Spotlight on civilian violence

15 May 1998

Dimitrina Petrova

Racially motivated civilian violence against Roma is the focus of this issue. It comes in various forms, from skinhead assaults to mob law, and leaves behind death, handicap, and pain, physical as well as mental. Competing with police violence in scope, intensity and impunity, civilian violence against Roma has been documented since 1989 in most post-communist countries of Europe: Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine.

Those incidents that result in deaths sometimes make it to the media. Dozens of serious cases of physical abuse however go unreported: weak human rights monitoring, fear of retaliation, unresponsive media, etc. Racist assaults leaving no physical injuries are often taken for granted and considered not worth mentioning even by the victims. Finally, we have found it difficult to present cases of anti-Roma violence in certain areas as a sequence of episodes. Racism does not "happen" as you walk down the street past a group of teenagers with shaven heads. It is not so much an event but a lasting situation, a process. It is the day-to-day wearing down of the spirit by innumerable acts of oppression and humiliation which pass unnoticed except by the oppressed. A violent attack is only the culmination of this process.

Behind each of the dozen cases of racist murder in the last eight years in the Czech Republic, there are scores of physical assaults on Roma by skinheads in the same areas. Prior to the fatal evening of May 15, 1998, when teenage Bulgarian racist hooligans threw 15-year-old Metodi out of the window of the second floor of an abandoned building right behind the Court Palace in central Sofia, there has been a history of attacks on homeless Romani children in that part of the city. Racist youths were probably from the same schools, and had been receiving their lessons in ethnic hatred from older classmates at least since 1991. This process has been watched but not acted upon by human rights activists, social workers, the media, and the police.

Four countries should be singled out for inadequately addressed and currently ongoing skinhead violence against Roma: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. The Czech authorities should be particularly ashamed, since the Czech society pretends to be a more successful student of democracy and a more deserving member of the European family. The European Union and NATO bear partial responsibility for violent anti-Roma racism in this region as well. They failed to make the human rights situation of the Roma a decisive factor in considering the membership applications of post-communist countries. In addition, the ethnocentric Shengen system sent out the message that geopolitical and economic preferences will again prevail over human rights. However, this should not be an excuse for the "second class Europeans" looking up westward for models of democracy. Their governments must honour their commitment not to great powers abroad, but to the values of human rights enshrined in their own constitutions, as well as in international human rights law.

The phenomenon of civilian violence against Roma demonstrates that the governments and the citizens of Central and Eastern Europe have yet to face up to the following obligations:

  1. the moral and political obligation to acknowledge the existence of racism in our societies: contrary to communist propaganda which we remember all too well, racism is not only when you hate the blacks in the US, but also when you hate the Roma in Europe. The good part of this communist indoctrination is that at least, by implication, we condemn racism as something shameful; but it is a long way to becoming aware that racism is here and now, among and inside us.
  2. the legal obligation to prosecute adequately the crime of racially motivated violence: a large number of racist offenders are never brought to justice; or their crimes are dealt with light-heartedly by the criminal justice system. A racially motivated murder or injury should carry higher penalty due to its higher degree of danger to society.
  3. the legal, moral and political obligation to begin a radical reform of public education, targeting those institutions that are most responsible for its content: schools, media, churches, and NGOs. Tolerance and anti-racism must stand high on the agenda in all programs and projects of public education.

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