20 years of ‘improving the situation of Roma’: the OSCE Action Plan and the ‘inexcusable failures’ of Participating States
13 July 2023
Twenty years after the adoption of the OSCE Action Plan, its implementation by participating states, has proven – to paraphrase the European Commission – to be an ‘inexcusable failure’. Similar to the EU Framework for Roma Integration, the blame lies squarely with the primary duty bearers, the democratically elected state governments and local authorities.
The fulfilment of the aim of the Action Plan – to ensure that “Roma and Sinti people are able to play a full and equal part in our societies” and to eradicate discrimination against them – seems as remote as ever. Instead of progress on Roma inclusion, Europe has witnessed the continuing paradox whereby increased international recognition of the need for increased Roma participation, equality and inclusion, has gone hand-in-hand with the immiseration of marginalised Roma communities, and a steep rise in antigypsyism within many of the key participating states.
Moves to ‘improve the lot’ of Roma have gone on against a wider backdrop of political polarisation, characterised by nativist populism and growing numbers of voters who support far-right parties with explicitly racist and xenophobic political agendas; and antigypsyism remains a prominent feature in the mobilisation of constituencies driven by hate, resentment and prejudice.
In 2010, Thomas Hammarberg spoke of a shift in the climate of intolerance against Roma from ‘traditional’ prejudice to “outright racist attitudes, preached by marginal yet increasingly visible political groups and left largely unchecked by mainstream society”. By 2020, these forces were no longer marginal, racists were taking their seats in parliament, and sometimes holding posts in government, as democratic backsliding went into full swing.
All of this renders the principles enshrined in the Action Plan more important than ever, and the need to defend these principles more urgent than ever. The Action Plan was emphatic in putting human rights first, and in asserting the guiding principle of Roma participation – for Roma, with Roma.
“Ensure no impunity ….”
Another distinctive feature that set the Action Plan apart from other inclusion frameworks, was ODIHR’s foresighted emphasis on racial justice. Especially worthy of note is its call on states to “Ensure no impunity for perpetrators of discriminatory or violent acts, inter alia, by taking prompt and effective investigative and punitive action on the part of the police.”
Twenty years on, the evidence gathered in the recent ERRC report, Brutal and Bigoted, on police violence against Roma, demonstrates that there is a culture of impunity within law enforcement concerning crimes against Roma, and reveals the extent to which anti-Roma racism is endemic within the ranks of officers paid to ‘protect and serve’. The ERRC case files comprise a catalogue of official lies and botched investigations; testimonies concerning incidents of excessive, arbitrary, and sometimes lethal violence against Roma, young and old; deliberate attempts to discredit and intimidate victims, and protracted struggles through the courts for remedy, where justice for Roma is often denied and always delayed.
Combating racism and discrimination
The Action Plan explicitly called on all participating states to adopt and implement effective anti-discrimination legislation to prohibit direct and indirect racial discrimination in all fields; to impose effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions for discriminatory acts or practices; and heavier sentences for racially motivated crimes by both private individuals and public officials; and to ensure equal access to effective remedies.
Some measure of the extent of regress can be grasped by events in Bulgaria since the 2018 status report. In February 2019, Deputy Prime Minister Krassimir Karakachanov introduced his ‘Concept for the Integration of the Unsocialised Gypsy (Roma) Ethnicity’. This was never actually passed, but the concept, with its stigmatisation of Roma as a threat to national security, its racist stereotyping, and incitement for more direct and radical interventions in Romani neighbourhoods, fully mainstreamed an extremist agenda. 2019 saw politicians, law enforcement, and far-right mobs coalesce in vigilante-style attacks which culminated in anti-Roma pogroms. As the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee reported, these attacks saw hundreds of people, including children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, evicted from their homes in different parts of the country.
In Hungary in 2019, UNCERD expressed ‘deep alarm’ at the prevalence of hate speech targeting Roma, migrants and other minorities; and ‘deep concern’ at the operation of organisations that promote and incite racial hatred, and called on the government to ban such organisations.
It also called on the government to stop racist hate speech and incitement to violence and to “publicly condemn and distance itself, including in the media and on the internet, from racist hate speech by public figures, including politicians, and take measures to protect vulnerable affected groups.”
The prospects for ‘improving the situation of Roma’ look grim in Hungary. In 2022, the European Parliament passed a resolution which asserted that Hungary can no longer be considered a full democracy, and that the breakdown in the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights has led to the emergence of a “hybrid regime of electoral autocracy.”
In January 2019, the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) criticised Italy’s failures to address violations of the European Social Charter concerning its treatment of Romani communities, and warned that official tolerance for anti-Roma hate speech by politicians creates a climate of impunity that emboldens violent far-right extremists. The Committee noted that despite 15 years of recommendations with regards to ‘nomad camps’ and forced evictions, many Roma continue to live in “deplorable conditions, in spite of court rulings confirming that assigning housing in prefabricated containers surrounded by fencing constitutes discrimination”.
Following a 2019 field visit to Italy, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed serious concerns about the increase of intolerance, racial and religious hatred, and xenophobia, “which in some cases is allowed or even encouraged by political leaders and members of Government.” This led to a situation where “hate speech has become normalised, and manifestations of hatred has become permissible.”
The election victory of Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli di Italia in October 2022, marked a new chapter in Europe’s normalisation of neo-fascism, one that does not augur well for progress on Roma inclusion.
It is to ODIHR’s credit that over the past 20 years, the office has remained steadfast in its support for rights-based CSOs and provided many public platforms for civil society actors and opportunities to confront and engage in dialogue with governments on Roma inclusion; the office has been consistent in ensuring Roma voices are heard; has invested in capacity-building and support for Roma and prioritised a human-rights focused inclusion agenda, promoted gender equity, and an intersectional approach to combating discrimination and racism against Roma.
Despite this, 20 years on, there is precious little progress, and the blame lies squarely with state authorities. Despite volumes of progress reports and recommendations, communications and conclusions, resolutions and the relentless gathering of data, anti-Roma racism worsened across much of the continent. Across Europe’s worst-off ‘multiply-disadvantaged’ regions, entire communities of Roma continue to subsist in deep poverty, exposed to environmental injustice, denied access to fundamental rights and essential services, racially segregated and routinely abused. In short, after two decades of ‘action’, millions of Roma find themselves at this juncture, just as excluded as they ever were.
In 2020, European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, said: “Simply put, over the last ten years we have not done enough to support the Roma population. This is inexcusable. Many continue to face discrimination and racism. We cannot accept it.” Twenty years after the launch of the OSCE Action Plan, right across the region, when it comes to anti-Roma racism, too many people in power can accept it. Worse still, they are politically invested in willfully inciting and exacerbating racism against Roma and other visible minorities.
For more detail see ERRC’s full submission to the ODIHR Contact Point for Roma and Sinti issues.