12 million Roma (Gypsies) live in the world today. They came to Europe from India after the 10th century AD and have inhabited various European, Middle East and American cultural enclaves for about a millennium. The most substantial Roma minorities live at present in several Eastern European countries, such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and former Yugoslavia, but smaller communities exist within the borders of almost all European states.
The Gypsies, however, remain to date the least integrated and the most persecuted people of Europe. Almost everywhere, their fundamental civil rights are threatened. Racist violence targeting Roma is on the rise after the fall of Communism. Discrimination against Roma in employment, education, health care, administrative and other services is observed in most societies, and hate speech against them deepens the negative anti-Roma stereotypes which are typical of European public opinion.
In the last few years, the Roma issue has been addressed by various non-governmental organizations, national as well as international. Different approaches - economic, social, political, cultural etc. have been applied in the hope of improving the living standards of the Roma, of promoting a more just social policy, of strengthening Roma cultural identity, or of encouraging Roma political participation. Solutions have been sought in the context of the struggle against racism and nationalism, as well as in the context of enhancing cultural pluralism.
All these recent projects focusing on Roma issues are fragments of a growing all-European Roma movement that is now only in its formative stage. The shape of this movement is still amorphous and incomplete, but a cursory glance suggests that such a movement is now appearing and will become stronger. Unfortunately, we do not see a significant internationalized human rights strategy initiative to monitor the human rights situation of the Roma and to provide legal defense in cases of human rights abuse. The human rights community to date remains a debtor to the Roma movement.
The European Roma Rights Center will defend the human rights of the Roma. The purpose of the ERRC is to function as a strong and effective human rights advocate for the transnational, geographically diverse Roma community. The ERRC will work to give the Roma tools to combat discrimination and win equal access to government, education, employment, health care, housing, voting rights and public services.
The ERRC will pursue these objectives by engaging in:
- RESEARCH: monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation of Roma;
- LEGAL DEFENSE: providing and sponsoring legal services (consultations, litigation, etc.) for Roma victims of human rights abuse;
- EDUCATION: cultivating a generation of educated Roma rights activists recruited from the Roma community;
- ADVOCACY: promoting Roma rights in domestic and international governmental and non-governmental settings;
- DOCUMENTATION: creating a Roma rights archive and publishing reports and newsletters.
The above activities will be carried out in the framework of specific programs: Research Program; Legal Defense Program; Educational Program; Advocacy Program; Documentation and Publications Program. Taken together, the programs will provide the basic structure of the ERRC.
2. Outline of the Main Activities (Programs)
2. 1. Research Program
Research on violations of human rights is a reliable foundation for all other human rights projects. The ERRC will organize a Roma rights monitoring "machine" which will include fact finding in the field, documenting cases of human rights abuse, and regular reporting to the public on the human rights situation of Roma.
The ERRC research team will establish and maintain a network of human rights monitors in various countries, who will conduct independent fact-finding and will report to the ERRC about the human rights situation of the Roma. They will send all available reports and other information issued in their country to the ERRC. On the basis of a permanent in-flow of information from a number of countries, and after careful research into the credibility of reported facts, the ERRC will publicize reports on the human rights situation of the Roma in a growing number of countries.
The first challenge of the Research Program is to find adequate forms of organizing the flow of information from each country to the Center, through identifying, motivating, and hiring, where necessary, the best country monitors, as well as cooperating with the most reliable human rights monitoring groups.
Publicizing the information on Roma rights will take the form of:
- an annual regional report, containing a section on each country for which information is available;
- quarterly reports, containing country sections;
- reports on issues, focusing on one single important topic in the field of Roma rights;
- press releases
2. 2. Legal Defense Program
2. 2. 1. The ERRC will establish and maintain contact with a network of lawyers in various countries to:
- take on cases in defense of Roma when their rights are violated, and seek remedy for these violations through domestic courts or other venues, national as well as international;
- undertake affirmative legal action on behalf of Roma in domestic courts and, where appropriate, before international bodies;
- seek new forms for providing legal services to the most deprived, and contribute to the development of public interest litigation.
The lawyers participating in the ERRC network will be independent attorneys; staff members or consultants of human rights organizations; staff members or consultants of Roma organizations, etc. The role of the ERRC will be to stimulate, sponsor (where necessary), advise and watch the services provided by the lawyers' network.
