Veronika Leila Szente Goldston1 - Roma Rights Then and Now: One Woman's Journey

Who would have thought when I first set foot in Hungary in late 1995 that I was about to embark on a ground-breaking adventure that would immerse me for nearly six years – helping to establish the European Roma Rights Center, the first-ever international organisation dedicated entirely to defending Roma rights?

I had come to Budapest in anticipation of my PhD studies in political science, due to begin in Uppsala, Sweden, the next fall, with the intention of getting a first-hand insight into the so-called “democratic transition process” in Central and Eastern Europe. Having researched this subject in Uppsala and Paris for more than a year, I felt it was high time to make use of my Hungarian language skills and see the real thing up close. Little did I know that I would become engaged in a quite different form of “first-hand research”, of a kind I soon found far more compelling. Leaping down from my academic perch, I had the good fortune to stumble across perhaps the most revealing angle through which to measure the degree to which post-Communist Europe had embraced democratic values – the situation of the Roma.

Roma rights work made it all too clear that democracy, when seen through the eyes of the most vulnerable, – which should be the yardstick for any genuinely committed government – was a distant illusion throughout the region. I met Roma whose homes had been put on fire by mobs of co-villagers five or six years earlier, but who were still waiting for justice. I met Romani women whose husbands had been shot or beaten to death by police officers, and whose sons had been ill-treated in police custody. They told me their complaints had been ignored and that cursory official investigations had rarely, if ever, found a breach of law. I met Romani youths who told me they could not go out in the evenings for fear of being attacked by local skinheads and that, in any event, they would not be allowed into the local bars and restaurants because they were Roma. I met young Romani mothers who told me they had given birth at home because the local hospitals had refused to admit them, and I heard about mothers who had died during delivery after calling in vain for an ambulance to take them to a hospital. I met Romani children who were not enrolled in school because their parents were too poor to afford to buy them proper clothes and shoes, and children who were going to school, but kept in separate classes from the other, non-Romani children. Everywhere I went, I witnessed abuse and exclusion, and perhaps most importantly, after being to Italy in 1997, I realised these patterns of mistreatment were not confined to Central and Eastern Europe.

To date, Roma throughout Europe continue to experience all of the above abuse – and more. The reality of Romani lives has, regrettably, not changed much during the time I spent at the ERRC. The treatment of Roma continues to constitute what I like to refer to as “Europe’s human rights shame”. But there nevertheless are three important areas in which substantial positive change is noticeable: (i) governmental acknowledgement; (ii) Romani empowerment; and (iii) attention of the international community to their plight.

Six years ago, most governments would simply deny the existence of racism and discrimination in their societies, downplaying racism and blaming the problems the Roma face on the Roma themselves. This became clear soon after I joined the ERRC, in November 1996, at the first OSCE meeting I attended, where the Romanian government insisted on calling the anti-Romani pogroms of the early 1990s “popular tensions of socio-economic nature,” whereby the “anti-social behaviour” of the Roma was said to have “triggered the local population to take the situation in their own hands.” While governments continue to hold Roma partly responsible for their plight, no government can any longer afford to deny that anti-Romani racism and discrimination are at the heart of the problem that they as governments are obliged to address.

As to the second achievement – Romani empowerment – since the ERRC’s establishment in early 1996, an increasing number of Roma have become aware of their rights and are prepared to pursue legal remedies in cases of abuse. It is less and less the case that abusers, be they governmental or non-state actors, can operate with full impunity and expect no repercussions to their unlawful acts. It can also probably safely be said that ERRC has played a significant role in making this happen. In large part through ERRC’s efforts and example, human rights litigation, in particular as it takes shape in Central and Eastern Europe, is to a great extent focused on challenging discrimination and violence against Roma. Numerous human rights professionals in most countries in the region have likewise embraced Roma rights as an issue and made its advancement an integral part of their agenda.

But it is perhaps in no other field that improvement has taken place as markedly and dynamically as on the international plane, in particular the increased attention and interest shown by the international community – including the Council of Europe, the European Union, the Organisation for Security ans Co-operation in Europe and the United Nations – to the plight of the Roma. In August 2000, after more than 30 years of existence, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination convened its first ever session dedicated to a single theme and chose as a topic discrimination against the Roma. This meeting produced a general recommendation addressed to governments and the international community, listing a number of specific measures that they should take to ensure better conditions for the Roma. Roma also occupied a prominent position on the agenda of last year’s World Conference against Racism in Durban, as well as in that of the Conference’s European preparatory meeting, held in Strasbourg in October 2000, where governments committed themselves to intensifying their efforts to combat discrimination against Roma and ensure their protection from racially-motivated violence.

Each year, several high-level international meetings are devoted to discussing ways to enhance Roma rights. Intergovernmental expert bodies have produced numerous reports and detailed recommendations for government action to improve the precarious situation of the Roma, including the comprehensive report of the then-OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, issued in spring 2000. Coupled with these “Roma-specific” initiatives have been other historic developments at the European level to challenge racial and other forms of discrimination more generally, such as the European Union Race Equality Directive and the Council of Europe Protocol No. 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights, with their promises of significantly enhanced legislative measures to prohibit and punish discrimination.

It is, therefore, certainly not a lack of information, nor, let us hope, a lack of interest that lies behind the continued suffering of Europe’s largest minority. But why, then, is it that the situation on the ground has not changed? Why have the many international advocacy victories of the Roma rights movement not materialised into concrete and tangible improvement in the lives of ordinary Roma, such as those I met while at the ERRC?

This is perhaps the most frustrating fact – and also the single most important challenge – for the Romani movement today. How do we translate policy into practice, words into action, so that they become meaningful for those whose conditions they are meant to address?

Or is it perhaps that the above three achievements, or indicators of progress, were necessary preconditions for effective implementation to finally become possible? I would like to think that I am right in believing that this is so – that during my time at the ERRC, I have witnessed a firm and irreversible foundation being laid for a real, lasting improvement of the situation of the Roma, and that, when I return in a decade or so to some of the above mentioned mothers, fathers and children, be they in Poland, Romania or Italy, they will have a quite different story to tell.


  1. Veronika Leila Szente Goldston is the advocacy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch in New York. Between 1996 and 2001, she was a researcher and then the advocacy director of the European Roma Rights Center.

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