Prague, 9 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The continent's main human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe, is expected later this month to give its final stamp of approval to the first pan-European forum for Roma.
The Committee of Ministers, the council's executive branch, is set to vote on the statute for the future European Forum for Roma and Travelers on 19 February, three years after the idea was launched by Finnish President Tarja Halonen. In January 2001, Halonen proposed before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that a consultative assembly be created for the European Roma population, estimated at between 8 million and 10 million people.
"According to the statute proposals, every member country will nominate a delegation of three persons in which they have to take into account the gender equality balance and youth representation."
Miranda Vuolasranta, special Council of Europe adviser on Roma-related issues, told RFE/RL that the initial plan to give Roma a unified voice enjoyed unqualified approval. "This was the first initiative aiming at providing the Roma population with a voice and with the possibility of participating in the decision-making process at the European level," Vuolasranta said. "Then the Roma [representatives] from 13 countries, plus the European institution representatives, were asked whether this initiative was good or not, and the initiative got a unanimously positive attitude from all the partners."
Roma, who came originally from India, settled in Europe in the 14th century. They have been subjected to discrimination and exclusion for centuries. Romania is home to Europe's largest Roma population -- estimated at between 500,000 and 2 million. Gypsies, as they were called, were enslaved in Romania until the second half of the 19th century.
After the fall of communism, the situation of the Central and Eastern European Roma, who were already living in abysmal poverty, continued to deteriorate. Roma became a common target for racist attacks in countries such as the Czech Republic, Romania, and Slovakia.
Vuolasranta said the pan-European forum could become an interface for cooperation at a political level between Romany organizations and European bodies such as the Council of Europe, the European Union, or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
She told RFE/RL the forum could also help Romany groups play a more active role in protecting community interests. "This would be a specific relation, which would allow the Roma [to have] a political platform, to take part in the Council of Europe's different internal political debates, committees, expert bodies, etc., make contributions and proposals, give its advice and expertise, and also [take part] in all levels of national [structures of] member countries," she said.
Last year, Vuolasranta said, France and Finland made a proposal that the forum not be a permanent structure inside the Council of Europe -- headquartered in Strasbourg -- but an independent international nongovernmental organization. The NGO would be established in France according to French law and have legal cooperation protocol with the Council of Europe.
But, despite the fact that the initial idea launched by Finland's president enjoyed unanimity, difficulties appeared once the process got started. The main bone of contention became the number of delegates from each country. Romany organizations from countries with substantially larger Romany populations have requested that the forum have proportional representation rather than an equal number of members from each of the council's member states.
Costel Bercus, of the Romani Criss, an ethnic Roma organization in Romania, told RFE/RL that Romania and Hungary have requested a higher number of representatives in the forum. "Romania and Hungary, for example, have asked that the [Council of Europe's] Committee of Ministers take into account the proportion of Roma population in each state. For instance, if in Romania the unofficial Roma population is put at some 2 million, then Romania should have a much larger number of delegates to the forum than other states, where there are 10,000 or 100,000 Roma," Bercus said.
Proportional representation was rejected, but delegates agreed to a so-called geographical criterion that would allow countries with larger Romany populations to send more representatives to the forum.
Vuolasranta said that during the latest round of statute negotiations last month, it was decided that gender balance and youth representation would also be taken into account. "According to the statute proposals, every member country will nominate a delegation of three persons in which they have to take into account the gender equality balance and youth representation," she said. "And from three nominated country delegates, one -- or more -- can become then representatives in the forum."
Before the 19 February Committee of Ministers meets to decide the final form of the statute, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is organizing a meeting of Romanian Roma organizations in Bucharest this week (12-13 February) to discuss the forum.
ODIHR adviser on Roma issues Nicolae Gheorghe told RFE/RL that the meeting in Bucharest could be a model for other countries. "We'll try to offer information and to launch the process to establish a mechanism to delegate Roma representatives from Romania. It could be an exercise, a pilot program based on which we could advise the Roma from other countries, taking into account that Romania has the largest self-declared Roma population in Europe -- almost half a million. It also has a diversity of representative structures. There are Roma members of parliament. There are some 80 to 100 Roma civic groups. There is a national office for Roma in the government. Therefore, in Romania, one can find the whole range of Roma organizational structures," Gheorghe said.
The council's adviser on Roma issues, Miranda Vuolesranta, says that once the Committee of Ministers approves the statute, the forum could be legalized under French law in the following months. Vuolasranta concludes that, if everything goes according to plan, the first plenary assembly meeting could take place later this year, in October or November.