Roma memorandum of understanding

In this week's edition of Talking Point, Nick Carey looks at a memorandum of understanding, the first of its kind, signed between the Czech Foreign Ministry and the International Romani Union and what this signifies for the Czech Republic's Roma minority.

There are some twelve million Roma living in Central and Eastern Europe and Asia, scattered across some thirty seven countries. In the Czech Republic, for instance, they form the largest single minority, but are still only three percent of the country's total population. The Roma have suffered from discrimination and persecution in Europe for centuries, but are a people often unknown in the rest of the world. During the Second World War, for instance, up to one million Roma were exterminated by the Nazis. The Roma themselves call this dark episode in their history 'The Devouring'.

The Roma are currently undergoing a period of developing political self-awareness. Last year, at the fifth congress of the International Romani Union, Roma representatives from throughout Europe launched a bid to seek nation status for the Roma from the European Union and United Nations. As the newly elected president of the IRU, Emil Scuka told me, the aim following this step was to build partnerships with nation states and international organisations:

"We want to become a partner to individual states and organisations like the European Union. We feel that on a European-wide level we could find better solutions to the problems facing the Roma. Basically, I think that the Roma lack political representation in Europe."

Out of this desire for political representation and their quest for recognition as a nation state, earlier this month, the International Romani Union and the Czech Foreign Ministry signed a memorandum of understanding, the first of its kind. Deputy Foreign Minister Martin Palous sums up the aims of this agreement: The Czech Republic has been criticised several times in recent years by the European Union and the United Nations for its treatment of the Roma minority. Mr Palous believes that the memorandum shows that the Czechs are taking the issue seriously: Markus Pape of the European Roma Rights Centre, which monitors the way the Roma are treated across the region, agrees that the memorandum is something new. But, he says it lacks any concrete solutions to the difficulties faced by the Roma here in the Czech Republic: Mr Pape believes that after the international criticism the Czech Republic has received, it does show a willingness to improve the situation. But he's not yet fully convinced that the memorandum will be a success: And while Markus Pape notes that on the national level, progress has been made in recent years in race relations in the Czech Republic, this has yet to trickle down to the local level: The main aim now for those behind the creation of the memorandum, outside of negotiations between the International Romani Union and the Czech Foreign Ministry on local Roma issues, is to try to persuade other countries to sign similar agreements, and bring international recognition for the Roma. In this respect, says Emil Scuka of the IRU, the Czechs can be held up as an example of country that is working to deal with its problems:

"There are many Roma living in the Czech Republic, around three hundred thousand of them. Yes, there are many problems still unresolved. But at the same time, in the past few years the government and some organisations have shown a willingness to face these problems. This new memorandum makes the Czechs an example, and I would like to see similar agreements made with other nations as soon as possible."

Martin Palous defends the memorandum, saying that it is not a specific solution within itself, but opens the way for debate on Roma issues in the country: