Statement by Foreign Minister Tuomioja at a seminar on Roma Participation in Europe

Statement by Mr Erkki Tuomioja Minister for Foreign Affairs Seminar on Roma Participation in Europe in the Parliament Building Helsinki 22 October 2001

Madam Chairperson, Distinguished Participants of the Seminar, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour for me to have the opportunity to open this important seminar on "Roma Participation in Europe". It is a pleasure to see that so many prominent representatives of Roma communities and experts from both international governmental and non-governmental organisations, as well as representatives of various governments have gathered together in this seminar. I particularly appreciate the wide presence of the Roma organizations and the NGO community. I believe that the commitment and enthusiastic contribution of the civil society is essential in providing concrete substance and valuable reflection to our theme today. It is perhaps appropriate to state that the time has now come to take a true step from mere words to implementable plans - towards concrete action. I therefore look very much forward to the conclusions of this seminar.

Finland pays special attention to ensure that human rights are taken into account in all areas of foreign policy. I would like to underline that the Finnish human rights policy prioritizes the protection of the human rights of all minorities. It is deeply regrettable that minorities, such as the Roma, are more likely than others to suffer from violations of their rights. In all European countries, both direct and indirect discrimination still occurs in regrettably numerous forms. States are not only obliged to refrain from discrimination but also to take proactive and positive measures in order to ensure that all minorities are able to fully participate in society and to enjoy full respect of their rights. States ought to be the guardians of the human rights of their citizens.

There are Roma minorities in all the continents of the world and, practically speaking, in all European countries. It saddens me to think that they have been subjected to discrimination for so long. Even if progress has been achieved and commitments have been made, there is still a vast amount of work ahead of us if we are to ensure the full enjoyment by the Roma and Sinti of their economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. It is evident that tangible improvements in the living conditions of the Roma should be one of the most immediate aims. The situation of the Roma is critical not only in the Western Balkans, nor are their problems confined to Central and Eastern Europe, but there is scope for improvement in all parts of Europe, including Finland. In my opinion, the work of numerous and dedicated non-governmental organisations in this field is extremely valuable.

Appropiate safeguards must be developed to ensure the participation of minority groups at all levels of public administration, and they must be accorded an active part in decision-making processes that directly concern them. In Finland, and in many other countries, advisory bodies comprised of representatives from both the state and minority groups have proved to be an effective tool in making the voice of minorities heard. Representatives of minorities, elected by their own non-governmental organisations, are capable of providing a vital and valuable input to these bodies. Consultative bodies and NGOs do not exclude each other but are mutually complementary aspects of the same issue; there is plenty of room for both, and both have their own important roles to play. Official consultative bodies may provide a useful forum for NGOs representing minority groups to advocate their ideas and objectives.

It should be recognised that many of the issues which are of vital concern to the Roma are not only national but sub-regional or even transregional in character. In spite of this, we have not managed to establish a representative mechanism, operating above the national level,which could ensure that the views of the Roma were heard in the corridors and meeting halls where European decision-making takes place.

The Government of Finland stands ready to both share the national experiences gained and to take the issue of Roma participation further to the European level. Let me remind you about the proposal made by the President of Finland, Ms Tarja Halonen, during the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in January, concerning the creation of a Pan-European consultative assembly for the Roma. This initiative was recently brought up also by the Romany Caucus, which convened in Durban during the World Conference for Racism a couple of months ago. The Caucus urged the Council of Europe to establish a consultative body of Roma representatives.

We fully acknowledge that there are still a number of issues which need thorough examination before the initiative can proceed. These issues include, for example, representativity, full ownership of the Roma communities, the modalities for the selection of delegates and affiliation of the new body to existing European organisations. It is of utmost importance that a solution be sought in close collaboration with Roma NGOs and their regional, national and local constituencies, and ensuring their full participation. The question of the selection process, in particular, would require close consideration by the Roma and by the governments involved. Attention should also be paid to guaranteeing representation of a sufficient proportion of Roma women. We do believe, however, that if such core questions as the selection procedure and representation can be solved, the whole of Europe would benefit from the existence of a Roma representative forum which allows the Roma to formulate their own views and to make their concerns known to political decision-makers in every country of Europe.

Finally, I would like to emphasize that we all need to take responsibility for fight against discrimination and to further the cause of the Roma. Since you represent both the civil society, international organisations, governments and parliaments and thus possess a wide range of expertise in the field of minority issues, you are in the forefront of advancing the challenging initiative of Roma representation at European level. I therefore suggest that you use this occasion to consider and further elaborate this idea. I trust that you will have fruitful and forward-looking discussions on the issue of Roma participation and on the situation of the Roma in general. I wish every success to this seminar.