Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.
Oslo Ministerial Adopts Decision on Roma;
U.S. Keeps Focus on Romani Human Rights

by Erika B. Schlager
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Ministerial Council meeting met from Dec. 2-3, 1998, in Oslo and concluded with the adoption of a declaration, a statement on Kosovo, and nine separate decisions. One of those decisions dealt with the OSCE's "Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues" (the Contact Point).

The Contact Point was established by the OSCE 1994 Summit of Heads of State and Government in Budapest and was mandated to, inter alia, act as a "clearing-house for the exchange of information on Roma and Sinti (Gypsies) issues, including information on the implementation of commitments pertaining to Roma and Sinti (Gypsies)."  The 1994 decision, however, did not allocate any additional funds to the Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (the location of the Contact Point) for this purpose, hampering the implementation of the Budapest mandate.

In advance of the Oslo meeting, the Czech Republic circulated a proposal to upgrade the status of this post to that of a "High Commissioner for Roma." The Czech delegation argued that issues relating to the Roma, as a transnational people, had to be addressed in a pan-European context such as the OSCE.  Ultimately, it became clear that agreement on the Czech proposal as originally conceived would not be reached in time for the Oslo meeting, and the idea was recast as a decision to "strengthen" the Contact Point. (By way of contrast, it took roughly a year to negotiate the mandate for the OSCE's Representative on Freedom of the Media.  During that time, there were extensive consultations with interested governments, journalists, and non-governmental human rights organizations.  Those kinds of consultations did not take place during the negotiations on the Czech proposal.)

The Czech idea echoes language adopted in the 1998 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) resolution, adopted in Copenhagen in July 1998:

100. Underlining the need to give greater attention to the human rights of Roma and Sinti, taking into account the action undertaken by the Council of Europe; [. . . ]
116. [The Parliamentary Assembly] Calls on the OSCE participating States to devote greater attention and resources, including at the ODIHR [Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights] and the Permanent Council, to ensure that the human rights of the Roma and Sinti are fully respected;

117. Emphasizes the importance of increased efforts to improve the situation of Roma and Sinti populations by means of a senior appointee in the ODIHR to concentrate solely on this issue.

(Paras. 100 and 116 were amendments proposed by the U.S. delegation.)  In addition, during the Oct. 26-Nov. 6, 1998 OSCE Implementation Meeting on Human Dimension Issues, several participants in the Roundtable on Roma and Sinti Issues argued in favor of strengthening the Contact Point in order to enhance his or her ability to address Romani human rights issues.

In fact, the human rights focus reflected in the U.S. amendments to the OSCE PA resolution were completely omitted in the version of the Czech proposal adopted in Oslo.  As a consequence, the motivations of the Czech delegation in advancing this proposal remain opaque.

On the one hand, the Czech Republic was identified by witnesses at a recent Counsel for International Law on the Commission on Security (CSCE) hearing as having one of the worst records with regard to respect for the human rights of Roma.  Some of the formulations used by the Czech delegation in advancing this proposal-asserting that Roma issues must be addressed at a pan-European level, for example-also cast doubt on the real intentions behind the Czech proposal.  The Czech initiative might be seen as an effort by a state with one of the worst records on Romani human rights to deflect international attention from its own inaction and toward a bureaucratic mechanism at the international level that will lack the power to implement action at the national level.

On the other hand, after last year's elections brought a new government to office, a handful of Czech officials have begun to speak more openly about the serious problems faced by the Czech Republic's Roma minority.  On July 23, Deputy Prime Minister Pavel Rychetsky announced that one of the new government's priorities would be to amend the law on citizenship to resolve the problems of statelessness for Roma associated with the breakup up of the Czechoslovak Federation.  (The Czech Government is currently reviewing draft amendments.)  Czech Deputy Foreign Minister Martin Palous also gave a strong statement at the OSCE Implementation Meeting on Human Dimension Issues-a statement which gave frank recognition of his country's shortcomings respect to Romani human rights.  The Czech proposal, then, may have reflected the efforts of pro-human rights officials in the Czech Government who are searching for vehicles to support them in their efforts to advance human rights reform.

In any case, following the adoption of the Oslo decision on the Contact Point, Ambassador David Johnson, Head of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE in Vienna, made the following statement at the December 17 meeting of the Permanent Council:

"The United States supports the decision taken at Oslo, and hopes that it will enhance the OSCE's capabilities regarding Roma and Sinti issues by strengthening the existing Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues in ODIHR.

"We hope that this decision will help ensure that the OSCE - and the participating States - adequately address the human rights concerns of Roma and Sinti.  In this regard, we welcome the initiative of the High Commissioner on National Minorities on Roma issues.

"Since the Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues was established at the Budapest Summit in 1994, its work has been constrained due to a lack of funding.  We therefore also welcome the inclusion of funds for the Contact Point in the 1999 budget.

"We look forward to recommendations from ODIHR and the High Commissioner on National Minorities as to how the OSCE can better protect the human rights of Roma and Sinti.

"We should remember, however, that ultimately it is up to us, the participating States, to take appropriate steps to address problems.

"In this regard, we would like to welcome the announcement made by the Slovak delegation at the Warsaw Human Dimension Review Meeting regarding Slovakia's intention to give heightened attention to Roma concerns.

"We also are aware that the Czech Government has recently decreed that those Czechoslovaks who opted for Slovak permanent citizenship when the country split in 1993, but remained permanent residents in the Czech republic, can now gain Czech citizenship as well.  It would be helpful if this decree could address the citizenship problems that still face many Czech Roma.  If this is not the case, we would urge the Czech Government to rededicate itself to finding a solution to this ongoing problem.

"Concerning the future work of the Contact Point, we believe there are two areas that might benefit most from OSCE engagement.

"First, the Contact Point could help ODIHR provide to those participating States which request it assistance with drafting comprehensive anti-discrimination statutes to address more effectively discriminatory practices still prevalent against Roma and Sinti, and other ethnic minorities.

"Second, the Contact Point should work with the Secretariat to ensure that missions and other field presences, where appropriate, receive training regarding issues and OSCE commitments relating to Roma.

"The U.S. looks forward to following the work of the contact point on Roma and Sinti issues.

"We strongly urge participating States to redouble their efforts, not only through this office but in their national policies and practices, to combat intolerance of Roma and Sinti.

"We urge States to speak out against violence and discrimination and embrace measures - political and legal - that address the serious problems that still face the Roma and Sinti communities."

Erika B. Schlager is Counsel for International Law on the CSCE.
To appear in the CSCE Digest.
Erika B. Schlager
Counsel for International Law
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Room 234, Ford House Office Building
Washington, DC  20515

Tel.:  (202) 225-1901
Fax:  (202) 226-4199

Posted 25 January 1999.

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