The following is a guest post by By Zeljko Jovanovic, director of Roma Initiatives at the Open Society Foundations.
The United States announced earlier this year that it would become an official observer to the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015. This is an international initiative that gathers governments and international and nongovernmental organizations into a concerted effort to improve the well-being of one of Europe’s most vulnerable minorities—the Roma, or gypsies—who have for centuries endured racism, discrimination, alienation, slavery, and sterilization efforts as well as a Nazi extermination campaign during World War II.
Washington’s decision to join the Decade of Roma comes at a crucial moment. While the Decade of Roma Inclusion has done much to initiate reform in European countries, it has little time left to meet its declared goals.
More than 10 million Roma live in Europe and I am one of them. My people still languish at the bottom of Europe’s social pecking order. They continue to suffer abysmal poverty rates as well as official and institutional discrimination in the areas of education, health, and housing. Roma joblessness is about eight times higher than that for people who are not Roma.
Violent attacks on Roma individuals, including murders and fire-bombings by neo-Nazis and others, have taken place in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and other countries. Most violence against the Roma, however, goes unreported due to the fear and mistrust Roma have for the justice systems in the countries where they reside.
Popularly, Roma are still reviled as thieves and burglars and used as scapegoats in the press and by right-wing political leaders seeking votes. Just a few weeks ago, for example, a right-wing Swiss magazine saw fit to splash across its cover the photo of a five-year-old Roma boy pointing a gun point blank at the reader; the headline read “The Roma Are Coming,” and the story discussed “crime tourism.”
The European Union has made a political commitment to support social inclusion of Roma. Last year, Brussels called upon European Union member-states to submit national strategies to further integration of the Roma into society. But European Union taxpayers are supposed to pay for the components of these strategies geared toward improving the Roma’s socio-economic position. Obtaining the necessary funding will require political leaders to look racism in the face and do the right thing.
Unfortunately, the economic crisis has been accompanied by unchallenged and racially motivated expressions of hatred that have spread from the extremes of political discourse and into the mainstream. The politics of hatred that promotes exclusion has been legitimized through democratic elections in some European countries and now has the potential to affect policy.
Neither the European Union nor the governments of its individual member-states have dared to address this issue in any meaningful way. Intergovernmental agencies, the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe lack sufficient leverage to press the European Union governments to meet the challenge on a scale that would provide the Roma with a sense of security.
For this reason, Washington should not merely act as a passive observer of the Decade of Roma Inclusion’s efforts. It should act as a catalyst for advancing the work of the initiative’s member states and organizations and for encouraging more organizations and countries—especially, Germany, France, and Italy—to join.
In its bilateral diplomatic dealings, Washington should press the governments of the European countries, and especially the European Union countries, to take legislative, policy, and judicial steps to ensure respect for the rights of the Roma people.
The United States should raise the issue of the security of the Roma minority with the European Union as a whole and with European Union member-states bilaterally and it should support human rights organizations in ways that will give them a stronger voice in pressing for respect for the rights of the Roma. The United States should also establish direct, regular communication links with Roma civic and political leaders and cooperate with them about racially motivated killings, violence, discrimination and police misconduct.
The United States should encourage the European Union to make development of a Roma-integration strategy a prerequisite for Serbia, Macedonia, Turkey, and other European Union candidate-member countries.
The United States was the deciding factor in achieving Kosovo’s independence and in ending Serb oppression of its Albanian majority. But Kosovo’s Roma, Ashkelije, and Egyptian and other non-Serb minorities have been left out of talks about the country’s future. The United States should press the government of Kosovo to work together with representatives of the Roma, Egyptian, and Ashkelije, and other minorities in establishing and meeting benchmarks on reintegration, property rights, and education and employment opportunities.
Finally, the United States should encourage governments to undertake consistent and robust legal action against the perpetrators of acts of discrimination and violence. Combating racist attacks on the Roma should be a matter of expressed government policy.
To this end, the Department of State should appoint a special envoy on combating racism and discrimination against Europe’s Roma–just as the Department has appointed the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.
A special envoy would work closely with the Roma community—which includes doctors, lawyers, journalists, civic and political leaders— who have made great contributions to communities across Europe.
Racism against the Roma people is one of the key challenges in Europe today. It erodes the notion of democracy that ensures universal values of humanity, peace, and prosperity for all. The United States role in the Decade of Roma raises hope of all of us that it will, in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, “address the plight of Roma on behalf of a freer, fairer and more inclusive Europe.”
Zeljko Jovanovic is director of Roma Initiatives at the Open Society Foundations.