Strasbourg application charges Slovak towns with racial discrimination against Roma

James A. Goldston

Representing three Romani Slovak citizens, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), in co-operation with local counsel, filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, on March 12, 1999, challenging two municipal ordinances in Slovakia which on their face bar Roma from entry and/or residence.

In the summer of 1997, the towns of Ňagov and Rokytovce in Medzilaborce County, northeast Slovakia, adopted resolutions expressly stating that "Roma" would not be allowed in. On June 9, the municipal council of Rokytovce published a resolution which threatened that "Roma" who "settle" in the village "will be, with the help of the village inhabitants, expelled...." On July 16, just over a month later, the Ňagov municipal council resolved "[n]ot to allow the Roma citizens ... to enter the village Ňagov, or to settle in shelters in the district of the village".

Passage of the racial exclusion orders capped a campaign of almost ten years on the part of governmental authorities to - in the words of one area mayor - "get rid of" the local Roma. Thus, in 1989, members of seven Romani families who were permanent residents in the affected towns were forced from their homes when their employer - an agricultural co-operative - ceased operations. Two years later, in 1991, no village in the county would allow Roma to park their trailer within its territory. In 1993, temporary dwellings built by some of the Roma were torn down, forcing them to flee. Their return to Medzilaborce in 1997 sparked a series of meetings by local political leaders - culminating in passage of the resolutions - to address what they referred to as "the problem of the Roma in the county".

Legal challenges brought to the Prosecutor General and the Constitutional Court in the autumn of 1997 and the spring of 1998, on behalf of several Romani citizens and the Košice-based Legal Defence Bureau for Ethnic Minorities in Slovakia, were unsuccessful. As a result, the resolutions remain in force to this day, and three Romani Slovak citizens (two of whom are registered as permanent residents of the affected villages) have turned for redress to the European Court of Human Rights, the supreme legal authority on human rights in Europe.

The application filed with the Court contends that the resolutions improperly and publicly single out for differential - and negative - treatment a group of people (Roma) on the basis of race. It relies on legal authority of the Strasbourg organs, which have made clear that "a special importance should be attached to discrimination based on race," in arguing that the resolutions' use of explicit racial classifications constitutes "an affront to human dignity" in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

The resolutions were clearly prompted, at least in part, by racial animus toward those Romani families who originally lived in the affected towns. Nonetheless, the application submits that the use of race-specific distinctions is offensive and humiliating to all Roma. Indeed, the resolutions are worded so broadly - referring to "the Roma" in general - as to lead all Roma reasonably to believe they are among the targets.

The application also alleges that the adoption of the resolutions violated the applicants' rights to respect for family life and privacy (secured by Article 8 of the European Convention), freedom of movement and choice of residence (secured by Article 2 of Protocol IV), and non-discrimination in the enjoyment of each of these rights (secured by Article 14). Finally, the application contends that, by rejecting the above-mentioned domestic legal challenges, and by permitting these racially discriminatory ordinances to remain publicly in force for so long, the government of Slovakia itself has failed, in breach of Article 13 of the Convention, to afford the applicants effective remedies.

The application asks the European Court to find violation of the above-noted Convention provisions and to award just compensation.

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