The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, launched a new report in February, The Human Rights of Roma and Travellers in Europe [pdf]. It should be compulsory reading for anyone working on Roma policies. The report combines solid research and content with a clear understanding of Roma in Europe. However solid, the Council's study only complements, but does not substitute for, European Union commitments to Roma.
The report highlights the range of abuse and injustice faced by European Roma. It is both broad yet detailed on issues including anti-Gypsyism, racially motivated violence, conduct of law enforcement and judicial authorities, forced sterilization, removal of children from their parents, socio-economic rights, statelessness, and freedom of movement. The final chapter discusses the important element of political rights and the need for more inclusion in decision making processes.
Hammarberg frames the report with the historical context of pre- to post-War atrocities that have neither been recognized by truth commissions nor addressed by reconciliation efforts. Roma have been repressed and targeted without the recognition or justice afforded other groups. At a presentation of his report in Brussels, Hammarberg called for the establishment of a “reconciliation committee” that will lead to an apology to Roma for the scars left by the various forms of repression.
The gallery of cases of serious discrimination in Europe over the last two years illustrates the task ahead for Roma equality. For example, French policies are described in the report in a section on the right to vote: “Travellers of French nationality are subject to special legislation that does not apply to other French citizens.” Persons with an “itinerant” way of life must hold a travel permit and need to be “attached” to a municipality for three years in order to vote, compared to only a half-year requirement for “ordinary” French citizens. A “quota system” that doesn’t allow the number of permits in a municipality to exceed three percent of its population then means that Travellers “have difficulty becoming meaningful electoral constituencies when they are a priori barred from exceeding 3% of any local population.”
Aside from legislative forms of discrimination there is a serious rise in violence against Roma in Europe, primarily provoked by hate speech in the media. In some cases political parties have openly called for such violence and discrimination. While noting the anomaly that “domestic judicial systems are often perpetuating and in some cases possibly amplifying bias in policing,” Hammarberg usefully outlines the Council of Europe instruments that could be used to sanction hate crimes and violence against Roma.
The launch of the report at the Council's offices in Brussels gave the opportunity to engage Commissioner Hammarberg on how he sees the institutional players in Brussels. When asked for his perspective on the level of protection of fundamental rights in the EU and how the EU should approach cases of explicit discrimination against Roma, Hammarberg suggested that Commissioners László Andor (Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion) and Cecilia Malmstrom (Home Affairs) also need to be brought “into the Roma picture.” The active engagement of these Commissioners to date on Roma issues, and the expertise within their Directorates-Generals highlights the importance of the broadest possible engagement across the Commission to ensure the Framework does not fail. Hammarberg’s impression based on conversations with Brussels officials was that the EU does not have an adequate mandate to act on human rights violations. He suggested that greater use be made of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) given their binding conventions for member states. Hammarberg also expressed concern about the frequent reports of misuse of EU funds dedicated to Roma.
These observations reflect an equivocal response in the Commission on its competence to deal with internal fundamental rights violations. Despite this, the primary mechanism for European Roma should be through the EU’s implementation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The primary actors should be the designated Commissioner for Fundamental rights and the Fundamental Rights Agency. It is the EU that has come up with a Framework for national Roma strategies for which NGOs have been advocating for since 2007, and it is this Framework that needs to be further challenged, assisted, improved, and implemented if we want to ensure sustainable solutions to improve the status of Roma.
The OSCE and the Council of Europe have invaluable instruments, both legal and institutional, that will complement the EU’s approach, but the Framework is the main tool to bring coordination and coherence at EU level on the Roma dossier. In line with this, the meetings of the Roma Platform led by the European Commission could change into a practical “policy exchange” where successful Roma policies are traded in terms of their real value. Roma NGOs, politicians, civil servants, and independent experts must be among the brokers who provide governments and the EU with effective Roma policies for inclusion.
The next opportunity to do so is the forthcoming extraordinary meeting of the Platform in March. This is an occasion to agree on making the fight against anti-Gypysism in Europe a priority, and that national Roma strategies should not just be about the sustainability of Roma Inclusion but a new deal for an ambitious and qualitatively improved EU-wide approach to Roma rights.