Thomas Hammarberg: The Commissioner Who Stood Up For The Roma

 

 The end of March may herald the start of spring, but at the Council of Europe it will mark the end of an era.

After six years as Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg will be stepping aside and we would like to express our thanks to him for all he has done for European Roma.

Hailing from Ornskoldsvik in Sweden, Hammarberg has been defending human rights for several decades.

His many illustrious roles before being appointed CoE Commissioner for Human Rights included the Ambassador of the Swedish Government on Humanitarian Affairs and was Secretary General at “Save the Children Sweden” and Amnesty International.

On 1st April 2006, the Swede took over as Commissioner in Strasbourg and has pursued a noble fight against Europe’s treatment of its Roma minorities.

He has been refreshingly outspoken in his criticism of national governments and in 2009 Hammarberg wrote an open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel urgently recommending that deportations to Kosovo be stopped.

The Commissioner had been appalled by what he had seen and heard in Kosovo, where Roma families were living in despair and danger amid a led-poisoned camp in Mitrovica.

He urged national leaders, such as Merkel, to visit Kosovo for themselves and see the reality which he described as “a humanitarian catastrophe”.

Hammarberg was similarly angered by the well-publicized deportations of French Roma in 2010 and was extremely critical of the French policy.

Hammarberg during a tour of Romani settlements in Kosovo

In September that year he released a statement entitled “Do not stigmatise the Roma” which was triggered by the French deportations but aimed at all European nations.

He demanded: “The stigmatizing rhetoric has to stop. Serious steps must be taken to counter discrimination of Roma, not least in their home countries.”

In the same statement Hammarberg spoke of a “long and bitter history” of discrimination against the Roma in Europe.

His support of the Roma has been relentless and this April he will be presented with the European Civil Rights Prize of the Sinti and Roma in Berlin by the Documentation and Cultural Centre and the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma and the Manfred Lautenschlaeger Foundation.

In one of his last acts as Commissioner, Hammarberg contributed to the report “Human Rights of Travelers and the Roma” on February 27.

In the report he stated: ““In many European countries Roma and Travellers are still denied basic human rights and suffer blatant racism. They remain far behind others in education, employment, access to decent housing and health. Their average life span is shorter and infant mortality rates are higher compared to other groups.”

This interview with Hammarberg was used in our film "Uprooted" which focuses on the impact of Europe's repatriation policies.

Hammarberg’s continued stand against what he often refers to as ‘anti-Gypsyism’ is something for which we are truly thankful.

It has been our pleasure to cooperate with the Commissioner during his tenure, particularly in 2011 when he gave a powerful interview for our film “Uprooted.”

What the immediate future holds for the Swede is unclear but he is expected to continue working within human rights. His wealth of experience and knowledge mean it was not surprising to learn that he also has plans to write a book.

Whatever his next move may be, we wish Thomas all the very best and also welcome the incoming Nils Muiznieks of Latvia, who takes up the post at the start of April, and we hope he can build on the steady foundations his predecessor has laid.