The 10th Anniversary of the European Roma Rights Centre
31 October 2006
The celebration of the 10th anniversary of the European Roma Rights Centre took place on 5 April 2006 at the British Embassy in Budapest, with the participation of more than 100 guests. The celebration included speeches by Professor Sir Bob Hepple QC, the Chair of the ERRC Board of Directors; Mr. Aryeh Neier, the President of the Open Society Institute in New York; Dr. Dimitrina Petrova, the Executive Director of the ERRC; and Dr. Deborah Harding, Member of the ERRC Board of Directors. Two panel discussions took place as well: the first one, moderated by ERRC Programmes Director Claude Cahn, was entitled "Roma Rights and Roma Inclusion: A Discussion on the Occasion of the Tenth Anniversary of the European Roma Rights Centre" and included ERRC Staff Members Tony Tashev, Andi Dobrushi, Dianne Post, Ostalinda Maya Ovalle and Larry Olomoofe. The second panel was a spontaneous discussion with the audience and with several Roma rights activists: Ms. Nicoleta Bitu, Member of ERRC Board of Directors; Ms. Viktória Mohácsi, Member of the European Parliament; Dr. Jenő Kaltenbach, the Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner for National and Ethnic Minority Rights; Mr. Ferenc Kőszeg, President of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, and Mr Rumyan Russinov, Deputy Director of the Roma Education Fund – led by Dr. Rita Izsák, ERRC Mandate and Communication Officer.
The panel discussion was followed by a reception where prominent persons, such as Mr. Gábor Demszky, the Mayor of Budapest and supporter of the anniversary celebration; Mr. John Nichols, the British Ambassador of Budapest and the generous host of the event; and Mr. George Soros, Founder and Chairman of the Open Society Institute, kindly agreed to be our guest speakers.
The texts of a number of the presentations at the event follow below.
Your Excellencies, Mr. Mayor, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. It is my great pleasure to welcome you to this birthday celebration of the European Roma Rights Centre. I think you all know that the ERRC was founded in 1996 as a public interest law organization in order to give the Roma the tools which would enable them to fight discrimination and to achieve equality.
The ERRC Board, of which I am Chair, has nine members, a number of the whom are here today. I am not going to ask them to stand up, but I hope you will meet them later in the proceedings: The members are Nicoleta Bitu from Romania, Professor Theo van Boven from the Netherlands, Deborah Harding, who is a founder member of the board, from the United States, Karel Holomek from the Czech Republic, Dr. Jenő Kaltenbach from Hungary, Azbija Memedova from Macedonia, Professor Erika Szysczak from the United Kingdom, Alexander Torokhov from Russia. We also have our founder, Mr. Ferenc Kőszeg. You can see it is an international board and about half of the members are themselves Roma.
We are extremely grateful to Her Majesty's ambassador and also to the mayor of Budapest for making this event possible. I am glad to say that the United Kingdom's government has for a long time given support to this organisation, and we are grateful that they have been able to host this event together with the mayor of Budapest. This city has provided us with a very favorable environment in which to base our activities throughout Europe.
The centre has 21 staff, and later on Dr. Dimitrina Petrova, the Executive Director, will introduce them, too. The most important donor to our organization since the very beginning has been the Open Society Institute, which as you know was founded by Mr. George Soros, who will be joining us for the reception later this evening. There are many other donors as well, including the European Commision, the Ford Foundation, the Sigrid Rausing Trust, The Human Rights Project of the Foreign Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
I would like to take this opportunity to recognise also the Centre's previous Chairs of the Board of Directors. The Founding Chair of the Board of Directors was Mr. Andras Biro. He was succeeded by Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC. Unfortunately neither of them could be with us here today.
Our first speaker, I am really glad to say, is Mr Aryeh Neier, who has been described as America's foremost human rights advocate. He was recently awarded the International Bar Association's prestigous rule of law award, which is awarded to those who have made an outstanding contribution to the rule of law throughout the world. He has a long record in the field of human rights, and we are delighted that he is here. He is currently the president of the Open Society Institute, an initiator and a loyal supporter of the ERRC since its inception. He is going to say something to us now about Roma rights, the historical background, the founding principles and the next agenda.
It is a great pleasure to be here this evening. I want to acknowledge the role of the British Embassy as the host for this occasion and the role of the British goverment in supporting the ERRC. I think it is particularly noteworthy because there was an occasion when the ERRC sued the British government and won a judgment against it in the House of Lords. Therefore, the willingness of the British government nevertheless to maintain its support for the ERRC is something that seems to me especially praiseworthy.
