This article was originally published by the International Herald Tribune. James A. Goldston is executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
In late November, after long periods of silence from the Czech government on Roma school segregation, Ondrej Liska, the Czech education minister, pledged a revolutionary approach of "inclusion" aimed at "ending discrimination in schools." But what will these hopeful words mean in practice?
A crucial first test comes at the meeting this week of the Council of the European Union, when the Czech Republic will make public the agenda for its presidency of the EU, set to begin on Jan. 1.
According to internal reports, the Roma issue is absent from the agenda. That would be a missed opportunity, not just for Roma, but for Europe as a whole.
Despite some progress, a stark reality persists for Roma: they continue to be poorer, have less access to health care, and suffer far higher levels of unemployment than national majorities. The average lifespan for Roma in central and eastern Europe is 10 years less than for non-Roma. Many Roma do not complete primary education; few make it to high school, let alone university.
Last year, Europe's highest court issued a groundbreaking ruling that racial segregation in schools—an ugly scar on much of the European landscape—is a violation of the law. The decision concerned 18 Roma children from the Czech Republic who had been assigned to special schools for the mentally disabled in racially disproportionate patterns.
As the lead counsel for this case, I was encouraged by the court's decision; one year on, however, Roma remain shutoff in separate schools.
The Czech authorities have a chance to repair this damage. They should start by announcing at the council session on Thursday that Roma will be a priority for the coming presidency. The deepening global recession only underscores the absurdity of continuing to marginalize 10-12 million citizens.