Protection of the Rights of Roma in the Participating States of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE Region)

13 November 2006

Aaron Rhodes and Ann-Sofie Nyman1

A majority of the estimated 8-10 million Roma in the world reside in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) region, which includes the countries of Europe, Central Asia and North America. Throughout history, Roma have been the victims of persecution and injustice in the region, and currently they are its most vulnerable and disadvantaged minority. Across the region, Roma are subject to prejudice and hostility, discrimination and violence, as well as exclusion and marginalisation. From the perspective of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) and its National Committees and Cooperating Organisations, the main human rights issues relating to the situation of the Roma in the OSCE region fall into four principal areas:

Tolerance: Anti-Romani prejudices and resentments are deeply rooted in the OSCE countries and frequently reflected in public debate. In many OSCE countries, Roma are also often the targets of harassment and violence, while investigations into such crimes typically are ineffective. Likewise, abuse of Roma by law enforcement officials often persist unchallenged and unremedied.

Non-discrimination: In major parts of the OSCE region, discrimination against Roma is pervasive in different areas of society, and Roma routinely experience exclusion in political, economic and social life. From the perspective of the rights of Roma, it is therefore of particular concern that many OSCE countries do not have in place comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation and that existing anti-discrimination provisions often are not adequately implemented.

Minority rights: Roma are not recognised as an ethnic or national minority in all OSCE countries and therefore do not enjoy protection on an equal basis with other groups that have been afforded minority status under national law. A particular challenge concerning the minority protection of Roma is posed by the fact that considerable cultural, linguistic and religious diversity often prevails inside of those communities that are labeled as Roma and that the members of these communities do not necessarily share a common identity. Any protection schemes need to adequately take this pluralism into account.

Economic and social rights: In all parts of the OSCE region, Roma experience serious economic and social problems. The situation of Roma is often characterised by widespread poverty and unemployment, substandard housing conditions, inferior health standards, patterns of school segregation and school drop out rates several times higher than the average population. The fall of communism in the former socialist countries, and the demise of welfare systems that satisfied the basic needs of everyone, hit Roma particularly hard and worsened their plight in these countries. Further exacerbating the situation, violations of their economic and social rights often go hand in hand with prejudice, hostility and discrimination.

In all the four areas discussed, the Helsinki Final Act (the founding document of the OSCE), its follow-up documents, as well as other international human rights treaties and agreements, establish clear obligations for the OSCE States. Moreover, in their agreements and decisions, the OSCE States have repeatedly recognised the particular difficulties faced by Roma and the need for effective measures to combat intolerance, prejudice and discrimination against them.2

In the last decade, there has been growing awareness of human rights issues pertaining to Roma in the OSCE region. This is largely the result of the work of NGOs promoting the rights of Roma, especially the European Roma Rights Center. OSCE institutions and other international governmental organisations operating in the region have also embraced this topic, and several OSCE countries have adopted national action strategies for the inclusion and integration of Roma. However, while important steps forward have been taken, the continued predicament of Roma across the OSCE countries makes it clear that progress has been far from satisfactory.

There are obviously many and complex reasons for this failure, but it does appear that lack of political will and commitment lie at the heart of it. In a political climate where anti-Romani sentiments are ingrained among large segments of the population, where the media frequently conveys negative stereotypes about Roma, and the voices of Roma are rarely heard in the public arena, Roma-related issues are not a popular political topic, and governments have little incentive to make them a priority and give them the full attention they would deserve.

As most Central and Eastern European countries now belong to the EU, and the accession of Romania and Bulgaria is apparently only a question of time, EU membership no longer provide, impetus for intensified efforts to address human rights violations against Roma in these countries, where some of the region's largest Roma populations reside. Moreover, in many Western countries, Roma issues have increasingly been sidelined by other concerns in the context of the post-September 11 fight against terrorism as interest has increasingly shifted away from "old" minorities such as the Roma towards "new" minorities such as Muslim immigrant communities. As a result, Roma issues have been pushed further to the margins of the political agenda. In the countries of the former Soviet Union, politicians typically give little consideration to Roma issues compared to other, more popular concerns related to the ongoing transition to democracy and market economy, such as corruption or the general deterioration of economic and social conditions.

As for the future, it is obvious that renewed political determination and engagement are needed to ensure that the protection of the rights of Roma moves forward and does not stall or regress in the OSCE region. Given the fact that violations of the rights of Roma remain a serious concern across the region, the structures of the OSCE are well placed to help lead the way forward.

In line with the human rights commitments undertaken by the OSCE States, the OSCE Permanent Council, which is the organisation's major decisionmaking body, adopted an Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti in November 2003.3 This Plan calls on the OSCE States to adopt responsive, comprehensive and integrated strategies to ensure that Roma and Sinti are able to play a "full and equal part" in their societies and to eradicate discrimination against them. It highlights the importance of elaborating and implementing Romarelated strategies with the active participation of Roma and of maximising Roma ownership of the policies that affect them. It also provides detailed recommendations with respect to combating racism and discrimination against Roma, promoting their social and economic rights, improving their access to education, enhancing their participation in public and political life and ensuring respect for their rights in crisis and post-crisis situations. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and other relevant OSCE institutions and structures are entrusted with assisting the OSCE States in the implementation of the Action Plan.

The Action Plan is unquestionably a key document in the protection of the rights of Roma in the OSCE region. However, while its adoption has contributed to a series of positive initiatives at the national level, the impact of these efforts remain limited, and the Action Plan has yet to attain its full potential in effecting constructive policy change and action in the OSCE countries.

In order to achieve more far-reaching change, it would be essential that all OSCE States acknowledge the gravity and scope of the problems faced by Roma in their countries and approach these issues with the urgency and purpose they require. Accordingly, they should engage in prompt and concerted efforts to review and assess existing program related to Roma in light of the Action Plan and, in close cooperation with representatives of Roma communities, to develop and implement revised and complementary policies in all relevant fields of society. They should also make sure that adequate funds and other resources are available for the realisation of the strategies agreed upon. To the extent appropriate and feasible, the OSCE States should make use of the assistance offered by OSCE institutions when carrying out activities under the Action Plan and capitalise on good practice from other countries.

In the coming years, it is also imperative that civil society continues to serve as a watchdog with respect to official policies affecting Roma by monitoring government conduct, highlighting shortcomings and advocating changes in the approaches employed. Roma NGOs are clearly best equipped to carry out this task, but they need the support of general human rights NGOs to communicate their concerns more effectively. The aim of the region's NGO community should be to mobilise the broadest possible support for calls for equality and justice for Roma.

Endnotes:

  1. Aaron Rhodes is Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) and Ann-Sofie Nyman is IHF Researcher. The IHF is an international non-governmental organization constituted by 46 national Helsinki Committees and Cooperating Organisations in the participating States of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The IHF seeks to promote compliance with human rights commitments adopted within the OSCE as well as other international human rights standards, in particular by bringing together civil society groups that monitor and report on human rights issues from a non-partisan perspective on a common international platform. The European Roma Rights Center is an IHF Cooperating Organization.
  2. See, for example, Document of the Moscow Meeting of the of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE, 3 October 1991, par. 42.2; and Istanbul Document, 19 November 1999, Summit Declaration, par. 20.
  3. OSCE Permanent Council, Decision No. 566: Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area, 27 November 2003.

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