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European Parliament holds hearing on Roma rights

7 November 2001

Veronika Leila Szente Goldston1

On October 4, 2001, the ERRC was invited to address a meeting convened by the European Parliament's Green/Free Alliance Group in Strasbourg. The meeting, entitled "Roma and Sinti on the Eve of European Union (EU) Enlargement," was a follow-up to an earlier meeting on Roma organised by the same political groups in 1996, and is expected to result in the adoption of a declaration with concrete recommendations for the improvement of EU policy towards Roma. A number of speakers were invited to address various Roma-related topics, OSCE Advisor on Roma and Sinti Issues Nicolae Gheorghe delivered the keynote speech for the meeting as a whole. The ERRC spoke in the "human rights" slot and focused on anti-discrimination legislation and its relevance for Roma rights. Several other speakers, including, most importantly, a representative of the European Commission, also emphasised the importance of anti-discrimination legislation for the improvement of the situation of the Roma, making express reference to the EU Race Equality Directive in this regard. The full text of the ERRC statement follows:

Statement by the European Roma Rights Center

On the occasion of the Conference "Roma and Sinti: On the Eve of EU Enlargement" Organised by the European Parliament's Green/European Free Alliance Group

October 4, 2001, Strasbourg

Let me begin by stating that the ERRC welcomes the Green/European Free Alliance Group's initiative in convening this meeting, which appropriately highlights the grave human rights conditions that continue to afflict Roma throughout much of Europe and adequately builds on the historic opportunity for positive change that the EU Enlargement process provides.

Discrimination and violence against Roma remain widespread throughout Europe, while legal protection against discrimination and racially-motivated violence is inadequate. The problem of insufficient legal provisions aimed at combating racial discrimination is further compounded by the failure to ensure their effective implementation.

We hope that today's discussions will provide the opportunity, not only for increasing awareness about the problems that Roma face, but also for the Group to make recommendations for specific actions that governments can take to improve the situation of Roma. Our position is based on the postulate that the primary responsibility for protecting Roma from violence and discrimination, and for ensuring that Roma enjoy equal treatment with their peers - in books as well as in practice - lies with individual governments. Thus, while the European Parliament and other institutions of the European Union, non-governmental organisations such as the ERRC, and the international community as a whole, have a crucial role to play in promoting the advancement of Roma rights, we must remember that the ultimate burden for implementing the necessary changes in laws and policies rests with the governments. Recognition of the plight of Roma as having an international dimension should by no means be interpreted as lessening this responsibility, and governments must be held accountable for failure to act.

One important way to assess the extent to which EU candidate governments have complied with their international obligations to combat racial discrimination is to measure their legislation and practice against the requirements of the European Union Race Equality Directive adopted last year.2 By July 2003, all EU member states must adopt the laws, regulations and administrative provisions necessary to implement its principles. In addition, as part of the acquis communautaire, the Directive must also be adequately transposed by all countries who seek to join the Union. The European Parliament has made clear that "adoption of the community acquis in the area of equality is a sine qua non for accession, since it is essentially a question of human rights."3 Among the Directive's most significant features are the following:

  • The scope of discrimination: The Directive expressly includes both "direct" and "indirect" discrimination within the scope of prohibited action. By including "indirect" discrimination within its ambit, the Directive reaches a broad range of discriminatory policies and actions which, though not motivated by overt and readily provable racial hatred, nonetheless have the effect of "disadvantaging" members of racial and ethnic minority groups. Examples of direct discrimination would be employment offices refusing Roma as a matter of policy, or restaurant owners denying Roma access and service at their premises, while a case of indirect discrimination occurred in Sweden a few years ago, when a shop-owner banning women wearing long skirts from entering his shop was found guilty of unlawful discrimination in that the ban disproportionately affected Romani women, who tend to wear long skirts.
  • The scope of discriminators: The Directive applies to "both the public and private sectors, including public bodies." As such, the Directive affirms that discrimination by a private employer or restaurant owner is as forbidden as that practiced by a police officer or a social security agent.
  • The scope of application: When it comes to the range of areas in which discrimination is prohibited, the Directive applies to access to employment, including self-employment and occupation; to employment and working conditions, including dismissals and pay; to social security and healthcare; to social advantages; to education; and to the provision of "goods and services which are available to the public, including housing." It thus covers many of the areas in which racial discrimination manifests itself.
  • Positive action: The Directive leaves open the possibility for States to adopt "specific measures to prevent or compensate for disadvantages linked to racial or ethnic origin." This provision, included in the EU Directive "with a view to ensuring full and effective equality in practice," permits governments to employ a range of devices to achieve more adequate representation of minority groups, including Roma, in various fields of social and public life. Such measures could include employment recruitment efforts targeted at historically underrepresented minority groups, as well as the active identification and capacitation of members of such groups into the ranks of public employment, including the police, the prosecutorial corps and the judiciary.
  • Legal remedies: The Directive mandates the establishment of "judicial and/or administrative procedures" to implement its provisions and authorises "associations, organisations or other legal entities" to engage in seeking legal remedies on behalf of victims who so approve.
  • Burden of proof/evidence: The Directive makes it practically feasible for many victims to prove the discrimination they have suffered in two principal ways. First, the Directive shifts the burden of persuasion in civil cases by requiring that, once a complainant establishes, "before a court or other competent authority, facts from which it may be presumed that there has been direct or indirect discrimination, it shall be for the respondent to prove that there has been no breach of the principle of equal treatment." This principle of the shift of burden of proof in prima facie cases of discrimination is all the more important in view of the fact that evidence of discrimination is generally in the hands of the discriminator. Second, the Directive provides that indirect discrimination may be "established by any means, including on the basis of statistical evidence." As a practical matter, this provision is of particular importance insofar as statistical evidence may be the best or only way of proving indirect discrimination (that is, of showing that an apparently neutral provision puts members of a minority group at a particular disadvantage compared with others).
  • Sanctions: The Directive makes clear that "effective, proportionate and dissuasive" sanctions must be imposed for violation of national anti-discrimination norms, and that such sanctions "may comprise the payment of compensation to the victim." It additionally mandates States to "take all measures necessary to ensure that they are applied."
  • Enforcement bodies: The Directive requires that States "designate a body or bodies for the promotion of equal treatment," capable of "providing independent assistance to victims of discrimination in pursuing their complaints," "conducting independent surveys concerning discrimination," and "publishing independent reports and making recommendations." The Directive thus opens the way to the establishment of effective enforcement bodies capable of taking legal action to secure equal treatment.