2. 2. 2. The ERRC will provide legal research, assistance, and advice to groups dealing with Roma rights issues in their own countries. Interns from such groups will be placed in the ERRC to improve their professionalism.
2. 2. 3. The ERRC will sponsor test case litigation to challenge discriminatory laws or practices and entrenched patterns of abuse. The ERRC staff attorneys will select cases which have a strong potential to create a desirable precedent in legal practice; to benefit larger groups of victims of human rights violations; to raise issues of international concern. They will be the driving force behind (and, where possible, directly litigate in) a limited number of lawsuits of primary importance for the Roma.
2. 2. 4. The most important task of the Legal Defense Program will be to build strategies for the legal empowerment of the Roma. Staff attorneys will monitor and assess the legal services for Roma in different countries. They will draw lessons from numerous cases and try to disseminate positive experiences to other organizations working in the field of Roma legal rights, so that they can be tested and adapted to other cases. They will conduct comparative analyses of the various law systems and articulate problems and obstacles rooted in the laws, as well as in civil and criminal procedure in different countries. The staff attorneys will analyze the discriminatory effects of seemingly democratic legal arrangements. In brief, the Legal Defense Program will be a legal laboratory for Roma rights.
2. 2. 5. At the same time, the Legal Defense Program will be a laboratory of law reform in a more general sense. Defending Roma rights can contribute a great deal to positive reform of the whole legal setting of East/Central Europe, a reform which will improve the sensibility of law to discrimination. Other deprived groups in society will benefit from this. At present, there is no public interest legal services network in East/Central Europe. Class action is unknown and formally impossible. But public interest lawyers will be available in the near future, and defense of Roma rights will be one of the triggers which will create them as a profession. This process will mean concerted pressure to change legislation as well â€” a pressure that will bring about better treatment of members of abused groups and victims of discrimination.
2. 3. Educational Program
The ERRC will create a legal education program, which will help a generation of young minorities to grow as competent advocates for Roma legal rights. In the framework of the legal education program, the ERRC will:
- sponsor Roma individuals studying in law schools;
- conduct training programs for Roma and others defending Roma rights;
- conduct seminars for judges, law enforcement officials, journalists, and others on Roma rights issues;
- establish and manage internships for law students with groups defending Roma rights;
- establish contacts with law students and provide law schools in the region with visiting lecturers on Roma rights issues;
- disseminate information to Roma on their rights and on the means available to protect their own rights.
2. 4. Advocacy Program
The ERRC will provide information to the international community - governments, multilateral organizations (OSCE, EU, UN etc.), international non-governmental organizations, and the international press â€” on Roma rights issues.
The ERRC will act to promote better understanding of specific problems with which Roma people in various social and cultural environments are faced. The main point of the ERRC message will be that Roma people are subjects of universal human rights and have to be respected and treated equally on the basis of this assumption alone. We will advocate in favor of the Roma people not because they contribute in an exotic way to European cultures, not because they are skilled musicians or story-tellers, but because they are bearers of the universal potential of development as human beings, born equal and free.
2. 5. Documentation and Publications Program
The ERRC will serve as a documentation center on Roma rights issues. This Program will:
- create a library on Roma and human rights issues;
- publish reports, newsletters and other materials of the organization.
3. Status of the ERRC
The ERRC is an autonomous international non-governmental organization governed by its own Board of Directors. Initial funding is provided by the Open Society Institute, which would expect to sustain funding over a period of years. Roma organizations and Roma individuals throughout Europe are expected to donate time and expertise, and make in-kind and monetary contributions to the ERRC. Roma will not just be passive beneficiaries of the ERRC operations, but important donors as well.
The Board of Directors is chaired by András Bíró (Hungary), and includes persons from a number of countries, Roma and non-Roma: Isabel Fonseca (UK), Nicolae Gheorghe (Romania), Deborah Harding (USA), Rudko Kawczynski (Germany), Khristo Kyuchukov (Bulgaria), Lord Anthony Lester (UK), Edgar Morin (France), Ina Zoon (Romania/Spain). Dimitrina Petrova, human rights advocate from Bulgaria, is Executive Director. Initially, the work of the ERRC will focus on those countries in which the rights of the Roma are most threatened. Over time, in accordance with the decisions of the Board of the Center, the territory will be expanded.