Nicolae Gheorghi had a message for us on Roma Rights

One of the foremost defenders of Roma Rights was Nicolae Gheorghi from Romania who sadly passed away in 2013. In memory of his remarkable contributions the European Roma Rights Center has now published a series of articles on his analyses, messages and efforts. The following was my own piece.

“He came with a broom in his hand”

I had invited Nicolae Gheorghi to a meeting of European Human Rights Defenders in Sarajevo. As Commissioner for Human Rights in the Council of Europe I had taken the liberty to convene meetings of activists who could give good advice and set the tone for our common struggle for human rights on the continent. Nicolae was an obvious invitee, not only because of his straight and often humoristic interventions – he had a message.

At that time he was no longer with the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw. He had moved back to his Romania and joined civil society as an activist again. Entering the Sarajevo conference room he waived the broom in the air explaining that he and his colleagues had now concluded that their patience had run out. The time had come to sweep the corrupt decision takers out of power once and for all. The broom was the symbol for this determination.

Nicolae shared with many other activists a very deep commitment to the human rights cause. This was combined with other characteristics which made him unique: intellectual rigor, scrutinizing honesty and an openness to change opinion on the basis of experience. He became the sharpest critic of hypocrisy among both Roma and gadje. He told the truth even when inconvenient.

He exposed the symbiotic relationship developing between gadje Roma ‘experts’ and Roma leaders which tended to perpetuate the atmosphere of Roma victimhood. “The role of Roma opinion-makers”, he wrote, “is to suggest new approaches, focusing on integration rather than being victims”.

He stressed that misbehavior by Roma individuals should not be excused with a reference to the long history of repression. Criticism against someone’s criminal activities must be taken seriously and not just be dismissed as anti-Gypsyism.

Such statements – including Nicolae’s writings about ‘cunning’ (shmekeria) and early marriages – could hardly have been made by any gadjo without causing misunderstandings. Indeed, the approach taken by myself and many of my gadje colleagues is that raising such “taboo” issues must be left to insiders. We decided not to give the anti-Roma propaganda any further ammunition. We have also felt that these social issues were indeed to a large extent the consequence of enforced misery and marginalization.

Knowing that Nicolae did take up these issues was a relief and of course the best answer to those who used these negative social phenomena in their racist hate speech.

While defining and pointing at such problems, Nicolae also gave positive inspiration to the Roma rights cause. Many of his messages could be summarized with the slogan “Yes, we can”. Real change must come from ourselves, he repeated.

Of course, he was deeply aware of the divisions among the Roma people but he believed it would be possible to unite the various groups into one cultural nation. “The common aim of the Roma movement”, he once wrote, “should be the organization, mobilization and eventual remobilization of Roma, based on pursuing the struggle against racism and discrimination”.

Nicolae was in a sense a bridge between Roma communities and the broader international community, underpinned by his impressive academic and language skills. He was one of the initiators behind the International Roma Contact Group, a short lived but important organization in the very first years of this millenium. Its main achievement was to initiate – with the support of the government of Finland – the creation of the European Roma and Traveller Forum (ERTF) under the auspices of Council of Europe.

Nicolae followed the developments of the Forum even after having resigned from it. In his late writings he felt that it was still too early to evaluate its merits but that it would be wise to continue to maintain friendly relation in supporting the organization “while retaining our critical faculties”. He wrote that ERTF should move beyond its cluster mentality and do more to set standards and create precedents for national Roma organisations so that it would strengthen its position as a role model. It should seek answers to such crucial questions as assimilation, integration and cultural separation.

In conclusion he wrote:

“As a former club member I now appear a heretic for challenging prevailing orthodoxy by suggesting a more genuine, credible and legitimate type of Roma representation. This is the form my activism takes nowadays – by reinventing myself and working at national level in Romania but drawing on my familiarity with European structures and developments over the past years in the belief that the ERTF can be a key factor in the development of Roma culture as a European level”.

It was a great loss that this man were not given more time to pursue the work for his vision about a European Roma cultural nation of united communities, integrated in the broader societies and having their rights and culture recognized and respected.

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