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Roma to the rescue

By Peter Hulm

With Iran and Uzbekistan, Australia and Romania due for interrogation by the United Nations Anti-Racism Committee in Geneva in August, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's pugnacious stance towards Roma from other parts of the European Union might have seemed like a godsend (though why God always sides with racists remains a mystery).

It's worth looking at the situation for Roma in Romania, as presented to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The record highlights the gap between law and practice, even when countries profess to be making special efforts to end discrimination.

Roma in Romania

CERD's Expert on Romania, Mr Régis de Gouttes, said Romania had launched "an ambitious strategy" to remedy discrimination against the Roma community. This sounds like diplomatic speak for an unrealistic and unachievable programme. The summary record speaks of discrimination in sports, de facto segregation of Roma children in schools, lack of access to and opportunity in the labour market for members of ethnic minorities, lack of adequate housing for the Roma community, and forced evictions of Roma families.

Other CERD members raised questions about the status of women in ethnic minority groups who suffer double discrimination (internally and outside their community), measures undertaken to combat racism, xenophobia and hate speech in the media including the Internet, as well as measures taken to combat anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

Law and practice

Laws may be on the books, but few complaints reach the courts or result in action. In the usual stratagem by States under potential fire from U.N. panels, the government brought mainly old statistics to the table unless these spoke to their credit, said it did not have exact figures, or promised information later in writing — leaving the experts powerless to make effective judgement of the extent to which authorities are really committed or doing something to fighting discrimination.

It is admitted, however, that most discrimination complaints filed are with regard to Roma among the 20 recognized ethnic groups. These often related to discriminatory language or behaviour. But there was no violence against Roma as found in other European countries.

De Gouttes indicated what the government report did not state through his (largely unanswered) questions: What role did the Roma language play in local public administration and in television and radio broadcasts? What measures had been taken to combat discrimination in the workplace? What was the result of social housing programmes that had been put in place and were there measures in place to combat forced evictions? What improvements had been made in the realm of public health, given the programmes enacted to combat lack of healthcare in the Roma community?

He also noted that reports of police brutality, ill treatment and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials against the Roma were still prevalent. De Gouttes asked for an update on cases filed since 2008 and how they had been resolved. What measures had the State taken to combat racial profiling by police and law enforcement and to combat discrimination in the administration of justice?

The government delegation told the committee that discriminatory job announcements were mostly posted on the Internet, not newspapers, and in most cases the State applied sanctions. Regarding cyberspace hate speech, the delegation reported that in 2008 six cases were prosecuted, with two cases of conviction.

Government racists

The report noted that five radio and television broadcasters had been fined for broadcasts that contained discriminatory speech between 2008 and 30 July 2010, but a non-governmental organization also charged that people at the highest level of Government had made defamatory remarks about Roma and Armenians on television and radio.

One day we may have figures of police officers sanctioned for brutality towards Roma, statistics on employment and educational opportunities offered this community in Romania, and public challenges to politicians who make capital out of denigrating the Roma. But not yet.

Till then, other European countries should expect poverty-stricken, barely literate Roma with no industrial skills and little hope of changing their marginal situation in Romania to head off to the cities and slums of richer States to make money from begging and similar pursuits -- unless the EU makes a real effort to improve the lot of Europe's largest minority.

Even that is a tendentious way to phrase it. By no means all Roma make their living from begging and petty thievery. Nor are all the beggars and petty thieves of Roma extraction. And not all Roma are "travellers". Something like one-third are settled in houses, despite all the obstacles put in their way -- as the CERD discussion of France made clear.

Roma in France

Five years ago, CERD urged France to "step up its efforts to provide travellers with more parking areas equipped with the necessary facilities and infrastructures and located in clean environments, intensify its efforts in the field of education and combat the phenomena of exclusion of travellers more effectively, including in the fields of employment and access to health services".

Despite legal obligations to do so since 2000 (under what is known as the Besson Law), many local authorities have failed to provide halting sites to meet the needs of French "travellers", as the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) told CERD in a note on 6 August 2010 (fewer than half by 2009).

ERRC also said in 2005 that it "is not aware of a single case in which a legal person was convicted for discrimination against a Traveller or Gypsy". The French Union of Gypsy Associations (UFAT) reported in 2010 that the situation remained as before.

On the basis of what it has been told, the government says the Roma population in France numbers about 300,000. "They are usually described as 'travellers', even though only about a third of them move around the national territory. Another third is regarded as semi-sedentary. The final third has taken up settled residence."

UFAT complained to the Committee that legislation had still not been extended to cover areas of life highlighted in 2005: "the administration of justice, including protection of security of the person; political participation, including the right to vote, stand for election, take part in Government and in the conduct of public affairs at any level, as well as to have equal access to public service; the right to freedom of movement and residence within the border of the State; the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association".

UFAT noted that camping site owners effectively exclude travellers and gypsies by refusing "double-axle" caravans. The Borloo Security Law of 2003 makes 28 cities with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants off-limits as temporary halting areas. Many of the permitted areas have inadequate facilities, while evictions make it difficult for many travellers to get schooling for their children.

