European Roma Institute proponents respond to analysis by the European Roma and Travellers Forum
On 21 May, in advance of a Council of Europe meeting to discuss the possible founding of a European Roma Institute, the European Roma and Travellers Forum published its analysis of the “revised concept paper on the creation of a European Roma Institute”. The full document of the ERTF assessment can be found here.
The ERTF is an international non-governmental, non-profit organization that aims to promote Roma and Traveller rights and freedoms as protected by international law and has been in existence for more than a decade. Its critique questioned whether an emphasis on Romani culture can actually combat discrimination, drawing a parallel with previous circumstances of European history as follows: "The Jewish population has produced some of the world’s greatest composers, musicians, painters and scientists but this has not put a stop to anti-semitism nor to the extermination of 6 million Jews."
The ERTF statement concluded by calling for an international "Roma Foundation with the exclusive vocation of promoting Roma culture and the arts, mostly through financial and strategic assistance, and totally independent of national governments and international organisations and institutions". News server Romea.cz then contacted several Romani figures with the "Alliance for the ERI" for their response to the ERTF analysis.
Zeljko Jovanovic, director of the Roma Initiatives Office at the Open Society Foundations, says the ERI is not intended to supplant existing anti-discrimination measures, but to augment them. "Precisely because we are all learning that nicely written laws and policies alone are not sufficient, we need a set of additional instruments to reach the level of social and political consensus needed for making change," he says.
"The Institute will not be able to deal with the extreme cases of violence, killings and other criminal acts against the Roma," Jovanovic says. "This is why we have laws and law enforcement agencies. History teaches us that laws are not enough. For example, the work Germany did to educate its own public about Germany’s role in WWII was necessary for remembrance and historical responsibility. Tony Judt, one of the brightest historians have we ever had, wrote about this. He recognizes that in Germany three principal elements were critical for 'remembrance': Trials, formal education, and public education through the arts, in particular, documentary movies. The ERI will learn how to use the latter to educate the wider public about why the EU and governments need to respond to the legacy of discrimination by investing public resources into targeted socio-economic measures. The specific experience of Spain is also very telling as to how Roma self-esteem can support socio-economic efforts when Roma are proud of who they are and what their arts and culture mean in and for Spain."
Jovanovic also said critiques of the ERI idea as a "top-down" idea are misinformed: "This initiative is a result of organic, genuine development among Roma activists and intellectuals. The core ideas behind the ERI did not came from OSF and CoE, they came from Roma activists and intellectuals over a decade. The Alliance is made up of Roma organizations and public intellectuals and they are equal partners to the OSF and CoE. Plus, a membership mechanism is proposed so all local initiatives and organizations willing to join ERI’s work can engage with and shape the ERI and its work locally. The ERI will be a hub or network or tent under which all the local organizations and initiatives can find their place if they wish to do so, so there is no need to fear centralization."
Anna Mirga, a Romani activist from Poland who is studying anthropology in Barcelona, responded to the ERTF analysis by noting that the advocates of the ERI support the ERTF, calling it "an important institution which plays a unique role internationally and has great potential". She emphasized that despite rumors to the contrary, the ERI does not envision itself as somehow replacing the ERTF.
"The objectives and roles of both institutions are completely different - ERTF is an organization of political representation while ERI is envisioned as an independent institution working in the fields of arts and culture," she says. "It is not a political body (although we may argue to what extent culture and identity is in fact political) or a representative institution. We want to collaborate with ERTF, find synergies and complementarities between both and work together."
Mirga also stresses that while the ERTF statement implies that the ERI will attempt to standardize Romani culture in some way, this is a misunderstanding. "The ERI is based on the principle of diversity and plurality of Romani cultures and identities. It is a space where these different Roma identities and cultures can interact, converge and exchange... On the other hand, however, we should acknowledge that Roma are not recognized as ethnic/ national minorities in many European countries, leaving them without a legal and institutional framework for cultural preservation and promotion. In such cases, ERI can effectively fill such a void by providing an international institutional framework for Romani arts and culture."
Iulius Rostas, a lecturer at Corvinus University in Budapest, says that following discussions with the ERTF leadership, the Alliance believes it has now clarified any previous misunderstandings. "We, the Alliance for ERI, are glad that by talking to ERTF, other Roma groups, governments and EU institutions, we have managed to clarify some aspects of the ERI. We were glad to see that ERTF leadership expressed openly their support for ERI during the CAHROM meeting. There is no overlap between ERI and ERTF. ERI is about promoting Roma arts and culture, about valuing our own contributions to European culture and identity. ERI, unlike ERTF, does not aim to represent Roma. The two initiatives have different aims and they will co-exist for the benefit of Roma."
Rostas says the Institute will provide visibility to Romani artists, value the Romani contribution to European culture, and will "communicate Roma identity in the public sphere... ERI is complementary to existing initiatives - EU Framework for Roma National Integration Strategies, Decade of Roma Inclusion, etc. - aiming to improve the situation of Roma... I believe that there cannot be Roma inclusion without the support of the majority population, support that cannot be mobilised in the current climate if we do not also present the way Roma have contributed to European culture and identity. At the same time, one cannot talk about Roma social, economic or political inclusion without cultural inclusion. That means Roma artists and Roma artistic productions should be part of mainstream cultural institutions. Unfortunately, this is not happening now. As our colleague Timea Junghaus from the the European Roma Cultural Foundation has revealed, out of 10 000 Romani artworks that are stored in the national archives and the basements of other cultural institutions, only two pieces have ever been exhibited in mainstream cultural institutions. ERI aims to promote the works of Roma artists and provide support to cultural productions to penetrate mainstream cultural spaces."
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