Archive for Europe

The Struggle for Equality: When Will European Roma Human Rights Finally be Respected?

By Larissa Peltola, a staff writer for RightsViews and a graduate student in the Human Rights MA Program. 

The Roma, pejoratively referred to as Gypsies, are Europe’s largest and most marginalized and disenfranchised ethnic minority.  There are an estimated 10-12 million Roma in Europe, making up 5 percent of the population. The Roma are most concentrated in Italy, Spain, France, and the UK, according to Amnesty International, but have settled in every country on the continent. Originally migrating to Europe in the 9th century from Northern India and what is now Iran, Turkey, and Armenia, the Roma have faced discrimination, racism, xenophobia, and inhumane treatment in every country they have settled in. They were forced into slavery in most of Europe leading up to the 19th century, were the second-largest group targeted for extermination by the Third Reich (an estimated 25-75% of Europe’s Roma population were decimated in WWII), and were targeted for murder and rape during the conflict in Kosovo. 

Photo copyright: Archiv C891 Ungarische Zigeuner-Familie, Roma, unter deutscher Besatzung, 1940er

Today, the Roma are still described using the most common negative stereotypes: gypsies, thieves, criminals, savage, lazy, intellectually inferior, and other derogatory descriptions. A majority live in slums without access to running water or electricity and are at near-daily risk for violence committed by non-Roma European citizens. In 2019, six French men were arrested in a plot to burn down a Roma camp near Paris due to their belief in the baseless accusation that French Roma had been involved in a kidnapping ring in poor Parisian neighborhoods. Despite this failed attempt, anti-Roma sentiment and violence in France spiked soon after these racist and unfounded allegations circulated on social media. According to the New York Times, over several days Roma men were beaten and threatened according to advocacy groups. In Rome in 2017, three young Roma girls aged 4, 8, and 20 were burned alive when their camper-van was set on fire in an intentional attack on the camp. These are merely a few of countless examples of physical violence against the Roma.

European citizens are not the only ones guilty of inciting violence against the Roma. Government officials from several countries have used their influential platforms to call for violence against the Roma. French National Assembly Member Gilles Bourdouleix remarked in 2013: “Maybe Hitler didn’t kill enough of them.” Hungarian ruling Fidesz party co-founder Zsolt Bayer declared: “A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people. These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved — immediately and regardless of the method.”

Repeated violence and discrimination against the Roma continue to have a detrimental effect on their communities throughout Europe. Currently, 90% of Roma are at risk of extreme poverty, are subjected to forced evictions and deportations, face educational segregation, and on average, have lifespans that are ten years shorter than their non-Roma counterparts. Over 77% of Roma and Travellers (a similar nomadic but ethnically distinct group mainly living in Western Europe) in the UK have been victims of racially motivated attacks and hate crimes and in the UK, 70% of Roma experienced discrimination in seeking education, nearly 50% were refused employment due to their ethnicity, and 30% cannot access proper healthcare. Moreover, there are few recent reports on the overall status of the Roma in Europe as a majority of countries choose not to collect or take part in data collection.

This begs the question: why, in practice, have the rights of the Roma been left out of human rights discourses in Europe? This is a question that can only be answered honestly by confronting over a thousand years of racism, negative stereotypes, and xenophobia. Much of the discrimination they face has to do with the perception of their culture. Many Europeans view Roma culture as one that has a collective identity based upon a nomadic lifestyle, a group full of fortune tellers, beggars, thieves, child snatchers, people that are too lazy to work or get an education and instead choose to be a drain on society. Many believe that Roma lifestyles not only contradict, but are also inherently dangerous to the European way of life. These ideas emerged from a series of stereotypes imposed on them shortly after their enslavement in the 13th century. Consider the character of Esmerelda from the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Cher’s popular song Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves, or the reality show My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding which follows teen “Gypsy” brides. Each of these examples perpetuate the stereotypes of Roma girls as sexually promiscuous, Roma men as predators, and the Roma in general, as criminals. These myths were further perpetuated during the Holocaust and continue to spread throughout Europe today, made worse by social media. The Roma are continually scapegoated and are blamed for social, political, or economic problems facing the state.

Despite a large population, there is no central Roma authority since there is not one single Roma identity but instead a variety of unique cultural and linguistic groups throughout the continent. Moreover, there are few powerful Roma figures and very few politicians or others that can lobby on their behalf. The lack of advocacy on behalf of the Roma also comes from a lack of reliable data on their communities. On average, European countries do not dedicate enough resources for the collection of disaggregated data, which is essential in order to develop programs tailored to the needs of the community. Without this necessary data, financial resources cannot be allocated by the European Union, European Commission, and state governing bodies, thereby trapping the Roma into continued cycles of poverty. 

Incorporating Roma rights into the broader human rights framework necessitates an assessment of the legacy of colonialism in Europe that has gone unacknowledged and unaddressed. International organizations like Open Society Foundation, founded by George Soros, and Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s National Democratic Institute, have committed millions of dollars to advancing Roma rights throughout Europe, with varying degrees of success. However, many European politicians have pushed back on allowing for greater Roma participation in the social, cultural, and political field. Some countries have been accused of not distributing funds specifically allocated by international funders and the European Union for the advancement of Roma rights and community projects.  

The Roma have been victims of mass atrocities and genocide throughout history and continue to experience cultural genocide. Each European country where the Roma live has a legal and moral obligation to address the multitude of human rights violations against the Roma. States are responsible for correcting racial injustices by

  • integrating Roma children and adolescents into schools and putting in place mechanisms to prevent educational segregation, 
  • increasing access to the healthcare sector, 
  • developing discrimination and harassment training programs in all levels of society, especially for the police, prosecuting crimes against the Roma as hate crimes, and 
  • sentencing perpetrators of these crimes to the full extent of the law. 

If European countries continue to promote the idea that they are the defenders of human rights and that they fully embrace the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then they must do more to protect the most vulnerable and disenfranchised population on their continent.

It is time that Roma citizens be treated with the dignity and respect under the law that is afforded to all other Europeans.

Why the EU Should Reconsider Renegotiating the 2016 EU-Turkey Migration Deal

Guest Contributor Ali Cain is an M.A. Candidate in the European History, Politics and Society Program at Columbia University. She is additionally the Program Coordinator for the Cardozo Law Institute in Holocaust and Human Rights (CLIHHR). Her research interests include populism, refugee rights and transatlantic relations.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used over 4 million refugees in Turkey as political blackmail against the European Union (EU). Leveraging the 2016 EU-Turkey Migration Deal, Erdogan has consistently threatened to “open the floodgates” and allow refugees to cross into neighboring Greece whenever his demands are not  met. Previous demands have included quicker EU accession talks, European support for a refugee safe zone in northern Syria, and more funding to support refugees.