Most of the estimated 10-15,000 Romanians in France do not have health cover if they stay more than three months, the League of Human Rights (LDH) points out.

According to the French National Consultative Commission for Human Rights (CNCDH), 40% of courts in 2009 did not provide statistics on discrimination cases, as against 16% who failed to do so in 2007.

As of 17 September, the Committee's final observations on France (debated on 11 and 12 August) remained in French only. This report condemns "collective repatriation" of Roms and recommends the end of "travel permits" (titres de circulation) for 'travellers' as well as an accelerated programme for providing camping sites under the Besson law.

The papers submitted by these organizations can be found here on the Human Rights website.

Bosnia-Herzegovina

The Committee also expressed deep concern about the situation of Roms in Bosnia-Herzegovina: "Many people of different ethnic origin, especially the Roma, are unable to return to their pre-armed conflict homes because of the lack of legal title to their property or because of the authorities’ failure to evict and punish temporary occupants who often vandalise or loot the homes before relinquishing possession of them."

It went on: "The Committee is also concerned about reports that many informal settlements in which Roma lived prior to the armed conflict have been destroyed, and that Roma continue to be evicted from their informal settlements, without adequate alternative accommodation being provided, and in view of the fact that Roma are frequently unable to rent private accommodation because of racial discrimination and/or poverty."

Many Roma, it noted, experience difficulties in obtaining personal documents, including birth certificates, identification cards, passports and documents related to the provision of health insurance and social security benefits. The National Strategy for Roma fails to identify specific measures, allocate sufficient funds, or identify competent bodies to which responsibility for implementing the strategy, while the Roma Council also lacks funds.

Wayana

The unusual bluntness of CERD's language on the Roma in France grabbed some headlines before the Sarkozy-EU spat, but it should not blind human rights watchers to another key element in the Committee's final observations on French racial policy.

In its report to CERD the French government insisted: "France does not recognize the existence within its territory of minorities with a legal status as such, and takes the view that the application of human rights to all of a State’s citizens, on the basis of equality and non-discrimination, normally provides them with the full and complete protection to which they are entitled, whatever their situation."

Yeah, right. Nevertheless, the Committee urged France to ratify the International Labour Organization's Convention 169 on indigenous peoples. CERD also "recommends" France recognize collective rights for indigenous peoples, particularly with regard to property rights.

Hardly stirring stuff, unless you read the document submitted by the League of Human Rights on French overseas territories such as Mayotte or know the story of the Wayanas of French Guyana, facing extinction from illegal (but tacitly admitted) gold prospectors on their ancestral land but to which they have no property rights (see this article highlighting their plight earlier this year at the Geneva Festival of Human Rights).

Australia, etc.

What happened to the States who dodged the spotlight?

For Australia, this was the period of the National Apology of 13 February 2008 to the Aborigines. It is also the period when the Government exempted "Excised Offshore Places" such as its immigration detention facilities on Christmas Island from migration legislation protecting refugees.

Acts of racial hatred are not criminalized throughout Australia, and the Northern Territory (where many Aborigines are forced to live) still has not enacted legislation prohibiting incitement to racial hatred, as CERD noted.

Meanwhile, Australia has not had a full-time Racial Discrimination Commissioner since 1999, and its multicultural policy expired in 2006. "The Committee regrets the limited progress towards Constitutional acknowledgement of Australia’s Indigenous peoples, and slow implementation of the principle of Indigenous peoples' exercising meaningful control over their affairs," the concluding observations stated on 27 August 2010.

Journalistic campaigners such as John Pilger are less forgiving. He dismisses the previous Rudd administration's Closing the Gap programme for Aborigines as "propaganda". He told Sydney Teachers' Federation on 23 April 2010: "Just three houses have been built for Aboriginal people, while 56 houses have been built for white managers."

On Iran, CERD pretty much throws up its hands.

Passing over Denmark, Estonia, El Salvador and Slovenia, we see in the Morocco report CERD's focus on Berber populations and "concern that the Berber language is still not recognized as an official language in the Constitution" and that some are victims of discrimination in access to jobs and health services, particularly if they do not speak Arabic. It also remarks that officials refuse to record certain first names, particularly Berber, under a 2002 prescribing "a first name of Moroccan character".

The Committee asked Uzbekistan for information about Roma on its territory. CERD also said it was concerned about the absence of specific legislation on refugees, "in particular the lack of legal safeguards against forced removal of individuals to a country where their life/health may be at risk."

The prison of language

CERD's way of proceeding raises the issue of how adequate it is to use diplomatic language (presumably on the grounds of even-handedness) in the face of outright brutality, systematic persecution, transparent racism and official discrimination. Couldn't CERD be "disturbed" by such activities? Couldn't it "reject" claims of equality before the law for all citizens when this clearly does not apply to people such as the Wayana? Was no-one "disgusted" by the treatment of minorities in Iran? Is CERD not allowed to be "shocked", "pained" or "affronted" by Australia's treatment of refugees and Aborigines? Being concerned about the lack of television programmes and presenters in minority languages is hardly the same as being concerned about evictions, beatings and failure to provide health services, surely? Or is it, for the U.N.?

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