ERRC Letter to the Chairman of the Monitoring Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Guido de Marco
Dear Mr. de Marco,
It has come to the attention of the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) that in early September, the Committee on the Honouring of Obligations and Commitments by Member States of the Council of Europe will convene to review the Czech Republic's compliance with its commitments under the Council of Europe Statute, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Council conventions to which the Czech Republic is party, as well as its progress in implementing commitments made upon accession.
It is the position of the ERRC that although the Czech Republic has made significant progress in establishing the rule of law and harmonising human rights practice with European standards, the human rights situation of Roma remains unsatisfactory, and in this area the Czech Republic hasnot honoured its Council of Europe commitments. As such, the monitoring activities afforded the Committee under its mandate should continue until the Czech Republic gives clear evidence of compliance with its commitments.
The European Roma Rights Center is a public interest law organisation which monitors the human rights situation of Roma and provides legal defence in cases of human rights abuse.
In 1993, following the division of Czechoslovakia by peaceful means, a law on citizenship went into effect in the new state. The law had been drafted in late 1992 and duly signed by the president. The law granted citizenship to one category of persons then resident within the territory of the Czech Republic and specified conditions under which persons not granted immediate citizenship, but who were nevertheless citizens of the abolished Czech and Slovak Federal Republic, would be eligible for citizenship in the new state. In marked contrast to the new Slovak citizenship law, which afforded citizenship on an undifferentiated basis to citizens of Czechoslovakia, the Czech law distinguished between those Czechoslovaks who possessed the republican citizenship of the Czech Republic, and those who were administratively designated as "Slovaks". The latter were required to apply for Czech citizenship. The basis for distinguishing between denominated Czechs and Slovaks under the new Czech law was neither length of stay, nor an evaluation of legitimate ties to republic, but rather a previously meaningless designation as either Czech or Slovak under the 1969 citizenship laws. This designation, added following the Prague Spring of 1968 to appease Slovak nationalists, had no practical effect prior to 1993.
When the law went into effect, an estimated approximately 100,000 Roma then residing in the Czech Republic were suddenly designated foreigners, and were denied all of the rights they had previously enjoyed as Czechoslovak citizens. The application procedure for Czech citizenship was designed to frustrate, rather than facilitate, the granting of citizenship. In addition to a number of complicated administrative stipulations, those denominated "Slovaks" were expected to demonstrate a clean criminal record for the previous five years. Subsequently leaked documents and public statements by Czech officials indicated that racial motivation may have influenced the drafting of the new law, specifically that some of the drafters had seen the disintegration of the Czechoslovak state as an opportunity to remove Roma from the Czech Republic to Slovakia. This mass divestiture was undertaken by a parliament and government chosen in elections in which the affected Roma had participated.
In April 1996, in response to international criticism, the Czech parliament amended the law to allow the Ministry of the Interior to waive the five-year criminal record requirement on a case-by-case basis. Inadequate effort has been made, however, to inform affected people of the existence of the amendment. More importantly, the inherent arbitrariness of the waiver's application has rendered it inadequate as a remedy to the law's fundamental injustice.
Thousands of Roma residing in the Czech Republic are currently de facto stateless as a direct result of the law. This deprives them of access to a range of benefits open only to Czech citizens: those denied citizenship are unable to vote or run for office, and many non-citizens have difficulty obtaining permanent residence, which is necessary to receive social benefits from the state. Additionally, as non-citizens, Roma can be and often have been sentenced to the punishment of expulsion for committing a crime. This penalty leads to their compulsory 'return' to a country-- Slovakia-- which many do not know and to which they lack effective ties. According to the Prague-based NGO Tolerance Foundation, 663 Slovak citizens were sentenced to expulsion by the Czech courts in the period January 1, 1993 to June 30, 1996. Tolerance states that of the first 120 cases they were able to document, in 118 cases, the sentenced individual was a Rom. One expulsion, handed down as part of the sentence of a man convicted of the theft of 140 crowns' (approximately 5 US dollars) worth of sugar beet, was quashed by the Supreme Court in May 1997.
