European Human Rights Court to Hear Roma School Segregation Complaint

Strasbourg Judges Agree to Review European Roma Rights Centre Action to Challenge Racial Exclusion in the Czech School System

Strasbourg. Five years after the application was filed, the European Court of Human Rights has agreed to hear the case of "D.H. and Others v. the Czech Republic"—a landmark case involving racial segregation in Czech schools. This is the first significant challenge to systemic discriminatory education of Romani children to come before the Court. The decision moves the litigation to its central stage: consideration on the merits of whether assignment of disproportionate numbers of Romani children to substandard, separate schools constitutes racial discrimination in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights.

The case concerns eighteen children represented by the ERRC and local counsel. The applicants allege that their assignment to "special schools" for the mentally disabled contravened human rights law and was tainted by racial animus. Tests used to assess the children's mental ability were culturally biased against Czech Roma, and placement procedures allowed for the influence of racial prejudice on the part of educational authorities.

Evidence before the Court based on ERRC research in the city of Ostrava demonstrates that school selection processes do frequently discriminate on the basis of race:

  • Over half of the Romani child population is schooled in remedial special schools;
  • Over half of the population of remedial special schools is Romani;
  • Any randomly chosen Romani child is more than 27 times more likely to be
    placed in schools for the mentally disabled than a similarly situated non-Romani child.
  • Even where Romani children manage to avoid the trap of placement in remedial special schooling, they are most often schooled in substandard and predominantly Romani urban ghetto schools.

Once these children have been streamed into substandard education, they have little chance of accessing higher education or steady employment opportunities.

The applicants raised several arguments grounded in different provisions of the European Convention. Thus, they argued that the assignment to special schools constituted "degrading treatment" in violation of Article 3, that the absence of adequate judicial review denied them due process in breach of Article 6, that they were denied the right to education in breach of Article 2 of the Convention's First Protocol, and, finally, that they suffered racial discrimination in the enjoyment of their right to education, in violation of Article 14.

In deciding to hear the case, the Court rejected the Czech Government's claim that some of the children, who had been transferred to "regular" schools after the application was lodged, were no longer "victims" entitled to seek judicial relief. This "does not, in the eyes of the Court, suffice to erase the consequences of the applicants' having attended, for a substantial period of time, a school that could not fully match their abilities."

While reserving final judgment, the Court unanimously declared admissible the applicants' main complaint of racial discrimination in the enjoyment of the right to education (Article 14 of the Convention combined with Article 2 of Protocol No. 1). The other claims were declared inadmissible.

Decision on the merits is pending.

For further information on the case, please contact Joelle Martin, ERRC Legal Advisor, at joelle.martin@errc.org, or James A. Goldston, Executive Director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, at: jgoldston@justiceinitiative.org.

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