By John Anusavice
On April 8, 2016, Harvard University held its fourth annual Roma conference on the 26 anniversary of International Roma Day. The conference was a pioneering effort to address the wide-ranging question of reparations and to advocate for joint action across historical and geographical spheres. In particular, the event marked a starting point for moving the topic of Romani reparations from the margins of academic and institutional interest to a central place in discussions about responses for state-sponsored injustices.
Homi Bhabha, director of the Humanities Center at Harvard, opened the conference by stressing the importance of caring and care giving in human relations. “Without care-giving, civility soon turns into barbarism,” he said. Without care we can neither achieve moral justice nor repair the “harms of history.” Jennifer Leaning the director of Harvard FXB Center, alluded to the intractability of discrimination and the “exhaustion on the paths that we’re currently taking” to combat it.
How we might, in Bhabha’s words, “expect to get a remedy that protects the sanctity of human rights from governments when they are bolstering and promoting the social injustice” is a question that resonated among attendants and panelists, a group of human rights activists and academics representing a wide range of disciplines.
Panelists discussed the need to build a culture of anti-discrimination. Ian Hancock, director of the Program of Romani Studies at the University of Texas, noted the persistence of stereotypes — of beggars, pick-pockets, and so on — that hound the Romani people. An unfortunate outcome of such treatment is that many successful Roma choose not to self-identify as Roma for fear of both social and economic reprisal.
What forms of reparations do the Romani people seek? Margareta Matache, director of Harvard’s Roma Program and an instructor at Harvard FXB Center, called on states begin to redress centuries of Roma enslavement and ongoing structural discrimination through the tangible mechanism of reparations (financial, legal, social). Specifically on slavery, she also called for public apologies and commemorative events at national and local level, and remembrance and public dissemination of the historical record through research, education, texts, memorials, museums, and intercultural exchange.
Marian Mandache, attorney and the executive director of the Roma Center for Social Intervention and Romani Studies (Romani CRISS), echoed the call for reparations and for holding governments accountable for continued injustice. Mandache took issue with claims that the time frame for reparations had expired and were thus no longer valid. These governments are hiding behind the confines of statute of limitations to avoid responsibility, he said. “It’s not about a crime committed in a dark ally and the constraints of the law. It’s about past and prevailing moral injustice. There should be no statute of limitations on resolving human suffering,” Mandache said.
Keynote speaker and Columbia University sociology professor Alondra Nelson brought a scientific perspective to the discussion by reflecting on the ways DNA testing has aided reparations cases in the courts. Bert Samuels, member of the Jamaican National Commission on Reparations, described Jamaica’s pursuit of reparations for the descendants of those who were enslaved by the British. Irma A. Velasquez Nimatuj, a social anthropologist and member of the Mayan K’iche’ ethnic group of Guatemala, spoke of the continuum of injustice and the genocide of the Mayan population in Guatemala. She argued for reparations from the United States because of US foreign policy that promoted the genocide. And Dr. Tiya Miles, professor at the University of Michigan, focused on reparations with respect to descendants of Cherokee slaves in Oklahoma.
John Anusavice is a human rights activist and sophomore at St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.