At a recent hearing of the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe on May 13, 1997, Czech Ambassador to the United States Alexandr Vondra branded as "a lie" the Human Rights Watch report that there is a substantial number of de facto stateless (Roma) children in Czech orphanages. Ambassador Vondra also claimed that following last year's amendment to the citizenship law, "the Council of Europe [now] considers this law satisfactory and that is also the opinion of the various NGOs, both abroad and in my country." This assertion is false: many organisations have continued to criticise the amended Czech citizenship law, noting that the amendments have not removed the substantive defects of the law which to this day place Roma living for years in the Czech Republic at risk of expulsion to another country. Also, the Council of Europe statement to which Ambassador Vondra was referring was far from a categorical endorsement of the present state of the law.
The threat to Roma in the Czech Republic is, however, not only legal. A vibrant Czech skinhead movement is obsessed with Roma. The number of Roma victimised in overtly racist attacks since 1989 is alarmingly high. In at least nine cases, Roma have been killed. The Czech court system has, additionally, not treated the wave of skinhead violence with the gravity it merits. Despite the preoccupation of Czech skinheads with Roma, law enforcement and judicial bodies have turned a blind eye to evidence of racial motivation when attacks have taken place. One example of a failure by the prosecution to invoke the articles of the Czech Criminal Code sanctioning racially-motivated crime took place in late 1996. The case involved skinheads who had assaulted a group of Roma and then forced them off a train, on the pretext that the train was for "whites only". The reasoning of the judge was that the crime was not racially motivated since both the skinheads and the Roma belonged to the "Indo-European race".
Convoluted judicial reasoning has been matched by undue delay in acting on complaints of discrimination or incitement by authorities, even where the alleged abuses are gross. In one well-publicised case, a Roma family was forcibly evicted from flats which they legally occupied in the northern Bohemian city of Ustí nad Labem, their rental contracts were confiscated, and under continuous police escort, they were put on a train to Slovakia. Although a complaint was filed at Ustí nad Labem District Court on May 19, 1993, the court did not address the claim for three and a half years. During this period, the plaintiffs lived in parks and abandoned garages around the city. It was only when the Czech Constitutional Court interfered in late 1996 that legal action was resumed.
Czech prosecutors have also shown a propensity for using the racially-motivated crimes provisions of the Criminal Code, which are relatively new, against Roma. In one recent incident in the northwest Bohemian town of Louny, five Roma were convicted of defamation of nation, race or belief (Article 198 of the Criminal Code) after they insulted and attacked police officers who had arrived to break up a fight in a flat. This is clearly not the spirit of racially-motivated crimes provisions: Article 198, like similar provisions in most European jurisdictions, was designed to protect weak minorities. Its invocation against Roma charged with violence against representatives of the state seems especially cynical.
The drastic effects of the Citizenship law and judicial tolerance for racially-motivated violence constitute only the most egregious examples of Czech failure to uphold international human rights standards in cases concerning Roma. In all areas of life in the Czech Republic, Roma face a daunting array of discriminatory practices and hindrances to their ability to live with dignity. Finally, a disturbing proportion of Romani schoolchildren are placed in schools for the mentally handicapped according to criteria which are dubious and subjective at best. This over-representation is mirrored by similarly high numbers of Roma in jails and institutions for the mentally disabled.
Success in compliance with Council of Europe commitments must be determined on the basis of positive results in the following areas:
- Legislation to repeal the most objectionable aspects of the 1993 citizenship law;
- Proper application of the racially-motivated provisions of the Criminal Code;
- Recognition of Roma as a vulnerable minority in the Czech Republic evidenced by swift prosecution of racially-motivated crime against Roma and effective sanction of instances of racial discrimination;
- Significant measures aimed at reducing the over-representation of Roma in so-called "special schools" and integrating Romani children into schools which provide equal life opportunities.
Until such positive results have been registered, however, the ERRC strongly urges continued monitoring by the Committee.