As Bob Hepple said, the Open Society Institute was an initiator of the ERRC, which is true, so I want to recall some of our concerns and hesitations in playing that role. One of them was that we were aware that institutions which are founded or initiated by foundations have not always had a great record of success. Another, and perhaps a more significant factor, is that we wanted the ERRC to use litigation to promote social change. But there have only been very few examples in which litigation has been used succesfully in order to promote social change. Those with which we were familiar had all taken place in countries with a common law tradition such as in the US. It is very much more difficult in countries with a civil law tradition, both because of the increased reliance on positive laws and because precedent does not play the same part in countries with a civil law tradition as it does in countries with a common law tradition. We were also aware that when one embarks on this path, it is not where one can hope to achieve great victories over the short period. It takes a sustained effort over a very long period of time in order to make headway.
As an American, I was conscious of the difficult path that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, had in trying to make headway through litigation on behalf of American blacks. The NAACP was founded in 1909 and embarked on a specific litigation programme to desegregate the schools in 1930 and only made its great breakthrough in 1954. It takes that kind of a time period even in the relatively favourable context of litigating in a country with a common law tradition. Nevertheless, it seemed to us that one had to begin this work and that it was necessary to establish the ERRC.
The urgency of the situation facing Roma in the countries of Europe with significant numbers of Roma, and the importance of the rights issues with which the ERRC had to grapple, made us believe that, despite the difficulties, it would be worth the very long term investment that would be required. I think that the results in the first decade more than justified that decision to embark on this path. To me, the accomplishments of ERRC are many: among them, it seems to me, is its indispensible role in creating a generation of Roma rights activists with the training and the skills to be effective in advocating for Roma rights. Whatever else happens, the fact that there are several hundred Roma people who have acquired the skills to act on behalf of Roma rights seems to be an enormous accomplishment. Second, it seems to me that the ERRC has created an awareness of deprivation of rights that Roma suffer and also the significance of engaging in battles to promote Roma rights. Third, there have already been a number of signifiant victories in litigation on behalf of Roma rights that have been achieved by the ERRC. And, finally, perhaps as significant as any of the others, the ERRC has paved the way for comprehensive efforts to advance the cause of Roma equality that are epitomized by the launch of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, with emphasis on Roma education and other aspects of Roma equality.
There is a very very long way to go. There are no quick ways that I know of to fulfill the goals of ERRC. But I think that those of us who had a part in helping to launch the ERRC feel enormously proud of what has been accomplished. We are grateful to the ERRC for making us proud.
Thank you very much!
In 1997, we sent a three-person mission to Turkey, to research the human rights situation of Roma and bring back reports on cases of abuse, which we could publicize and if necessary file lawsuits in the courts. Two weeks later, the mission returned. It brought the disturbing news that Roma in Turkey didn't want to identify as Roma; that they lived in horrible poverty on the margins of society but would not talk or even be seen in the company of strangers. There had been cases of death and torture in detention, but none of the victims wished to file complaints. We published a few photos and short factual reports in Roma Rights, our journal, and this was it. There was no follow up for quite some time. In the next seven years, we sent three further missions to Turkey, with similar results. There was every evidence that the human rights position of Roma in Turkey was deplorable; but it had attracted no attention from either Turkish or international human rights groups. We tried to raise funds to undertake work in Turkey, but there was no donor interest. Thus in Turkey to date, the ERRC has failed to fulfill the promise contained in its mission.
The reason I am telling you this story of failure is that NGOs are usually very reluctant to state they have failed in something. Indeed, they take care to hide their failures. They prefer to speak of challenges and lessons learnt. But just like other NGOs, the ERRC 10 years' history is a mixed experience of inspiring achievements, bitter disappointments and a slew of lukewarm results in between. Our record is not an uninterrupted string of successful actions. It is not the case that as soon as we emerged, the mainstream society, or indeed the Roma, fell on one knee to welcome us onto the scene of human rights activism, or of Roma affairs. Yes, we have had certain failures, but today we also have the maturity to acknowledge them.
What matters in the end is the balance. Ten years is a long time and a 10th anniversary is the right time to take stock. Having examined skeptically the results of the ERRC work, I submit that that ERRC has been, on balance, a successful endeavor.
For each defeat, count several victories. We failed in Turkey, but in 20 or so other countries, in which we started in similar initial conditions, we made a difference.
Sometimes success is a singular event, sometimes a process. We have plenty of individual actions that are clear victories in the promotion of human rights. But I think our accomplishments are best described in terms of processes, to which we have contributed incrementally in the direction of justice and equal rights for the Roma. If I permit myself to use the unelegant and frequently abused word "impact", I would highlight the major impact of the ERRC in the following processes:
1. The process of developing the field of Roma rights. Ten years ago, there was no "Roma rights" – now this is a rich field of human rights advocacy, as well as an aspect of the Roma movement. To do justice to my former and present colleagues, I must be immodest on this point. I must say that ERRC has been the premier driving force for developing this field – alone at first, joined by others later. ERRC was the conceptualizer of Roma grievances, the translator of these grievances into the powerful language of international human rights and the framer of issues in the struggle to empower the Roma. It is to ERRC's credit that approximately six years ago the issue of the Roma was firmly planted at the top of the European human rights agenda. Today, although there are other important institutions involved in Roma rights, ERRC remains a busy laboratory that continues to produce strategic tools for the Roma rights movement. The service ERRC did to society is that it put human rights and Roma issues in one house. And by doing this, it made a difference in both.
