Time to Turn Legal Victories into Better Lives for Roma

Forty years ago, after gathering at a school in the leafy outskirts of London, 60 European Roma activists declared April 8 as a Romani national day. Together, they sang a freshly adopted Roma anthem, proudly flew a new Roma flag and wept as they remembered those killed in the Holocaust. Though their communities were scattered throughout Europe, the first major international congress of Roma recognized that they faced the same battles and shared a common cause and vision: advancing Roma rights and welfare.

At the same time as the celebrations were taking place, a different—but all too familiar—reality played out only miles away. Police and council workers were evicting Roma families from an encampment in the London Borough of Sutton. One activist was knocked down by a bulldozer and hospitalized.

Four decades later, what has changed? Have the hopes for respect for Roma rights been realized?

At one level, the answer is an unequivocal yes. In Strasbourg, the European Court of Human Rights has issued a series of judgments recognizing and expanding the rights of Roma to be free from discrimination and violence. In the 2005 decision of Nachova v. Bulgaria, for example, the court found that Bulgarian police failed to investigate whether discrimination played a role in the murder of two Roma men, and told the government to change its police practices.

In Stoica v. Romania, the court addressed the case of a 14-year-old Roma boy who was beaten by police while standing outside a bar. In 2008, the court held that the violence against him by Romanian police was racially motivated and violated the European Convention of Human Rights.

Over the same period, the European Union dramatically enhanced the legal prohibition against ethnic or racial discrimination (through adopting the Race Equality Directive, for example, which requires European Union countries to comply with its principles of equal treatment of all persons regardless of racial or ethnic origin).

The revolution in Brussels and Strasbourg, however, has not been matched on the ground. Despite the legal gains, the situation of Roma across Europe has remained largely the same. Discrimination remains widespread, and while violence has subsided in some countries, it has increased in others.

During the past two years in Italy and France, for example, Roma still face the type of violence and arbitrary evictions, legitimized through hastily passed laws, that their counterparts did in the 1970s as the First World Congress was taking place. More generally, the vast majority of Roma on the continent remain economically and politically marginalized.

The gap between law and practice is nowhere more evident than in the Czech Republic. In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights issued a decision in D.H. and Others v. Czech Republic, recognizing that the systemic segregation of Roma children into “special” education for children with disabilities constituted a form of indirect discrimination. It ordered the Czech Republic to fix the problem and ensure that Roma children were welcomed into mainstream schools in an inclusive environment.

More than three years have passed since then, and no changes are in sight. As the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg noted in his March 2011 report on the Czech Republic, “there appear to have been hardly any changes on the ground” since the DH decision was handed down. Still today, in some parts of the country, Roma children are 27 times more likely than their Czech schoolmates to be placed in a school with a substandard curriculum that limits their opportunities and chances at getting a good job.

Hammarberg further challenged the Czech government to stop condemning Roma children to “a future as second-class citizens” and to demonstrate “a clear change of direction already with the next intake of children in the 2011-2012 school year.”

But enrollment for the new school year has already started, and the Czech government has, in effect, done nothing to remedy the situation. It estimates that it will not make any practical changes until 2014—which means three more years will go by with Roma children improperly placed in classes with limited curricula.

This situation is particularly egregious given the Czech government currently holds the presidency of the Decade of Roma Inclusion—an initiative of 12 governments, intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations, as well as Romani community groups, to improve Roma rights and welfare. As its presidency comes to an end in June, the Czech government needs to explain its failure to promote equal education inside its own borders—wasting the untapped potential of Roma children.

The Czech government is not alone within Europe in its failure to promote Roma inclusion. International Roma Day should serve as a reminder that the hopes and dreams of the activists at the Roma Congress in 1971 are still a long way from being realized.

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