 In late February 2020, Russian and Syrian government forces attacked the Syrian province of Idlib, forcing thousands to flee into northwest Turkey. In response, Erdogan finally fulfilled his threats and allowed thousands of refugees to leave, even providing buses for transportation to the Greek border. Upon arrival, refugees were greeted with tear gas, barricades and shouts to go back home. Videos later surfaced of the Greek Coast Guard circling refugee boats in what looked like an effort to both deter them from landing but also capsize them. The New York Times further reported that the Greek Coast Guard beat migrants with sticks and shot at them, resulting in the death of a Syrian refugee. Worryingly, the EU’s willpower and ability to address this crisis and reinvigorate the discussion over modifications to Europe’s Common European Asylum System (CEAS) is substantially reduced as it now faces the surmounting challenge of tackling COVID-19. 

In discussing this new migration crisis, the EU has taken a defensive position in calling for the protection of Europe’s borders. Instead of using this opportunity to reinitiate a conversation on a “fresh start” for Europe’s asylum system as she advocated for during her consideration for EU Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen instead commended Greece for being Europe’s shield and offered its government €700 million ($769,968,000) of aid, €350 million ($384,984,000) of which would go to strengthening Greece’s border control. While offering support to Greece, Ms. von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel also visited Turkey to discuss renegotiating the 2016 EU-Turkey Migration Deal. At the height of the 2015 refugee crisis, the EU and Turkey agreed that each individual who arrived at the Greek border by boat and/or without official permission would be returned to Turkey, as it is considered a safe country for “irregular” migrants. In exchange for every individual sent to Turkey, a Syrian would be accepted into an EU member state. The EU initially agreed to provide €3 billion ($3,299,860,000) of assistance to the Turkish government to fund on-the-ground projects for refugees. 

Since the agreement was finalized, Erdogan has demanded more funding and the EU has obliged, increasing its contributions to €6 billion ($6,599,720,000) and extending its support of projects until 2025. Other parts of the deal have faltered; the EU agreed to visa liberalization for Turkish citizens and a reinvigoration of accession discussions regarding Turkey joining the EU. However, there has been little movement on both of these commitments due to Erdogan’s growing usurpation of power which has led to an increased crackdown on opposition, heightened violence towards the Kurdish community, and greater involvement in the Syrian conflict. The EU has additionally failed to accept its agreed exchange of Syrian refugees. Only 27,000 have been resettled since 2016. 

Many European governments would see the original agreement as a logistical success given that its goal was to deter refugees from coming to Europe. Yet, although migration from Turkey has fallen by 97%, a crisis still remains. Turkey is growing increasingly unsafe for refugees. The renegotiation of this deal would allow Erdogan to continue fostering an unsafe environment, pressure Europe into more funding, infringe on refugee’s human rights and further challenge Europe’s human rights commitments. 

First and foremost, Turkey does not meet and will not meet the EU’s standards for accession. Since a 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan has made Turkey, which was once applauded as a successful Muslim democracy, into an increasingly authoritarian state. Following the coup, he fired thousands of government workers, educators, and military members and arrested many of them for “anti-state” crimes. He then issued a referendum in 2017, allowing him to consolidate executive power by controlling elections, intervening in the judiciary, and appointing ministers directly. This power grab led to international outcry, including from the EU who referred to the constitutional changes as a “big setback for democracy.”  

Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian state is best exemplified in its status as the biggest jailer of journalists by the Committee to Protect Journalists and its ranking as “not free” by Freedom House. Erdogan’s actions clearly violate Europe’s commitment to human rights and its principles for the accession process; any previous reforms that satisfied the EU’s conditions for membership should now be considered completely null and void. Therefore, a renegotiation of this deal that commits to reassessing Turkish accession is not only woefully misguided but jeopardizes the human rights standards and legal commitments the EU is obligated to uphold. 

Second, refugees in Turkey are facing increasingly hostile conditions due to rising unemployment and growing xenophobia that conflict with Turkey’s status as a safe country. There are over 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. 64% of those living in Turkish cities are living at or below the poverty line because it is extremely challenging for refugees to obtain working permits. Unemployment in Turkey is now at 13%. 

This had contributed to an increase in xenophobic sentiment among Turkish society. It has been reported that 60-80% of Turks  want Syrian refugees out. Violence has begun to occur, with Syrian owned stores being attacked in July 2019 after a false rumor about a Syrian sexually assaulting a minor was circulated. The hashtag #ÜlkemdeSuriyeliIstemiyorum (I don’t want Syrians in my country) has become prominent throughout Turkish social media. 

This public pressure, as well as the clear strain on Turkey’s social services, has led to increased deportations. There is a lack of accountability in ensuring asylum procedures are lawfully carried out. Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and is therefore required to not only protect refugees but also uphold the international legal principle of non-refoulment which mandates that refugees cannot be sent back to countries where they will face human rights violations.  A 2019 investigation by Refugees International found that Turkish authorities were increasingly stopping Syrian refugees to check their identification papers and accelerating deportations to Syria, many of which were forced returns. Furthermore, Erdogan has sought to resettle Syrian refugees in a “safe zone” controlled by American backed Kurdish forces. Many have criticized this plan, including the Europeans. A resettlement in northern Syria, where violence continues, not only threatens refugees but also enflames Turkey’s tensions with the Kurds. Although this plan is at a stand-still, Erdogan continues to seek out and demand support, using his release of refugees into Europe as political bait.  

Finally, the 2016 deal has allowed for conditions to also worsen for refugees in Greece. Those who arrived in Greece following the agreement were prohibited from crossing into mainland Europe, resulting in refugees having to seek asylum in Greece or face immediate deportation to Turkey. Because the deal mandates that all of those who fail to qualify for asylum be deported, Greek authorities must detain everyone who is considered to have entered Greece irregularly, which has led to overcrowding in detention centers. An estimated 40,000 people live in facilities built for 6,000. Conditions in these camps are dire; Amnesty International reported those detained on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios had “no access to legal aid, limited access to services and support, and hardly any information about their status or possible fate.” The Greek islands have thus become a prison of both limbo and inhumane living conditions for asylum seekers. According to the New York Times, Greece has detained migrants at secret detention centers and is sending them to Turkey without any due process on their asylum claims. Although Greece does have the right to detain those who enter its borders, it is nevertheless obliged by international law to give each asylum applicant a fair and timely consideration. 

