Human Rights in Romania? The Scent of Hypocrisy
Amid growing security concerns and an unfolding migrant crisis, developing adequate mechanisms for human rights development has tumbled down the priority list in Romania--a country that lacks strong democratic traditions and continues to carry the heavy burden of its communist past. This is producing a generation of policy makers hostile to the anchors of European values. Consider that earlier this year Romanian Justice Minister, Raluca Pruna, suggested that human rights are a 'theoretical luxury' in a state weakened by state-level corruption. There is a striking similarity in perceiving human rights as a 'theoretical luxury' and the Marxist view that human rights were 'bourgeois freedoms' that serve to protect the rich. Understanding human rights as a luxury reserved only for times of prosperity or only for certain social groups undermines the very idea of universality and inviolability of human rights.
Similar to other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Roma communities in Romania have been easy targets and subject to harassment and social marginalization, suggesting that European human rights norms are not as internalized as the enduring prejudice and discrimination. In this way, human rights are indeed a theoretical luxury for hundreds of thousands of Roma citizens who are systematically denied proper housing, medical care and equal education and employment opportunities in Romania.
Human rights organizations have repeatedly and continuously called on Romanian authorities to stop forced evictions of Roma populations and the forcible placing of Roma into racially-segregated container settlements that lack basic housing conditions. Numerous cases of police brutality and violence against Roma remain investigated but go unpunished.
In contrast to other countries in the region, far right parties in Romania have kept a low profile but this is mostly because the far-right rhetoric and values are already reflected in the mainstream political discourse that casually discusses the sterilization of Roma women and building walls around Roma settlements.
It is exactly the political elite that holds primary responsibility for encouraging the social stigma against Roma--using them as a scapegoat to distract public attention from widespread corruption, economic decline and nepotism. Much of the Romanian media is openly hostile towards Roma and steers public opinion against them. They promote the image of Roma as uncivilized, as criminals that cannot be educated. The reality, in sharp contrast, is that because of the social stigma, most of the educated and successful Roma choose to hide their background for fear of compromising their careers and future prospects. Roma choose to hide who they are!
Surely, some in the Roma community are involved in crime (or forcibly trafficked into crime or pushed there by poverty) but the deflection to ethnic reasoning is absurd and dogs proper social development in Romania. Government officials may continue to pretend to care about minority rights - while promoting genetics as the culprit instead of centuries of abuse, social exclusion and raw oppression - but they cannot hide the policies of division that target the Roma in Romania--this is, after all, a technological age.
There are solutions to changing Romania's approach to its minorities but these would take political courage--a rare commodity on a Romanian political scene where scoring a handful of political points by ignoring or contributing to the problem is easier, the rewards instant and the costs low...for now.
So Romania's government officials can continue to pretend to care about minority rights while the European Union and many within it will continue pretending to believe them. They receive money from the EU to change their discriminating ways and they promise reform, but on the ground nothing is different. And this is what keeps the cycle of discrimination, poverty and humiliation running at fever pitch--the sense of hopelessness among Romania's minorities and the sense of impunity by its leaders. Without a political class that actually believes in the equal treatment of all citizens and who perceive human rights not as a constraint but as a crucial moral compass for political action, it will be difficult - if not impossible- to break this cycle and start treating Roma and all minorities as equal European citizens, which they indeed are.