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Reflections from America

7 February 2004

Gloria Jean Garland

I recently returned to the United States after living and working for six years in Central Europe -the last three as legal director for the European Roma Rights Center. I came back just in time to see Arnold Schwarzenegger elected governor of California, to view some truly dreadful new television shows (which I'm sure will be recycled in Europe soon), and to witness a majority of Americans finally (finally!) questioning George Bush's handling of the post-war situation in Iraq. I left behind some good friends, some warm memories and many unfinished cases, still lingering, or perhaps withering away on the European Court's grapevine of aging cases.

Human rights work is different from other kinds of legal work. Most of the clients are not sophisticated or well-informed of their rights (although some certainly are). The field clearly doesn't command the high fees that lawyers in other areas receive. The work is often frustrating and discouraging. The situations giving rise to the claims can be heartbreaking. When asked to describe my three+ years working with the ERRC, many words come to mind: challenging, exhausting, difficult, aggravating - but at the same time, exhilarating, exciting, fascinating, uplifting. Perhaps above all, the work was consuming.

The frustrations were many. Court systems, both domestic and international, were painfully slow. There were the sometimes arrogant "leaders" of local NGOs, whose primary concern was advancement of their own glory at the expense of the people they allegedly served. There were the occasional egotistical lawyers whose interest in financial gain far exceeded any concerns for their clients. Racist judges and prosecutors, whose disdain for humanity in general was apparent in their disdain for the Romani defendants or victims before them, ignored their legal obligations. And the European Court itself, such a beacon of hope at the time it was created, is now floundering and drowning in the flood of cases before it.

But there were also encouraging elements. I met many young Romani men and women entering universities, getting involved in their communities, taking steps to help their people. I saw talented and committed lawyers and human rights activists, working long hours for little money. Local judges pleasantly surprised me on more than a few occasions, showing sensitivity and initiative in trying to right the wrongs for which the laws thus far provided inadequate remedies. For every arrogant self-proclaimed Roma "leader", I observed many more talented and dedicated Romani men and women, the true leaders who would someday take their rightful place. In training workshops we conducted, I met dedicated young lawyers and activists whose enthusiasm often helped to restore my own flagging confidence in the possibilities of making a better world.

Likewise, in the litigation arena, frustrations and disappointments are countered by the occasional victory. In April of 2000, the ERRC filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights against the Czech Republic arising from the disproportionately high placement of Romani children in "special schools" for the mentally disabled. It was to be a landmark case, along the lines of the famed Brown v. Board of Education, with the potential to make significant inroads in the fight against discrimination and to shatter the repeating cycle of illiteracy, unemployment and poverty. Press coverage was extensive; hopes were high. But over three-and-a-half years later, despite requests to the Court to expedite consideration of the application, the case was not communicated to the Czech government (the first step in moving a case through the Court's processes) for more than three years after it was filed. How do we explain to our clients, whose children continue to fall further and further behind in school, why nothing is happening in their case? How can we encourage other parents in other countries to take the same chance?

Nonetheless, during this same time, the Court issued landmark victories in three cases against Bulgaria - Assenov, Velikova and Anguelova - as well as significant decisions in collective expulsion cases with which the ERRC had assisted. For every disappointing, apparently disinterested, official, we meet others who are extremely dedicated to improving human rights, despite their very heavy workload. And, slowly but surely, cases involving Roma are making their way through the European Court, many successfully establishing new precedents and legal protections.

One of the first cases I worked on after joining the ERRC was also one of the last - the case of Moldovan vs. Romania, arising from pogrom in the village of Hădăreni, Romania, in September 1993, that left three Romani men dead and the homes of 14 Roma families in ruins.1 The case offers some hope that the hard work and struggle of litigating human rights cases can make a difference.

The village of Hădăreni sits on a two-lane road halfway between Târgu Mureş and Cluj-Napoca. It looks like countless other villages in Romania - small houses clustered on either side of the road, a church, a local pub, cows and sheep grazing in the fields. Most of the houses are simple - two or three rooms, no indoor plumbing. My first visit to Hădăreni was in November 2000, shortly before filing an application with the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of 25 people who had lost family members or homes in the pogrom. I went there to make sure our clients understood the risks and the procedures involved in the case.

