Ladies and gentlemen,
Welcome to the Europasaal in the Federal Foreign Office! I am very grateful indeed to the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, ODIHR and the Council of Europe for enabling us to discuss a topic today that is also of great importance to me personally.
However, it is also a topic to which we should devote far, far more attention. The mere fact that the word “anti-Gypsyism” is not recognised in Microsoft Word and is marked as a mistake speaks volumes. Clearly, public awareness of the discrimination against Europe’s largest ethnic minority is still very low.
I recall a discussion in the International Youth Meeting Centre in Auschwitz, where someone said: “Even if you’ve made it as a Roma, you won’t say where you came from.” That really made me stop and think because this sentence shows how deeply the prejudices and resentments against the Roma minority are rooted in our majority society.
The EU lauds itself as a place where diversity and tolerance are put into practice. As a community of shared values, we have committed ourselves to protecting fundamental values for everyone – with no ifs or buts. We need to judge ourselves by how we in Europe treat minorities.
Sinti and Roma have enriched our continent for centuries. Their place is in the midst of our society, not on its margins. But how can we foster a new way of living together that allows Sinti and Roma to finally enjoy what they are entitled to, namely dignity, respect and a fair chance of living a self-determined life?
It is not enough to simply set up social programmes and improve access to infrastructure, education and healthcare. Our majority society also needs to change so that the widespread prejudices against Europe’s largest minority finally disappear. Inclusion is not a one-way street.
With its chequered history, Germany has a special responsibility in this area, as the centuries of marginalisation of Sinti and Roma reached a barbaric climax in Nazi Germany.
Berlin was supposed to become “free of gypsies” in time for the 1936 Summer Olympics – what a despicable and inhumane idea! At the time, Reich Minister of the Interior Frick tasked the President of Police in Berlin with conducting a “day-long, city-wide manhunt for gypsies”, arresting all those regarded by the authorities as “gypsies” and interning them in a camp outside the city.
The 600 men, women and children interned in Marzahn camp were subsequently deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were murdered.
Over half a million Sinti and Roma lost their lives in the Holocaust. Many describe this as the forgotten Holocaust, and rightfully so, as these crimes are still not known everywhere in Europe. Naturally, we must keep the memory of these crimes alive. And we want to do so, not only as an end in itself, but primarily so that we can learn from the past and have a better future. The future needs us to remember the past – I see these two things as intrinsically linked.
Anti-Gypsyism is by no means a problem of the past. It is still deeply rooted in our societies today – including here in Germany. According to a recent study by Leipzig University, almost 60 percent of those surveyed would have a problem with Sinti and Roma living near them. Almost half of those surveyed want Sinti and Roma to be banned from city centres.
And 58 percent are of the opinion that Sinti and Roma are particularly likely to commit crimes.These are alarming figures, which show clearly how strong the stereotypes and clichés are still embedded in our society.
It is therefore all the more important that all democratic forces take a firm stand against this overt discrimination and stigmatisation. We must not turn a blind eye when people are forced to live in abject poverty, without opportunities and excluded from the majority society. This is our duty as democrats, and not only in light of the shocking success of the AfD in the elections in Land Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania on Sunday.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Fortunately, much has changed for the better since the end of the Second World War as regards improving the living conditions of Sinti and Roma. Things have changed in Germany and the European Union, but also through the Council of Europe and the OSCE.
For many years, German politicians also made heavy weather of taking a decisive stand against anti-Gypsyism. Nazi Germany’s crimes against Sinti and Roma were only recognised officially as genocide in 1982 by then Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
The Documentation and Cultural Centre in Heidelberg was set up that year, as was the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma. The latter has also had an office in Berlin since 2015. Romani Rose, in all this time you have played a crucial role in ensuring that the civil rights and political interests of Sinti and Roma in Germany are properly represented. You have been fighting for these rights for 45 years and you have achieved a great deal. Thank you very much for all your hard work.
Sinti and Roma have also been recognised under German law as a national minority with their own minority language since 1995.
Soni Weisz’ speech on International Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January 2011 was the first time that a member of the Sinti and Roma community gave a speech in the German Bundestag. His family was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and murdered there. Soni Weisz was the only one to survive.
In October 2012 – 30 years after the German Government recognised the genocide against Sinti and Roma – the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the National Socialist Regime was opened in the Tiergarten in Berlin. This memorial represents a pledge by German politics and society that we stand to our history. And we want to live up to our responsibility to the 12 million Sinti and Roma living in Europe today.
