By Erika B. Schlager
Counsel for International Law
U.S. Embassy in Athens Organizes Conference on Romani Issues
On February 29, Helsinki Commission staff participated in a conference on Romani issues organized by the U.S. Embassy in Athens, Greece, primarily for human rights officers from U.S. Embassies in Europe. The conference was designed to improve understanding of Romani minority concerns, and to allow human rights officers to share information and ideas related to their congressionally mandated human rights reporting obligations.
The conference underscored the strong interest of the United States in the situation of Romani minority communities throughout the OSCE region and provided a useful opportunity for human rights officers to improve their knowledge of this minority group’s history and experiences. Roma now constitute the largest ethnic minority in the European Union.
The conference was opened by the United States Ambassador to Greece, Daniel Speckhard. Andrzej Mirga, the senior advisor for Romani issues with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (Warsaw) and Helsinki Commission staff served as speakers during the morning session. Panayote Dimitras of the Greek Helsinki Monitor spoke during a working lunch. In the afternoon, Embassy officials from various posts led “best practices” discussion groups – although it proved more difficult to identify such practices than one might have hoped.
Commission Staff Visit Romani Shanty Towns
On the margins of the conference, Commission staff held meetings on Romani issues with representatives of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Division for International Human Rights, Refugees, and Immigration; the Ombudsman for Human Rights; the Ministry of Interior; and the Ministry of Education. In addition, staff visited several Romani shanty towns in the Athens region, including the infamous Aspropyrgos camp.
Greece does not recognize any groups as “minorities” other than those few formally recognized under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne (primarily the Muslims of Western Thrace). Accordingly, Roma are not considered an ethnic minority but a “socially vulnerable group.”
It is estimated that there are roughly 150,000-300,000 Roma in Greece, out of a population of 11-million-plus. This population largely consists of indigenous Greek Roma, but also includes some Roma who have migrated from Albania in recent years. Greece does not count people according to ethnic affiliation or identity on its national census.
Roma in Greece face problems similar to those faced by Roma in other countries. In recent years, Romani plaintiffs have successfully brought cases against Greece before the European Court of Human Rights, including for ill-treatment or excessive use of force by the police. Non-governmental organizations have also been particularly concerned by the deplorable conditions in some Romani shanty towns and the lack of equal access to education and the ability of Roma to obtain documents. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, has also expressed concern about forced evictions of Roma.
Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin and Commissioner Louise McIntosh Slaughter participated in a Helsinki Commission delegation to Greece in early 1998, and met with (among others) Romani representatives.
Greece Slated to Serve as OSCE Chair
Greece is slated to serve as Chair of the OSCE in 2009; Kazakhstan has been selected to serve in that position in 2010.
Finland serves as the current OSCE Chair-in-Office. At his inaugural address to the OSCE Permanent Council in January, Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva stated, “More can be done also to fight discrimination against Roma and Sinti. I count on all participating States to renew their commitment to implementing the recommendations in the OSCE Action Plan of 2003.” Finland plans to schedule one of this year’s three Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings on Romani human rights issues.