This week, the Czech Republic declared before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that it will end segregated schooling for children of its Roma minority, estimated to number around 300,000.
Currently, the Czech system sends disproportionate numbers of Roma children into so called “practical” schools, where they receive an inferior education that leaves them without meaningful qualifications. But Vladimir Galuŝka, a deputy minister for foreign affairs, told UN members on Monday that “even the temporary placements of socially disadvantaged children in practical schools as a last resort measure to improve their education chances will be abolished and individual integration in mainstream schools will be preferred”.
If the minister’s words can be translated into action, this is tremendous news for future generations of Roma children, who have for too long been systematically shunted into an educational dead end that has left them little chance of economic success as adults. It would mark a long-delayed victory too for the 18 Roma children who brought a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights in 2000, winning a ruling in 2007 that the Czech Republic had violated their rights to non-discrimination and education, and ordering the government to redress the situation.
But there are reasons for caution. Galuŝka’s statement to the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of his country’s human rights record came without any concrete commitments—such as a firm timeline for implementation, or targets along the way to achieving zero school segregation.
A significant number of states at the UPR were concerned about continuing discrimination in education affecting Roma children. Austria, Denmark, Finland and the United Kingdom recommended that the Czech Republic implement a clear plan to end segregation and ensure that Roma children are transferred to mainstream schools. Other states also called for an end to discrimination in education and for integration (Mexico, Norway, Slovenia, Spain, Sri Lanka, and Thailand). Many others, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, and the United States of America, recommended full implementation of the Czech Republic’s National Action Plan on Inclusive Education. But this plan also still lacks concrete indicators, targets, and funding. Its timeframe for implementation is unacceptably long; no practical results are expected until 2014, despite the fact that the plan was adopted in 2010.
Regrettably, the Czech government has a long history of vague plans to address discrimination against Roma in schools. None has been backed up by the political will needed to deliver change.
This latest promise will have little real meaning if it is not quickly translated into reforms that can be felt by Roma children. They must be welcomed into mainstream schools as soon as possible; where needed, they should have access to appropriate educational and other support, to ensure all have the same chances of succeeding in school as other children in the Czech Republic.
The Czech Republic is expected to provide its replies to the recommendations addressed to it at the UPR by March next year. In light of the commitments the government has already made at the UPR, and its clear human rights obligations, it should accept all of the recommendations to end segregation and ensure inclusive education of Roma.
Meanwhile next month will mark the fifth anniversary of the European court ruling that ordered the Czech Republic to end school segregation. Some of the 18 original applicants in that case now have children of their own, representing a new generation at risk of being funneled into inadequate schools. That does not have to happen: if the Czech Republic lives up to its public promises, and offers all Roma children a decent education.