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[inline: 1=Commissioner's photo] Interview with Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights: Q&A: ''Where Europe Has Failed These Europeans'' 17/10/2007 - IPS / Italy and USA Thomas Hammerberg was elected Commissioner of Human Rights of the Council of Europe in October 2005. He plays a crucial role in promoting implementation of the recommendations of the human rights system of the Council. The Council of Europe has 47 member states in the Europe region, and is the oldest organisation working for European integration. It is separate from the European Union (EU), and therefore from the European Council of the EU. Thomas Hammerberg was elected by the parliamentary assembly of the council, which comprises members from national parliaments. Apostolis Fotiadis from IPS discussed with him the key problems that Roma, one of the most discriminated against groups in the EU face today. IPS: How do you explain the persistent anti-Roma feeling that extends across Europe? What are the sources of the problem, and how can we address them? Thomas Hammerberg: I think it is difficult to define any rational legacy. They have been made scapegoats for problems of our societies. For long people who could stand up and defend them have allowed an atmosphere in which Roma are targeted as unwanted. It is an issue with a long history as well. During the Nazi period more than half a million were exterminated, and we never nominated an apology to them. IPS: Do you think that the condition of Roma is deteriorating or improving around Europe? TH: I'm worried about it. There seems to be a change towards polarisation. Groups of people adopt a very anti-Roma discourse that leading politicians seem to tolerate. This is a quite unfortunate development because carelessness or indifference can sometimes legitimate further intolerance. We should again appeal to the politicians to be careful, and stay with the side of the Roma rather than join in with any xenophobic tendency. IPS: Is it easy to compare the treatment of Roma communities in different countries in the same region, for example Greece, Romania and Bulgaria? TH: I deliberately avoid the entire discussion about comparing who is best. Many countries in the region are going through profound change while they emerge from the Soviet period; thus they have different starting points. My picture is that Roma people are discriminated against in every country. When it comes to employment, to healthcare, to real possibilities for political participation in elections or political structures, the situation is problematic. IPS: How could the problem of their political participation be addressed? TH: Much of the responsibility for this problem occurs from lack of interest or negative interest of political parties. Mainstream political parties have to become more open to Roma people; usually they are not. Take for example election campaigns where even candidates of major parties make xenophobic statements against the Roma instead of going to the Roma communities, listening to what they want, and try to represent their views. Also, the Roma have to organise themselves and try to be better represented. IPS: Should emphasis of their incorporation in political life be on the local or national level? TH: Both are important, but we should focus on the local for now. Many important decisions affecting the Roma are taken at this level. In some countries they have special reserved seats for Roma in local assemblies. In Slovenia they have one seat in each municipality where Roma live. In Romania they have a seat saved in the parliament. Though this is not the finest solution, it is something that should be tried. IPS: Is there any success story? TH: Yes, there are places in the Scandinavian countries where the housing problem is more or less resolved. In parts of Slovenia, communities have been fairly positive in dealing with Roma. The experience is that when authorities and politicians have tried, though it takes a bit of money, it is possible to reach solutions. IPS: Are there cases where pressure from the Council of Europe can increase efficiency of Roma communities' protection? TH: Additional political pressure at least to the permanent members of The European Council might have considerable effect. They should realise that the Roma issue is one of the black sides of Europe, take responsibility, and go after their country members. It is also necessary to increase pressure on local authorities to revise their policy when it comes to evictions. Sometimes eviction might be necessary, but this must be done the right way and after alternative housing solutions have been offered to people. IPS: What could you still improve in the way you work? TH: The important thing for us is to know what is going on. Many times we don't know, or information comes late. The Roma rights centre in Budapest helps a lot, as well as various NGOs. Still, the key issue remains that we don't manage to persuade local authorities to deal with problems of the Roma.