Additionally, the European Commission announced it would offer €2,000 ($2,199) to those living in Greek detention camps who voluntarily agreed to return home. Although the Commission stated that the intended recipients of this funding are economic migrants and not refugees, poor camp conditions and severely delayed asylum decisions could put pressure on refugees to return to their home countries. It is also questionable how many economic migrants are in Greece, considering that most individuals are from war-torn Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead of trying to buy out migrants in returning home to potentially unstable states, the Commission could instead use its funding to better improve the living conditions in detention facilities and support Greece’s government in processing its asylum applications more efficiently. 

Turkey’s concerns about the refugee crisis  are not totally unfounded as it is the largest host country in the world. Considerable strain has been placed on its social services and its population. Hosting four million refugees in a country that is struggling economically is not an easy task. However, growing anti-refugee sentiment and the subsequent harms to the refugee population in the country is one of many clear signals that the EU should not renegotiate its 2016 deal with Turkey. Rather, steps ought to be taken to address the structural causes of such a high number of refugees forced to leave their homes. The EU should not allow itself to continue to be in Erdogan’s chokehold; by continuing its “payer not player” status in using funds as a conflict resolution mechanism instead of diplomacy and mediation, the EU is helping to prolong violence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the world is currently occupied with COVID-19, and rightfully so, the EU will have to return to its discussion on migration reform eventually.  When it does, it has moral and legal obligations to protect refugees and to figure out a solution that is dependent on European states and international law, not Erdogan’s will. 

Roma Communities in the EU Continue to Lack Access to Equal Education Opportunities

By Claudia Kania, guest blogger from Reavis high school

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) released a statement in 2000 that acknowledged “the place of the Roma communities among those most disadvantaged and most subject to discrimination in the contemporary world.” Such socially and institutionally-accepted xenophobia is perhaps most clearly epitomized by the European school system. Although academic institutions are often portrayed as “the great equalizers,” a system founded on the principles of ignorance and prejudice frequently separates Roma, one of the largest minority groups in Europe, from reaping the benefits of education.

The right to education is universally established as a fundamental guiding principle within international human rights discourse. It is recognized as a human right by Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as Articles 28, 29, and 40 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. To further contextualize the premise of academic equity, UNESCO put forth the 1960 Convention against Discrimination in Education, an international legislative framework adopted to promote “the ideal of equality of educational opportunity without regard to race, sex or any distinctions, economic or social.” This convention recognizes education as not only a right in and of itself, but also as an intrinsic vehicle in realizing other rights. It is an instrument vital in securing a life free of financial hardship, disenfranchisement and social exclusion.

A report released in 2016 detailed the true scope of the expulsion of Roma communities to the fringes of European society. For example, while approximately 17 percent of EU citizens are at risk of poverty, that number is more than four times higher for Romani individuals. In the month prior to the study, only about 30 percent of Romani households received paid work. The Office for National Statistics further revealed that out of 60,000 individuals who identified as Roma, 60 percent had no formal schooling. Moreover, Roma individuals are often the victims of hate crimes and police brutality.  

Interior of container school for Roma children in Slovakia // Amnesty International

Segregation remains one of the primary obstacles standing between Roma pupils and equal education opportunities. Although prejudice is sometimes blatantly propagated by biased media and political campaigns, such instances present a gateway to other less conspicuous modes of discrimination. For instance, lower expectations for Roma students subsequently led to higher dropout rates within their communities, which substantially decreases the prospects of secondary and tertiary education for Roma individuals. This, in turn, translates to higher unemployment rates and hinders the participation of Roma in the democratic process. Thus, the cycle continues.

A 2015 report by Amnesty International illustrates discriminatory placement of Romani students in remote classes separating students from their non-Roma peers. A UNICEF report, specifically noting a 2002 case in Hungary, states that, in general, all-Roma classrooms typically lack fundamental resources otherwise available to students not of the Roma ethnicity, including experienced teachers and up-to-date curricula. More recently, the European Commission specifically targeted discrimination within Hungarian schools. Although EU member states are expected to abide by equal education frameworks, legal directives such as the Racial Equality Directive and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights oftentimes have little impact on institutionalized forms of ethnic discrimination.

In 2012, The Slovakian Regional Court condemned the segregation of Roma in its schools. Although the ruling sent a message to the Slovakian Ministry of Education regarding the country’s international obligations to provide impartial access to education, it did little to prevent ethnic-based segregation. Not only do schools continue to run all-Roma classes, but Slovakian Roma pupils are faced with the prospect of being sent to “container schools,” schools made from material resembling shipping containers, and isolated from the rest of Slovak society. When the guardians of Roma students attempt to enroll their children in non-container schools, their pleas are refused by school board officials who argue that their schools do not have the capacity to accommodate Roma pupils. The “convenient” construction of substandard learning institutions within close geographic proximity to Roma settlements is nothing other than an arm of ethnic discrimination and social exclusion, as noted by Amnesty International.

The European Roma community also faces another kind of widespread segregation: Roma pupils are frequently placed in learning disability schools, regardless of scholastic comprehension. A 2013 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights remarked that Hungary’s systematic misdiagnosis of learning disabilities violated the European Convention on Human Rights. In addition, a 2012 report by the Roma Education Fund highlights the prejudicial nature of such entrance level examinations, which focus specifically on cultural and linguistic biases.

A young student // Daniel Mihailescu/Getty

Cases of outright denial to enroll Romani children to academic institutions continue to remain prominent. The mayors of several French municipalities, for example, refused to enroll Roma children in public schools on the basis of their lack of certification. Certification, however, is not easily achieved by Roma parents, as informal settlements are almost never recognized by government officials. As identity documents remain largely inaccessible to Roma individuals, most families remain stateless. Thus, admission, in most cases, is granted only after the intervention of the French Ombudsmen. A recent article by the New York Times highlights the bureaucratic obstacles Roma students face when attempting to gain access to French schools. The country has made headlines due to the forced evacuation of hundreds of Roma families.

Former Columbia Law professor Jack Greenberg linked the Roma battle for equal education to the American Civil Rights Movement. Both groups have experienced the harrowing realities of slavery, societal disenfranchisement, and discrimination, propagated in part by stereotyping in a biased media. Schools today segregate non-Roma students from their Roma peers, providing the latter with substandard educational resources. The case of Horváth and Kiss v. Hungary bears a striking resemblance to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Although both rely on the concept of strategic litigation, the successful implementation of anti-discriminatory education policy is currently a far reach for contemporary Europe. It will require not only the willingness of policymakers, but also the active mobilization of Roma civil society.

