On September 27, Rita Izsák, head of the newly established Budapest-based Tom Lantos Institute and István Gyarmati, CEO of the International Center for Democratic Transition spoke at the Atlantic Council to a room full of human rights experts about the Lantos Institute’s vision and future projects, including its work on Roma issues.

The Tom Lantos Institute (TLI), named in honor of former US Congressman and human rights champion Tom Lantos, will tackle human rights challenges across Central Europe through film screenings, exchange programs, youth summer camps and in-depth research.

“We have to understand and overcome past injustices in order to start building a better future for our Roma,” said Rita Izsák. “When we talk about human rights, we tend to overemphasize “rights” and tend to ignore the “human” aspect of the issues, which is a mistake. The socio-economic challenges of the Roma have as much to do with self-esteem, role models, school curriculum and inspirational leaders as with the criminal justice system, “she said. “I have been discouraged by others many times in my life from aiming higher. But it always motivated me even more. I wanted to show them that I can do it. I can make it despite the odds,” said Ms. Izsák, who talked candidly about her personal experiences as a young Roma leader. “With the right leadership, a strong vision and a motivation to help ourselves, we can overcome perceptions and succeed in whatever we want,” she argued.

Ms. Izsák pointed out that the Roma must gain influence in all aspects of political and economic life in order for social inclusion and integration to be successful. Hungary, for example, has a system of minority self-government: altogether, there are 1,248 bodies with about 5,000 minority representatives. But it is important that these political channels become a real avenue of self-government and are not corrupted by political power plays among different parties. Roma communities face the challenge of social integration across Central and Western Europe. Hungary took up this issue during its EU Presidency and Ms Izsák spearheaded a common “Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020,” the so-called EU Roma Strategy, which was adopted by the European Council in May. This was the first time that Roma integration was dealt with at the EU level, and the new strategy requires that all EU member states develop a national strategy to tackle Roma integration. “There is a tendency to leave the issue of human rights at the very end of our democracy checklist, but that is not the approach of a healthy democracy,” argued former Ambassador István Gyarmati, who has a wealth of experience in transitional democracies.