The UN as a Forum for Discussion

Refusal by governmental authorities to engage in dialogue with human rights activists (such as non-profit organizations that have been labeled as “foreign agents”) renders the arranging of roundtable discussions impossible. Government officials aren’t going to reach out to the activists and are uninterested in their opinions. International events such as the session of the UN Committee on Human Rights provide almost the only opportunity to exchange opinions, express concerns, and receive responses to those concerns. By asking questions on issues raised in alternative reports, members of United Nations Committees seem to provide a voice for human rights activists on the global stage to which the members of the official delegation are obliged to respond; the Russian Federation has not yet gone so far as to completely ignore UN official bodies.


On March 16-17, 2015, the UN Committee on Human Rights reviewed the Russian Federation Report on the Implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As usual, after listening to the short speech given by the heads of the Russian delegation (this time by Georgy Matyushkin, the Russian envoy to the European Court of Human Rights), the Committee members presented questions, some of which received answers.


Particularly interesting to ADC “Memorial” were the questions regarding the report that it submitted concerning the situation of minorities, including that of the Roma population within the Russian Federation. Committee member Anja Seibert-Fohr expressed a particular interest in the segregation of Roma children in schools and in education statistics, as well as in the issue of forced resettlements and the demolition of Roma homes, living conditions in Roma villages, Roma employment programs, difficulties in obtaining proper identity documents which can lead to tragic results for Roma, and the removal of children from their mothers who cannot prove their relationship.


Olga Vykhovanets, formerly of the  Ministry of Regional Development (which was dissolved in September, 2014) responded. She stated that in the last year the Complex Plan for Socio-Economic and Ethno-Cultural Development of Russian Roma for 2013-2014, which encompassed “absolutely all” aspects of Roma life, had been implemented. She claimed that dozens of Roma NGOs participate in the Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of Roma in Russia (yet where can the work of these NGOs be seen?…) and that the chair of that Autonomy has a seat on the Presidential Counsel for Ethnic Relations. Additionally, the former Ministry has developed and ratified methodical recommendations at the federal level for work with the Roma population which it is mandatory to implement in all political subdivisions of the Russian Federation. Based on these recommendations the Roma supposedly are successfully arranging their own affairs and are finding their own employment that way. The destruction of Roma homes and their population transfer, assuming that happens, is done only by a court order and thus everything falls within the Housing Code. A primer has been developed for Roma children along with a Roma language textbook for an ethnic school, and a project is being implemented entitle “Education As A Means of Integrating Roma into Russian Society.”  The ROMED program of the Council of Europe, which trains mediators, has held two trainings. The government officials claim the Roma children themselves have the same rights as all other children to free meals and textbooks and that they participate in academic competitions and contests. Any difficulties in their level of knowledge of the Russian language are “tightened up” to the extent that they can study with other children without unimpeded. Finally, more than 2 ½ million rubles have been allocated for 2015-2018 to conduct an in-depth study of Roma life and their needs and problems, and in 2016-2010 an additional 4 million rubles are planned to be allocated in 2016-2020 to the celebration of a Day of Roma Culture.
The answers to these questions give the impression that there’s no need to conduct an expensive study of Roma issues since the problems have already been resolved. To be sure, I had to pinch myself while sitting in the conference hall, to make sure I hadn’t misheard something about Roma children studying their native language in a newly created textbook throughout the country. After all, the reality I’m familiar with sharply differs from the picture of Roma prosperity sweepingly presented to those gathered with an fashion worthy of Gogol’s Inspector General.


First, the Plan for a Roma multi-faceted development plan has extremely thin in content and is not in the least funded. The plan was adopted for a period of two years, which have already passed, and it does not provide for extensions. The Ministry responsible for its implementation has gone to meet its Maker and its functions were initially divided between three other ministries, with the protection of ethnic and native people’s rights winding up for some reason under the purview of the Ministry of Culture. It is not yet known whether some new targeted programs for improving the status of Roma will be adopted under the aegis of the newly created Federal Ethnic Affairs Agency.


Secondly, the majority of these announcements simply have no basis in reality. To the best of my knowledge, there is no primer or Roma language textbook developed within the Plan, and certainly we have never heard of its being published and used for instruction. Twelve people participated in the ROMED program in 2014 (see the website of the FNCA of Roma in Russia), but nothing is known about their mediation work. Similarly the methodical recommendations for working with the Roma are nowhere to be found, just like the website of the dissolved Ministry of Regional Development cannot.
What remains? The FNCA on enrolling children in school has likely already concluded. As for financing the study of Roma problems one wonders who received it from the defunct Ministry of Regional Development. Financing a Day of Roma Culture is a completely putting the cart before the horse. The participation of Roma children in academic competitions and contests? Only a few participate let alone advance through school and graduate from university. Tens of thousands finish elementary at best without any “tightening up” of their Russian language.  Destruction of Roma homes is a fact, and it occurs without provision of alternative housing and without concern for the children that are thrown out into the street. But it’s done strictly according to the Code.
Clearly answers were either not received at all to the pointed questions (on school segregation, removal of children from their mothers due to a lack of documentation) or answers consisting of window-dressing were given that are difficult for a knowledgeable person to believe.
So what is the result of this strange discussion of human rights activists and representative of the ministries and departments of the Russian Federation through the UN as an intermediary? It is a the recommendations given by international bodies and which Russia is obligated to implement as a signatory of  treaties and conventions. With regard to protecting the rights of Roma, they are issued by practically every committee.


The UN Committee on Human Rights responsible for compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in its recommendations of April 2, 2015, condemned the profiling practiced by the security agencies when they subject visually identifiable minorities, including Roma, to practices such as identity document checks, police brutality, and even special security operations with identifying names such as “Roma” or “Tabor.” The same committee expressed the need for combating manifestations of racism and xenophobia, of effectively investigating hate crimes whose victims are often Roma, and of prosecuting those responsible.

A year ago, the UN Committee  on the Rights of the Child issued very strong recommendations regarding the protection of the rights of Roma children, on the elimination of school segregation, the problem of identity documents, the unacceptability of forcibly removing children from their parents, and the illegal destruction of Roma homes. Two years ago the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination became interested in programs that are intended to improve the position of the Roma.


Even in the limited space for human rights activists to operate, experts have managed to present concerns to the Russian authorities. This volley in the dialogue has been said. The ball is in their court.

Olga Abramenko

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