That is former Council of Europe human-rights commissioner Thomas Hammarberg’s modest proposal, or rather stinger at the end of his recent comment in European Voice.

“A full account and recognition of the crimes committed against the Roma might go some way to restoring the trust of Roma communities in society,” Hammarberg wrote in a piece published a couple of days before he handed the reins to new commissioner Nils Muižnieks of Latvia.

Hammarberg, who throughout his six-year mandate has tried and tried to push the subject of discrimination against the Roma up the priority list of European institutions, returned to the theme in his swan song because of what he saw as a rise in anti-Roma rhetoric during the economic crisis. He drew a link between the economically bumpy times of today and the far more severe slump of the 1930s. Today, as then, he argues, xenophobes and nationalists are scapegoating the Roma. In the 20th century, economic collapse was followed by totalitarianism and total war, when Roma and Travelers were targeted for extermination; hundreds of thousands were killed by what he terms fascist forces from the Baltic to the Balkans.

“The collective stigmatisation of Roma and Travellers continues. Children are often segregated and bullied in schools. Adults face discrimination in the job market or when seeking healthcare. In many cases, Roma families have to dwell in slum areas. Thousands of European Roma are still stateless and many of them do not even have personal identity papers to prove who they are.”

For Hammarberg, the root of the problem lies in the attitudes of the majority population.

“To tackle deep-rooted anti-Gypsyism, it is necessary to increase public awareness about the past mass atrocities against the Roma people. A Europe-wide truth commission should be established for this purpose.”

Hammarberg doesn’t give any specific proposals for such a commission. How might it work? First, what is a “truth commission”? According to Wikipedia:

“A truth commission or truth and reconciliation commission is a commission tasked with discovering and revealing past wrongdoing by a government (or, depending on the circumstances, non-state actors also), in the hope of resolving conflict left over from the past.”

Wikipedia appends a list of 22 countries that have hosted truth commissions. Amnesty International says the number is more than 30 countries. The scope of these investigations varies enormously: the archetypal South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission looked into the whole vast subject of apartheid; South Korea’s ongoing commission is examining both the Japanese occupation of Korea and the acts of authoritarian governments up to 1993. Canada’s commission is on a smaller scale; it is tasked with uncovering the truths about the policy of sending Native American children to residential schools against their parents’ will – a policy not unlike the “special schools” that so many Romani children attend in Central Europe.

A crucial point here is that all these bodies have concentrated on events in a single country. New rules will have to be worked out if a transnational truth commission can go ahead. It will be complicated, especially if the scope of the exercise extends well back into the past. If such a commission were contemplated, my suggestion is to set a cut-off point at 1980. Prior to that, let bygones be bygones. A date of 1980 would let the body look back at several generations of discrimination against Roma. By setting the date well before the democratic transition in Central and Eastern Europe at the turn of the ’80s and ’90s, there would be scope to probe the crucial role of communist ideology – for good and ill – in laying the groundwork for many policies relating to minorities in the region. But the commission must not be only for the ex-communist states; that is crucial.

If the political will existed for such a multinational commission, I have no doubt that years would be spent on refining its scope and powers, nominating commissioners, selecting witnesses. I doubt there is the political will for this, although I’d love to see it discussed in the European Council, Council of Europe, OSCE, even the UN. So how about single-country truth commissions? If one country – Romania, say, or Germany, or Slovakia – were to take the step, others would be sure to follow. Is anyone out there bold enough?

Photo: Portland Organizing to Win Economic Rights

Ky Krauthamer

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at Transitions Online. Email:

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