Protection of Roma rights in Sweden and Europe – progress and failures

I was interviewed by Bernard Rorke for the blog of European Roma Rights Centre, headquartered in Budapest. Below are the questions and my answers.

1. When you published the report ‘Human rights of Roma and Travellers in Europe’ back in 2012, you hoped it would encourage constructive discussion on what must be done to put an end to discrimination and marginalisation. How do you see the situation two years later?

– Sadly, the trend is negative. The Roma population has been disproportionally affected by the economic crisis and the austerity policies. The growth of organized nationalistic and xenophobic political parties has caused severe set-backs. Roma communities have been targeted by extremists in several European countries. EU programs for Roma rights have not been effective.

2. One of your striking recommendations to combat anti-Gypsyism was that truth commissions be established in a number of European countries to put on record the history of mass atrocities against Roma people. Does the Swedish White Paper provide a practical example of how this might be done? Could you tell us a little about that, and about any good practices that emerged from the process?

– The Swedish White Paper, which covered the situation of Roma throughout the 20th century, exposed a shameful history of systematic discrimination based on racial prejudices. For years the official intention was to make life for the Roma population so unpleasant that they would prefer to leave the country. Not least children and their schooling were victims of this policy.
– Roma people in Sweden welcomed this report. At long last there was an official recognition of the persecution.
– This government paper is factual and relevant but it would in my opinion have been more appropriate have it prepared by an independent commission (even if the government had an advisory group of some Roma representatives).
– Lessons: 1) Very important that a procedure is set up to disclose and present the true history of how the Roma people have been treated; 2) This work should be impartial and with direct participation of Roma representatives; 3) There should be a follow-up on the facts presented – in schools and to the broader public through education materials, exhibitions and other information techniques; 4) When relevant, victims should be able to claim compensation.

3. In a recent blog you mentioned that following a study visit to Romania, you were deeply saddened by the continued misery among Roma communities. What were the particular situations that struck you on that visit?

– Most Roma in Romania live in deep poverty. In practice the social rights of many are denied, for instance regarding housing, education, health care and employment. There are of others in the country who are extremely poor, but the Roma are overrepresented among those in misery. The main reason is anti-gypsyism and marginalization. The poisonous prejudices against this minority is widespread in the country and too little is done to counter this mentality.

4. You spoke of feeling encouraged after having met “some officials both locally and in government circles who are prepared to contribute to sustainable solutions.” The Decade of Roma Inclusion is nearly over, and civil society and the European Commission’s basically agree that the current Romanian National Roma Integration Strategy is dismal. Do you have any hope that the Romanian authorities can come up with sustainable solutions proportionate to the problems of exclusion by 2020?

– Yes, I met also some officials who genuinely realize that something energetic must be done to break the vicious cycle and to protect and promote Roma rights. We outsiders should avoid painting all decision-makers in Romania in negative colors, this does not help.

5. What do you think of recent developments in France: incidents of anti-Roma violence, ever more harsh official rhetoric, mass evictions, and plans to use anti-terrorist measures as a cover to expel ‘undesirable’ EU citizens?

– When I was Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights the French government tried to have me dismissed after I had voiced criticism against its policy towards visiting Roma people from Romania and Bulgaria. That failed but the policy of evictions and expulsions have continued. The reports I have now received from France on this issue are deeply worrying.

6. What to do about anti-Roma hate speech online and offline? As you say, proper self-regulation has proven to be wanting in several countries. But how do we balance concerns about freedom of expression and protection against the kind of speech which amounts to incitement to hatred?

– True, this balance is the issue. Freedom of expression is very cardinal and must be protected. But this freedom is not unlimited, which is also recognized in the European Convention on Human Rights. Speech which incites to violence should never be allowed. When such violence targets minorities it is particularly important that there is a clear response from the justice system. My feeling is that the law enforcement structures not always take hate speech against Roma with the necessary seriousness. Some brutal hate crimes – for instance in Czech Republic and Hungary – have happened after a period of anti-Roma hate speeches.

7. You stated that the coordination on human rights between the Council of Europe and the EU has not worked well in spite of declarations on “European values” which have been strikingly similar. Could you tell us more about this?

– In the field of human rights there are a number of regional and international governmental actors. So also in relation to Roma rights in Europe which is, at least partly, covered by Council of Europe, EU, OSCE and branches of the United Nations. A considerable dynamics could be mobilized through coordination between these bodies. Having worked on the inside, I had to notice that this opportunity was often missed. This is a pity as all of them have limited resources.
– However, I think it is fair to say that a bigger problem is the lack of implementation of the governments in the member states on agreements they have once reached in defense of their citizens.

8. You wrote that “the original financial crisis turned into a broader economic crisis which in turn ended up in a political crisis – and a crisis of basic values.” What basic values are in crisis, and what do you think are the consequences of this crisis for European societies?

– The growth of authoritarian and xenophobic forces is a symptom of the crisis. Even more serious is that larger political parties too often strike deals with such groups or coopt their proposals. Such compromises may in the longer run undermine the very basis of our democracies. What is at stake are basic human rights for everyone in society and respect for those who are different from the majority or mainstream.
– The political rhetoric has been brutalized: the poor have themselves to blame; the unemployed are lazy and have not tried enough; the beggers should return instead of pestering us; if the immigrants do not like it here, they could go home; the minorities should accept our culture if they want to stay: we do not multiculturalism; etcetera.
– The intolerant and extreme nationalists are creating divisions while we need to build bridges. If they are able to gain more support our societies will change character – not to the better.

9. You have often stressed the importance of non-governmental groups and civil society initiatives as a counter-balance to authoritarian and xenophobic trends. Following Prime Minister Orban’s declaration of intent to build an illiberal democracy, how do you view the recent actions taken by the Hungarian Government against NGOs?

– Ever since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted non-governmental groups have played an absolutely crucial role in both protecting and promoting human rights. This is now endangered by imposed restrictions on these groups in a number of countries. They are forced to go through licensing procedures and made subject to harassments by fiscal police and other authorities. Government-controlled media launch negative campaigns against those who dares to voice criticism. This is serious.

10. You have been a driving force and for many an inspiration for many years as regards the rights of the child. In Poland, 2012 was the year of Janusz Korczak: 70 years after his execution by the Nazis and 100 years after he started working in an orphanage in Warsaw, you wrote that some of his ideas are still not fully understood and they are absolutely relevant in the work for children’s rights today. What needs to be understood better, and how much remains to be done to safeguard the fundamental rights of the child across Europe?

– The writings of Janusz Korczak define what the rights of the child are really about. We adults ought to see the child as an individual with rights now, not only after having grown up. We should learn to listen to children and never meet their views and actions with any form of violence. One key word is respect. As a small example, Korczak asked us never spy into the diary of a child, she has the right to keep her secrets for herself. That deeper understanding is still missing among many of us.

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