Governments should be called upon to demonstrate their commitment to combat racism and discrimination by making full use of existing international instruments - such as the EU Race Equality Directive - and ensuring full compliance of domestic legislation and practice with the standards they set forth. In this regard, governments should, in particular:

  1. adopt a comprehensive body of legislation prohibiting discrimination in all fields of public life and providing civil, criminal and administrative remedies for breach thereof;
  2. establish an effective enforcement body empowered both legally and through the provision of adequate resources to effectively secure full compliance with the new law.

In addition to the above points emphasising the importance of legal measures to combat discrimination against Roma, we have also prepared a number of specific recommendations for other areas of concrete action that governments should take to improve their situation:

  • Political will - The foundation for any successful anti-discrimination policy is political will at the highest levels of government. Absent moral leadership in the fight against discrimination, all other steps risk being mere window-dressing. Senior government officials must frequently and publicly acknowledge that racism against Roma is a grave and pervasive problem which afflicts majority society and that discrimination is unacceptable, illegal and will not be tolerated.
  • Involvement - In designing, implementing and evaluating policies to combat and prevent discrimination, governments must involve members of Romani, and other minorities at all stages.
  • Enforcement - Governments must ensure consistent enforcement of existing legal standards in the field of discrimination, inter alia, by:
    (1) ensuring that criminal justice systems effectively combat racial discrimination by promptly and impartially investigating incidents of racially-motivated violence against Roma and duly prosecuting perpetrators of such crimes, whether committed by law enforcement officers or private actors;
    (2) disciplining public officers - including police, prosecutors and other investigative authorities - who fail adequately to enforce discriminatory norms;
    (3) promoting respect for racial and ethnic diversity in all spheres of public life, including by training public officials (in particular the police, prosecutors and judges) in the requirements of international and domestic law concerning non-discrimination;
    (4) developing avenues for dialogue between law enforcement agencies and members of Roma and other minorities.
  • Education - Education is the foundation for the promotion of inter-cultural tolerance, diversity and non-discrimination. In this regard, governments should:

(1) develop and execute popular education programmes about the nature and extent of anti-Roma racism, about the contributions of Romani culture and history, and about the binding nature of international and domestic prohibitions on racism and discrimination;
(2) provide adequate training for teachers and other educational professionals in multicultural education and the histories and cultures of Roma and other relevant minority groups;
(3) ensure that primary and secondary school curriculum and textbooks adequately reflect the contributions of Roma and other relevant minorities and do not perpetuate racial stereotypes;
(4) eradicate practices that result in the involuntary segregation of Roma in schools, in particular the ongoing systematic routing in many European countries of Romani children to sub-standard educational facilities for students deemed "mentally deficient".

  • Race statistics - Governments can hardly comply with international obligations to eradicate racial discrimination absent data showing the racial impact of policies in the fields of, inter alia, employment, housing, education, and criminal justice. Governmental efforts to combat racial discrimination should therefore be based on reliable statistical data and other quantitative information, reflecting as accurately as possible the situation of Roma and other minorities in society. Such information should, of course, be collected in compliance with human rights principles and protected against use for purposes other than reversing racial discrimination and improving the overall situation of the Roma.

These are a number of concrete recommendations for government action that we offer to the Group to adopt as part of the concluding document following this meeting.

Thank you.

Endnotes:

  1. Veronika Leila Szente Goldston is Advocacy Director of the European Roma Rights Center.
  2. Council Directive 2000/43/EC.
  3. COM(1999)500 - C5-0341/2000 - 2000/2171 (COS), October 4, 2000, para. 121.

 

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