Amnesty International Regarding Romanian Children
By Betsy M. Meredith
Amnesty International Regarding Romanian Children
Throughout the 1990s, photos in newspapers and television broadcasts revealed the atrocities in Romanian orphanages. Many of us have cringed and attempted to erase the images from our minds. However, while the images can fade in our memory, the problem still exists. Romania has a track record of human rights violations, including the abuse and neglect of the nation’s children, which includes the enormous orphan population. How has Amnesty International (AI) assisted with this challenge? AI has, in fact, had a voice and has spoken for those children who cannot speak for themselves. By doing so, the international community has taken notice of the human rights violations in Romania and has put pressure on them to raise their standards. This pressure has been especially important considering Romania has aspirations of joining the European Union in 2007.
The dictator was focused on spreading communism and he believed the way to do it was by increasing the Romanian population. Ceausescu’s goal was increasing a “communist population of Romania to 30 million by the year 2000” (White 2003). It is not difficult to surmise that many families were unable to care for their children and, as a result, placed them in orphanages. The government seized the opportunity to acquire the children and, “Ceausescu created state-run orphanages to house the excess children. His aim was to draft these children into the army when they reached adulthood, in order to bolster Romania's military force” (White 2003). What were the lasting consequences, of the implementation of this plan, after the fall of communism in the state?
In order to understand AI’s role in this situation, it is important to grasp what Amnesty International’s mission is, what they do and how they are connected to IGOs (intergovernmental organizations). AI, founded in 1961, “is a worldwide movement of people who campaign for internationally recognized human rights” (About amnesty.org). Karen Mingst, an international relations expert, points out that AI has been involved in human rights awareness through “its letter-writing campaigns on behalf of victims of human rights violations” (Mingst 2001, 241). The organization’s website goes on to say that “AI’s vision is of a world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards” (About amnesty.org). These rights, according to Amnesty, extend to all individuals in society, including children. Amnesty, while they can assist in making the world aware of human rights violations, as an NGO, they have no real power to enforce change. It is Amnesty’s marriage with IGOs, such as the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU), that allow their campaigns to have an impact.
In my work researching the global orphan situation, to date, the first individual country that pops into the majority of people’s minds when I say “orphan,” is Romania. This is due to the fact that after the thumb of Ceausescu’s rule was lifted after his death in 1989, information began to circulate regarding the atrocities in orphanages and the world began to listen. While it is difficult to track how the information initially made it to the west, it is evident that both the media and organizations such as Amnesty played a role in informing the public. Tom Jarriel, a correspondent for ABC’s 20/20, did a “series of nine pieces” from “1990 to 2001 that chronicled the wretched living conditions in Romanian orphanages” (Johnson 2002). As a result of this information being released, American’s and others began to rescue these children through adoption. Regarding Amnesty International, the founder, Peter Benneson, himself took notice. After his recent passing, many acknowledged his involvement in assisting these kids. “Peter Benneson never gave up campaigning for a better world”. One article went on to say that “in the early 1990s, he organized help for the orphans of Ceausescu’s Romania” (McFadden, 2005). While it was not Amnesty alone that brought the information to the surface regarding this situation, Amnesty has had an ongoing role in reporting the human rights abuses that Romania has continued to have throughout the 1990s and now, into the 21st century. One such example is Amnesty’s reporting of abuse in the psychiatric hospitals, which does in fact have a link to the orphan situation.
The plight of despair for Ceausescu’s orphans does not end when the children grow into adulthood. AI has consistently called for changes in Romanian psychiatric hospitals. This organization has stated that “the placement and treatment of many psychiatric patients violate international human rights and best professional practice” (Lungescu 2004). How does that apply to orphans? While the number of children in state orphanages and institutions has decreased, AI has pointed out that some of the children “are simply transferred to psychiatric hospitals, where they are left to languish for the rest of their lives” (Lungescu 2004). Clearly, this is an example of AI’s role in bringing information to the surface and not allowing governments to circumvent human rights standards or shove the violations under the carpet.
Amnesty’s role with Romanian children has not stopped with the ill-treatment of orphans. Amnesty has made significant strides to be a voice for children in general. In their 2004 report on Romania, they specifically raised concerns regarding the countries mistreatment of children. There were several allegations, which if they were proven to be true, “would represent a violation of Romania’s international treaty obligations including the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” (Romania amnestyusa.org). According to the report, AI is also “concerned about the government’s failure to carry out impartial investigations into complaints of ill-treatment of children and to bring justice to those responsible” (Romania amnestyusa.org). After discussing numerous examples of police abuse, Amnesty made several recommendations.
AI not only reported the violations, but offered recommendations to the Romanian government.
The following is a list of the suggestions:
Whether or not Romania follows AI’s suggestions on this matter remains to be seen. However, if their goal is to integrate with the European community, by gaining membership in the EU, it would be in their best interest to follow the advice on this matter, as well as heed the suggestions by Amnesty in regards to other human rights violations.
Despite the criticism, however, evidence shows that organizations such as Amnesty do have an impact on state’s behavior. It is important to reiterate the point that Amnesty, acting alone, would have a great difficulty doing anything about their findings in Romania or any country. However, because of AI’s marriage with IGOs such as the United Nations and the European Union, they are making a difference and the critics need to take notice. The most pertinent example is Romania’s quest for EU membership and the challenges that they are encountering.
As of April 13, 2005, Romania, along with Bulgaria has been given the “thumbs up” to join the EU in 2007. However, the journey to this point has not been and is not guaranteed. In the case of Romania, part of the issues still at hand is the human rights violations that AI has exposed. Less than a year ago, a BBC correspondent stated that “AI has called for an urgent reform of psychiatric hospitals in Romania” (Lungescu 2004). The same day that Onan Lungescu made that statement; the Irish section of AI had this to say: “Amnesty pointed out that the EU has apparently failed to take account of the many young adults from institutions which were closed down, who ended up being inappropriately transferred to psychiatric hospitals” (Urgent amnesty.ie). Although not all residence of these institutions were formerly orphanage residents, some, in fact, were and this report was “a new blow to Romania’s hopes for joining the EU in 2007” (Lungescu 2004). These statements were made in 2004, prior to Romania being voted into the EU, however, the concerns still exist and reforms are still being requested.
Regarding the 2007 expansion of the EU, “Romania and Bulgaria must deliver on key reforms”, said Olli Rehn, the EU Enlargement Commissioner. He goes on to say that the EU will not “hesitate to use safeguard clauses. The agreement must be conditional. If they fall too far behind, accession may be delayed” (Bulgaria cnn.com). Although there are other concerns, in addition to the human rights violations, they certainly factor into the equation and AI has had a hand in that. This situation is a perfect example of the fact that AI has made a difference and can, despite the realist’s belief about NGOs, impact a state’s behavior and influence the international community.
In sum, Nicolae Ceausescu left orphans in his country in atrocious situations. These situations are still so prevalent that, a over a decade after his death, the international community is still attempting to remedy the problem. Amnesty International has been one of the most influential voices in the global world as they speak out about human rights. They did not hesitate in helping the orphans in the 1990s as the world watched and became aware of the truth of the dictators plan. The have continued to speak out for orphans and children in Romania as well as speak out about the violations in psychiatric wards, whose residents include adult orphans who have unjustly been placed in these institutions. Amnesty has worked with IGOs and, as a result, their voice has had an impact. This impact has been so great that there is still a question about whether or not Romania will be accepted into the EU. Amnesty has won multiple awards since its humble beginnings in 1961 and, based on what I have read regarding their work in Romania, the awards are well deserved.
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How far that little candle throws his beams!