International seminar on “The young Roma in Europe”

31 May - 2 June 2013, Prague (Czech Republic)

Presentation by Inger LINGE, (Sweden, EPP/CCE)

Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

Reflection on the impact of policy papers regarding Roma Youth

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Ladies and gentlemen, young friends

Thank you very much for the invitation to take part in this conference, I’m most happy to be here with you over the next few days and I look forward to exchanging ideas with you, both during this work session and at other moments.

If I have been invited to be with you here today, it is because the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe has nominated me co-rapporteur on Roma youth.  Before explaining what that means, I would like to start by giving you some information about the Congress, what it is, what it does, and why it is interested in the situation of young Roma people.

As you most likely know, the Council of Europe is a pan-European intergovernmental organisation which was set up after the second World War when, the major European leaders of the time felt overwhelmingly that “never again” should Europe live through that same experience in the future.

The primary aim of the Council of Europe is to create a common democratic and legal area throughout the whole of the European continent which ensures respect for the fundamental values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.  These values are the foundations of a tolerant and civilised society and are indispensable for European stability, economic growth and social cohesion.  These fundamental values are the driving force for our action and we base our work on them in our efforts to find shared solutions to major problems facing society today.

Within the Council of Europe, all of the stakeholders we find in our own countries work together to find these solutions: our governments are represented by the Committee of Ministers; members of our national parliaments come together in the Parliamentary Assembly; our local and regional governments debate in the Congress where I sit; and civil society finds its voice in the Conference of international NGOs that have participatory status with the Council.

The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities is a political assembly made up of 636 members.  Like myself, all of the members have been elected by the citizens living in their towns, villages and regions.  We all hold elective office and amongst us you will find regional and municipal councillors, mayors and presidents of regional authorities.  Together, we represent the two hundred thousand local and regional authorities across the 47 member states.

The first and basic Convention, of which the signature and ratification are a condition of membership of the Council of Europe, is the European Convention on Human Rights. Established in 1950 and based on the UN Declaration from 1948.

However there are more prerequisites for membership.  The abolition of death penalty for instance, which became definitive with the entry into force in 2003 of Protocol 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights, aims to make Europe the only death penalty-free region in the world.  Currently only Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation have neither signed nor ratified this Protocol, Armenia and Poland have not yet ratified it.

Ensuring the coherent and the constant protection of Human Rights across its 47 member states is a principle focus of the organisation. One Institution of importance here is the European Court of Human Rights.  The Court was established in 1959. It allows individuals as well as groups, from member states to address the court when they think their human rights are being violated.  The Court has its premises in a large building in Strasbourg not far from Palace of Europe, or Palais de l’Europe, which is the local name of the building.  Everybody can visit the Court and follow a trial on site. I recommend you to do so if opportunity occurs.

The next institution within the Council of Europe working in the field of human rights is the Commissioner.  The Commissioner is an independent and non-judicial institution created in 1999.  The commissioner works to monitor the human rights situation in all member countries.  And not only monitor but also to put pressure on those states where human rights are being violated.  The present Commissioner is the third, his name is Nils Muiznieks.  The second Commissioner was Thomas Hammarberg from Sweden.  His prime focus was on the situation of Roma people and of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.  On the Web, you can see and listen to some of his speeches. I recommend you to do so.  Among other things he says; I quote:

“There are differences between the member countries of the Council of Europe, but there is a need for every country to address the question. No European state can say that there no problem exists.”

The 2012 European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma was awarded to Mr Hammarberg.

As you can imagine, the Congress’s role is to promote local and regional democracy and to improve local and regional governance.  Our “bible” is the European Charter of Local Self-Government. This treaty requires signatory states to comply with a minimum number of principles that form a solid foundation for local democracy in Europe and the decentralisation of power towards the level closest to the citizen.  It also has a role to promote human rights at local and regional levels.

Within the Congress structure, three committees decide upon the Congress’s work plan within its overall priorities: the monitoring committee ensures member states are complying with the terms of the European Charter of Local Self-Government; as the name implies, the Governance Committee deals with questions of governance, public finance, cross-border and interregional co-operation; while the committee on which I sit, the Current Affairs Committee is responsible for studying the role of local and regional authorities in response to the major challenges of our society, and for preparing work on thematic issues such as human rights, social cohesion and intercultural dialogue  based on the Council of Europe's core values.  When the Congress decides there is a need to look more closely at an issue, such as the difficulties facing young Roma people in today’s society, it nominates rapporteurs to study the issue, to write a report describing the situation and to make recommendations to local and regional authorities, and also sometimes national governments, to improve the situation.

