ERRC letter of concern to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on the Russian Federation

Committee Member
United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
Palais des Nations
8-14, Avenue de la Paix
CH-1211 Geneva 10
Switzerland

The European Roma Rights Center ("ERRC"), an international public interest law organisation, respectfully submits information concerning the human rights situation of Roma in Russia for consideration by the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights ("the Committee") at its 31st session on 10 - 28 November, 2003.

The ERRC is aware of the efforts undertaken by the Government of the Russian Federation ("the Government") to comply with its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ("the Covenant") as detailed in its report to the Committee. To date, however, these measures have been insufficient to ensure the effective implementation of the Covenant, particularly with regard to Articles 2, 11 and 13. The concerns detailed herein do not constitute a comprehensive survey of the human rights situation of Roma in Russia. The ERRC herewith submits a brief discussion of concerns in particular under Articles 2, 11 and 13, based on preliminary research into the situation of Roma in Russia, undertaken in the period 2001-2003.

Roma in Russia suffer discrimination in their access to services crucial for the realisation of fundamental rights. The ERRC is further concerned about the fact that large numbers of Roma in the Russian Federation do not have one or more personal documents, such as passports, birth certificates, or residence permits. The immediate consequence of this fact is that Roma find themselves blocked from accessing rights and services available to registered Russian citizens, such as public housing. A worrying number of Roma in Russia live in substandard housing conditions, absent security of tenure and basic services, and dangerously exposed to forced eviction. Worryingly, many Romani children are denied equal access to education, calling into question Russia's compliance with Articles 2 and 13 of the Covenant.

Lack of adequate legal remedies available under domestic law to individuals who have suffered discrimination: Russian legislation affords very little meaningful protection from discrimination, and even those legal guarantees available are in some cases problematic insofar as they offer arbitrary exemptions from the principle of equal treatment. Article 19 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation stipulates that "all people are equal before the law and in the court of law" and that "the state guarantees the equality of human and civil rights and liberties, regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, language, origin, property and employment status, residence, attitude to religion, convictions, membership of public associations and any other circumstances. Any restrictions on the rights of citizens on social, racial, ethnic, linguistic, or religious grounds are forbidden."1 Article 19 limits its ban on "restrictions of rights" (not defined anywhere in Russian law) to five specific grounds, and apparently only applies to "citizens". Non-citizens are not covered by the Constitution's guarantee of equal rights. The term "discrimination" appears in the Russian Constitution in the context of equal payment and employment conditions, but no definition is provided.

The equal treatment provisions in the Constitution are elaborated in some Russian sectoral laws, but protections provided by these laws are for the most part inadequate. For instance, the term "discrimination" appears in the 2001 Labour Code, again with no definition or guidance as to interpretation. The 2002 Federal Law on Citizenship of the Russian Federation guarantees equal rights to all citizens of the Russian Federation, but not equal access to citizenship regardless of race or ethnicity. A number of sectoral laws fail to include even such meagre equality provisions. Such is the case for example of the 1983 Housing Code, the 1992 Federal Law on the Framework of Federal Housing Policies, and the 1999 Federal Law on the Framework of the Federal Labour Protection Policies, all in effect today.

Moreover, Russia has not yet ratified important international instruments aimed at protecting fundamental rights and the exercise thereof. For example, Russia has not yet ratified Protocol 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights, failing to ensure a comprehensive ban on discrimination in the exercise of all rights guaranteed by law. The Protocol aims to protect individuals from racial discrimination and ensure that individuals have access to effective remedy when their fundamental rights are violated for reasons of racial animus. In the area of socio-economic rights, the Russian Federation has not even ratified the European Social Charter,2 the basic regional document protecting socio-economic rights, although meanwhile an improved document has been adopted and entered into force, i.e. the Revised Social Charter.3

