In 1906, Ramadan Ali, a Bulgarian Rom, brought together Romani clan leaders to demand equal rights for Roma. The budding political and national movement he represented found expression in other countries, as well. But the Holocaust crushed these fledgling efforts and, for many more decades, communist regimes either brutally repressed or cynically manipulated the emerging political aspirations of Roma. Today, Roma are reviving this movement, reaching out across borders that were once closed to each other, and finding their voice again.
The OSCE has played an important role in this process, as a forum where the participating States have pledged to each other that they will ensure the safety and equal treatment of one of Europe’s largest minorities, for establishing the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights as the “contact point” on Romani human rights, and a place where Romani human rights issues can be raised and, hopefully, improved.
Almost two years ago to this day, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities released his report on the situation of Roma in the OSCE region. In it, he remarked: “. . . Roma face profound challenges in virtually every sphere of social life: rates of unemployment, poverty, illiteracy and infant mortality are staggeringly high among Roma. In a classic downward spiral, each of these problems exacerbates the others in a self-perpetuating cycle.” While Roma face discrimination in many areas, perhaps the most profound and long-lasting effects of discrimination stem from exclusion in the field of education. Education is a key element in the downward spiral that the High Commissioner described.
The more I learn about the plight of Roma, the more I am struck by certain parallels with the experience of American Indians here in our own country. Increasingly, Roma have begun to raise their voices not in search of special treatment, but for an opportunity to freely exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms without discrimination.
I welcome our witnesses today who will shed light on this particular area of concern and share their insights and recommendations for the way forward.