Justice and empowerment

Claude Cahn

Recently, we lost a case. The circumstances are as follows: as I write, a group of around twenty-five Roma are living in shanties by the side of a road in the village of Cabiny, northern Slovakia. They have been homeless for more than ten years, but all have legal residence in one of two neighbouring villages. They previously lived in housing provided on a co-operative farm where they worked, but when the farm was broken up and partly sold in 1990, the housing units were closed and the Roma evicted. Anti-Romani sentiment is very high in the area, and the town councils of both villages adopted bans on the entry of Roma to the villages in 1997. As a result of ERRC action, the bans were rescinded, but neither municipality made any effort to house the group. Local officials have refused even to consider applications for housing from the Roma.

Mr Blazej Demeter is one of the homeless Roma in Cabiny. He lives in a shack he built for himself. Considering the resources he had available, it is a pretty impressive structure — small but sturdy and reasonably well heated. Nevertheless, he has no access to running water or sanitation and, like all of the Roma in the small settlement, he is dependent on a home-made generator for electricity. His single modern amenity at the time of our visit was a small radio. Slovak authorities have removed three children from Mr Demeter’s care because, according to his testimony, they regard the conditions in which he lives as unsuitable for raising children. Before going with us to apply for housing, Mr Demeter changed into his good clothes — a shabby but clean suit he had hanging on the wall.

In Slovakia basic rights are linked to an individual’s place of legal residence. Authorities and local villagers in the village where Mr Demeter has legal residence had already long made clear that they would not accept Roma in the village. At the time of our visit, the mayor even explained to us that although Mr Demeter had lived and worked in the village for fifteen years prior to his eviction, he regarded him as a “seasonal worker”: someone who was supposed to go away, but unfortunately had not done so. Faced with a group including members of regional and international non-governmental organisations, the mayor concluded that he could not refuse an application for housing, but warned us that the application was sure to be rejected by the town council.

We explained to Mr Demeter that an application for housing was very likely to fail, but that unless we applied and appealed decisions rejecting him for housing, there would be no legal possibility to force the issue. He would receive a rejection, and we would appeal it. Nevertheless, upon receiving the rejection approximately two weeks later, he threw it away!

Michael Walzer has written that justice is “the opposite of tyranny”. Anti-Romani forces already present in European society broke out with renewed intensity after the changes of 1989, and we witness today uniquely powerful anti-Romani sentiment, manifested in discriminatory practices in nearly all spheres of life. In such circumstances, the individual autonomy of every Romani person is frequently violated. Our work does not proceed from the impulse to charity. Rather, we act with those Roma who move toward empowerment.

One person with whom the ERRC has acted is Ms Anya Velikova, the widow of Mr Slavcho Tsonchev, a Romani man who was beaten to death in police custody in Bulgaria in 1994. Ms Velikova’s efforts to seek judicial remedy in domestic courts had been repeatedly thwarted and so, with the assistance of the ERRC, she filed an application to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in February 1998. Ruling on the case on May 18, 2000, the Court held unanimously that Ms Velikova’s husband’s rights had been violated, and ordered Bulgarian authorities to pay damages to her. The articles in this issue of Roma Rights cover various issues of justice in the technical sense — issues of law, and especially how individuals may gain access to courts. The articles lay bare some aspects of the often opaque machinery of domestic and international legal systems.

It is entirely possible that by the time these words are published, Mr Demeter will have been housed. The Slovak government has reportedly allocated funding for the reconstruction of a building in a town near where Mr Demeter lives, and although according to Slovak media a petition with over 2000 signatures against the move has been sent by the local authorities of that town to the Slovak government, reconstruction of the building has reportedly begun. And should that scenario transpire, it will be a victory. But not a full victory. We still need to win Mr Demeter over to the struggle against tyranny.

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