We started off visiting one family's home that had been destroyed in the fire and then partially rebuilt. Within maybe 10 minutes, word had spread that the lawyers from Budapest were there and people began to trickle in. It was the first time I had been inside a Romani family's home. The house was simple - two rooms, a dirt floor with an old carpet on top, a few rough wooden benches and chairs to sit on - but quite clean. An old woman kept grabbing my hand, touching it to her breast, crying and wailing and gesturing with her hands. She had lost her home in the fire, her son was in jail, and her husband had lost his job. She claimed that her husband had gone blind from crying so much after the fire. I was at a loss for words.

These people had been through so much. It had taken Romania nearly five years to even prosecute anyone for the murders and the destruction, and even then, the sentences were repeatedly reduced on appeal and some defendants acquitted. Ultimately, as a final insult, the remaining defendants were pardoned by the President of Romania. Seven years later, many of the homes had not been rebuilt at all, and those that had were poorly constructed. What could I tell them? I explained the Court's procedures, the arguments we planned to make. They nodded as our local monitor translated. The case would be difficult - Romania was not a member of the Council of Europe until several months after the pogrom, so it was not subject to the European Convention's requirements at the time of the violence. Yes, yes, they understood. Yes, they wanted to proceed. We filled out all of the forms - birth dates, identification numbers, addresses, a description of their individual losses. Some did not know for sure when they had been born. Others had lost their personal documents in the fires and did not get them replaced, so they had no identification numbers. Although it was a chilly November day, most were not wearing coats. Many had several layers of old shirts and sweaters on. They looked anxious, tired. Would they get some money? When would they get it? How much would they get? Could their non-Romani neighbors retaliate against them for bringing the lawsuit? I tried to explain the risks. The process was long. There were no guarantees. The Court might reject their case entirely. We would do our best to protect them from retaliation through publicity and pressure, and our local monitor would visit them regularly, but we could not promise there would be no problems. It was unclear what might happen, but they wanted to try. I admired their courage.

I went back to Hădăreni the following summer, after the Romanian government had responded to our application, to take photos and statements, compiling evidence of how their living conditions had been after the fire. Some families were forced to live in windowless cellars - no light, no heat, no electricity, no water. Others lived in the shells of their dwellings, doing their best to cope with only sheets of plastic to keep out the elements. Some lived in pig sties or hen-houses. Some doubled up with relatives - often 15 to a single room. Children and old people were repeatedly sick.

In June 2003, we got the news we had been waiting for - the Court declared the case admissible and asked for final arguments and statements of damages. I spent my last summer at ERRC, finishing up what I had started the first summer - meeting with our clients, gathering additional evidence to support the damage theories of the case and hoping for the best. This time our clients allowed themselves to be cautiously optimistic. There was still a long road ahead - the Romanian government asked for and received an extension of time to file its final papers. There may be several months before a final decision is issued. But for the Roma families in Hădăreni, there finally appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel and a possibility that justice - imperfect, incomplete, but at least an acknowledgement of their suffering and some kind of recompense - was finally in the offing. Thus, amid the frustrations and delays, some successes rear their heads.

I came home to a country that was much changed from the one I left. Or was it I who came home much changed? When I left, Bill Clinton was the President and Americans were enjoying record levels of prosperity. When I came back, Americans had elected a President who did not win the popular vote and whose policies had resulted in the largest budget deficit ever. The September 11, 2001, attacks ushered in a new era of suspicion, a loss of innocence, and an erosion of civil liberties. Many Americans have never heard the term "Roma" and have an unduly romanticized image of "Gypsies" based on Hollywood movies and bad Cher songs. The field of human rights, a rather esoteric area of law when I left the United States six years ago, has taken on a new and urgent importance. It appears we all have much work to do. Hey, no one ever said it would be easy!

Endnote:

  1. For details of the case, see ERRC Country Report State of Impunity. Human Rights Abuse of Roma in Romania, pp. 20-28, available at: www.errc.org.

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