Fundamental human rights infringed due to racial discrimination: The relationship between Roma and non-Roma in Russia is suffused with anti-Romani sentiment, and there is a high degree of denial in Russia that racism constitutes a potent force in public life. As a result, the few existing provisions banning racial discrimination are rarely implemented. In the absence of adequate anti-discrimination legislation, Russian Roma find themselves consistently blocked from accessing the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Covenant. For example, the ERRC has documented a number of instances of discrimination against Roma in the field of housing in the Russian Federation, in violation of the Government's obligations under Article 2(2) "to guarantee that the rights? will be exercised without discrimination of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." The Government has failed to take measures to address the problem of large numbers of Roma who live in informal settlements or ghettos in substandard conditions, often without basic infrastructure and/or utilities such as electricity, gas, potable water and/or waste removal. Russian authorities also often fail to provide adequate alternate housing for Roma in need, and do not take all necessary steps to ensure that Roma have access to the basic infrastructure and public services necessary to realise the fundamental right to an adequate standard of living, guaranteed under Article 11(1) of the Covenant.

Lack of personal documents as obstacles to fundamental rights: Large numbers of Roma in the Russian Federation are not able to exercise the rights enshrined in the Covenant because they do not have identity documents, such as passports, birth certificates, or residence permits. Local authorities have in a number of cases refused or failed to register Roma as resident in municipalities. In many areas, despite having lived in a given location for generations, Roma are refused registration for permanent residence. This practice effectively precludes Roma from access to services which are in many areas fundamental for the realisation of fundamental social and economic rights.

Only a small number of Roma with whom ERRC met during field research in Russia in June 2003 had valid, up-to-date identity documents. The majority of Romani persons interviewed by the ERRC had, at best, only their Soviet-era identity documents. This fact alone is cause for serious concern, insofar as after December 31, 2003 - the deadline for replacement of old Soviet Union passports4 with new Russian Federation ones, according to the new population registration system -- a bearer of an old Soviet passport will no longer be entitled to simply exchange it for a new one. Roma interviewed by the ERRC in June 2003 cited lack of money, administrative hurdles, or the fact that they did not know anything about the pending end of validity of the Soviet passports as reasons for not updating their identity documentation as of that date. The situation is further aggravated by the apparently large numbers of Roma and other Gypsy-like families who have moved into the territory of the Russian Federation from former Soviet republics (Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, etc.) following the dissolution of the USSR. Such persons and others may soon face daunting obstacles in exercising a range of fundamental human rights, from housing and employment to medical care, education and social security services such as pensions or other forms of social support regardless of need
or their factual ties to the Russian Federation. It is not clear what measures the Government has put in place to ensure that when the new system enters into force on January 1, 2004, fundamental social and economic rights will be limited "only in so far as this may be compatible with the nature of these rights and solely for the purpose of promoting the general welfare in a democratic society", as required by the Covenant.

Denial of the right to an adequate standard of living: Roma face serious obstacles in the exercise of rights secured under Article 11 of the Covenant, in particular the right to adequate housing. A large number of Roma live in settlements or ghettos in substandard conditions. Most Romani settlements and neighbourhoods visited by the ERRC and its partner organisations in recent years are located on the outskirts of towns and municipalities, with little access to public transportation and no adequate means of communication with the outside world, such as telephones. Roma in settlements or neighbourhoods frequently live in appalling conditions, often in makeshift shacks. Moreover, the respective local authorities have failed to date to provide these settlements with basic infrastructure, such as drinking water, heating, sewage or even electricity in some cases, and public services such as garbage removal or road repair are virtually unheard of in the majority of Romani settlements. For instance, in July 2001, the ERRC and representatives of the Moscow-based non-governmental organisation Memorial visited a Romani settlement in Pushkinskye Gory near Pskov, in northwestern Russia, where makeshift housing with no electricity or heating appeared unfit for human habitation even on warmer, longer summer days.

