On February 5, Secretary Clinton met with a young group of Roma civil society activists and professionals in Sofia, Bulgaria. The Roma participants each spoke briefly about their work and their ideas on how to help move the Roma community forward. Many of the Roma youth activists were alumni of the Intern Program for Young Roma, an Open Society Institute initiative held under the auspices of the National Assembly of Bulgaria that announced its fifth intern program on February 6.
In her opening remarks, the Secretary told the activists that “helping to promote and protect the inalienable human rights of Roma everywhere is a long-standing personal commitment of mine, and it is a stated foreign policy priority of this Administration.” As part of that commitment, the Secretary announced that the United States will join the Decade of Roma Inclusion as an official observer. But what is the Decade of Roma Inclusion, and what is it trying to accomplish?
The “Decade” is an effort by European governments, to improve opportunities for Roma to participate in the political, social, economic, and cultural lives of their communities. Launched in Sofia on 2005, it is an unprecedented collaboration between governments, international organizations, and civil society groups committed to closing the gap in welfare and living conditions between Roma and non-Roma populations, as well as putting an end to the cycle of poverty and exclusion that plagues so many European Roma communities. Participating governments are asked to reallocate resources to achieve results, often using additional funding instruments of multinational, international, and bilateral donors.
As the Secretary noted, there are not only moral concerns when minorities like the Roma are excluded, but there is also a cost to European countries from the loss of human potential when they don’t fully integrate women or minorities of any kind. So the efforts of the twelve countries currently taking part in the Decade, including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Spain are important not only for the Roma, but for the countries as a whole. All of these countries have significant Roma minorities, and each country has developed a national Decade Action Plan that specifies goals and indicators in key areas. International partners include the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program, the Council of Europe, and UNICEF.
In her closing remarks at the roundtable, Secretary Clinton urged governments throughout Europe to continue their efforts to address the plight of Roma, to end discrimination and ensure equality of opportunity in education, employment, housing and other aspects. “I wish to make clear today to Roma people, to civil society groups, and to governments working on this issue across Europe, that the United States is very concerned and interested and will stand with you as a partner.”
My colleagues and I in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) will serve as the primary contact point for the Decade Secretariat moving forward. As an observer nation, the United States will continue its vigorous support for Roma Decade goals. Having observer status is an important way we can engage governments and provide feedback and perspective on the Decade initiatives.
The young Roma professionals that met with the Secretary remind us that barriers can be broken even when they stretch across time and borders. Our job in DRL will be to continue working with Roma civil society, activists, and with the countries themselves until the full integration of the Roma people into the societies and nations where they reside is achieved.