US Ambassador to OSCE: Roma issues are Europe's unfinished human rights business
In advance of International Romani Day on 8 April, US Ambassador to the OSCE Daniel B. Baer held a press conference about how the OSCE works on Roma issues. Journalists from Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Kosovo, Slovakia and the United States joined the teleconference, including Romea.cz.
The Ambassador began his remarks by noting that Romani people are part of the story of both America and Europe and said "the failure to fulfill the promise of human rights for all people, including Romani and Sinti people, is one of the pieces of unfinished human rights business in Europe, as former Secretary Clinton once called it. In too many places we know that discrimination and social exclusion and often violence is not adequately addressed by governments, and in some cases even supported or encouraged by government policies. So this remains a priority human rights issue for the United States in engaging with civil society and with governments in Europe."
Baer said US policy has been to seek acknowledgment from European governments, both bilaterally and multilaterally within the OSCE context, that this problem needs to be addressed. This involves building up a "fact base" through the U.S. State Department's Human Rights Reports, which highlight concerns about the human rights of Roma and Sinti, as well as through the work of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Lastly, the US invests program money to help train members of Roma civil society to become effective advocates. This includes opportunities like the International Visitor Leadership Program or the Fulbright exchange program.
The Ambassador noted that Romani people have worked for the OSCE at the Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues (CPRSI) of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and are probably also working for the OSCE's field missions, currently in 16 countries. He noted that he has raised "the lack of Roma voices in stories about Roma in the media" during his previous meetings with civil society on Roma and Sinti issues and suggested that it might be interesting for Romani people to seek internships or other collaboration with the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media (RFM) in Vienna. He also suggested that it would be interesting to reach out to both the CPRSI and the RFM to see whether they might be able to bring Romani journalists together to talk about how to proceed on that issue.
Katalin Bársony, head of the Romédia Foundation in Hungary, then asked Baer whether there are any opportunities available to make it possible for Romani civil society and journalists to attend the OSCE's annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting. The Ambassador said he would be "happy to follow up" and that he encouraged everyone to contact their local US Embassy and make them aware of those interested in participating, adding that "one of the challenges in addressing the discrimination against Roma and Sinti is that there aren’t enough opportunities to get first-hand accounts... and there is not enough being done to empower those who are tackling those challenges in the local communities where they live and making the case for change in those communities. So I think any opportunity to both highlight the problem and also learn lessons from each other about how to address it are opportunities that shouldn’t be missed."
Ivett Körösi from the Hungarian daily Népszabadság then asked Baer for his assessment of the situation in that country. The Ambassador said the US has "had a number of concerns for several years now with respect to the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms more broadly in Hungary... Jobbik has for years now had part of its populist message be a message of discrimination, and that is unfortunate... we look to political leaders to lead and to address that kind of hate... as a matter of principle and a matter of government policy. I know that there have been a number of challenges with respect to freedom of expression, freedom of association in recent years, and obviously these challenges make it harder for civil society actors to engage in good faith with a government that engages in good faith...".
Gilda-Nancy Horvath from Austrian broadcaster ORF then asked about the proposal for a European Roma Institute and whether any agreements have been reached on possible cooperation with it. The Ambassador said the US has "spoken out strongly in favor of such an initiative and we’ve begun to have some conversations with other governments to express our support... I think the ongoing challenges faced by Roma and Sinti individuals in Europe... [are] something that is... not well enough known in Europe and elsewhere in the world, so we see initiatives of this kind as part of a broader effort to shine a spotlight on not only the challenges, but [on] the rich history of Romani communities in Europe."
Gwendolyn Albert from news server Romea.cz then asked where the US sees the greatest need for urgent action when it comes to implementing the OSCE Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti. Baer said that a fairly large OSCE program across several countries has helped some governments focus on Romani access to legal processes, as well as obtaining identification cards, but that one of the remaining challenges for the US is how to help governments follow through on their commitments. He mentioned institutionalized social exclusion, such as challenges surrounding school segregation or the lack of access to public services like sewers and electricity for Roma communities as areas of top concern.
