treated and perceived by mainstream societies.

Isabela Mihalache: Well, nobody decides to be poor. Which means that poverty is a result of something, namely the lack of enjoyment of certain rights. All the above mentioned issues are linked to rights: political participation, social and cultural rights, or to the right to identity.

Beata Olahova: All these things are related to rights of Roma in that they express the improvements and shortcomings of efforts to help the Roma populace in Europe.

Iulius Rostas: I talked about transition: it brought the right to freedom of speech through which Roma activists could advance their course. However, on the other hand, it served as a tool for stressing anti-Romani feelings. EU enlargement was the engine of change for Roma in Central and Eastern Europe. With Agenda 2000, protection of Roma became a political criterion for EU candidate countries. Roma NGOs are the principal channel of Roma participation in public life. They are defending the human rights of Roma together with other NGOs interested in human rights.

ERRC: Are we heading the right way? What gives you hope and strength to keep on fighting for the Roma and their rights?

Costel Bercus: Well, you never know that until you arrive to the end of the road. But based on the last years' experience, I think that we should be on the right way. There is an attention towards Roma, there are still resources and energy being spent to improve the situation. I can not estimate how much more time we need for the full integration of Roma, but I believe that we will be able to see some real changes by 2010-2015. And however difficult it might look, we should never give up the fight, although this might be easier for us, observers, compared to people on the settlements who are struggling for basic things like food or running water, and can not see the developments as we do.

Karel Holomek: Yes, despite some negative issues that I mentioned earlier, we are on the right way, considering what I can see in Europe and based on the developments in my country, in the Czech Republic. Belonging to the EU is a hope for all Romani people as the Union presses countries to fullfil their duties towards minorities, including Romani communities. But we are far from reaching our full integration and our final aims.

Roma youth is my second hope besides the EU: there are more and more educated and professional Roma who, unlike old Romani people, know various tools and solutions for problems and have other strenghts than the previous generations' solely ethnic principles.

Cristi Mihalache: It is difficult to assess whether we are on the right track. I do not see the possibility for sustainable, long-term progress without the effective mobilisation and involvement of local communities themselves. I can definitely state that we fool ourselves believing that a top-down approach will suffice.

Isabela Mihalache: We definitely are on the right way. And I could not say that we were at any point in a wrong way. That's my philosophy about life in general: there is only one way, no more ways and you have to keep on walking on that one. I feel strong because I know I am doing the right thing and I work hard to achieve what hopefully helps people. I can not bear inequalities and I am a fighter, so the more difficulties I face, the more stubborn I become to get things done.

Beata Olahova: The Roma movement is heading the right way based on the successes we experienced to date compared to the last two decades. Significant success has been achieved in the fields of education, social inclusion, political awareness and development. I feel strong because I have a hope that one day the problems facing Roma in Europe will become a thing of the past, the struggle for equality of all will be realised.

Iulius Rostas: I do not think there is a right way. You just do it and then you will see if you did well or you do not do it and you will never know. In order to remain able to keep on fighting, you need to be very committed. And this can also be a difference between Roma and non-Roma who work for Roma rights. As a Roma, whatever you do, wherever you work, you will remain the "Gypsy" for your colleagues, whereas non-Roma can freely choose and change workplaces and for them, working for Roma can also be just an "exotic experience". For us Roma, being and advocating for Roma is something we can not live without, we can not chose to forget about the difficult plight of our families and communities. It is part of our identity and a way to express it. I get my strength through small satisfactions: when I see new and young people who come to meetings with fresh ideas; or when I see that more and more Roma parents raise their voice in schools against the intolerable attitude of non-Roma teachers and pupils towards their children; or when you do something that makes even a few people happy for a moment, I think it is worth it to continue what I do.

ERRC: How do you evaluate ERRC's contribution to the cause of Roma rights? What would you recommend to ERRC?

Costel Bercus: I think ERRC played from the very beginning an important role. It became a reference organization in the discussions of Roma rights. But the situation has changed, and the challenges today are more diverse and complex, and the capacity of Roma NGOs and activists is stronger than it was 10 years ago. I wish ERRC had the maturity to conduct a self-evaluation and be ready to re-draft and re-orient its focus areas. 1994-1997 was a dramatic period where there was a need for leading organizations to advocate for Roma, but a new generation grew up in the meantime who can take the lead. In my opinion, ERRC should trust and co-operate with grassroots organizations better, especially when these organizations clearly wish to strenghten their relationship with ERRC. The European Roma Rights Centre is a brand: regardless of whether they do bad or good, it still remains a reference. But this should not mean that ERRC is free from taking continued efforts to improve itself. If I could advise, there should be a critical discussion among ERRC staff members with a will to define what kind of different contribution ERRC should make, through drawing the lessons of the 10 years long existence and experience. Changes are necessary, even if organizations are sometimes afraid of it. States change their leadership almost every four years: new prime ministers come and go, and they might bring better or might bring worse but the evaluation is at least regularly made.

Karel Holomek: ERRC is a great organisation. It has lots of qualities and has achieved many significant results during its existence. Governments listen to ERRC's suggestions in the field of protection of human rights of Roma. I do not know any other NGO which has the same kind of influence. I think that ERRC works absolutely professionally and has strategic programmes in countries, where the situation of Roma is totally ignored, not only by European instituations but by their own governents too (Russia, Ukraine, Balkan countries).

Cristi Mihalache: ERRC has been a major actor in constructing important chapters of the theoretical background behind the success of getting Roma to the attention of governments and other stakeholders over the last 10 years. The challenge for the ERRC in the years to come will be to gain its legitimate place on a map where the major role has to be played by national and, most importantly, local community- based actors, in a struggle to see implemented at least some of the commitments or obligations already on paper. It is partly due to the work of the ERRC, that we are in the position to aim for this natural course.

Isabela Mihalache: ERRC did have a huge contribution to the cause of Roma right. At the beginning, there was nothing else: all the advocacy papers, press releases and international litigation were done by ERRC. And although ERRC is not a Roma NGO, it is widely recognized as such. It became a reference point and it is known as the main information source about Roma rights. I think ERRC is now in a transition period and has to decide what to do from now on. I believe that litigation is one key to success. Equally, I wish ERRC could start training and empowering local NGOs so that they themselves can take cases to the international level. Local organizations are closer to potential and actual victims and to the problems, and Roma could effectively get involved in litigation activities if they had adequate information and expertise.

Beata Olahova: The ERRC contribution to the Roma rights cause has been a huge success.

Iulius Rostas: The ERRC did a great job, especially until about 2001-2002. During this time, ERRC managed to put Roma rights issues on the international human rights agenda. But after 2001, ERRC failed to adapt to the new conditions. It became a competitor for other Roma NGOs that emerged and became more and more visible, including in competition for available funds. This competition was not fair, since ERRC received professional and financial support that was not available to Roma NGOs. ERRC has also a problem with legitimacy.

One dilemma remained undecided: is it an organization which represents Roma or does it only work for Roma? It speaks about the Roma without being a part of the Roma movement. And in my opinion, it is morally wrong and it is not fair to shape the public discourse on Roma and not have a Roma constituency.

I am also concerned about ERRC's litigation strategy: the Legal Department should strengthen the relationship with its clients. The Hadareni case proved that the relation with the clients was a major deficit in the success of the case.

However, with all the criticism, I believe that ERRC did a great job. ERRC should continue to exist and it will be good if it would adapt to the new conditions and serve as some kind of laboratory for Roma activists, engage in capacity building and strengthen grassroots organisations in mobilizing Roma communities.

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