Lawsuit filed by Czech counsel and ERRC Against Usti Wall
13 November 1999
On November 12, 1999, a Czech lawyer, in conjunction with the European Roma Rights Center, launched a civil suit on behalf of a Romani resident of Maticni Street against the local government of Usti nad Labem for having constructed the notorious wall separating the Roma community from their non-Romani neighbours. The Plaintiff claims that her right to human dignity has been breached pursuant to Article 11 of the Civil Code. She requests a written apology, a declaration of breach of Article 11, a declaration of breach of international legal norms relating to race discrimination/segregation, and order for demolition of the wall and damages.
The wall segregating Roma from non-Roma stands in violation of international and Czech domestic law, effectively contravening prohibitions on racial discrimination, racial segregation and degrading treatment set down in the European Convention of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, as well as the Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms.
On Wednesday October 13, Municipal authorities in the northern Czech city of Usti nad Labem went ahead with the planned construction of a two-metre high wall which separates the predominately Roma community from non-Romani residents. According to articles appearing in the Czech press, inhabitants of the buildings on Maticni Street were awoken at approximately four in the morning when builders arrived and began constructing the wall under an approximately eighty-person-strong police guard. Construction was completed by evening.
Over the approximately one and a half years which have passed since city officials first announced plans to build a wall to separate Roma and non-Roma on Maticni Street in Usti nad Labem in May 1998, the international community has repeatedly indicated that such segregation stands in violation of international law, and has called upon the Czech government to annul the resolution. In March 1999, during consideration of the question under its early warning procedure, members of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination voiced concern that the Government was not doing enough to prohibit an unlawful act of racial segregation. Ion Diaconu, the Committee expert serving as country rapporteur on the situation in the Czech Republic, criticized the Government for having decided to take legal measures only if and when the local authorities started actually to build the fence: "The Government should have declared the decision to build the fence illegal and should have requested its annulation." More recently, according to an article appearing in the Czech weekly "Respekt", European Union Envoy to the Czech Republic Ramiro Cibrian stated that should the wall be constructed, the Czech Republic could not be considered for EU membership. In a statement issued on October 7, 1999, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) called on Czech authorities to halt municipal plans for construction of a wall whichwould cordon off a Roma "ghetto" in Usti nad Labem. The ERRC had made a similar appeal in May 1999.
In response to the actions of the Usti nad Labem municipality, Prime Minister Milos Zeman reportedly stated on October 7, "The wall in Usti divides the Czech Republic from the European Union." However, other high ranking Czech officials have downplayed the importance of the wall and, most importantly, although legally empowered to do so, Czech authorities failed entirely to act to prevent construction; Czech parliament finally annulled the original resolution by the Usti nad Labem town council in the afternoon of October 13, during or shortly after the wall was built.
The town council has claimed, however, that they are not obliged to follow such a resolution, and have filed a suit with the Czech constitutional court against the government, claiming that the government has no jurisdiction to interfere in municipal affairs. Under international law, however, municipalities are state organs for which the government is responsible.