Locally, individual schools should engage in active redistricting in order to achieve ethnic diversity within academic institutions, as well as incorporate Romani culture into standing curricula to promote diversity and ethnic tolerance. It is well within the means of any school within the EU to guarantee an environment based on social inclusion and academic equity. Likewise, it is crucial that international bodies, such as the European Commission and European Union,  apply political pressure on national governments to uphold international and national legislative standards of equality. The implementation of such standards and their effects on academic institutions should be monitored by national bodies, benefiting from the interests of both grassroot NGOs and international donors.

Claudia Kania is a contributing researcher for the University of Cambridge Centre for Governance and Human Rights research project, “ICTs and Human Rights,” as well as featured writer for the Oxford Human Rights Hub. Her research interests include minority rights, women’s rights, and education policy. 

The Enforced Disappearance of Human Rights in the World

By Marina Kumskova, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


1Between March 2002 and July 2004, eight individuals of Chechen origin were “arrested by groups of armed and masked men in a manner resembling a security operation”. Pointing guns at the family members, the soldiers took men away in military carriers. Similarly, on April 28, 1991, Jeremías Osorio Rivera was officially detained by a military patrol when he went to the village of Nunumia to take part in a sports event. He was accused of making a terrorist threat for carrying an officially registered gun and explosives materials.

None of these men have been seen or heard from since, despite their families’ tireless efforts to find them. In both cases, the males were abducted and detained by armed men without arrest warrant, held in solitary confinement under mortifying circumstances for unidentified periods of time, and deprived of legal assistance or any other contact with the outside world. In both cases, after the abduction of the individuals and in the absence of any information about their whereabouts, the domestic criminal justice systems in the respective countries did not take any measures to provide remedies for determining the fate of the disappeared individuals. They also failed to safeguard the relatives’ right of access to justice and right to know the truth through effective investigation and through holding accountable those responsible for the crimes.

The aforementioned cases are typical examples of the crime that is internationally known as “enforced disappearance.” Today, this crime continues to take place in 88 states all over the world, and constitutes a continuous violation of multiple rights. Enforced disappearances emerged in international discourse after World War II, and the narrative of violations carried out by Latin American military dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s shaped the development of this discourse. Since that time, the international community has begun to acknowledge that a wide range of human rights of both the victims and their families are denied by the act of enforced disappearance, claiming that states should be held accountable for their failure to prevent the disappearances, to investigate them, and to punish the perpetrators in light of their obligations under several international agreements.

Despite the number of treaties and agreements signed in order to establish an understanding as to the nature of enforced disappearance and determine state responsibilities, the international community has repeatedly failed to create a conceptual framework for enforced disappearances and to establish monitoring mechanisms that can proactively address the problem. This is likely due to political influence in the shaping human rights norms.

The context of the crime of forced disappearance implies that the perpetrator has an unfair advantage over the victim, because evidence is often under the exclusive control of the perpetrator, who typically has intent to hide it. As a consequence of this distinctive characteristic of disappearances, it is up to international human rights bodies, such as the Inter-American and European Courts of Human Rights, to promote and protect individuals from this violation.

2Unfortunately, the details and procedures of implementing judgment are specific to each Court. Both courts can and do force states to pay financial compensation to family members of disappeared persons. However, the whereabouts of victims have never been established, and required remedies have never been fulfilled, causing severe suffering of the victims’ loved ones. Under pressure from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission, Peru adopted legislative amendments and provided special reparation policies. Overall, the Inter-American system has managed to develop valuable jurisprudence that still requires more work in terms of influencing state compliance. On the other hand, the European Court was not able to require any action to be taken by Russia as result of the judgment in the joint case of the enforced disappearance of the eight Chechen individuals referenced above, since it issues only declaratory judgments. Russia has failed to adopt any measures to ensure that no similar violations take place in the future, that violators are adequately deterred, or that family members of the disappeared persons are provided with necessary remedies.

Overall, despite the gravity of the crime, enforced disappearance continues to be ineffectively addressed by regional and international mechanisms. Unfortunately, international human rights courts cannot do much to prevent this crime from happening, especially when the courts investigate cases in which one of the parties is a so-called “powerful” country. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the Courts fail to provide effective remedies to the family members of disappeared persons. While countless people around the world are subjected to injustices, international courts and human rights activists cannot do much about it unless states express their willingness to comply with the judgments. In this light, the most promising method would be to lodge interstate complaints against the countries that are not willing to comply with recommendations or declaratory judgments by creating political pressure. However, the questions remain: which countries will be able to proceed with this legitimate measure without creating political tensions, and how can non-governmental organizations influence this process?

Marina Kumskova is a graduate student in Human Rights Studies Program at Columbia University and a research assistant at the Center for International Human Rights at John Jay College. In her research, she focuses on religious discrimination in the context of counter-terrorism policies.

On their 40th Anniversary, the Helsinki Accords retain a powerful legacy

By Raymond A. Smith, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Political Science at Columbia and NYU


The signing of the Helsinki Accords on August 1, 1975 has little of the resonance today of such landmark events of the Cold War as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the rise of the Solidarity Trade Union Movement in 1981, or of the uprisings in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hungary in 1956. Yet on their fortieth anniversary, the Helsinki Accords deserve to be remembered alongside those events. And, in some ways, they have even more enduring relevance for world order and for human rights.

August 1, 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Accords

August 1, 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Accords

The Helsinki Accords had their roots in the refusal of the US and its allies to accept the legality of the new borders and regimes imposed by the Soviet Red Army when it occupied the three Baltic states and six countries in Eastern Europe. American rhetoric in the early Cold War often referred to these as “captive nations” that were suffering under a Communist system that they had not chosen. Conversely, Soviet rhetoric sought ways to validate what they viewed as their hard-won geographic sphere of influence.

By the mid-1970s, however, in an atmosphere of East-West détente, some three dozen countries began an intensive multi-year process of negotiations intended to stabilize Europe and strengthen international cooperation. The ultimate product was the “Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe,” which is today better recalled by the name of the Finnish capital where the talks took place.

The Helsinki Accords were loosely organized into four distinct “baskets” of issues, but the Soviets were mostly concerned about the “first basket” of security-related issues. Through these, the signatories agreed to uphold the inviolability of post- WWII borders and the integrity of existing sovereign territories within Europe. Soviet leaders believed these provisions would ratify and legitimize their grip on Eastern Europe. Many American conservatives agreed, deeming the Accords an appeasement by the West and criticizing President Gerald Ford’s decision to sign them.