Roma in the Russian Federation are also systematically denied security of tenure.5 Russian authorities as a rule fail to act to assist Roma in registering their places of residence, in particular when these are in informal settlements. For example, Mr Aleksandr Ravinsky, a Romani man living in the settlement Baltino, Mytishchi municipality, in the northwestern suburbs of Moscow, who had arrived in the early 1990s from the Gomel area of Belarus with his wife and five children, had been repeatedly turned down when applying for a residence permit. In 1995, he bought a piece of land on which he then built a house for his family. When he sought to register his residence, he was told that the house had been built under a high voltage traffic line and that therefore it could not be registered, as a result of which no residence permits could be issued either. The purchase of the land, itself not formalised by the issuing of official ownership documents, and the building of the house took place in full view of the local authorities and apparently with their tolerance. According to Mr Ravinsky, however, the local administration personnel never told him that the land was not appropriate for the construction of housing, nor that the construction would be considered illegal. He learned this only after he had finished building the premises.

Failure to provide adequate housing, including security of tenure, is frequently exacerbated, where Roma are concerned, by the phenomenon of racial discrimination. The ERRC documented the failure of local authorities in Pskov in northwestern Russia, to secure adequate housing for Ms Sofiya Kozlova, an elderly Romani woman, and her family, apparently for reasons inter alia driven by racial animosity. When the derelict house Ms Kozlova and her children lived in collapsed in 1998, local authorities in Pskov moved her family into two small rooms in a substandard barrack with barely acceptable living conditions. As of April 2002, the barrack had no heating; oilcloth was used instead of windowpanes. Because of the cold, Ms Kozlova's children fell frequently ill. Despite the fact that local authorities had reportedly promised Ms Kozlova that the barrack was only a temporary solution, and that she and her family would be moved to adequate housing in the spring of 1999, as of February 2003, Ms Kozlova's family were not offered alternative housing. According to Ms Kozlova, each time she went to the local authorities to ask for adequate alternative housing, she has been told that she is not entitled to any more space and that, as a "Gypsy woman", she would not be able to handle the "luxury" of more space. Finally, since local authorities had not registered Ms Kozlova as living in any other place than the old house which collapsed in 1998, as of February 24, 2003, Ms. Kozlova was under threat of eviction even from the inadequate barrack that was assigned to her.6

The failure by Russian authorities to guarantee basic security of tenure for Roma leaves many Roma vulnerable to abuse by private and public actors alike. There have been instances in which local authorities have forced Roma out of housing facilities or have intimidated them into leaving. For instance, in early April 2002, a Romani family was "warned" by police and local administrators in the town of Egoryevsk, approximately one hundred kilometres southeast of Moscow, that "problems would arise if they continued to live there," according to testimony given to the ERRC and to the Moscow-based non-governmental organisation Romano Kher by 32-year-old Mr Jan Masalskiy, a relative of the family, at the end of April 2002. According to Mr Masalskiy, one month after his relatives had moved to Egoryevsk, police and local officials threatened them while they were seeking to register themselves as locally resident in the offices of the municipality.7 When ERRC/Romano Kher travelled to the Egoryev district on April 29, 2002, the Romani family had sold their house in preparation for leaving.