And this is why I am here today as co-rapporteur on Roma youth - co-rapporteur because there are 2 of us.  When, in 2010, some member states took certain measures towards Roma which received wide press coverage, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe called a high-level meeting to discuss how to overcome the immediate and long-term challenges related to the rights and obligations of Roma communities throughout Europe.  One result of this meeting was the “Strasbourg Declaration” which recognised that the primary responsibility for promoting Roma inclusion lies with the member states at national, regional but especially the local level.  The Congress immediately undertook to explore the situation of Roma in Europe and to see just how much of a challenge that presented to local and regional authorities.  The result was a list of recommendations, to local and regional authorities, with regard to education, employment, health, housing and Roma empowerment and participation.  We also made recommendations on action to be taken to combat ignorance, myths and stereotypes among the non-Roma population.  These recommendations are available on the Congress’s website.

Although these recommendations seek solutions for the Roma population as a whole, they also recognise the need to make sure that the voice of young Roma people is heard.  To ensure this actually happens in practice, the Congress’s Thematic Rapporteur on Roma/Travellers, who is also my co-rapporteur on Roma Youth, John WARMISHAM, proposed the Congress examine the situation of Roma youth and put forward recommendations for policies and action, at local and regional levels. They will aim to provide an environment in Europe where young Roma people can participate fully, have full access to their social human rights, can live their lives free from discrimination, and where they can feel confident about the future.  These recommendations will be contained in a report which is being drafted almost as we speak, and which forms part of the Council of Europe Roma Youth Action Plan about which Mara spoke earlier on.

Although John and I are charged with this report on the situation of young Roma people, neither of us is Roma, and it has to be said, neither of us fits into the Council of Europe’s definition of “young”!  We are not best placed to identify the challenges faced by young Roma people in Europe today, or to decide alone on which policies and action will best address and overcome these hurdles.  Obviously, those in the best position to do this are the young Roma people themselves.  The Council of Europe and the Congress have long believed in the principle of citizen participation, as citizen participation is a major tool for strengthening democracy and is the basis of the new model of participatory democracy which we are seeking to build.  This commitment is demonstrated by the system of co-management operated by the Youth Department, and is enshrined in the Congress’s Revised European Charter on the Participation of Young People in Local and Regional Life, as well as in the Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level.

It was only natural, therefore, that any attempt to ascertain exactly what are the challenges facing young Roma people and what policies and action are needed had to be done in full consultation with young Roma people.  We felt it was only together that young Roma people and elected local and regional councillors, members of the Congress, could decide on policy measures and strategies.  This is why we began preparing our report by organising a one-day exchange of views between some of our members and a group of young Roma people.

Thanks to this exchange, we will be able to propose, in our report, policies and action that can and should be taken at local and regional levels, which are founded on the needs and aspirations of young Roma people.  The report will be presented to the Congress in the near future for adoption.  A further opportunity for exchange will be had during our next Committee meeting which is being held next month in Ankara. During this meeting, we are organising a hearing with more representatives of the young Roma population but this time in the presence of the whole committee.  This means there will be many more local and regional councillors present to put their views and to hear about the young Roma people’s vision.  Of course, I will also be listening very closely to your views and proposals over the coming days and will also take these into consideration in the final report.  I would also say please don’t hesitate to write to me, care of the Current Affairs Committee Secretariat, with your ideas.

So what happens next, you may ask yourselves.  Well, the recommendations the Congress makes are sent to local and regional authorities of the 47 Council of Europe member states and their national associations for implementation.  Unfortunately, the Council of Europe’s recommendations are not binding on member states, they are proposals for action.  And this is where we rely on people like yourselves, on NGOs and other advocacy organisations, to lobby local and regional authorities, but also national governments when we make proposals to the national level, to implement the policies we propose.  The report will be available to the public as soon as it has been adopted and we will make sure it is widely available on the Congress’s website but also on the Youth Department’s site.  Please feel free to distribute it widely.

As to the content of the report, we had very lengthy discussions about this during our exchange of views and decided the most important issues to be addressed were the participation and empowerment of young Roma people, their access to social human rights and combatting discrimination and anti-Gypsyism.  The report will expand on these issues.

Ladies and gentlemen, my time is about up now but before I end, I would again like to encourage you once again to make your opinions known.  I’m here this week with Dmitri Marchenkov, the secretary to the Current Affairs Committee.  Please, take the opportunity to talk to both of us, we want to hear from you.

Thank you for your attention and I wish you a successful conference.