When Julek Mika was very young, he developed pneumonia. His teachers in the Czech Republic shuffled him off to a “special school” where he, along with many other Roma children and children with disabilities, were taught only a limited curriculum.
At the time, in the late 1990s, Roma children in the Czech Republic were then 27 times more likely to be segregated from mainstream schools and channeled into “special education” than their non-Roma classmates.
In some parts of the Czech Republic, the statistics remain the same today. Thousands of Roma children who have been educated in “special schools” over the years have experiences similar to Julek’s: he is now unemployed at age 23, his opportunities radically limited by decisions taken when he was young.
This week, the Council of Europe has an opportunity to help change this situation, as it assesses the progress of the court case that Julek helped set in motion. The Council’s top political body—the Committee of Ministers, which oversees the way that States transform judgments from Europe’s top human rights court into action on the ground—will assess whether the Czech government has done enough to try to change its education system to ensure it is more inclusive of Roma children like Julek.
Though it is too late for Julek to benefit from a transformed education system, he told a meeting in Prague recently that he hopes he can help change things for younger children. That was part of the reason why he joined with 17 other Roma children to file a lawsuit with the European Court of Human Rights in 2000. Charging discrimination based on ethnicity, they argued that the disproportionate segregation of Roma children into special schools was a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights. Seven years later, the court agreed. The judges ordered the Czech government to pay compensation to the 18 Roma children in the case—D.H. and others v Czech Republic—and also to take general measures to make sure the education system did not continue to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity.
And yet, the Czech government has been dragging its feet—making it hard for the Committee of Ministers to make a positive finding this week when it meets to discuss the case. More than three years after the judgment, the problem has not even begun to be remedied. As Europe’s top human rights watchdog, Thomas Hammarberg, noted in his report on the Czech Republic in March this year: “There appear to have been hardly any changes on the ground….. Romani children continue to be assigned [to special schools] without justification, as a result of either misdiagnosis or direct enrollment in these schools.”
The Czech government did not give the Committee of Ministers any information about the efforts they have taken to transform the education system in the lead-up to this week’s meeting. Unfortunately, this is largely because there is little to say: during the past year, the new government has slashed the staff devoted to inclusive education in the Ministry of Education, it has pushed out reformers inside the Ministry or the staff have quit citing lack of political will to make changes, and a person hostile to an inclusive education agenda has been appointed as a key advisor to the Education Minister.
The situation also took a further turn for the worse last week, when a key plank of the government’s plans imploded. A group of sixty teachers, psychologists, doctors and other experts who had been brought on board to support reforms all resigned, saying that the government lacked the political will to pursue an inclusive education agenda. Their departure effectively takes the process back to square one, and largely unravels the government’s action plan in practice.
The Committee of Ministers needs to start increasing the pressure on the Czech government to reform. The new school year starts in September—and unless something drastic changes, many more Roma children like Julek could be segregated and taught to a limited curriculum again on the basis of their ethnicity. The Committee of Ministers has the responsibility not to let that happen.
The Committee will make a decision on this case by next week. This decision needs to:
- Identify the obstacles to pursuing an inclusive education agenda in the Czech Republic, and help the Czech government work out ways to overcome them
- Offer technical assistance and advice to ensure the Czech government has the tools and resources it needs to implement the D.H. judgment
- Work with the government to make a plan to set a time frame and benchmarks to implement the D.H. judgment
- Keep the D.H. case on the agenda for debate at its November 2011 session.
If not, in the words of Thomas Hammarberg, another generation of of Roma children will be “condemned to a future as second-class citizens.”