When lacking secure tenure, sometimes Roma are harassed or even attacked by private actors, apparently with at least the tacit tolerance of public officials. For example, in the village of Yaitskiy, near the city of Samara, in central Russia, approximately 300 Roma were living as of June 2003 in appalling conditions in a settlement which lacked basic security of tenure, since the legal status of the land on which the settlement was located was not resolved. Although they had bought the land several years previously, they had not, as of the date of the ERRC visit, received official documents establishing the purchase of the land. On the contrary, the local municipality soon afterwards reportedly sold the same land to an industrial company called "Rybny Zavod". In early May 2002, part of the Romani settlement was burned down, allegedly by thugs hired by Rybny Zavod. Several families lost everything they had in the fire. Following the incident, representatives of the new owners allegedly visited the area and stated that they would burn the remaining houses if anyone were to file a complaint. They forced the Romani victims to make a statement before a TV camera to the effect that the fire had been a result of infighting among Romani families. When the ERRC visited the location in June 2003, it found that dozens of Roma, including about twenty young children, were living in extreme poverty in several shacks, without elementary living necessities, half naked and without any documents. Local officials had not undertaken any adequate investigation into the series of incidents, nor had they moved to provide the Romani families with secure tenure or other elements of the right to adequate housing. Furthermore, the ERRC and partner organisations have documented instances of forced evictions -- including mass evictions -- of Roma from local settlements, acts which the Committee has emphasised are prima facie incompatible with the Covenant.8 Such acts are frequently undertaken by locals, facilitated or tolerated by local authorities. Russian authorities often evict Roma without due consideration to the fact that these evictions usually render them homeless, in contradiction with the framework set out by the Committee.9 For example, in October 2001, authorities in the city of Krasnodar, in southern Russia, expelled approximately 115 persons from housing in November 2001, without providing the minimum procedural guarantees set out in commentary on the right to adequate housing. In the case, sixteen Romani families, comprising approximately 115 people, moved from the Voronezh oblast of Central Russia to the city of Krasnodar. Following their arrival in Krasnodar, the Roma registered as locally resident with their relatives and received temporary residence permits. Local authorities insisted on fingerprinting the newcomers and on videotaping them. When the newly arrived Romani families started building houses in one of the suburban areas without having sought official permits for construction, on the evening of October 12, 2001, the street where the newcomers were living was blocked by police. Most of the recently arrived Roma were summarily forced into two buses, and their personal belongings were loaded onto twelve lorries. Some of the Roma were allowed to leave in their cars. Flanked by police cars, the motorcade set off for the Voronezh oblast, more than 500 kilometres away from Krasnodar.10 Procedural and due process guarantees11 were not provided to the expelled Roma.

Denial of the right to education: Roma in the Russian Federation are denied equal access to education. When Romani children attend regular schools, they often suffer discrimination and humiliating treatment by both school staff and non-Romani pupils. This accounts for the high dropout rates of Romani students and the severe under-representation of Roma in secondary education. When Romani parents attempt to enrol their children in schools, they often meet with difficult and arbitrary bureaucratic requirements imposed by local officials and which they are frequently unable to overcome. As a result, Romani children are deprived of their rights declared in the Constitution of the Russian Federation.

In light of the above, the ERRC recommends that the Government of the Russian Federation undertake the following measures:

  • Adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in line with current international standards in the field.12 Without delay, ratify Protocol No. 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights.
  • Without delay, ratify the European Social Charter.
  • Take immediate action to ensure access to valid identity documents, birth certificates, and citizenship registration for all individuals belonging to vulnerable groups, including Roma, who may not have them. Take urgent measures to ensure that, in the context of the expiry of Soviet-era passports at the end of 2003, no persons are denied fundamental rights on arbitrary grounds.
  • Without delay, ensure effective implementation of the right to adequate housing, in particular:

    • Engaging to end racially discriminatory practices in this area.
    • Providing security of tenure for residents of Romani communities and informal settlements, and protect the inhabitants from forced and arbitrary evictions.
    • Ensuring effective remedy in cases of discrimination against Roma in the field of housing, and
    • Undertaking to implement effective measures to ensure that local authorities register all persons actually residing in a given municipality, without regard to race.
       
  • Ensure simplified procedures of school registration, and ensure that Romani children are not, in practice, precluded from exercising their right to education.

Thank you in advance for your consideration of the ERRC concerns presented above. Please do not hesitate to contact us in any connection.
 

Sincerely,
Dimitrina Petrova
Executive Director

Endnotes:

