Croatian Deputy Ombudsman Under Pressure for Condemning Racial Segregation in Croatian Primary Schools

Over the past several years, Ms. Marta Vidakovic Mukic, Croatian Deputy Ombudsman, has consistently and with a high degree of professional integrity condemned the widespread practice of racial segregation of Romani pupils within Croatian primary schools. Instead of prompting appropriate government action to remedy the situation, her work has placed her under increasing pressure, especially in recent months, from both the Medjimurje County local government/parliament and other "concerned" individuals/groups, which have suggested that her activities are damaging to the "country's reputation abroad" and even requested her removal from office. The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) protests such harassment/intimidation and appeals to the Croatian central government and civil society alike to stand up in defense of the Deputy Ombudsman's right and obligation to report the facts as they are, and request redress for those whose rights have been violated.

Many Romani children in Croatia, primarily in Medjimurje County, attend segregated Roma-only classes in what are otherwise "regular" primary schools. Their placement in such schools is a result of racial discrimination by officials at the schools concerned, expressing the dominating and pervasive anti-Romani sentiment of the local non-Romani community. The teaching syllabus for the pupils attending separate Roma-only classes is significantly reduced in scope and volume compared to the standard curriculum in Croatia. As a result of segregating practices, the opportunities available to graduates of such classes to secure adequate employment in the future are jeopardized. Additionally, Romani children in such classes are stigmatized with the effects of diminished self-esteem and feelings of humiliation as a result of being forced to study in racially segregated classrooms denying them the benefits of a multi-cultural educational environment. Official government statistics show that at the county level, almost 60% of all Romani pupils attend separate Roma-only classes. In addition, in at least one of the schools in Medjimurje County, more than 88% of all Romani children in the school are victims of racial segregation.

The severity of issues related to the education of Romani children in Croatia has been recognised by international review agencies. For example, in its Concluding Observations of 21 May 2002 on Croatia's compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination "expresse[d] concern at the continued practice of segregation of Roma children within the educational system ... [and recommended that Croatian authorities] pay particular attention to the situation of the Roma and take effective measures to prevent [their] segregation ....". Legal complaints on behalf of Romani children segregated in Croatian schools are currently pending before the Croatian Constitutional Court, and a pre-application letter on the issue has been filed at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

As regards the role and status of the institution of Ombudsman when it comes to investigating human rights abuse, Paragraph 7(ii) of Recommendation No. 1615 (2003), adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, provides that an Ombudsman must be "guaranteed independence ... in particular as regards receipt of complaints, decisions on whether or not to accept complaints as admissible or to launch own-initiative investigations, decisions on when and how to pursue investigations, consideration of evidence, drawing of conclusions, preparation and presentation of recommendations and reports, and publicity ...".

In view of the violations suffered by numerous Romani children in Croatian primary schools and the recent pressure on/intimidation of the Deputy Ombudsman, the ERRC requests comprehensive redress for all Romani victims of educational segregation, as well as protection of the professional and personal integrity of Ms. Marta Vidakovic Mukic.

ERRC Senior Staff Attorney Branimir Plese said: "Despite some local views to the contrary, a country's reputation abroad and domestically must be earned by effective human rights implementation -- individual or collective denial will not do."

Further information on the situation of Roma in Croatia is available on: http://errc.org.

Further information on the plight of education of Romani children in Europe is available on: ERRC: Barriers to Education of Roma in Europe

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