UN Race Discrimination Committee holds thematic discussion and issues general recommendation on Roma

03 October 2000

Veronika Leila Szente1

On August 15 and 16 this year, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)2 held a thematic discussion concerning racial discrimination against Roma. The meeting, the first in the Committee's 30-year-long history focusing on a theme rather than an individual government, resulted in the adoption of the first ever general recommendation (out of 27 in total) dedicated to a specific ethnic group.3

According to Michael E. Sherifis, Chairman of the Committee, who opened the discussion, "during the consideration of periodic reports of several contracting parties, it had emerged that the Roma people were discriminated against in many countries […]. The standards of the Convention [on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, hereafter, "the Convention"] were not met and in fact many of its provisions were directly and constantly violated." Among the specific violations highlighted by Sherifis were "Roma children being placed in special schools for mentally disabled pupils, depriving them of dignity and opportunities for the future in terms of higher education and employment;" "forced relocation of Roma" and "the existence of Roma settlements or camps in isolated locations, sometimes close to rubbish deposits or contaminated industrial sites, surrounded by walls or fences and lacking the very basic sanitary facilities;" "excessive use of force by the police against Roma, and physical violence by members of racist organisations against them." Sherifis further noted that "maybe most disconcerting, […] discriminatory acts against Roma often go unpunished." The Committee was "painfully aware" that "for centuries," the Roma had been subjected to "ill-treatment, rejection, exclusion and discrimination of various forms. […] It was distressing to know that at the beginning of the third millennium, the problem was still there," he said.4

ERRC and other non-governmental organisations made both written and oral contributions to the Committee's thematic discussion. ERRC's 35-page submission documents that Roma throughout Europe are the victims of racial violence and pervasive discrimination in virtually all spheres of life. It argues that many governments have failed to comply with their obligations under the Convention to prohibit, punish and remedy racial discrimination against Roma. In particular, the submission highlights the following areas of concern:

As to Article 2 of the Convention (requiring states to bring to an end racial discrimination by all appropriate means, including legislation), discrimination and violence against Roma remain widespread throughout Europe while legal protection against discrimination and racially-motivated violence is inadequate. The problem of insufficient legislative provisions aimed at combating racism and discrimination is further compounded by the failure to ensure their effective implementation.

As to Article 3 of the Convention (banning racial segregation), in several countries in Europe, governmental policies towards Roma, most notably in the fields of housing and education but also in other areas of life, amount to racial segregation into conditions of life to which no other segment of the population is subjected.

As to Article 4 of the Convention (obligating states to, inter alia, not permit public authorities to promote or incite racial discrimination), prominent public officials in Europe have continued to disseminate racist speech targeting Roma, thereby encouraging racism rather than combating it in the societies they govern.

As to Article 5 of the Convention (guaranteeing equality before the law), many governments have failed to ensure Roma and other minorities equal protection of the law. Roma in a number of countries suffer widespread discrimination in the justice system, and are the victims of an unchecked wave of violence at the hands of law enforcement authorities, skinheads and others. In addition, Roma are commonly discriminated against with respect to a broad range of rights, most egregiously and systematically, freedom of residence, employment, housing, health care, education, and access to public goods and services.

As to Article 6 of the Convention (requiring states to ensure effective protection and remedies), notwithstanding the numerous breaches of the Convention perpetrated against Roma throughout Europe, protection is lacking or ineffective, and remedies non-existent or inadequate.

As to Article 7 of the Convention (requiring states to combat discrimination through education and training), efforts to promote racial tolerance, in part through the conduct of educational and media campaigns to familiarise the public with the Convention and its standards, are insufficient or entirely absent from the political agendas of most European governments.

In addition to providing ample evidence of recent and repeated discrimination and violence afflicting Roma throughout much of Europe, ERRC also presented the Committee with ten recommendations for specific action that governments should take to begin the process of eliminating discrimination against Roma:

