Croatian Romani Children Sue at European Court of Human Rights over Racial Segregation in Schools

Legal Action at the Premiere European Human Rights Court Challenges Racial Segregation of Romani Children in Croatian Primary Schools

On 15 December 2004, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) and the Croatian Helsinki Committee (CHC) jointly filed an application against Croatia with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The submission prepared by ERRC staff attorneys in co-operation with Ms. Lovorka Kusan, a Croatian attorney-at-law, seeks justice for fifteen Romani children who have been forced to endure racially segregated education in Croatia, in violation of Croatian domestic law and numerous international human rights standards. Although the children sought redress in Croatian courts, more than two years and eight months following the submission of the complaint locally, two courts have rejected the case, and the Croatian Constitutional Court is yet to rule on the matter. This denial of justice has forced the children to look to the European Court of Human Rights for a remedy.

All of the 15 Romani applicants whose case will be heard in Strasbourg attend segregated Roma-only classes in what are otherwise “regular” primary schools. Their placement stems from a blatant practice of discrimination based on race/ethnicity carried out by the schools concerned, the pervasive anti-Romani sentiment of the local non-Romani community, and ultimately the unwillingness and/or inability of the Croatian authorities, local and national alike, to provide them with redress.

The teaching syllabus for the pupils attending separate Roma-only classes is significantly reduced in scope and volume compared to the officially prescribed teaching plan and program. As a result of this practice, stretching back to the very beginning of their primary education, the applicants have suffered severe educational, psychological and emotional harm. In particular, by being subjected to a curriculum far inferior to that in mainstream classes, they have sustained damage to their opportunities to secure adequate employment in the future, they have been stigmatized with the effects of diminished self-esteem and feelings of humiliation, alienation and lack of self-worth, and they have been forced to study in racially/ethnically segregated classrooms and hence denied the benefits of a multi-cultural educational environment. Official government statistics show that almost 60% of all Romani pupils in Medjimurje County -- the region at issue -- attend separate Roma-only classes. Moreover, in at least one of the schools concerned, more than 88% of all Romani students are schooled in segregated classes.

On 19 April 2002, as part of a larger group of Romani pupils, the 15 applicants, assisted by local counsel and the ERRC, filed a complaint with the Municipal Court in Cakovec against the Republic of Croatia/Ministry of Education, the County of Medjimurje, as well as the four primary schools in Orehovica, Macinec, Kursanec and Podturen. The complaint requested: 

  • A judicial finding of racial discrimination/segregation in education,
  • An order that the defendants develop and implement a monitoring system and a plan to end racial segregation and discrimination and to achieve full integration, and
  • An order that the plaintiffs be placed in integrated classrooms and provided with the compensatory education necessary for them to overcome the adverse effects of past discrimination/segregation.

On 26 September 2002 the Municipal Court in Cakovec issued a ruling rejecting the complaint filed by the plaintiffs. This decision was appealed on 17 October 2002 with the Cakovec County Court. On 14 November 2002 the appeal was rejected and the decision of Cakovec Municipal Court confirmed.

Although the defendants failed to produce any meaningful evidence to justify their practices, and notwithstanding the overwhelming authority/evidence in support of the pupils presented during the court proceedings, both the first instance court and the second instance court failed to provide redress for the violations suffered.

On 19 December 2002 the applicants filed a complaint with the Croatian Constitutional Court requesting that both judgments be quashed and the case retried. Almost two years later, however, this court is yet to take any action. It has therefore become evident that the constitutional complaint filed in present case is not an effective domestic remedy, in law or in practice, because even should the Constitutional Court now rule in favour of the applicants it could only quash the judgments of the lower courts and send the case back for a retrial before the Čakovec Municipal Court. This would mean that the entire litigation cycle would re-commence, take many additional years to complete, and would in effect have the result of sealing the fate of the applicants regardless of the ultimate legal outcome.

In view of this situation and in the absence of any redress to date, the Romani children concerned have now turned for justice to the European Court of Human Rights. The application filed on their behalf by the ERRC, CHC and Ms Kusan contends that:

1) the applicants’ placement into the separate classes for the Roma only constitutes “degrading treatment” in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights,
2) the applicants have been denied their right to education, in breach of Article 2 of Protocol 1 to the Convention,
3) the applicants have suffered racial discrimination in the enjoyment of the right to education, in violation of Article 14,
4) the applicants have been subjected to a determination of their civil rights in a procedure that has proved fundamentally flawed and consequently in clear violation of the fair trial guarantees contained in Article 6 of the Convention, and
5) the applicants have been denied an effective domestic remedy, in violation of Article 13.

In addition, the applicants have requested comprehensive redress including just compensation in accordance with Article 41 of the Convention.

For additional details regarding this case, please contact:

  • Branimir Plese, ERRC Legal Director: , phone:+361 413 2200
  • Bojan Munjin, Croatian Helsinki Committee: , phone: +3851 481 2322
  • Lovorka Kusan, attorney-at-law: , phone: +351 288 2447

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