WASHINGTON, June 16, 2006 (AFP) -
Balkan countries need to do more to protect the Roma community and must hand over indicted war criminals if they are to continue on the path to joining the European Union and NATO, US officials and experts said.
At a hearing before the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, several witnesses on Thursday noted that countries such as Albania, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia and Macedonia have made some progress in implementing democratic reforms and improving human rights.
But they underlined that ethnic minorities, especially the Roma community, remain vulnerable to discrimination and violence and denounced the fact that top war crimes suspects Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic remain at large.
"Whether it be physical harassment from police, lack of access to basic services such as education, health care and housing, or societal discrimination, the Roma are among the most marginalized of minorities," Rosemary DiCarlo, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, told the hearing.
Estimated at eight to 12 million, Roma are Europe's largest ethnic minority and also one of its most marginalized.
Nicolae Gheorghe, adviser for Roma and Sinti (Gypsies) issues with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the major challenge facing institutions and governments in the Balkans was the implementation of policies aimed at integrating the Roma in society.
"For any lasting changes to take place, there must be a thorough examination of the underlying root causes of human rights abuses towards Roma communities -- namely issues of racism and discrimination -- and these must be addressed through legislation and with the full support of international institutions," Gheorghe told the Helsinki Commission.
The commission is a bi-partisan US rights watchdog set up by Congress. It consists of nine members from the US Senate, nine from the House of Representatives, and one member each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.
Its chairman, Senator Sam Brownback, said while some countries in the Balkans have made remarkable strides to recover from a decade of regional conflict there is still concern that Europe will leave them behind.
He and others stressed that unless Karadzic and Mladic, who have been charged with genocide and crimes against humanity for their role in the 1992-95 Bosnian war, are brought to justice, there was little chance of Serbia joining Euro-Atlantic institutions.
"This is a year of decision in the Balkans," said Daniel Serwer, of the United States Institute of Peace. "The question is whether the decisions will bring peace or instability."
He said that while Bosnia, Serbia and the Serb province of Kosovo are not likely to go back to war, none has established peace on a firm foundation.
Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia are all hoping to join the European Union (EU) as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
But in a significant setback last month, the EU suspended talks on closer ties with Serbia because of its failure to fulfill a promise to "locate, arrest and transfer" Mladic to The Hague by April 30.