Speech by Maud de Boer-Buquicchio,
Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe
European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma, Award Ceremony
Germany, Berlin, 3 April 2012
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
It is a real honour and privilege for me to address you on this very special occasion today, just a few days before International Roma Day on 8 April, and I wish to thank the founding organisations of the European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma for their invitation.
This Prize – I quote from the Statute – may be awarded to individuals, groups or institutions “which have made exemplary efforts for the enforcement of civil rights as an element of the human rights of Sinti and Roma”.
Thomas, I have for the past six years witnessed on a daily basis your efforts to further human rights in the Council of Europe member States, and I have been lucky to work very closely with you on a number of questions, including children’s rights and women’s rights. Both these areas, of course, are immensely significant in the wider efforts to safeguard rights for the Roma people. This close work together, and our very good understanding, is why I am especially pleased to present you with this award.
Thomas Hammarberg’s life-long engagement for human rights - in Sweden, in Europe and worldwide – spans from the 1970s to this very day, with key positions in Amnesty International, Swedish Save the Children, SIDA, different human rights missions for the United Nations, and, until a few days ago, as Council of Europe Commissioner for Human rights.
Throughout his human rights work, Thomas Hammarberg has shown that he is not a human rights theorist, but a human rights practician, a human rights defender in the fullest sense. Thomas always keeps a strong focus on making those rights practical and real for everyone. From this, it is but a small and logical step to focusing on those people for whom human rights mean little in practice, because they are a vulnerable minority, because they lack the power to stand up for their rights, because they are discriminated against, excluded, rejected or ignored.
And this he has done consistently. In a 1997 lecture about the rights of the child, well before his election as Human Rights Commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg spoke about the right to education of Roma children, pointing to their dramatically low school attendance rates in several European countries and disparities in terms of access to quality education, which call for extra efforts to give disadvantaged children a genuine chance of regular schooling. He said: “it is not sufficient just to state that they have the same rights as others. Information campaigns and home visits may be needed to break down the isolation and the prejudices”.
When you took up the post of Human Rights Commissioner you underlined your strong determination to address the most pressing human rights problems our societies face today.
Throughout your viewpoints, opinions, reports, and statements, one word comes back again and again: the Roma. You magnificently mainstreamed the Roma concerns in your work and you thereby set an example for governments. I cannot overemphasise the importance of your role in promoting public awareness about the Roma plight. Your recently published report on Human rights of Roma and Travellers in Europe is one more important step in the defense of Human Rights.
You have demonstrated your commitment to the cause of the Roma until the very last days of your mandate as Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. In the European Voice last week you drew attention to the long and continuing history of violence, hatred and discrimination against Roma in Europe and called for the establishment of a Europe-wide Truth Commission. I fully endorse this idea, as we have seen how such commissions, established in situations such as South Africa post-aparteid, have played a vital role in allowing oppressors and oppressed to confront together the wrong which has been inflicted, and so to move forward.
We all know that the Roma question often lends to rhetoric and you have so often said that the time has come to move from rhetoric to genuine respect of international standards and realistic policies.
Your work, Thomas, has been grounded in reality, a harsh reality for a great number of European Roma. You have been a determined advocate of the obvious: social justice for the vulnerable. In your work, you addressed the full range of Human Rights violations suffered by the Roma: forced sterilisation of Roma women, racially motivated violence against Roma and inadequate protection by law enforcement, lack of access to education, adequate housing, employment and health care, the lack of identity documents, the problem of statelessness, the lack of participation in public life and decision-making, the list – sadly - is very long and I could mention many more.
In short: discrimination.
Obviously, the effectiveness of your work to promote human rights has much to do with charisma and eloquence – that unique ability to sum up the challenges of the most deprived in Europe with a simple phrase or sentence. I give you an example: the title of your foreword in a recent publication is “Mind the Gap”, the various gaps in our European societies affecting more and more people (young, elderly, minorities, refugees, migrants). In this report you recommend that what is happening today in Europe, the economic crisis and the gap between rich and poor needs a deep analysis, and that changes will only occur from open and genuine approach to the problems; not only from new policies, but new attitudes as well.
Anti-Gypsyism is a widespread phenomenon in Europe today and the fight against it is rightly one the priorities of the Council of Europe. Anti-Gypsyism is often based on ignorance. This ignorance concerns also the history of Roma and their past suffering. We have not done enough to teach Europe about the Roma history. There is a destructive silence around the Roma victims of the Second World War. Allow me to repeat what you have often recommended to member states: Teach and raise awareness about the Roma genocide and establish truth commissions to reveal the historical truth about atrocities committed against the Roma people.
It is not easy to encapsulate the essence of your human rights work in a short phrase, but there are four key words that come to mind: observing, alerting, educating and defending. You have been unflinching in denouncing racism and discrimination, resolute in defending the weak against the strong, determined and fearless in your pursuit of justice. Your work for Roma rights has inspired civil society organisations across the continent and was instrumental in placing this issue high on the agenda of governments and European organisations. Your efforts to combat injustice against the Roma have been outstanding and deserve public recognition.
The Jury of the European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma was unanimous in its decision to award the 2012 Prize to you for your exemplary human rights work and your longstanding and unrelenting commitment in favour of making human rights practical, real and effective for the Sinti and Roma throughout Europe.
I warmly congratulate you with this award and now invite you to come forward.