However, the first basket ended up doing little more than acknowledging a post-WWII European order that had long been a fait accompli. Unexpectedly, it was the lesser-noted “third basket” on human rights that has had the most enduring impact. Most crucial was the 7th principle of the Accords which, rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, called for “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.”

To the Soviets, this promise of individual rights seemed a minor concession when compared to the ratification of existing boundaries. In any case, Communist regimes considered individual rights as something always to be mediated by the state, and therefore entirely under the control of their regimes. Overall, they considered the Accords to be a diplomatic triumph, and had them widely extolled throughout state-controlled media, even printing their full text in societies that otherwise tightly controlled information.

Thus, Soviet bloc leaders were caught entirely off guard when a new generation of dissidents took the 7th principle of the Accords far more seriously—and demanded that their governments do the same. The next year, in 1976 in Moscow, leading Russian liberal dissident Andre Sakharov founded a “Helsinki Group” to insist that the Soviet Union live up to its now-stated commitment to “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Soon thereafter, Charter 77 was established for similar purposes in Prague, which was led by playwright Vaclav Havel, who would 12 years later become his nation’s first post-Communist president. In 1978, a global organization called “Helsinki Watch” was founded to monitor implementation of the Accords in Europe. Ultimately, Helsinki Watch spawned parallel “watches” for the Americas, Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and then evolved into one of today’s preeminent international NGOs, Human Rights Watch.

Helsinki, KSZE-Konferenz, SchlussakteAt the intergovernmental level, the Accords established a “Helsinki process” that became institutionalized through an ongoing Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). A series of follow-up meetings afforded high-profile platforms for activists to present documentation of human rights abuses. The Soviet bloc countries weakly refuted such claims, but were forced to remain engaged in the Helsinki process in order to maintain their gains concerning recognition of existing borders. To add to the pressure for compliance, the U.S. Congress established a U.S. Helsinki Commission, which still functions today composed of commissioners from the House, Senate, and Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.

Ultimately, argues Daniel C. Thomas in his 2001 book The Helsinki Effect, the “Helsinki Final Act’s formal commitment to respect human rights contributed significantly to the demise of Communism and the end of the Cold War…[which] surprised the diplomats who negotiated it, the politicians who signed it, and many others who had rushed to criticize it as a concession to dictatorship.” In a book published in 2011 on Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War, Sarah B. Snyder further documents how the Helsinki process went about “unifying Soviet domestic opposition, offering incentives for change in Eastern Europe, creating a means for human rights activists to advance their agenda on an international stage, and facilitate the transition to a new Europe.”

Forty years later, the Accords have begun to be cited again in the context of the Russian annexation of Crimea and other illegal interventions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Ironically, such territorial incursions are the clearest violations since at least 1975 of the very principles of territorial integrity and inviolability of boundaries that the Soviet Union had fought for so assiduously as part of the Helsinki process.

For those focused on human rights, the anniversary of the Helsinki Accords should not be an occasion for triumphalism, given the persistent violation of basic human rights norms around the world. But the Accords nevertheless are well worth remembering as a sort of slow-motion triumph for painstaking multilateral engagement, for the increasing relevance of both grassroots activists and transnational human rights NGOs, and most of all, for the empowerment of average individuals to demand their human rights.

Reference: The Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, August 1, 1975, 14 I.L.M. 1292

Raymond A. Smith, Ph.D. (GSAS 1999), is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Political Science at Columbia and at NYU and is a Senior Fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute.


Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Education: Inuit Culture and Pedagogies in Greenland’s Schools

By Caroline Fidan Tyler Doenmez, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


On November 20th Aviaja E. Lynge, HRAP Fellow at Columbia University, gave a presentation titled: “Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Education: Implementing a Culturally Appropriate Education System in Greenland.” Lynge holds an M.S. in Social Anthropology from the University of Edinburgh and currently works at the University of Greenland, where she is Head of Department for Further Education. Lynge began the presentation by thanking her mentor Elsa Stamatopoulou, Director of the Indigenous Studies Program at Columbia.

Lynge contextualized her presentation by starting with a description of her own childhood in Greenland and her Inuit family, because, she said, “I am part of the story I am going to tell you.” She recounted the influence of her grandparents and parents, who helped to foster her interest in equality and human rights from an early age. Her parents were involved in the decolonizing movement in Greenland, and her grandparents closely followed international rights developments, including the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, even naming their beloved dog after Martin Luther King, Jr. Lynge shared photos of herself as a young child and the stunning landscape of Greenland, calling the rivers and the mountains her “first university.” When she was leaving Greenland to go to college in Scotland, her father told her: “You’re Inuit, you’re short, and you’re woman. People will always make you feel smaller because of that, but you’re big inside and I believe in you.”


Lynge, second from left, with attendees of her presentation.” Photo by Elsa Stamatopoulou.

After earning her degrees abroad, Lynge returned home and became involved in reforming the Greenlandic education system. The driving impetus behind her work is the promotion of the right to education for Inuit children. Inuit peoples make up approximately 89% of the population of Greenland, but have been colonized by Denmark for over two hundred years. Although they became self-governing in 2008, the country is still working to transform deeply entrenched social, cultural, and political norms that have imposed European standards on the Inuit peoples. The westernized education system that was established by the Danes has exclusively rewarded students who excelled in learning the Danish language. Students who can’t speak Danish aren’t even able to enter high school, which unsurprisingly has resulted in a lack of opportunities, the loss of socializing skills and low self-esteem. In many children, the internalization of shame has caused a paralyzing sense of being unable to learn and worthlessness. It is clear that in the historical discourse of Greenland’s school system, those who have succeeded have had to assimilate, creating a strong polarization between those who “make it” and those who do not. Moreover, this discourse has created an equivalency of Inuit culture and language with failure. As it turns out, the majority of young people don’t make it in the system; 62% of all children can’t enter further education, and half of those who enter high school drop out. Lynge posed the question: How it is that indigenous populations, in general, are the least educated in the world? Avoiding our tendency to blame the parents, how can we turn it around and ask, what are we, as educators, doing wrong?

Lynge works to redefine and restructure the national education system to utilize Inuit pedagogies. The country’s goal, supported by all political parties, is to create the “world’s best school”for the Inuit children that implement the ways they learn best. The hope is that they will not only have equal access to education, but equal access to success within it. Some of the pedagogical principles she is working to develop in the Greenlandic schools include: to respect and utilize silence in the classroom, as most Inuit children are raised to not interrupt elders and struggle with vocal participation; to make learning more of a collective process, rather than focusing on and rewarding individuals; to contextualize learning with concrete, visual examples and participatory, active learning; to encourage children to be their own evaluators and goal-setters, and be their own agents of change; and to emphasize a holistic approach to education that simultaneously nourishes children’s emotional, physical and intellectual selves.