  1. Unofficial translation by the ERRC.
  2. European Social Charter of the Council of Europe, ETS no. 035, entered into force 26.02.1965.
  3. European Social Charter (revised) of the Council of Europe, ETS no. 163, entered into force 01.09.1999.
  4. The meaning of the term "passport" in the Russian context differs from its regular one; it stands for two types of documents, an international passport and an internal ID in the form of a booklet, which in Russia is also called "passport".
  5. CESCR General Comment no. 4 states that: "Notwithstanding the type of tenure, all persons should posess a degree of security of tenure which guarantees legal protection against forced eviction, harassment and other threats. State parties should consequently take immediate measures aimed at conferring legal security of tenure upon those persons and households currently lacking such [protection?]".
  6. European Roma Rights Center interview with Ms Sofiya Kozlova, April 2002, Pskov.
  7. Case summary based on European Roma Rights Center/Romano Kher interview with Mr Jan Masalskiy, April 2002, Egoryevsk. Authorities seeking to prevent Roma from settling on the territory they administer often discriminatorily refuse to register Roma as resident in municipalities. Indeed, in its Second Preliminary Version of "On the Observation by the Russian Federation of the International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination," dated November 2000, the Russian human rights organisation Memorial reports that national and ethnic minorities are disproportionately frequently refused registration in regions which established so-called "commissions on migration control" tasked to review applications for residence permits. The full text of the report can be downloaded at: http://www.memo.ru/hr/discrim/ethnic/docl_ind.htm.
  8. General Comment No. 4 on adequate housing under Article 11(1) of the Covenant, para. 18 reads: "[?the Committee] considers that instances of forced eviction are prima facie incompatible with the requirements of the Covenant and can only be justified in the most exceptional circumstances, and in accordance with the relevant principles of international law."
  9. Paragraph 16 of General Comment No. 7 on forced evictions states: "Evictions should not result in individuals being rendered homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights. Where those affected are unable to provide for themselves, the State party must take all appropriate measures, to the maximum of its available resources, to ensure that adequate alternative housing, resettlement or access to productive land, as the case may be, is available."
  10. Case summary based on European Roma Rights Center communications with Krasnodar-based human rights organisations, October 2001.
  11. General Comment No. 7, para. 15 states, inter alia: "(b) adequate and reasonable notice for all affected persons prior to the scheduled date of eviction; (c) information on the proposed evictions, and, where applicable, on the alternative purpose for which the land or housing is to be used, to be made available in reasonable time to all those affected; [...] (g) provision of legal remedies." The Maastricht Guidelines on Violations of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights state, inter alia: "All victims of violations of economic, social and cultural rights are entitled to adequate reparation, which may take the form of restitution, compensation, rehabilitation and satisfaction or guarantees of non-repetition." The full text of the Maastricht Guidelines on Violations of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ('Maastricht Guidelines') elaborate the Limburg Principles on the Implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ('Limburg Principles'). The Maastricht Guidelines are available at: http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/Maastrichtguidelines_.html. The Limburg Principles are available at: http://shr.aaas.org/thesaurus/instrument.php?insid=94. The Practice of Forced Evictions: Comprehensive Human Rights Guidelines On Development-Based Displacement, adopted by the Expert Seminar on the Practice of Forced Evictions Geneva, 11-13 June 1997 state, inter alia: "States should apply appropriate civil or criminal penalties against any person or entity, within its jurisdiction, whether public or private, who carries out any forced evictions, not in full conformity with applicable law and the present Guidelines"; "All persons threatened with forced eviction, notwithstanding the rationale or legal basis thereof, have the right to: (a) a fair hearing before a competent, impartial and independent court or tribunal (b) legal counsel, and where necessary, sufficient legal aid (c) effective remedies"; "States should adopt legislative measures prohibiting any forced evictions without a court order. The court shall consider all relevant circumstances of affected persons, groups and communities and any decision be in full accordance with principles of equality and justice and internationally recognised human rights"; "All persons have a right to appeal any judicial or other decisions affecting their rights as established pursuant to the present Guidelines, to the highest national judicial authority"; "All persons subjected to any forced eviction not in full accordance with the present Guidelines, should have a right to compensation for any losses of land, personal, real or other property or goods, including rights or interests in property not recognised in national legislation, incurred in connection with a forced eviction. Compensation should include land and access to common property resources and should not be restricted to cash payments." Text available at: http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/forcedevictions.htm.
  12. Standards on anti-discrimination law in Europe are currently set primarily by the European Council of the European Union Directive 2000/43/EC, "implementing the principle of equality between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin". While Russia is neither a European Union member, nor a candidate for membership in the European Union, the Directive provides an important set of benchmarks for assessing the adequacy of Russian legal provisions with respect to racial discrimination.

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