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4 July 2006

The following statement was issued today by the United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues, Gay McDougall:

The United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues, Gay McDougall, has concluded her visit to Hungary which took place from 26 June to 4 July 2006. Ms. McDougall praised the high degree of cooperation and assistance demonstrated by the Government of Hungary in the course of her visit, and also the valuable assistance of many civil society organizations and institutions. During the course of her visit, the Independent Expert held numerous consultations in Budapest, and undertook visits to Roma communities in the Pecs region and to other minority groups to see first-hand the situation of minorities.

Ms. McDougall highlighted that the Hungarian Government has demonstrated significant political will to address the unique needs of and problems faced by minorities in general and, in particular, the Roma minority. National legislation and institutional structures in a network of the most relevant ministries, including the office of the Prime Minister, have raised the focus on the social circumstances of Roma to the highest levels of government. In addition, in 2002, the government made an important decision to bring in to the ministries Roma professionals to shape policy decisions and assist implementation. Since 1995, an independent Parliamentary Commissioner (ombudsman) for the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities has played a critical role in enforcing the constitutional ban on discrimination. A comprehensive anti-discrimination law and a newly established Equal Treatment Authority to handle complaints, were also welcomed by Ms. McDougall as valuable new additions to Hungary’s legal standards and enforcement mechanisms.

Roma organizations as well as Government officials reinforced the fact that Roma have been the most affected by Hungary’s difficult transition period from socialism to market based economy, and that many had lost their employment following economic decline and privatisation of state industries. Statistics demonstrate that between the late 1980s and early 1990s a disproportionately high percentage of employed Roma lost their jobs, compared to members of other communities. Amongst the Roma, startling statistics also reveal a life expectancy some 10 years less than that of the general population. Education of Roma is characterized by widespread segregation on racial grounds, and poor educational opportunities were also highlighted by Ms. McDougall as areas requiring dedicated attention to ensure equality for all of Hungary’s children.

The estimated 600,000 Roma population face serious discrimination, exclusion and unusually high levels of poverty. Nationwide Roma unemployment rates greatly exceed those of non-Roma, and the Office for National and Ethnic Minorities admits rates of 90 to 100 percent in particularly disadvantaged regions. This office also highlights the fact that thousands of Roma are living without running water, electricity and other basic services. The desperate situation faced by Roma is not only the consequence of the transition to a market economy, but is also due to the pervasive effects of racial discrimination.

Ms. McDougall expressed concerns that moves by the newly re-elected government to dismantle its current institutional focus on Roma issues, in favour of a broad-based policy to address ‘disadvantaged groups’, could lead to an erosion of progress on Roma issues that require urgent and focused attention. She highlighted in particular concern over the situation of Roma in the fields of education and employment, as well as the need to comprehensively address the widespread societal discrimination and anti-Roma prejudice.

Hungary’s post-communist constitutional arrangements entrenched significant autonomy for municipal authorities in areas such as education. This has thwarted the national government’s efforts to gain broad-based compliance with national policies on issues such as school desegregation. Ms. McDougall noted that the government must take effective steps to monitor and enforce compliance with national standards and fulfillment of rights of Roma at the municipal level.

Following meetings with leaders of some of Hungary’s unique minority self-governments, and a visit to a minority German community, Ms. McDougall considered the system to be a valuable contribution to efforts to enable cultural autonomy for thirteen minority groups in Hungary (1). She cautioned, however, that the system should not be considered as a means of confronting the weighty social and economic problems faced by the Roma. Essential steps are needed to provide full and effective political participation of Roma at the national level, which is required as a key means to fulfill their rights.

Ms. McDougall will present a comprehensive report on her visit to Hungary containing her findings and recommendations to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
In 2005, Ms. McDougall was appointed the first UN Independent Expert on minority issues, in accordance with the provisions of Commission on Human Rights resolution 2005/79. Ms. McDougall, a human rights lawyer, was Executive Director of Global Rights between 1994 and 2006. She has served as an expert member on the UN treaty body that oversees the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and on the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.

Note for editors:
(1) Hungary officially recognizes 13 national and ethnic minorities (listed in alphabetic order): Armenian, Bulgarian, Croatian, German, Greek, Polish, Roma, Romanian, Ruthenian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian and Ukrainian.

For more information about the role and function of the Independent Expert on minority issues, please visit the homepage at: http://www.ohchr.org/english/issues/minorities/expert/index.htm