News server Romea.cz then mentioned that part of the problem with respect to segregation in the Czech Republic is that Romani children and their parents experience an atmosphere of bullying and intimidation from different actors in the schools. Even when Romani parents do manage to enroll their children into mainstream schools with mostly majority-society children, educators are not trained in how to cultivate an environment of equal treatment in the classroom. Is there more the OSCE can do to address this kind of fine-grained, pervasive problem?
The Ambassador responded that more can be done, noted that bullying is a problem in the US as well, said that the US held an OSCE side event on the general issue of bullying in 2012. He noted that educators need to be well-trained in how to identify bullying, how to avoid participating in it themselves, and how to create the kind of school environment where students are less likely to participate in it. The US is interested in addressing this issue and will continue to look for willing partners on it.
Romea.cz then asked whether the US believes there is room within the second dimension of the OSCE - economic and environmental activities - to impact the situation of Roma in the participating States as well? Baer said that "economic inclusion is one of the things that, not only at a political level but also at a practical level, a number of the OSCE field missions work on. I think it’s also a place where the particular challenges of Romani women and empowering Romani women to participate in the economic life of their societies... there’s an opportunity to focus on that in the second dimension. There are cross-cutting issues here."
Lucie Kudlacková of Aktuálně.cz then asked whether Ambassador Baer had any recommendations for the Czech Government given the infringement proceedings underway. He responded that while there has been high-level engagement in response to the proceedings, he believes that is not enough to solve the problems, and said the only solution that he has seen work for solving such problems in education is to meet with local communities, to understand what the challenges are, to talk with educators, and to figure out policy steps to address the problems identified on the basis of such communication. He recommended "genuine, sustained engagement from government officials and from policymakers with those who are affected by, implicated by the challenge at hand. Obviously that means here talking to families and students, as well as educators, as well as local officials to try to figure out how to address the problems."
Katalin Bársony from the Romédia Foundation then asked the Ambassador to draw attention to what is happening with Romani communities in Ukraine. Baer responded that last year on the occasion of International Roma Day he made sure to highlight the information that Roma in Russia-occupied Crimea who want to leave face obstacles. He said the US has also highlighted concerns about the vulnerability of Roma in the parts of the two Eastern Oblasts where the separatists have been active, because from the very beginning there have been reports of the particular vulnerability of those communities being exacerbated by the violence. A human rights assessment mission was carried out by ODIHR and the High Commissioner on National Minorities and the CPRSI has also visited Ukraine during the past year. Baer said the US will continue to encourage a focus on Roma and other groups who find themselves even more vulnerable in times of conflict or crisis.
Lastly, Edis Galushi, a Romani journalist from the public broadcaster of Kosovo, Radio Kosova, asked about the Kosovo Action Plan on the Implementation of the Strategy for the Integration of Roma 2009-2015 and noted that there is a lack of communication and coordination between institutions and the stakeholders involved in the strategy, which means problems are not fully understood. Limited political will appears to be hampering the progress of Romani community development. What can the OSCE do to help implement this strategy?
The Ambassador responded that the OSCE's largest field mission is in Kosovo, and he believes the OSCE should support addressing such gaps and support ongoing consultation between civil society and the government. While Kosovo is not an OSCE participating State, the US has frequently had the opportunity to discuss with its representatives the incorporation of minority communities there, including the Romani minority, and the US mission to the OSCE meets regularly with counterparts from Kosovo to talk about the ongoing challenges to Kosovo's own democratic development. The US supports the ongoing negotiations in Brussels and hopes for continued progress there.
In closing, the Ambassador noted that he encourages the raising of Roma and Sinti issues at the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw during the second half of September, as well as at other regional meetings of the OSCE. "I really encourage everyone who can to make their voices heard in a number of places and keep the spotlight on," he said. "You’ll certainly have the U.S. Government's support."
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