  1. Involvement - In designing, implementing and evaluating policies to combat and prevent discrimination, governments must involve representative groups of Roma at all stages.
  2. 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 governmental officials must frequently and publicly acknowledge that racism against Roma is a grave and pervasive problem which afflicts, not Roma, but majority society. Governments and the public at large must first acknowledge the extent of racism in order to combat it.
  3. Legislation - Although European constitutions uniformly prohibit discrimination and guarantee equality, many governments have yet to follow through on these constitutional promises by enacting implementing legislation specifically prohibiting racial discrimination. This is so, even though a number of countries have criminalised incitement to, and acts of, racially-motivated violence. Governments which have not yet done so should enact comprehensive legislation specifically prohibiting non-violent discrimination - and providing civil and criminal remedies therefor - in all spheres of public life, including but not limited to education, employment, housing, health care, social services, and access to citizenship and public accommodations.
  4. Enforcement - Governments must do more to ensure consistent and adequate enforcement of existing legal standards in the field of discrimination.
    a) On the one hand, governments must effectively discipline public officers - including police, prosecutors and other investigative authorities - who fail adequately to enforce discriminatory norms.
    b) On the other hand, governments must arrange for training of public officers - including police, prosecutors and judges - to educate them in binding international law prohibiting racial discrimination, and its applicability in domestic fora. In short, law enforcement officers must be aware that racial discrimination is against the law, and that it is their duty to enforce that prohibition.
  5. Positive action - International law authorises and in some cases mandates affirmative action by governments to ensure equality in fact, as well as in law, for those groups including Roma who have historically suffered systematic discrimination. Among the most important measures which governments can take in this regard are the active recruitment, identification and capacitation of Roma into the ranks of public employment, including the police, prosecutorial corps and the judiciary.
  6. Specialised bodies - Governments must establish specialised official bodies with specific responsibility to act in the field of racial discrimination. In a number of countries, Ombudsmen have been established to address these questions, and in some instances, Ombudsmen have played a useful role in highlighting and focusing public scrutiny upon abuses. But this is not enough. Governments must establish state organs with the legal power to investigate and prosecute acts of discrimination.
  7. 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 be collected in compliance with human rights principles, and protected against abuse for purposes other than reversing racial discrimination and improving the overall situation of the Roma.
  8. Dialogue - Governments should pursue and intensify programmes to facilitate dialogue and understanding between groups of Roma and various public officials, including the police, prosecutors and the judiciary.
  9. Anti-racism and human rights education - Governments should intensify efforts at popular education about the 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.
  10. International commitments - Governments must demonstrate their commitment to combat racism and discrimination by making full use of existing international instruments, in particular:
    a) Article 14 of the Convention: All governments which have not done so should declare, pursuant to Article 14 of the Convention, that they accept the competence of the Committee to consider communications from individuals and groups concerning violations of the Convention;
    b) European Union Race Directive: Governments throughout Europe should expeditiously bring their legislation and practice into conformity with the Council Directive "implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin", adopted by the Council of the European Union on June 29, 2000, and;
    c) Protocol No. 12 to the ECHR: All Council of Europe Member States should proceed with a speedy ratification of Protocol No. 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights, broadening the scope of Article 14 on non-discrimination, adopted by the Committee of Ministers on June 26, 2000.5

The Committee made extensive use of the information and proposals submitted by ERRC, which are also reflected in the resulting recommendations adopted at the conclusion of the discussion. In its General Recommendation, addressed to states parties to the Convention, the Committee called on governments to undertake a number of concrete measures, including the following: 

