ERRC Action as Poland and Slovakia Are Reviewed by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Mona Nicoară1

During its 29th Session, held November 11-29, 2002, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Geneva reviewed Poland and Slovakia's compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In the run-up to the November session of the Committee, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) sent the Committee written comments on the Roma rights situation in both Poland and Slovakia, for consideration during its review of the state party reports presented by the government delegations of the two countries.

The ERRC submission on Poland documents widespread discrimination against Roma in the fields of employment, housing, education, the protection of the family and the provision of social welfare assistance. The ERRC drew the attention of 18 members of the Committee to the Polish Government's failure to fully comply with its commitments under the Covenant, in particular as regards Articles 2, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13 of the Covenant.

As to Article 2, the ERRC raised its concern that Roma in Poland are subjected to discrimination when seeking to realise the rights protected by the Covenant. In the absence of adequate comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, Roma are subject to discrimination in almost all aspects of their life, most notably in the sectoral fields of employment, housing, health, and education.

As to Article 6, the ERRC submission noted that research revealed that Roma suffer from unemployment on a massive scale and are subject to discriminatory treatment when seeking employment, both by state labour offices and by private employers.

As to Article 11 of the Covenant, the ERRC pointed out that Roma continue to face systematic discrimination by both local authorities and non-state actors in the realisation of their right to adequate housing. Roma often live in segregated areas, in substandard housing lacking basic infrastructure and facilities such as sanitation, drinking water, or electricity. Furthermore, Roma are often denied requests for municipal housing. When Romani tenants do inhabit municipal flats, authorities almost invariably fail to meet their obligation to maintain or renovate the housing facilities.

As to Article 12, the ERRC noted that Roma in Poland are in practice subject to discrimination when seeking to exercise their right to health. They are often refused access to medical care on racist grounds and are condemned to living in squalid conditions that further deteriorate their health.

As to Article 13, the ERRC documented grave violations of the right to education with respect to Romani children. These violations take the form of widespread discriminatory and segregationist practices, such as the segregation of Romani children into so-called "Roma classes" or classes for the mentally disabled, racially motivated abuse in school, and the apathy of Polish school authorities in combating low attendance and high drop-out rates among Romani school-age children.

In view of the above, the ERRC recommended inter alia that the Polish Government undertake the following:

  • Adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation;
  • Ensure effective remedy for cases of discrimination against Roma in the field of employment, housing, health care, the protection of the family, and education;
  • Provide security of tenure for residents of Romani communities and settlements, and protect the inhabitants from forced and arbitrary evictions, as well as segregationist local practices;
  • Implement a comprehensive school desegregation plan, such that all Romani children may fully realise the right to education. Without delay, end the practice of segregating Romani children into so-called "Roma classes" or into classes for mentally disabled students. Integrate all Romani students into mainstream classes and, where necessary, design and implement adequately funded and staffed programmes aimed at easing the transition from segregated to integrated schooling;
  • Design pre-school programmes for Romani children to learn the primary language of schooling and to attain a level ensuring an equal start in the first class of primary school;
  • At the highest level, speak out against the problem of anti-Romani sentiment and discrimination; at all levels, acknowledge and speak out against racism, racially motivated crime, patterns and practices of discrimination, and segregation. Address the root problem of anti-Romani racism in Poland by developing and implementing anti-racism curricula for schools and campaigns for the media, so as to address widespread negative attitudes against Roma and racism generally;
  • Conduct comprehensive human rights and anti-racism training for the national and local administration, state and private employers, labour offices staff, school officials, and health care providers.

In its Concluding Observations on Poland, released on December 19, 2002, the Committee broke the longstanding silence of United Nations' treaty-based bodies on the issues of discrimination, racism, xenophobia and anti-Romani sentiment in Poland, noting that it is "deeply concerned about the recent increase in xenophobic manifestations and acts of violence against certain minorities, in particular Jews and Roma" and urging the Polish Government to "take legislative and other measures to ban and prosecute organizations which incite or promote racial discrimination."

The Committee noted with regret that "the State party has not provided data about the Romani population living in Poland and that it has not yet adopted and implemented a comprehensive programme to address the problems faced by Romani communities, in particular unemployment and inadequate living standards" and urged the Government to "provide updated information on the Romani population and to adopt a comprehensive programme to address the obstacles to the advancement of the Romani population, including measures to ensure effective remedy for cases of discrimination against Roma in employment, housing and health care."

On the issue of the right of Romani children to equal access to education, the Committee urged the Polish Government to "adopt effective measures to combat the low school attendance and high dropout rates among Romani students and to provide for their integration into regular classes on an equal footing with other Polish children."

With respect to housing, the Committee expressed its concern that "under existing legislation, forced evictions may be carried out in the State party without the provision of alternative lodging, as stipulated in the Committee's General Comment No. 7 (1997) on forced evictions" and reiterated "its previous recommendation that the conditions for permissible forced evictions be specified in law, with provisions that address the need for alternative lodging for those evicted, as provided for in the Committee's General Comment No. 7 on forced evictions."

* * *

In its shadow report on the implementation of the Covenant in Slovakia, the ERRC called the attention of Committee members to violations of Articles 2, 6, 9, 11, 12, and 13 of the Covenant. As to Article 2 of the Covenant, the ERRC raised its concern that Slovak Roma are subjected to discrimination when seeking to realise the rights protected by the Covenant. In the absence of adequate anti-discrimination legislation, Roma are subject to discrimination in almost all aspects of their life, most notably in the sectoral fields of employment, housing, health, and education. The few existing provisions relating to discrimination are rarely, if ever, invoked, rendering the rights detailed in them effectively illusory. The ERRC is particularly concerned about the recent withdrawal of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation from consideration by the Parliament.

