Archive for the ‘Roma and their Rights’ Category

Minority Rights : Putting Principles into Practice.

Round-table event to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities Strasbourg (France), 25 November 2013

Asbjorn Eide’s keynote address was a fascinating 65 year journey through the development and application of minority rights. It is a “Tour de Force” on historical and contemporary issues, early on focusing on Article 1 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.
It should of course have added “and in a spirit of sisterhood”, a differentiation that this presentation will return to later.

These reflections draw on my own experience as a practitioner rather than as a scholar, Director of several INGOs since the 1970s and since the Millennium working as a programme planner and evaluator, mainly in the Western Balkans, often with Roma communities.

This presentation is entitled “ Putting Principles into Practice” as many of those present at the 15th anniversary meeting have to face the challenge of what to do in practice to promote minority rights in their work every day and rarely have the luxury of time for reading learned papers. This presentation shares some of the lessons that that I have learned in this journey over 40 years as a human rights practitioner, developing, managing and evaluating programmes that seem relevant today in promoting minority rights in practice locally.

It is clear that treating people with dignity is a crucial theme in every aspect of human rights work. Another is building trust.

My own involvement in minority rights began in 1990, when I had the honour of being invited to join the UK Delegation at the Copenhagen Human Dimension meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe ( CSCE). This is described in more detail in the Festschrift in honour of Rainer Hofmann : “Minorities, their Rights, and monitoring of the FCNM – Beginnings” that was published by ECMI in the summer of 2013. I was invited to write the opening Chapter “The Beginnings” of this book, while others in this meeting wrote important contributory chapters

The Beginnings described my own initial cynicism toward the Helsinki Process that was begun by Finland in 1975. It seemed to consist of innumerable, lengthy conferences on hard security, economic cooperation and the human dimension bringing 35 countries together, in particular NATO and the Warsaw Pact with little action. My own prejudices were confirmed at the opening of the 1990 Human Dimension meeting, when there was a major debate on whether minority rights should or should not be on the agenda. It was argued by many western states that it would not be possible to reach a consensus on minority rights and, since the CSCE depended on a consensus, time should be better used on other topics. The Pentagonale group of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Italy and Yugoslavia successfully countered this argument by stating that if minority rights were not on the agenda, there would be no consensus on anything. Subsequently, after almost three months of discussions on human rights issues, a remarkable set of political standards were agreed that became the heart of the important work of the OSCE HCNM and the core of the FCNM.

Looking back on this, the success was not accidental. Finland had been a strongly motivated facilitator, due to its own geo-political situation, promoting a real dialogue between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries for over 15 years, developing trust and good will. Secondly during that period robust mechanisms had been put in place that had been tried and tested and the agreements were themselves trusted as binding. Thirdly in 1990 there was an assertive leadership from the Pentagonale Group. Fourthly there was a window of opportunity in 1990, with the major changes in the end of communism and the re-emergence of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. These four areas of leadership, facilitation, structures and timing, built on a common recognition of the importance of dignity and trust, were crucial for the binding agreement.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic Minorities took a different path. Work began with a Working Group of the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1978 and by the beginning of 1989 only 4 articles of a declaration had been agreed, while these had a number of unresolved issues within square brackets. However it too had a capable chairperson, a Yugoslav, while there was a tried and tested structure with negotiators who knew each other. The Declaration was discussed in a transparent way allowing input from international NGOs, including Minority Rights Group and its associated academics. The Working Group captured the momentum; by the end of 1991 a second complete draft was agreed, then adopted by the Commission on Human Rights, where it was forwarded for approval by the General Assembly in December 1992.

The procedures adopted for the development of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) was again different, drawing largely on the conclusions of the 1990 Copenhagen CSCE human dimension meeting. The text was drawn up in camera with no input except that by governments that were members of the Council of Europe. It was agreed the same year and open for signature in 1995, coming into force with 18 ratifications in 1998.
The lack of transparency led to the text being heavily criticised by a wide range of academics and minority organisations. Furthermore the same procedures were used for agreeing the Rules of Procedure of the Advisory committee in 1997 contradicting Article 15 of the FCNM itself. It consequently placed a heavy burden on the newly formed Advisory Committee to gain the confidence of minorities and in consultation with key Ambassadors to develop better procedures with the support of the Committee of Ministers Deputies in Strasbourg.

In general the first four years of the work of the Advisory Committee in promoting the FCNM were a success, the tensions and potential conflicts between states and national minorities, between states themselves or with the Advisory Committee itself were very largely avoided. Looking back at that time, this was largely due to team work and cooperation that involved the Advisory Committee and its Bureau, the Council of Europe Secretariat, minorities and supportive governments. Actions were transparent, participatory principles and process that involved all key actors were developed, while confidence was built step by step gaining the trust of very many members of the Committee of minister and of national minorities.

The Advisory Committee was charged with assisting the Committee of Ministers in evaluating the measures taken by contracting states in their implementation of the FCNM. In effect its role was to examine how the principles of dignity, detailed in the Framework Convention, were transformed into practice through policies and domestic legislation.

This presentation focuses on four areas of dignity; the dignity of ownership of minority rights, the dignity of dialogue on the issues, the dignity of employment for minorities and the indignities that Roma face throughout Europe.

One of the most important things that became apparent early on was the need to promote dignity through a local ownership of the FCNM, which went well beyond its adoption by Parliaments. It was crucial to reinforce good local institutions including Parliamentary Committees, Offices for National Minorities and their engagement of minorities, Ombudsmen, Commissions against Discrimination, and a range of Civil Society Organisations / NGOs in which national minorities participated effectively. I was reminded of this recently in Skopje, where I was working with the Agency for the Realisation of Community Rights, an organisation that has many challenges to meet in promoting minority rights in practice, but has the dignity of being “owned” and managed by members of minority communities.