We need these symbols and we need to address the past. That is why I, like you Romani Rose, want the German Bundestag to set up an independent commission of experts to combat anti-Gypsyism. In Norway, an independent commission has already presented a comprehensive report on how the Roma minority is treated in the country. During my visit to Oslo, I had a chance to learn for myself about the important work carried out by the commission. Many others still need to follow the positive example of this Norwegian role model. After all, we in Europe can still learn from and with each other when it comes to tackling anti-Gypsyism.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The Council of Europe, which already made promoting the inclusion of Roma a priority many years ago, is a very important forum in this area.
The Strasbourg Declaration on Roma of October 2010, in which the Council of Europe set out its strategy for protecting and promoting the rights of Roma, was a milestone in this context.
Further milestones include the fundamental European Convention on Human Rights, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, the European Social Charter and the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance. The regular reports and statements point out shortcomings, thus repeatedly highlighting the problems, and make concrete recommendations.
The European Court of Human Rights plays a crucial role in recognising and enforcing the rights of Roma on the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights. In recent years, the Court has ruled in many cases that the rights of Roma have been violated and has demanded that long-term improvements be made in each case.
If the Member States now implemented all of the rulings by the European Court of Human Rights on Roma issues in full, this would solve several problems. However, this is not yet the case.
Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland, on behalf of the entire German Government, I would like to pay tribute here today to your great commitment to Roma. You played a crucial role in the forthcoming establishment of a European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC).
Cultural diversity is one of Europe’s major strengths. And Roma art and culture are not just some minor feature of this. They greatly enrich this diversity. That is why I am very pleased that ERIAC will be based in Berlin. I very much hope that the institute will be able to start operating this year.
The German Government will do everything it can to support ERIAC. At the same time, it is obvious that this is not a German institution. It involves all Council of Europe Member States and it needs their goodwill and political and financial support to make it a success.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Apart from the Council of Europe, the European Union has also pledged its particular support for diversity and the protection of minorities. After all, the EU is not simply a single market – first and foremost, it is a community of shared values.
The strength of our open, inclusive societies is particularly evident in the fact that minorities live within majority society as equals, are respected and can flourish, enjoying equal opportunities – without losing their own customs or being forced to deny their roots.
The EU now has a Roma strategy that puts economic and social inclusion of Roma and Sinti further up the agenda. It regularly holds summits on Roma where representatives of EU institutions, national governments and parliaments, communities and civil-society organisations meet.
Both the European Commission and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights are now focusing in particular on the situation of Sinti and Roma in EU Member States.
On International Roma Day on 8 April 2015, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on tackling anti-Gypsyism and on recognising a Roma Holocaust Memorial Day.
Soraya Post, your presence here today means that we also have an elected Roma representative from the European Parliament with us. I am very happy about that. Sinti and Roma are still far too rarely members of parliament or hold political responsibility. Soraya, you are a role model and an inspiration for many Roma all over Europe. We still need far more Sinti and Roma who want to play an active role in politics, culture, the media and academia. Let us invite them to do so! Let us encourage them to take on responsibility in our society! We need you, the Roma people, in parliaments, governments, public authorities and administrations.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The OSCE also works very hard to promote the rights of Sinti and Roma. As early as 1990, it recognised the difficult situation facing Sinti and Roma in Europe and pledged to take decisive action against racism and discrimination. In adopting an action plan in 2003 on improving the situation of Sinti and Roma, the OSCE sent a positive message about Roma rights.
In the past 20 years, the OSCE has expanded its activities to combat anti-Gypsyism. ODIHR, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, was tasked by the OSCE Ministerial Council to compile information on discriminatory legislation and educational programmes in the participating States and to share best-practice models on tackling intolerance and discrimination.
In its role as current Chair of the OSCE, it is particularly important to the German Government to highlight and disseminate positive approaches to tackling anti-Gypsyism. Michael Link, I would like to thank you in particular for ODIHR’s fantastic dedication in this area. I very much welcome the fact that the OSCE works with young people in particular and helps to raise their awareness of their identity as Sinti and Roma and as citizens of a democratic Europe.
These meetings and talks with young people give me grounds for hope. In August 2014, I had the chance to talk to young adults from Germany, Poland and the group of Roma and Sinti in the International Youth Meeting Centre in Auschwitz. Projects with young people are a particularly effective way of remembering the past and overcoming prejudices and exclusion. That is why they are of particular importance to me.In this way, we can succeed in placing Sinti and Roma culture at the heart of our society, where it belongs. Sinti and Roma art, tradition and language must be accessible to the majority society because they have been a firm part of Europe for centuries. Our work will only be done when no one has to feel ashamed or afraid to say that he or she is Roma.