Time To Stand Up Against Racial Discrimination


It was barely a month ago that candles were being lit and flowers laid to remember Romani victims of the 2008/09 hate crimes in Hungary. It was a day when good people got together, paid their respects and said ‘no’ to racism.

Today, the whole world is being encouraged to do likewise on Wednesday 21st March, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Racial discrimination manifests in all sorts of ways from an off-colour remark in a bar to full scale genocide.

In Eastern and Central Europe, incidents of racism are becoming worryingly frequent while public condemnation is often not as loud as it should be. As recently as September, we have seen deeply alarming developments within the supposedly safe and politically correct borders of the European Union.

Anti-Roma protests, many of them violent, swept across Bulgaria like wildfire in the autumn as the capital city Sofia played host to a demonstration entitled ‘Gypsy crime: a threat to the state.’ Thousands attended as the tremors of pro-nationalist feeling were felt all the way to the Black Sea. The protests and public reaction towards the Roma was naturally a cause for great concern.

Thousands gathered in Bulgaria last autumn to protest against the Roma

And it did not take much longer for it to become organized, publicized and, in more cases than we ever thought possible, accepted. Roma communities across Bulgaria were preparing for the worst after the death of a 20-year old Bulgarian man in the village of Katounitsa was widely blamed on a member of a local Roma family allegedly involved in organized crime.

An angry mob retaliates against Romani family after an alleged murder.

But, for those properly versed in the treatment of the Roma in Europe, this was nothing new.

Even where the Roma comprise a large percentage of the population, blind assumptions prevail. For example, in Hungary there exists fear and mistrust to the extent that vigilante groups temporarily control some towns vowing to defend locals from nearby Romani settlements.

Hungarian right-wing groups have targeted Romani communities for many years.

Reports about Europe’s largest minority are frequent but seldom do these look beyond the headings of poverty, immigration, deportation, housing, health or crime and consider the human realities involved.

Mainstream media has portrayed the Roma as the instigators while aggressive and blatantly right wing organizations have started their own channels in Bulgaria and Hungary.

Their actions are disturbing but the ease with which they are carried out, and the lack of opposition, is similarly troubling.

The politically undecided, the ruling powers, the fair-minded people of Europe. We all have a duty to stand up and speak out against racism, whoever it offends and wherever it takes place.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon delivered this powerful statement to mark the day, highlighting the real dangers of racism and the ways in which it can be allowed to fester in society.

“Racism and racial discrimination have been used as weapons to engender fear and hatred. In extreme cases, ruthless leaders instigate prejudice to incite genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

He continued: “There are many valuable treaties and tools – as well as a comprehensive global framework – to prevent and eradicate racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. Nevertheless, racism continues to cause suffering for millions of people around the world. It thrives on ignorance, prejudice and stereotypes.”

Action is needed to bring civil society back in to the 21st century, as right now the echoes of the dark, haunting screams of the mid-20th century are reverberating around the continent. Working together, restoring the rule of law and recognizing basic human rights are all modest goals that can be achieved.

Racism is not clever and is bred from ignorance. We can and will be so much better off without it. In the immortal words of Martin Luther King:

“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away, and that in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over us with all their scintillating beauty.”