The most challenging aspect of Lynge’s initiative regards the controversy of including “culture” in the curriculum. The most common accusation she faces is that by emphasizing the importance of Inuit culture, she will be taking the students “back in time,” obstructing their ability to be part of a modern world. However, Lynge stresses that her goal is to employ existing Inuit pedagogies, skills that have been taught and learned throughout the past, and then meld these practices with new research and methods. Part of her project is actively working to try to change the common perception of culture as material. She noted that people tend to think of “teaching culture” as the creation of objects, such as clothing or art, whereas she considers it in an immaterial light, in terms of norms and values that can enhance the learning process. Lynge insists that culture must be understood in its intangible form and that it is compatible with the “modern” world.

Crucially, Lynge noted that teachers also have to go through the decolonization processes, as most Inuit instructors continue to function within the Danish framework they inherited. “You have to remember, we haven’t had this mental decolonization yet,” she said. Unlike most other nations, when Greenland “decolonized” in 1953, they assimilated with Denmark. “No one really asked, equality on whose terms? On what conditions will we create Greenland?”Now that she and other educators are working to ask these questions and return the emphasis to the validation and utilization of Inuit pedagogies, she underscores the importance of breaking the cycle and not requiring the children to assimilate to a European standard: ”It’s a human right to be who you are.”

Caroline Fidan Tyler Doenmez is an M.A. candidate in the Columbia University Human Rights Studies program. Her main areas of interest concern sexual violence against indigenous women and girls in the US and Canada, as well as the collective rights to culture and education.


EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Stavros Lambrinidis, visits Columbia University


EU SR Lambrinidis and Yasmine

By Jillian Carson, Program Coordinator, ISHR


On Thursday October 3rd, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR), the Blinken European Institute and the Harriman Institute hosted Stavros Lambrinidis, the European Union’s first appointed Special Representative for Human Rights at Columbia University.

Mr. Lambrinidis is an attorney who served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece. He also previously held the post of Vice-President of the European Parliament, and from 2004 to 2009, served as Vice-President of the Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee. Mr. Lambrinidis graduated from Yale Law School and, early in his career, served as Chairman of the Committee for Human Rights in the Bar Association of Washington, D.C.. Mr. Lambrinidis took office on September 1, 2012 and his mandate will run until June 2014.  He and the EU delegation to the United Nations visited New York for the opening of the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly.

Challenges in Human Rights and Foreign Policy

Mr. Lambrinidis spoke candidly about some challenges his office and human rights policy face in today’s global community. Part of the challenge the European Union (EU) will face, he noted, will be to find a balance and consistency in human rights policy for the EU and for each member state. These consistencies include, for example, how internal policy is presented externally.  Each state must recognize their own internal challenges in this regard. No state perfectly protects and promotes rights, a false sense of exceptionalism, often promulgated by Western countries, actually works to undermine their credibility in the international arena. Another concern relates to the complexities in ensuring consistency in the reactions to other states’ violations of rights; are the reactions to external human rights violations consistent and, more importantly, proportional? A state’s favoritism or criticism towards certain states may be seen as based on economic considerations, weakening the ability of that state to speak authoritatively about protections and promotion of human rights abroad. Regarding proportional responses, Mr. Lambrinidis also noted that, when possible, it is best to “win” a country’s respect for human rights and human rights practices, rather than resort to the use of force. Lastly, Mr. Lambrinidis is concerned with ensuring that there is consistency in EU policies on community, regional and domestic levels throughout the EU member states.

Mr. Lambrinidis also spoke of his concern over the “false dilemma” of arguments that attack the universality of human rights and place human rights at odds with culture, religion or ethnicity. He urges that states must formulate a better argument to truly defend the universality of human rights in theory and, more importantly, in their practice and proliferation. He asserts that it is often repressive, nationalistic regimes pronouncing that human rights are a “Western construct.” By conceding to these narratives or failing to offer robust counter-arguments, we undermine those advocates within these societies fighting for their rights.

An important part of the Special Representative’s mandate will be to renew the EU’s commitment to a genuine partnership with civil society. Mr. Lambrinidis expressed concern about the “shrinking space” of civil society in domestic and foreign policy. The failures of human rights advocacy often result from a lack of collective and pervasive action. By engaging EU governments and civil society actors at local, regional, and international levels, Mr. Lambrinidis hopes to empower these groups to take ownership of human rights at home, protect them from hostilities, and defend their value domestically and internationally.

Finally, Mr. Lambrinidis stressed the importance of promoting economic and social rights alongside civil and political rights. In many countries, the lack of basic human rights, such as the right to food or health care, radically hinder the populations’ ability to fight for their civil and political rights. He urged that recognition of these challenges; meaningful partnerships; and cooperative strategies between the EU, the US, and other international human rights defenders will help address a broader range of human rights issues and improve the effectiveness of human rights rhetoric and practice worldwide.

Successfully Promoting and Protecting Human Rights

Since taking office, Mr. Lambrinidis and his delegation have demonstrated their commitment to the integration of human rights into EU policy and have achieved a number of successes. He shared a few of these accomplishments. Guidelines and instructions have been created for all EU delegations for protecting and promoting LGBT rights, as well as the promotion and protection of freedom of religion. After past failures, the EU, as part of the Commission on the Status of Women, adopted conclusions on the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls in March of this year. Guidelines have been published in response to these conclusions. The EU Special Representative will continue to focus on the intersection of business and human rights, drawing from guiding notes published with a focus on the oil, gas, and other extractive industries, as well as information technology and temporary employment services business sectors in the EU.

The EU has established the office and position of the Special Representative for Human Rights to ensure that human rights will play a central role in in EU foreign policy. Mr. Lambrinidis explained that the importance of this integrated approach draws from the reality that human rights violations lie at the root of most conflicts and thus, viable solutions must involve their promotion and protection. The Special Representative will be tasked with monitoring and expressing the coherence and practice of EU human rights policies, a daunting task considering the 28 member states and the countless religious, ethnic and cultural identities that comprise the EU. However, Mr. Lambrinidis stressed his optimism in the strength and capability of human rights-focused foreign policy in Europe and globally.

For a full audio recording of the EU Special Representative’s talk at Columbia, click here.

Jillian works at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights as a Program Coordinator for the Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability and the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program. She is an alumni of the Human Rights Studies Master’s Program, with a concentration in Indigenous rights. Her thesis and subsequent research focuses on the right to education for First Nations in Canada and the function of transitional justice mechanism in Canadian reconciliation processes. 

Intervention Lessons From Kosovo for Syria

By David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at ISHR


President Bill Clinton intervened in the Balkans to end a war in Bosnia and stop the slaughter of civilians in Kosovo. As the United States considers military intervention in Syria, the Obama administration should reflect on America’s Balkan engagements in the 1990s, considering what was done right — and wrong.

The international community took more than 3 years to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. While it dithered, more than 100,000 people were killed and millions displaced. The response to Serbia’s aggression in Kosovo was faster and more effective. NATO launched a 78-day air campaign that prevented what happened in Bosnia from happening in Kosovo. The diplomacy and military operations were imperfect, but Kosovo is the gold standard in humanitarian intervention.

Here are some lessons from Kosovo that are relevant to Syria:

-Diplomacy comes first: After more than a quarter million Kosovo Albanians fled to the mountains during the summer of 1998, the U.S.-led Contact Group, which included Russia, negotiated the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) to verify the withdrawal of Serb forces, enable the return of displaced Kosovars, and ensure the delivery of humanitarian supplies. The KVM was suspended after 40 Kosovo civilians were massacred in Racak, including women and children.

-Back diplomacy with the threat of force: After Racak, NATO approved an “activation order,” the last step in force readiness before launching an attack. U.S. Special Envoy Richard C. Holbrooke issued an ultimatum, but Slobodan Milosevic scoffed at Holbrooke’s threat. NATO launched limited operations, then paused. Holbrooke called Milosevic to give him a last chance, but his entreaties were ignored. NATO’s full force was unleashed only after all diplomatic options were exhausted.

-Build international coalitions: With the UN Security Council paralyzed, the U.S. abandoned efforts to gain a UN resolution and focused its diplomacy on building consensus among NATO Member States. NATO did not act alone. It was backed by the Organization of Islamic Conference and statements by the UN Secretary General.

-Gain Congressional and public support: The Clinton administration worked effectively with civil society groups and the media to expose Milosevic’s criminal regime and make the case for military action. Intervention was supported by a broad bipartisan group of lawmakers. Albanian-Americans played a key role garnering support.

-Keep all options on the table: Clinton pledged no U.S. ground troops. Milosevic believed he could withstand NATO’s air campaign, and hunkered down. Milosevic finally capitulated after 78 days of intensive bombing.

-Expect retaliation: Serbia intensified its ethnic cleansing when NATO attacked. Serbian forces went door-to-door, assassinating Kosovo Albanian leaders and displacing more than one million Kosovars. The U.S. had conducted extensive contingency planning. Expecting population flows, humanitarian supplies were pre-positioned in Macedonia and Albania.

-Anticipate collateral damage: NATO mistakenly bombed a convoy of Albanian refugees fleeing Decani, killing 73 civilians. In the fog of war, NATO also accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Clinton personally apologized, but the incident entrenched China’s opposition to the war.

-Work with insurgents: Target selection became more difficult as the bombing campaign dragged on. NATO cooperated with the Kosova Liberation Army to identify targets and track Serbian troop movements. The KLA was an essential force on-the-ground that helped guide NATO air operations.

-Hand-over power to a credible local partner: American diplomats worked intensively to forge cooperation among Kosovar leaders. The Kosovo “Unity Team” became the nucleus of post-Milosevic administration in Kosovo.

-Walk-the-talk: In the middle of the Kosovo conflict, dignitaries from around the world gathered in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of NATO’s founding. The Clinton administration understood that Kosovo was more than a test of Western diplomacy. The future of the North Atlantic Alliance was also at-stake.

Has the Obama administration taken on-board lessons from Kosovo?

Picture from:

Picture from:

The United States is diplomatically isolated, except for France which endorsed air strikes against Syria. Even Great Britain, America’s erstwhile ally in Iraq and Afghanistan, has balked. The Obama administration released its intelligence verifying Assad’s use of chemical weapons too late to influence the British parliament’s vote to authorize use of force. After the vote, Obama offended Britain by referring to France as America’s “oldest ally.”

Though Russia and China have vetoed three resolutions designed to pressure Assad, the Obama administration has bent over backwards to work with Russia on talks between the regime and opposition. The Geneva conference was stillborn from the beginning, and has recently been overtaken by events. Hezbollah entered the battlefield, rolling-back gains by the insurgents and further regionalizing the conflict.

Indignation is the right response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. However, the threat of military action is more effective when demanding compliance rather than as a punitive measure. With U.S. tomahawk cruise missiles locked and loaded, the Obama administration should demand that Assad sequester chemical weapons under UN control or hand over field commanders to the International Criminal Court. It could also give Assad a deadline to relinquish power.

Some Members of Congress want air strikes to advance the goal of regime change. But who will succeed Assad? Syria’s insurgency is dominated by the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliated terror group murdering Alawites, moderate Arab Sunnis, and Syrian Kurds. Just like Kosovo when more than 100,000 Serbs fled after Milosevic was defeated, reprisals resulting in a bloodbath are a real possibility when Assad steps down.

Secretary of State John Kerry has been a passionate point man in the recent flurry of public diplomacy. However, the administration has not done enough to explain why it is in America’s national interest to attack Syria. Given public skepticism, Obama’s decision to consult lawmakers is a high-stakes gambit. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton launched strikes against Libya, Afghanistan and Kosovo without asking Congressional authorization.

Obama repeatedly characterized military action as “limited and narrow.” He called it a “shot across the bow.” He also publicly ruled out the possibility of ground troops. Taking the middle ground satisfies no one. Opponents to military action are not convinced. At the same time, moderation may be alienating some senators clamoring for a more robust response.

Obama is clearly a reluctant warrior. He understands that Americans are weary from a decade of conflict in distant lands. However, Obama has boxed himself into a corner. Speaking at an impromptu news conference more than a year ago, he went off-script saying that President Bashar al-Assad’s use or movement of chemical weapons represents a “red-line” that would change his administration’s “calculus,” with significant consequences including the possibility of more direct U.S. intervention in the conflict.

Drawing a red-line is morally correct. It is also in America’s national security interest. I visited Iraqi Kurdistan after chemical weapons were used to kill thousands. It was a horrific scene. Indiscriminate use of the world’s most heinous weapons against civilians violates international humanitarian law and norms of decency. Just like Milosevic’s murderous rampage in Bosnia and Kosovo, it cannot be tolerated.

However, military action is a tactic not a policy. The decision to go to war should be linked to a broader strategy of creating a safe haven on Syria’s border with Syria and Jordan. The safe haven would be protected by a no-fly-zone, enforced by NATO. As was the case in Kosovo, a Russian contingent under NATO’s command could be deployed. The safe haven would allow refugees to return to Syria. It would also provide a buffer between Syria and front-line states, furthering stability in the region. Creating a safe haven could also change momentum on the battlefield, revitalizing prospects for a Geneva conference and bringing the grinding conflict in Syria closer to an end.

This article previously appeared on The Huffington Post on September 3, 2013.


David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights. His most recent book is Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and U.S. Intervention.

Notes from the Field: Creating a New Story Through Art in Post-Conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina

By Janine White, Program Coordinator for the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University

Photo Credit: Nick Micinski

Photo Credit: Nick Micinski

From May 23-28, 2013, I participated in the Most MiraHumanity in Action (HIA) International Exchange. Most Mira (Bridge of Peace) is a peacebuilding NGO in northern Bosnia, and its founder, Kemal Pervanic, was a 2012 participant ISHR’s Human Rights Advocates Program. HIA is a human rights education NGO based in the US and with offices in several European countries, including Bosnia. Through this project, HIA Senior Fellows supported Most Mira’s annual youth arts festival, involving children in a drama program that culminated in a rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. During the 5-day festival, Senior Fellows and Most Mira staff, along with other experts in this field, also came together to discuss the challenges and opportunities that this local NGO faces within the current political context in post-conflict Bosnia.

This blog post, previously published here, is a summary of my impressions and reflections from this experience.

A theme that struck me throughout many of our conversations is the idea that disagreements over the narrative of what happened here during the war are a main challenge that continues to perpetuate the divide between different ethnic groups in Bosnia. Most Mira’s work is so important in this context. While the organization is not directly working on changing these narratives, their projects that engage youth through art develop both individual creativity and relationships between segregated young people. I think that this is an important first step in order to create space for people from different sides of the conflict to come together, to listen to and learn from one another. In the broader effort towards reconciliation, as one Most Mira trustee said, we have to trust the process. It seems to me that using art to open up those lines of communication is a way to start.

If you pay attention, signs of the legacy of the war can be found all over Kevljani and its neighboring towns and villages. Driving down the road towards this small village, you see ruined buildings untouched since they were stripped of everything valuable during the war. With just door frames and bathroom tiles on part of a wall remaining, it’s clear that the inhabitants either were killed or have not returned because they’ve made their lives in the places to which they were displaced. Other houses are rebuilt, and you can see that the construction is new, but the lights are off. Many of these people have chosen to stay in the UK, Germany, Sweden, the US, largely because they find more economic opportunities there. They make their lives in a new place and maintain this house as home even though they don’t live there, while their children often identify less with Bosnia than with these other countries. Even for those who have returned, the buildings on their property make the memory of the war physically ever-present. Across the street from the house in which we stayed, a reconstructed home stands next to a half-built/half-destroyed structure. Why not just tear down this building and start from scratch? The clothesline hanging from the upper floor with laundry drying on it shows that this property is inhabited, but it seems that other than fulfilling this small function, the building serves no other purpose than to remind the residents of their recent past.

I wonder what it’s like for these kids to grow up in a place so marked by a war that happened before they were born. It’s their community’s and families’ pasts and yet not their personal memories that you find signs of everywhere. These children’s parents were on different sides of the conflict, but the kids neither perpetrated nor were directly victimized by the war. And yet they’re being kept apart, fed different versions of the story with few opportunities to figure out for themselves what this past means to them, and to experience the humanity of “the other side.”

This is where Most Mira’s work comes in. Engaging through art, music, drama, these young people don’t just meet kids living 5 minutes down the road with whom they might otherwise never have the chance to have a conversation. They get to create something together. They don’t talk politics or about the war, but working on these art projects directly counters the war’s effects: one side’s dehumanizing of the other. Writing the music, painting the set, interviewing cast members, and practicing lines of their play, these kids have an opportunity to express themselves and to share their humanity with others. Art “rehumanizes” the children of those who were targeted because of their identity, and it allows the children of those who perpetrated these crimes to see the humanity in members of the group that their parents may have victimized. And all of this is happening without anyone using the words “Serb” or “Muslim.”

The kids’ performance of San Svake Noći (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) was such a great example of this. The teamwork involved to create and deliver the show was so clear. It was also beautiful to watch how the show evolved throughout the course of the 5 performances. Not understanding the language of the play, I could still see how the kids responded to the audience, how they visibly became more comfortable as each performance progressed, allowing them to improvise with each other. Even though we only had the opportunity to engage with them at the end of their 4-month long project, it also definitely seemed as though new friendships were forged. I worked with one of the girls in the media group, and in her interviews with the other participants, she was quite excited to ask them about the new friends they had made. It didn’t seem important which schools they were from, except for when they had the opportunity to share the play on their own turf. Their sense of accomplishment shone through as they received rounds of applause from parents, teachers, principals, Most Mira and HIA participants, and perhaps most importantly, their fellow students. I loved watching the rapture on the faces of kids in the audience and hearing the laughter erupt at the jokes made and pranks played on stage.

This interaction between the audience and the project participants allows this program to have an effect beyond the 40 children involved in the play. We were all able to see the fruits of their individual creativity, and I hope that the end result, the art that they created together, can instill some hope for the future of these children and their communities. They’re building bridges between each other. A seed of creativity has been planted, and hopefully it will be nurtured so that these kids can continue to explore new ways of interacting, growing from this basis of recognizing their common humanity. This process may not directly lead to new ways of engaging with memories of the past, but I think it’s where a process of reconciliation might be able to start. We learned a lot about the various significant political, economic, and social obstacles that exist in Bosnia today, blocking this process. Considering these challenges, I might sound a bit idealistic in saying that this dialogue and creative experience could encourage these kids to imagine and even achieve a more reconciled future. However, I believe in the healing power of art. And if you don’t start somewhere, you can pretty much guarantee that nothing will happen, but if you try, you at the very least give them a chance to develop a new, and hopefully more inclusive, story.

Check out the report, Creative Commons: Engaging Youth in Peacebuilding through Art in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that we published as part of the Most Mira – Humanity in Action International Exchange. 

Janine supports ISHR’s Education Program and Gender and Human Rights Program, in addition to working on communications for the Institute.  She is also a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow, having completed the summer fellowship program in 2009.