The evolution of the Greek state, from a suppressed territory under the Ottomans to the cohesive modern success of today, is one of the great stories of democratic success. When Greece began her struggle for freedom over 180 years ago, few gave the freedom fighters much of a chance for success.
The United States has had a special relationship with the Hellenic Republic. During times of famine and war, her citizens often came to the United States for protection and a brighter hope for the future. We shared the struggles against Naziism and Communism. And today we struggle together against the secret agents of terror that wish to destroy democratic societies.
This friendship provides the groundwork for this hearing in which the Helsinki Commission seeks to explore various issues of mutual concern. Reports on the human rights climate in today’s Greece paint a sobering picture, particularly with respect to the obstacles frequently faced by members of ethnic and religious minority communities. As with all Commission hearings, today’s hearing is being held against the backdrop of the considerable body of specific human rights commitments Greece has freely accepted as an OSCE participating State.
I welcome the fact that Greek officials in recent years have increasingly acknowledged and, most importantly, have taken actions to address persistent human rights problems. The participation of officials from Athens in today’s proceedings underscores this refreshing new approach.
Movement on longstanding concerns, including repeal of discriminatory provision of the citizenship law and the removal of religious affiliation on the national identity card are positive changes consistent with OSCE commitments. Still concerns remain with respect to ethnic minority rights, religious liberty, freedom of the media, and human trafficking.
Individuals who are members of minority communities in Greece frequently face severe restrictions on their right to freedom of cultural expression, violations of their freedom of association, and other forms of harassment and discrimination, including limits on their ability to hold title to their property. While Greece is the most homogeneous country in the Balkans, affected communities include ethnic Turks, Albanians, and Macedonians as well as the Roma.
We have received disturbing accounts of pervasive discrimination against Roma in employment, housing, education, and access to social services, including health care. With a very high illiteracy rate, this segment of Greek society is particularly vulnerable to abuse by local officials, including reports of Rom being denied registration for voting or identity cards that in turn prevents them from gaining access to government-provided services. Particularly alarming are incidents such as the forced eviction and the bulldozing of their makeshift housing in numerous cities, including Athens.
As for freedom of religion, Greece has a mixed record. The good news is that two years ago Greece removed the notation of one’s religion from the national identity card. We congratulate the reformers for that courageous step. However, I would note as especially onerous the so-called anti-proselytism provisions of Greek law, and urge repeal of these laws in order to ensure the freedom of all individuals in Greece to profess and practice their religion or belief. I am similarly concerned over the burdensome requirements imposed on minority religious communities in Greece to obtain special permits issued by “competent ecclesiastical authorities” and the Ministry of National Education and Religious Affairs for the establishment or operation of churches, including places of worship. A basic OSCE tenet is the obligation of the state to protect, without discrimination or subordination, the right of individuals belonging to minority religions or beliefs.
Greece continues to be one of the few countries within the European Union (EU) that has consistently brought criminal defamation suits against journalists. When journalists face potential prison sentences for their reporting, the marketplace of ideas and the free flow of information suffer. For these reasons, members of the Helsinki Commission have long campaigned for the repeal of such repressive laws, not to mention the fact that criminal defamation is in contradiction to Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, to which all EU members, including Greece are bound by law.
Human trafficking remains a tremendous problem in Greece, with an estimated 40,000 women and girls being trafficked into Greece every year. The Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report released on June 5th placed Greece on a Tier 3 level showing that there have not been significant efforts made to meet the minimum anti-trafficking standards. The Greek Government has introduced serious anti-trafficking legislation, though, and we look forward to the ensuing debate and eventual implementation of a law to combat this modern form of slavery.
We have a distinguished panel of witnesses, most of whom have come to Washington from Greece. We appreciate having the benefit of the information which will be brought before the Commission today by each of you.