Human rights in the case of the Roma
05 December 2000
My experience as an intern at the ERRC during the summers of 1998 and 2000 was indeed one of the significant ones of my life. One of the editors has asked me to write the column "Meet the ERRC", explaining to me that it is a column where I could freely expound my views, so here it goes:
A few years ago in Europe, issues of racism, discrimination and inequality received little attention in the legal academy or in political life. Today it is hardly possible to read a serious newspaper without coming upon an item which relates to issues of discrimination and inequality among people of different racial, ethnic or cultural background; the position of women in our society and the degree to which it is changing; and discrimination on grounds of age or religion. The need to work towards the elimination of all kinds of discrimination is a constant subject for discussion - people usually talk about human rights once they are violated. I guess people in the 18th century did not talk much about the right to a clean environment because there was no need. It is clear that the basis of human rights is need and experience and not some noble idea. I should add that people can talk about human rights only in a democratic environment that guarantees to some degree respect for human rights, including equality and freedom both de jure and de facto.
When one compares what the European nations articulated in the 17th and 18th centuries or the Afro-Americans during the 1960s in America with what the Roma are trying to articulate at the present time in Europe, I have to say simply that it is the “right to life” from which all other rights - including political, social and cultural rights - are developed. Once the right to life is denied, all other human rights are also denied. An example of this is what happened some months ago in Slovakia to a Romani woman named Anastázia Balážová, who was killed in her house by skinheads. How many such cases must there be in order for citizens and those who wield the power of the state to understand that freedom of one is limited by the freedom of another? And then what can other potential victims of Romani origin do in such a state in which Roma are afraid to go outside their houses because they know that skinheads meet in the city (for example, in Plzen, Czech Republic, the city where I study)? What can the thousands of Roma, for example in Albania, do if they do not have the status of national minority and are subjected to discrimination due to their origin? What are the future educational and employment opportunities for Romani children for example in Hungary when 86.2 % attend segregated schools? Segregation of Romani and non-Romani children in education has a detrimental effect upon Romani children and the impact is greater when it has the sanction of law. Such segregation deprives both Romani and non-Romani children of some of the educational benefits that they can receive in a school in which racial, ethnic, cultural and historical differences are appreciated.
At the beginning of my legal studies, I was taught that one of the main attributes of a democratic and legal state is legal security (meaning that an individual can be sure that an independent court will protect his subjective rights and will decide about his case independently) and legal thought (not meaning the knowledge of laws, but just the fact that there is some law that functions and protects individuals). The struggle of Roma for legal security and equality together with freedom in most European countries seems to be the test of how states which have bound themselves to international treaties about fundamental rights and freedoms are applied. And those who represent the state are competent authorities. To illustrate this, on May 18, 2000, in the case of Velikova v. Bulgaria, the European Court of Human Rights held that there had been a violation of Article 2 (which guarantees the right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights in respect of the death of Mrs Velikova’s partner and also father of her three children, Mr Tsonchev (of Romani origin), who died in police custody about 12 hours after he had been arrested on suspicion of cattle theft. The cause of Mr Tsonchev’s death was the acute loss of blood resulting from the large and deep haematomae in the upper limbs and the left buttock. The investigation into the events surrounding his death has been dormant since 1994 despite Ms Velikova’s numerous complaints to the competent authorities.
It is explained in the decision of the court that: “Where an individual is taken into police custody in good health but is later found dead, it is incumbent on the state to provide a plausible explanation of the events leading to his death.”
Unfortunately, I could continue giving examples of the suffering or the experience of discrimination in many different fields of life such as education, employment, housing, access to health care services or access to public services in the case of the Roma, but I would just like to conclude that “Rom” means “human being” and that human rights are called human because they belong to people who form one colorful human race. It should not be of any harm to an individual to express that he or she is for example Romani or Jewish.