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50th International Roma Day

Towards justice and building trust

29 March 2021


Closing remarks

Birgit Van Hout, Regional Representative for Europe

UN Human Rights (OHCHR)


Distinguished participants,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Two years ago – on 20 March 2019 – our Office co-organized, together with ERGO and Soraya Post, two days of reflection on “Advancing Recognition and Remedy for Anti-Gypsyism” in the European Parliament. It was the first conference of this kind at European level, where we also listened to personal testimonies. Several of you were with us then. I am happy to see that this work is continuing. Indeed, much has happened, both at international and EU level, since we last met.

For the first time, the new EU Roma Framework includes a commitment by the EU to promoting truth and reconciliation. We also welcome the Recommendation by the EU Council (2 March 2021), which recommends that EU member States adopt measures “to promote awareness of Roma cultures, language, and history, including the memory of the Roma Holocaust and reconciliation processes in society,” and calls for “recognition and reparation of past injustices.”

The question posed to this panel is “how do we approach truth and reconciliation from the perspective of the mandate of the UN Human Rights Office?”

The first recommendation would be to draw on international human rights instruments, standards and guidance. The right to remedy and reparation is enshrined in several international norms and standards.[1] However, transitional justice is a field that has developed more from practice than from theory and there is no one size fits all. I can recommend our publication “Rule of Law Tools for Post-Conflict States: Truth Commissions.”

The previous UN Special Rapporteur on Transitional Justice, Pablo de Greiff, identified four components of transitional justice processes, all of which need to move together and all of which require a whole-of-society approach. They are1) truth-seeking, 2) justice, 3) reparation and 4) guarantees of non-recurrence.

In transitional justice, the process is as important as the outcome. Full participation of women and girls is critical, to take into account women’s separate narratives, concerns, priorities, interests and experiences as targets of multiple forms of discrimination.

Still according to the Special Rapporteur, reparation can take various forms:

  • Restitution, which refers to restoring the victim to the original situation;
  • Compensation, which should be proportional to the gravity of the violation and the circumstances of each case: lost opportunities, loss of earnings and moral damages;
  • Rehabilitation, which consists of medical and psychological care, legal and social services;
  • Satisfaction, which may include the recovery and reburial of remains, judicial and administrative sanctions, commemoration and memorialization processes, and public apologies.

Meaningful apologies require a genuine acknowledgement of responsibility for wrongdoing by the State. And, official apologies need to result from comprehensive and effective consultation with those affected by inflicted harms.

In recent reports of the UN anti-racism mechanisms, the term “reparatory justice” has emerged. It is described as “making amends for centuries of violence and discrimination, including through formal apologies, truth-telling processes, and reparations in various forms.”

Reconciliation is premised on recognition and trust. It involves a whole-of-society approach, justice, healing, redress, addressing prejudice and intolerance, embracing difference, breaking of culture of suspicion, opening spaces in which people can hear and be heard, and the transformation of social, economic and political structures that gave rise to the estrangement.

My second recommendation would be to make better use of the UN human rights mechanisms who can recommend that States undertake truth and reconciliation processes, namely the Universal Periodic Review, the Special Procedures and the Treaty Bodies.

For example, your project expresses the intention to pave the way for truth and reconciliation processes in Spain and Romania.

In the Universal Periodic Review of Spain, which is a peer review process that took place just last year, six countries made recommendations in relation to Roma, all of which were accepted by Spain, but none of them relate to the need for a truth and reconciliation process. This is a missed opportunity. The Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in its concluding observations, also did not ask Spain to engage in a truth and reconciliation process.

The Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues visited Spain last year and while he made numerous recommendations regarding Roma, there is no mention of the need for truth and reconciliation, although he did call for “initiatives that raise the general public’s awareness of the rich and numerous contributions of Roma people throughout Spanish history.”

As for Romania, the Universal Periodic Review yielded even more recommendations related to Roma than for Spain. However, no mention of remembrance, recognition, justice, or trust-building. Now, Romania will be reviewed by the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in the near future and that will be an opportunity.

Treaty body experts make recommendations on the basis of all information they receive and this is where civil society can make suggestions.

My third recommendation would be to embed truth and reconciliation processes in the broader anti-racism struggle.

Behind today’s manifestations of antigypsyism lies a failure to acknowledge and confront the legacy of the past. For centuries, Roma and Sinti in Europe have been abused and excluded. They have suffered slavery, the Holocaust, forced sterilisation, segregation, forced evictions, discriminatory policing, the denial of citizenship, the institutionalisation of their children, hate crimes, and discrimination. Accounting for the past is fundamental to achieving genuine inclusion, reconciliation and social cohesion.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action adopted at the World Conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. This is important not only because Roma were explicitly recognized as victims of racism, but also because, for the first time in history, the link between past injustice and systemic racism was established in a legal document.

This has been echoed by the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism Ms. Tendayi Achiume who has underscored that “many contemporary manifestations of racial discrimination must be understood as a continuation of insufficiently remediated historical forms and structures of racial injustice and inequality.”

The Durban Programme of Action also recommended that States adopt national action plans against racism as a tool to tackle racism in a holistic manner. According to a recent report of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), only around half of EU Member States currently have national action plans against racism in place.

The EU, in the anti-Racism Action Plan, has called on all EU member States to adopt a such plans by 2022. The creation of a Sub-group of States to implement the EU Anti-Racism Action Plan at national level, has created a new momentum for the development or improvement of such plans.

A rights-based approach to this endeavor requires that such plans and the process for developing them are premised on the principles of inclusion, participation, transparency and accountability.

The Durban Programme of Action emphasizes the need for comprehensive and inclusive consultations with those affected in the development, implementation and evaluation of the plan and mentions Roma, Sinti, and Travellers specifically.

National action plans against racism could be a good place to nest national truth and reconciliation processes for and with Roma. Our office has issued a practical guide to assist States and right-holders alike in developing an effective national action plan.

While no country is free from racism, every country is different. A meaningful start of the work on a national action plan against racism is for each country to develop a diagnostic of the manifestations, causes and consequences of antigypsyism, through broad consultations.

I would like to close with the thought that it takes two, or in this case more than two to tango. Countries that engage in truth and reconciliation processes or that adopt a national action plan against racism without genuine political will are unlikely to be successful. States must fully embrace diversity a key prerequisite to achieve an effective outcome. Thank you.


[1] the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 8), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 2), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (article 6), and the ‘Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law’ (2005).