As to Article 6, the ERRC submission indicated that Roma in the Slovak Republic face unemployment rates at least four times the national average and that approximately 80 percent of the Romani population in Slovakia is unemployed. Slovak employers routinely discriminate against Romani applicants. The geographical isolation, educational segregation and ghettoisation of the Romani population exacerbate the problem of unemployment. The Government's action to remedy the problem of unemployment among Roma has been grossly inadequate thus far.

As to Article 11 of the Covenant, ERRC research indicated that Roma face systematic discrimination in their right to adequate housing. Municipal authorities have openly sanctioned segregation or even expulsion from municipalities of Romani inhabitants. In addition, Roma often live in inadequate conditions in settlements and neighbourhoods without basic infrastructure or utilities such as sanitation, sewage, drinking water, or even electricity.

As to Article 12, the ERRC and its partner organisations established that Roma also face discrimination in the provision of health care by doctors, emergency care personnel, and hospital staff. Roma are often denied treatment on racist grounds, and hospitals reportedly segregate Romani patients from non-Roma. Additionally, the state of health of Roma in the Slovak Republic falls far below that of the average Slovak citizen. Life expectancy is over 10 years lower and infant mortality rates, as well as rates for most communicable diseases are markedly higher in the Romani population.

Finally, as to Article 13 of the Covenant, the ERRC pointed out that Roma in Slovakia are denied equal access to education. Romani children frequently attend racially segregated classes or schools; in some instances, Romani children are segregated in schools for the mentally disabled. When Romani children attend regular schools, they often suffer discrimination and humiliating treatment by both school staff and non-Romani.

In view of the above, the ERRC recommended that the Slovak Government undertake the following:

  • Adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation;
  • Ensure effective remedy for cases of discrimination against Roma in the field of employment, housing, health care, and access to public goods and services;
  • Implement a comprehensive school desegregation plan, such that all Romani children may fully realise the right to education. Without delay, end the practice of segregating Romani children into so-called "Roma classes" or into classes for mentally disabled students. Integrate all Romani students into mainstream classes and, where necessary, design and implement adequately funded and staffed programmes aimed at easing the transition from segregated to integrated schooling;
  • Design pre-school programmes for Romani children to learn the primary language of schooling and to attain a level ensuring an equal start in the first class of primary school;
  • Without delay, implement effective desegregation measures in the fields of housing and health care;
  • Provide security of tenure for residents of Romani communities and settlements, and protect the inhabitants from forced and arbitrary evictions, as well as segregationist local practices;
  • At the highest level, speak out against the problem of anti-Romani sentiment and discrimination; at all levels, acknowledge and speak out against racism, racially motivated crime, patterns and practices of discrimination, and segregation. Address the root problem of anti-Romani racism in Poland by developing and implementing anti-racism curricula for schools and campaigns for the media, so as to address widespread negative attitudes against Roma and racism generally;
  • Conduct comprehensive human rights and anti-racism training for the national and local administration, state and private employers, labor offices staff, school officials and health care providers;
  • Proactively recruit qualified Roma for professional positions in the national and local administration labour offices staff, health care providers and school officials.

The Committee's Concluding Observations on Slovakia, released on December 19, 2002, took up many of the issues, and some of the language, contained in the ERRC submission. As to discrimination against Roma in Slovakia, the Concluding Observations mentioned: "The Committee is deeply concerned about discrimination against Roma people in the fields of employment, housing, health care and education. Although the State party acknowledges this fact, the legislative and administrative measures undertaken by the State party to improve the socio-economic conditions of the Roma are still insufficient to address the problem. The Committee is also concerned about the absence of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law." The Committee urged the Slovak Government "to take concrete measures, including the adoption of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, in accordance with article 2, paragraph 2, of the Covenant, to combat and eliminate discrimination against minority groups, in particular against Roma people."

As to employment, the Committee "is alarmed about the high rate of unemployment and, in particular, the large disparities in employment between the different regions of the country, as well as between urban and rural areas. The Committee is also concerned that unemployment among Roma people is steadily increasing and, in some cases, has risen above 80 per cent." The Committee called upon the Slovak Government "to take effective measures, including increasing the resources allocated to reducing the unemployment rate, in particular among women, Roma people and other disadvantaged and marginalized groups, especially in rural areas."

As to education, the Concluding Observations noted: "The Committee is alarmed about the low rate of primary school enrolment and the high drop out rates at secondary schools among Roma children [?] The Committee urges the State party to intensify its efforts to increase the school attendance of Roma children, especially at the primary level, and to address the problem of dropouts among secondary school pupils."

The Committee also recommended that "the State party collect and develop data, disaggregated by gender and ethnic origin, as stated in the Committee's General Comment No. 13, paragraph 7, for inclusion in its next periodic report".

The full text of the ERRC submissions are available on the Internet at: http://errc.org/publications/legal/index.shtml

The full text of the Committee's Concluding Observations on Poland and Slovakia can be found at:
http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu2/6/cescr/cescrs28.htm#29th.  


Endnotes:

  1.  Mona Nicoara is ERRC Advocacy Officer.

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