The initial rules of procedure made it difficult to promote dignity through dialogue. However once the Committee of Ministers had developed its confidence in the Advisory Committee and the way it was conducting its affairs, it was able to persuade the Committee of ministers to allow information to reach the Advisory Committee from minorities and a wide range of sources. Monitoring visits took place to countries, these were developed to include visits to minority communities as well as encouraging a wide range of minority communities and government departments to liaise with the delegation from the Advisory Committee.

During these visits the Advisory Committee observed some good practices, not least of all in the Western Balkans after the Yugoslav conflict, to ensure that all minority communities were able to meet together and engage in a dialogue with the Advisory Committee. It was a confidence building exercise, which also enabled both government Officials and national minorities to understand the needs and boundaries of each other. The visits themselves were exercises in participation. On one occasion the committee was highly embarrassed to arrive over two hour late in a Roma settlement in Albania as the sun was setting. It apologised profusely for the delay. The leader responded generously that they had been waiting for the Council of Europe for 20 years, what was another two hours. A very informative and dynamic public meeting then took place in a large double garage in the twilight.

Dignity and Employment

One of the constant concerns that I had well before joining the Advisory Committee was the approach of many institutions towards those that were marginalised and denied their rights. A well intentioned welfare mentality often led to a major emphasis on the provision of social and economic services by State run or state funded services. The expertise of the service organisations centres on delivering welfare provisions and advice, while the organisations needed such programmes to continue to guarantee the organisation’s future and their own employment. These welfare organisations rarely ensured the effective participation of the beneficiaries, while indirectly reinforcing a dependency culture.

One of the most enjoyable projects that I have managed was a successful employment project designed with refugee community groups, where employment opportunities were created within these groups enabling refugee themselves to be employed, albeit on a modest wage, while in their employment they provided advice and services to their community. The large proportion of the funds went directly to the beneficiaries, while many former refugees developed their skills and confidence to go on to find mainstream employment.

Employment schemes can give members of minority communities the dignity of work but also the opportunity to have the funds to become independent, make their own choices and take measures to ensure the realisation of their rights in practice. Such schemes depend on good will, trust and transparency alongside a genuinely participative approach and a determination to enable marginalised groups to become empowered individually and collectively. Many of today’s top down Roma projects should be transformed to promote a rights based philosophy, where the projects are developed and managed by Roma for Roma and the large proportion of the funds spent within this community.

Dignity and Roma.

In Asbjorn Eide’s keynote address there was a devastating critique of the situation of Roma in Europe today. It shows how time after time, in country after country, Roma are not treated with dignity.

Everyone will have seen the recent incidents in Greece and Ireland, where small children have been taken away from Roma families primarily because of the colour of the child’s skin. The media played on the prejudices that are founded on small elements of truth that Roma are not white, that Roma may be child traffickers and that Roma parents are so impoverished that they cannot care for small children.

The behavior of the media throughout much of Europe would not qualify for inclusion in the project that I have recently evaluated “Best Practices of Roma Integration”, where sadly there are too few good practices in the media. That aside, how many of us can with certainty state that the removal of white Roma children from their families would never happen in our own country?

There is a temptation for us all to fail to be self- critical; even in the Advisory Committee do we fall into the trap of generalizing about Roma in Europe? We all know that there are considerable differences in age, gender, location, language, religion, education, housing conditions and work roles of members of the Roma community. The focus of monitoring bodies is always on the problematic areas of those Roma who are marginalized at the edge of society, rarely acknowledging the talents and successes of many individual Roma despite their circumstances. A number of my Roma friends are infuriated by these generalisations about Roma that fail to treat them with dignity and consequently many hide their Roma identity. Many capable Roma are equally frustrated by being stereotyped and limited to working exclusively on Roma issues.

In our self-criticism we need to review the empowerment of Roma. How many Roma of the 10 to 12 million Roma in Europe are participating politically in European bodies as Members of the European Parliament or as Members of Parliamentary Assemblies?
How many members of minority communities are employed in Intergovernmental Organisations and how many of these are Roma?
Those here today know that the numbers of such Roma can be counted on the fingers of one hand. This has remained the same for the last decade, but what remedial action is being taken?

If we wish to address the situation of Roma in practice, we must have quality data and transparency, evaluating openly institutions that have received the large sums that have been allocated to Roma programming by governments and intergovernmental organisations. There is a need for honesty and self-criticism from each one of us and a determination by institutions to treat Roma with dignity, enabling them to become empowered to participate fully in public and political life.

We may be tempted to offer suggestions on how the Advisory Committee might strengthen its work. It would be arrogant for me to do so as I am out of touch with the current programme of work, while I know it has many capable independent expert members.
Nevertheless I do know that States, including many of the government officials present at this meeting, have provided a unique wealth of information in the reporting cycles. Furthermore the Advisory Committee has produced many thoughtful, well evidenced Opinions on the implementation of every article of the Framework Convention in 39 countries over the last 15 years. It would be invaluable if this richness of data was easily accessible article by article and that academics, government experts and members of minority communities were encouraged to undertake much of the ground work in preparing Commentaries on each article and cross cutting themes such as Roma. This would make a major contribution in developing understanding and towards transforming principles into practice.

The realization of human rights is a long journey promoting dignity and rights for all human beings.

I began my human rights work in 1970s with dictatorships throughout Latin America, when Southern Africa was repressed by racism, while people in central and Eastern Europe had little dignity under repressive communism and Franco was in power in Spain. There have been extraordinary changes over the last four decades, including one former refugee who was recently the Executive Director of UN Women and is likely to be re-elected as President of Chile.

Let me wish you all success in your continuing journey to promote the dignity and rights of minorities.

Bon voyage.


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