  • "review and enact or amend legislation […] to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination against Roma;"
  • "take appropriate measures to secure to members of Roma communities effective remedies and to ensure that justice is fully and promptly done in cases concerning violations of their fundamental rights and freedoms;"
  • "adopt and implement national strategies and programmes and express determined political will and moral leadership, with the view to improving the situation of Roma and their protection against discrimination by state bodies, as well as by any person or organisation;"
  • "develop and encourage […] dialogue between Roma […] and central and local authorities;"
  • "ensure that legislation regarding citizenship and naturalization does not discriminate against [...] Roma;"
  • "take all necessary measures […] to avoid any form of discrimination against immigrants or asylum seekers of Roma origin;"
  • "acknowledge wrongs done during the Second World War to Roma communities by deportation and extermination and consider ways of compensating for them;"
  • in the field of racial violence, "ensure protection of security and integrity of Roma, without any discrimination by adopting measures for preventing racially motivated acts of violence against them;" "ensure prompt action by the police, the prosecutors and the judiciary for investigating and punishing such acts and […] that perpetrators, be they public officials or private persons, do not enjoy any degree of impunity;" "take measures to prevent use of illegal force by the police against Roma, in particular in connection with arrest and detention;" "encourage […] communication and dialogue between the police and Roma;" "encourage recruiting members of Roma […] to the police and other law enforcement agencies;"
  • in the field of education, "act with determination for eliminating any discrimination or racial harassment of Roma students;" "prevent the segregation of Roma students, while keeping open the possibility for bilingual or mother tongue tuition;" "cooperate actively with Roma parents, associations and local communities;" "include in text-books, at all appropriate levels, chapters about history and culture of Roma;" "recruit school personnel from among members of Roma […] and […] promote inter-cultural education;"
  • in the field of employment, "adopt and make more effective legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment, and all discriminatory practices in the labour market affecting members of Roma […] and […] protect them against such practices; take special measures for promoting employment of Roma in public administration and institutions, as well as in private companies;"
  • in the field of housing, "develop and implement policies and projects aimed at avoiding segregation of Roma […] in housing;" "act firmly against local measures of denying residence to, and unlawful expulsion of Roma, and […] refrain from placing Roma in camps outside populated areas, isolated and without access to health care and other facilities;"
  • in the field of health care and social protection, "ensure equal access of Roma to health care and to social security services and […] eliminate any discriminatory practices against them in this field;" "initiate and implement programmes and projects in the field of health for Roma" and "involve Roma associations and communities and their representatives, mainly women, in designing and implementing health programmes and projects concerning Roma groups;"
  • in the field of access to public accommodations, "prevent, eliminate and adequately punish any discriminatory practices concerning access of members of the Roma communities to all places and services intended for the use of the general public, including restaurants, hotels, theatre and music halls, discotheques and others;"
  • in the field of media, "act as appropriate for the elimination of any ideas of racial or ethnic superiority, of racial hatred and incitement to discrimination and violence against Roma in the media, in accordance with the provisions of the Convention;" raise awareness among media professionals "of the particular responsibility to not disseminate prejudices and to avoid reporting incidents involving individual members of Roma communities in a way which blames the community as a whole; encourage methods of self-monitoring by the media, such as respect for a code of conduct for media organisations, in order to avoid racial, discriminatory or biased language;" "develop educational and media campaigns and educate the public about Roma life, society and culture and the importance of building an inclusive society […] respecting their human rights and their identity;" "encourage and facilitate Roma access to media […] and the establishment of their own media, as well as the training [...] of Roma journalists;"
  • in the field of participation in political life and policy-making, "take the necessary steps, including special measures, to secure equal opportunities for the participation of Roma minorities or groups in all central and local governmental bodies;" "develop modalities and structures of consultation with Roma political parties, associations and representatives, both at central and local levels, when considering issues and adopting decisions on matters of concern to Roma;" "involve Roma […] at the earliest stages in the development of Roma policies and programmes and in their implementation and ensure […] transparency about such policies and programmes;" "organise training programmes for Roma public officials and representatives, as well as for prospective candidates to such responsibilities;"

The Committee further recommended that governments "include in their periodic reports […] data about the Roma communities within their jurisdiction, including statistical data about Roma participation in political life and about their economic, social and cultural situation, including from a gender-perspective, and information about the implementation of this General Recommendation."

Finally, in three final recommendations not addressed to governments, the Committee requested that: 

  • "intergovernmental organisations address, in their projects of cooperation and assistance to different States parties […], the situation of Roma communities and favour their economic, social and cultural advancement;"
  • "the High Commissioner for Human Rights consider establishing a focal point for Roma issues within the Office of the High Commissioner;"
  • "the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance give due consideration to the above recommendations, taking into account the place of the Roma communities among those most disadvantaged and most subject to discrimination in the contemporary world."

The numerous shortcomings identified by the Committee require urgent action by many European governments to bring their legislation and practice into compliance with international law. Non-governmental organisations have a crucial role to play in monitoring the extent to which states meet the above requirements, and in providing the Committee with information regarding their respective governments' compliance with these standards.

Endnotes:

  1. Veronika Leila Szente is Advocacy Director of the European Roma Rights Center.
  2. The CERD is a United Nations body charged with responsibility for overseeing compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. It has been ratified by almost all European governments (the only exceptions are Andorra, Ireland, San Marino and Turkey). Composed of eighteen internationally-recognised experts, the CERD meets twice a year to review states’ compliance through a reporting procedure which obliges governments to submit reports on a periodic basis.
  3. CERD General Recommendation XXVII, 16 August 2000 (A final version of the CERD’s recommendations is forthcoming).
  4. See “Opening Statement by Mr Michael E. Sherifis, Chairman of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, on the occasion of an informal meeting between the Committee and international and national non-governmental organisations on the issue of discrimination against Roma populations,” Geneva, 15 August 2000, and United Nations Press Release, “Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Starts Special Debate on Racial Discrimination against Roma People,” HR/CERD/00/53, 15 August 2000. 
  5. “Racial Discrimination and Violence against Roma in Europe,” Statement submitted by the European Roma Rights Center, for consideration by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination at its 57th Session, on the occasion of its Thematic Discussion on Roma, August 15-16, 2000. The full text of the submission is available on the Internet at http://errc.org/publications/legal/index.shtml/ or from ERRC upon request.

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