Tag Archives: recognition

Sweden faces up to past discrimination against its Roma minority in a new ‘White Book’

by Rhodri C. Williams

One week ago, the Swedish integration minister Erik Ullenhag presided over the long-awaited release of a government “White Book” documenting the country’s treatment of Roma during the 20th century. As appropriate to the aims and nature of this inquiry, the initial publication was a Swedish family affair; while the context of broader European antiziganism – or racism against Roma – is discussed and acknowledged, there has yet to be an official translation of the White Book in English (let alone romani ćhib), although a summary and fact sheet are now available.

Greater accessibility and dissemination will no doubt follow, if for no other reason than to show compliance with Sweden’s EU-mandated integration policy, and respond to specific criticisms of the Advisory Committee for the Council of Europe Framework Convention on National Minorities. However, for the time being, coverage, dissemination and discussion of the White Book have been in Swedish, with the exception of the Local and Swedish Radio. While this has emphasized the extent to which this effort is driven by and aimed at addressing local concerns, it has also resulted in a limited and eclectic international reception to date.

Given my own ongoing research interest in autonomy and minority rights in the Nordic countries, I have been working my way through the White Book and will be writing two posts on it here in TN. The first one, will address the general approach to truth-seeking set out in the White Book, and how it has been received and debated in Sweden. The second will focus more narrowly on the fifth chapter of the White Book, and, in keeping with the concerns of this blog, discuss the historical obstacles to property ownership and secure tenure to housing for Roma in Sweden.

As an outset observation, the White Book is a remarkable document, stating clearly and with an unassuming Swedish sobriety how far the country has come in the integration of its Roma national minority and how far it has yet to go. Its goals are two-fold, namely to provide recognition to the victims of a century of systematic discrimination, and raise awareness among the majority population regarding the severity of these abuses and their enduring effects (12). While the White Book represents a major step toward meeting both goals, some questions remain about both their sufficiency and their relationship with the prospectively oriented Swedish strategy for Roma inclusion.

In fact, the current relevance of the White Book was underscored with near-Hollywood timing by a set of recent scandals involving Roma in Sweden. Continue reading

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Terra Nullius no more – Australia approaches constitutional recognition of its indigenous population

by Rhodri C. Williams

The BBC yesterday picked up on a curious piece of legislative news from Australia, with the lower house of Parliament having unanimously passed a bill presenting a constitutional IOU to the country’s indigenous population. In effect, the legislator agrees to lead from the front in seeking to drum up popular support for constitutional recognition of Aborigines and Torres Straits Islanders, and to act on that support as soon as it is there:

“I do believe the community is willing to embrace the justice of this campaign because Australians understand that indigenous culture and history are a source of pride for us all,” Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said. “This bill seeks to foster momentum for a referendum for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

The bill comes as part of a longer term process of reconciliation dating back to the early 1990s, when a Royal Commission was set up to examine Aboriginal deaths in custody and the Australian High Court belatedly disowned the terra nullius doctrine that had premised the takeover of aboriginal land on the demeaning idea that it was not truly occupied by other human beings. This tradition of emphatic non-recognition of Aboriginal peoples was symbolically reversed in 2008 by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s groundbreaking apology to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples:

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians. …. A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

The present bill is admirably short and pithy. In its Article 3, entitled ‘Recognition’ it sets out a series of propositions that are revolutionary only in their self-evidentness:

(1) The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, recognises that the continent and the islands now known as Australia were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

(2) The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, acknowledges the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional lands and waters.

(3) The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, acknowledges and respects the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

It then goes on to mandate the Prime Minister to “consider the readiness of the Australian public” to support a constitutional referendum on recognition of Aboriginal peoples and take steps to that effect within 12 months from its entry into force. The explanatory memorandum goes on to explain in somewhat more detail the thinking behind this somewhat unorthodox legislative approach: 

This Bill reflects an intention to pursue meaningful change to the Constitution that echoes the hopes and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and unites the nation.  It is one part of the ongoing conversation that needs to happen in the lead up to constitutional change. In particular, the Bill will enable all Australians to become familiar with formal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples ahead of constitutional change.

A review provision sets out a process for Parliament to consider next steps towards constitutional recognition, while a sunset provision ensures that legislative recognition does not become entrenched at the expense of continued progress towards constitutional change.

The Bill is not intended to be a substitute for constitutional recognition.  ….  The Bill does not restrict the scope of future issues for debate in regards to constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In the annals of the law and society debate, this Bill may come to represent something of a hallmark. As a legislative attempt to encourage consensual change rather than simply ram change home based on an argument of necessity, it stands out both in its transparency and in the relatively sophisticated mechanism it seeks to set up. It also represents a sterling example of new constitutional approaches to managing diversity that posit a more sustainable relationship through transparent, participatory and open-ended processes than through foreclosing such processes with an unalterable compact.

There is of course a risk that this type of legislation may be seen as an attempt by the Government to play for time or appease reactionary elements in society. On the other hand, accommodating minority demands always imposes a cost on the majority (or in any event prevents the majority from externalising such costs any longer). If Australia’s current moral redistribution and its political and economic consequences are to be sustainable in a democratic system, then it is imperative that bills such as the present one help to undergird moral necessity with political consensus.