On representation

07 November 1997

The ERRC acts to promote better understanding of specific problems with which Romani people in various social and cultural environments are faced. We insist that the Roma are endowed with universal human rights and have to be respected and treated equally without discrimination. The ERRC seeks to advance the rights and freedoms of the Romani people not because they may contribute in an exotic way Co European cultures, nor because they may be skilled musicians or story-tellers, but because they are bearers of the universal potential of development as human beings, born equal and free, but denied equality and freedom in today's Europe.

But Roma, we are told, are great musicians, and the uniqueness of their culture in Europe and even in the world is obvious. How tan we then reduce this uniqueness, and the specific circumstances surrounding the Romani identity, to a set of abstract and universal human rights norms? Do we understand the Roma? Is understanding of the Romani culture a prerequisite of research into the human rights status of the Roma?

In addressing complicated situations such as the mass emigration of Czech Roma to Canada last summer, or the negative effects on Roma of business legislation in Macedonia, we seem to be firmly planted in the ground of the human rights axioms. The gusts of wind which we must resist in our daily work are often rushed on us by Romani leaders, of all people. Soma of them tell us that unless we have as a Basic assumption the unique Romani identity, we will not be effective defenders of Roma rights. The discussion, trivially, swirls inside this dilemma: which is more important, abstract human rights or concrete ethnic identity? Equal treatment or stress of cultural difference? And, not consequentially but according to the manipulative "logic" of political implications, integration into European society or promotion of Romani culture? Should Roma study English or Romanes?

I dismiss the above dilemma as belonging to an outdated mode of socio-political rationalisation of human activity But the existence of the discussion itself and the tension accompanying it document an ongoing struggle over the Roma agenda. To put it simply, who defines the agenda? Who is in a position to say what is "good" far "the Romani people"? What is ERRC's place in setting the agenda?
The ERRC believes that racial discrimination in the sense of Article 1 of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) is the daily reality of Roma life in end-of-century Europe. Racism degrades not only the disadvantaged minority, but members of the majority as well. Those who oppress are not themselves free and equal. Racial discrimination is a moral and legal problem of the majority no less than it is a tragedy of the oppressed minority. From the point of view of the majority, the Roma appear as a "problem": but from the point of view of the Roma, gadje (non-Roma) are the problem. Those of us at the ERRC who are non Roma regard racism as our own problem, as a defect of the culture in which we belong-not as some "Roma problem" with which our paternalistic societies condescend to deal, treating the Roma as pets. Non-Roma have their own agenda against racial discrimination.

When we explain this, most Roma have told us, "fair enough", and "we need you". Everyone at this house treasures memories of thankfulness and solidarity But - symptomatically - some Romani leaders remain suspicious toward all gadje who deal with Roma issues. We have been told by such leaders that our presence is an obstacle; that we spend the money which is out there for the Roma; that we are not sufficiently competent to build our careers in our own fields in the mainstream society and this is why we work on Gypsy stuff. And that once we have fallen so low, we must obey and serve the Rome properly.

To this we respond: the ERRC does not intend to "serve", and does not even "work for" the Romani people. It does not represent in anyway, nor speak on behalf of the Romani people either. First, the majority of the ERRC professional staff is currently non-Roma. This is due to the scarcity of Roma professionals whose qualifications and experience would warrant quality work. Roma are, however, active at ERRC as interns and as entry-level professionals. During this formative stage of the Roma civil rights movement, the overrepresentation of non-Roma may be justified. However, it is ERRC's strategy to develop toward increasing the number, and achieving overrepresentation of Roma in the organisation. It is our stated goal to have a majority of Roma in the staff by the year 2000.

Let us suppose, however, that the ERRC had an all-Roma staff. Would it represent the Roma then? I hope that a negative answer is self-evident. I believe that speaking on behalf of alt the Roma of Europe is not a conceivable privilege of any single NGO, national or international, staffed by Roma or non-Roma. None of the existing formations dealing with Roma issues has received its man date from the Roma in a process of informed and democratic decision-making at the international or even a national level. Whether this is a possibility in the future is another question. But even if and when such a formation appears, independent human rights monitoring will be valuable. Protection of human rights is a concern which is very different and sometimes contrary to the representative decision of the majority, even a majority of the oppressed.

At this stage, the ERRC works against the racist and discriminatory elements of European societies. It is only one among many organisations which challenge racism. With its narrow mandate of monitoring and defending legal rights, the ERRC is far from able to improve the overall situation of the Roma. But in the specific effort to protect the rights of Roma, the existing Romani organisations and the ERRC are allies, making common cause.


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