"Roma representatives must be welcomed into political decision-making"[01/09/08] Roma populations are grossly under-represented in local and national assemblies and government administrations all over Europe. This is a serious shortcoming in our democracies, violates the right to political participation and perpetuates a situation of exclusion and marginalization of some ten to twelve million people.
There are several explanations for the political alienation of Roma. One is the long history of discrimination and repression of this minority in Europe. Even after the genocide of Roma by the Nazis there was no genuine change of attitude among the majority population and it took years before the issue of compensation to surviving family members even came up for discussion(1).
The persecution did not end with the fall of the Hitler regime. Roma families were chased from place to place in a number of European countries many years after World War II – not being welcome anywhere. Afterwards, governments were slow to formulate apologies to the Roma community for these human rights violations.
It is not surprising that this history has created bitterness and a feeling of exclusion and alienation among the Roma. All efforts to encourage Roma participation in public life must recognize this basic point.
In many cases Roma communities are socially isolated and fragmented. As a result they may be less aware about political and electoral processes, and may lack vital information .They are therefore also vulnerable to electoral malpractices. Another major impediment is that many of them are not included in civic and voter registers, frequently lack the necessary identity documents and are therefore not allowed to vote. Informed and conscious political participation also comes with higher levels of education. The dramatic gap which exists in this area between the majority and the Roma represents yet another obstacle to participation.
Majority mainstream political parties have a responsibility for this state of affairs. By and
large, they have shown very little interest in Roma communities. Not only have Roma representatives not been invited onto their electoral lists, their views have seldom been sought.
As Roma populations generally have a low voter turn-out, they have not been seen as an interesting audience in election campaigns. Political parties are also aware that campaigning for Roma might cause harm to their own election chances. At the same time, extremist parties have targeted the Roma in xenophobic statements in order to exploit reactionary tendencies among the electorate. This is one reason why some of the poisonous cliché lies about the Roma have spread so widely.
Unfortunately, some of the established political parties have not made it clear that such anti-Gypsyism is unacceptable. I have noticed with deep disappointment that even some top-level politicians have made clearly prejudicial statements about the Roma – without
making a distinction between a few misbehaving individuals and the whole ethnic community. This does not encourage the next generation of Roma to feel attracted to enter politics.
There is, of course, no simple and quick solution to these problems which are so deeply ingrained in attitudes among both the Roma and the majority population. However, efforts in several countries could be analyzed and conclusions drawn. A good model is set by the two Hungarian Roma members of the European Parliament. The inclusion of Roma candidates in electoral lists for the upcoming European Parliamentary elections should be encouraged.
Lessons and inspiration can also be drawn from the efforts of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) which has tried for several years to contribute to solutions in this area. It has run campaigns like ‘Roma, Use Your Ballot Wisely!’ and convened meetings which have drafted standards such as the Lund recommendations in 1999 and the Guidelines to Assist National Minority Participation in the Electoral Process in 2001(2). In February 2008 the Council of Europe’s Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities adopted a Commentary on the effective participation of persons belonging to national minorities in cultural, social and economic life and in public affairs.
One lesson is that proactive measures are absolutely necessary. It is not sufficient to unblock some hindrances – there is a need to compensate for the long history of exclusion and marginalization through positive action.
By way of example, reserved seats for Roma representatives in national or local assemblies have been tried in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Romania and Slovenia with largely positive results. When in Slovenia I found that the practice of reserving one seat in local assemblies had created a channel in some municipalities between the Roma communities and the authorities. Another example of good practice is to have various consultative bodies for Roma affairs or for general minority issues with Roma inclusion at the government or Ministry level. This type of solution is especially important in countries with dispersed and numerically small Romani populations like Finland or Poland.
Another lesson learnt is to focus on the local level. Roma participation will not be successful on the national level unless it is also encouraged in the municipalities. Efforts to encourage participation must of course be undertaken with Roma participation. The Roma themselves should represent their community’s interests and voice their concerns.
On the basis of these principles there is a need to develop a comprehensive approach in order to empower Roma populations. Action should include the following:
• Governments should repeal any laws and regulations which discriminate against minorities, including the Roma and non-settled communities, in terms of political representation.
• Non-governmental organizations should be encouraged to support programmes in civic education for Roma communities. Such programmes should include human rights components and practical information about the electoral system. It is important that such support programmes reach women and young Roma. Written information should be available in the Romani language.
• More outreach efforts are needed to ensure voter registration. Again, it is also important to reach women. The widespread problem of lack of personal identification documents must be resolved with high priority. This must include effective measures to ensure the rights of those who are stateless.
• Public life is not only about elections. Participation in public life also includes the possibility to influence authorities on a daily basis. More organized consultation is needed, for instance, in the municipalities, between the local authorities and the Roma population on housing and other concrete problems. Such consultation must be genuine and meaningful; any tendency of tokenism will backfire.
• Mechanisms for equal, direct and open communication are needed. Advisory bodies could be set up to give such consultations more continuity and promote the legitimacy of the Roma representatives. Authorities should support Roma cultural centres. Where such centres have been tried in the past, they have also had a positive effect on inter-Roma communications.
• More needs to be done to recruit Roma into civil service on both local and national level. Again, a pro-active policy is justified. It is particularly important that Roma are invited into the police profession and as staff in schools.
• The impact of all this will depend on progress in the efforts to put an end to anti-Gypsyism. Comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation must be adopted and enforced and the various Roma communities recognised as national minorities.
• Further efforts to raise awareness among officials and the general public are necessary. Clear reactions must be made against any xenophobic discourse and jargon. In this our elected politicians carry a great responsibility.
1. The term Roma/and or Travellers used in the present text refers to Roma, Sinti, Kale, Travellers, and related groups in Europe, and aims to cover the wide diversity of groups concerned, including groups which identify themselves as Gypsies.
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