Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Roma: Heed Hammarberg’s Call for Truth Commission for Roma

Source: Open Society Foundations

Heed Hammarberg’s Call for Truth Commission for Roma

April 23, 2012 | by Bernard Rorke

Thomas Hammarberg is the Council of Europe's outgoing commissioner for human rights. His last report before completing his mandate on March 31, 2012, was “Human Rights of Roma and Travellers in Europe.” In a recent article published in the European Voice he called for a Europe-wide truth commission as a necessary first step to tackle deep-rooted anti-Gypsyism, to increase public awareness "about the past mass atrocities against the Roma people."

He stated that the collective stigmatization Roma face today is such that many Roma see the authorities as a threat: "When required to register or to be fingerprinted they fear the worst. They see the similarities between much of today's anti-Roma rhetoric and the language used in the past in Europe by Nazis, fascists and other extremists." Hammarberg maintains that a full account and recognition of the crimes committed against the Roma might go some way to restoring the trust of Roma communities in society. The following is my response to Hammarberg's article; it also appeared in the European Voice.

Thomas Hammarberg’s impassioned call for Europe to recognize the atrocities committed against Roma contrasts sharply with the customary, carefully calibrated policy-speak we hear at the European level on Roma inclusion. He is emphatic that the roots of the problem lie with the attitudes of the majority.

Ignorance, indifference, and ambivalence towards Roma citizens create a vacuum where prejudice can and does thrive. Far-right successes at the ballot box have been followed by fire-bomb and bullet. Toxic hate speech has been taken by extremists as license to commit acts of often deadly violence against Roma.

Who remembered that March 22, the day the European Commission held its "extraordinary" Roma Platform meeting, marked the third anniversary of the murder of Jenő Kóka? The 54-year-old grandfather was gunned down by a neo-Nazi sniper as he left home for his night-shift in a nearby factory in Tiszalök, Hungary. He was the fifth fatality in a killing spree targeting Roma communities in 2008-9. The dead and the wounded included men, women and children.

European citizens need to be made aware that these and other acts of violence against Roma are, as Hammarberg puts it, “a continuation of a brutal and largely unknown history of repression.” For too long, the fate of the Roma who perished in the Holocaust has been relegated to the footnotes and margins of European history. For too long, anti-Roma prejudice has gone unchecked and unchallenged.

“Extraordinary” measures are needed to address this European scandal. A truth commission that gives full account of past atrocities that sheds light on the history of the Roma, a history inseparable from, though not reducible to victimization, could go some way to tackle the deep and rotten roots of anti-Gypsyism. Let us hope Hammarberg’s call does not fall on stony ground.