2. Ten years ago there were only several cases – first in Bulgaria and then in Hungary – in which Roma had claimed their rights in the court rooms. I am counting as a first victory the Pazardjik case, in which a Romani man successfully sued the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Bulgaria, for violent police conduct during a punitive raid of a Romani neighborhood. This was in 1994. In 1996, ERRC started building its litigation program, on an almost empty place. Not only were Roma at that time too weak to defend their rights in the courts but the legal, political and social ingredients for public interest law were still missing in the region. Today, Roma have prevailed in the courts in hundreds of cases. Fortunately, numerous organizations work to combat racial violence and discrimination against Roma throughout Europe, and ERRC helped kick-start some of this work through institutional grants to human rights and Romani NGOs in the period 1996-1999, when, due to the underdeveloped state of Roma rights, we were performing the additional role of a donor. We had to do this work because otherwise the ERRC enterprise would have remained in a vacuum for too long. Though many organizations take on cases today, the ERRC, with its strategic litigation program first developed by the US lawyer Jim Goldston, remains to date the biggest and most victorious litigator on behalf of Roma and also perhaps on behalf of any minority in Europe. In the European Court of Human Rights alone, we have won 15 cases and lost only two (and three were inadmissible). In international jurisdictions generally, including the ECtHR and UN treaty bodies' individual complaint procedures, we have won 22 strategic cases and lost four. In domestic courts, we have litigated – alone or together with others – over 500 cases, with a success rate unparalleled by Roma rights groups. Not all cases of course are of the same strategic value, but some are trail blazing, and many go beyond established jurisprudence, as well as beyond satisfying the individual Roma clients.
3. ERRC played a role in advancing the implementation of anti-discrimination law in Europe. Starting in 2000, we have been preoccupied with advocating comprehensive antidiscrimination law and policy. Several countries have adopted excellent legislation that we are in the process of testing. We want the good laws to work in practice; actually, we are aware that good equality provisions in many countries will be symbolic legislation; but symbolic legislation is worth advocating, as it can break a deadlock and pave the way for increasingly effective legislation. We plan to keep working at this front in our second decade.
4. The ERRC has developed the largest and most authoritative information resources on Roma rights, including in electronic formats. We have published a quarterly journal, 15 country reports, several thematic reports and other materials whose quality has been regarded as high. I personally am particularly proud of the fact that we have managed to maintain a standard of accuracy of reporting. We have often made authorities unhappy with our interpretations, but no friend or foe has ever been able to point at a factual error in our reports; this is critical for a human rights organization for which, as I have been saying to my colleagues ad nauseam, credibility is everything.
5. ERRC has played a role not only in establishing Roma rights as a priority for human rights in Europe but also in the area of social policy development. We helped articulate directions for rights based policies in the sectors critical for Roma inclusion, i.e. education, healthcare, housing and employment. Perhaps the single most important issue that we have attacked from all sides, through research, advocacy, litigation, training, etc. – is the issue of school segregation. And perhaps the single most important priority for us in the next years will be the struggle for desegregation. We are currently in the process of updating our own role in this area, looking in particular at the need to adopt legislation creating positive obligations to desegregate.
6. ERRC has been a school for Romani activists. The majority of the younger generation of Roma who are active today in both governmental and non-governmental settings have passed through the ERRC as board members, staff, interns, scholarship recipients, local monitors, participants in joint projects, partners, etc. I think that the diversity of the ERRC is in itself an accomplishment. Since ERRC is not a local NGO but an international organization, with all the ensuing cultural and linguistic pitfalls, including of course English fluency but also a nagyon nehéz de eredeti magyar nyelv (the very difficult but original Hungarian language), maintaining a high quality international professional team in this land has never been an easy task. It is a basic principle in human rights that human rights is of everybody's concern and this concern is as legitimate when it crosses identity borders as when it is an insider voice. The ERRC is a positive example of human rights advocacy pursued by mixed teams stretching across ethnic, religious or other boxes. ERRC has enjoyed the benefits of Roma and non-Roma working together for Roma rights.
If I now turn to challenges for the second decade, well, there are plenty, both short term and long term. In fact, to save time, I might just turn around and say that all the things I highlighted as accomplishments are convertible to challenges for the future. It is more difficult today than 10 years ago to play a strategic role in an increasingly complex human rights environment, and in an increasingly complex Roma movement. Work on legal cases generates a range of new obstacles, equality of rights for the Roma is still a far away destination, and navigating the small boat of the ERRC also promises to be more difficult in the second decade. In some places, the tasks ahead are daunting: in Turkey, where we at last won, a couple of months ago, a large three-year grant; and also in Ukraine; and in Russia, as that country keeps drifting away from any hope that the rule of law matters. A few days ago, a prominent human rights advocate, the 58-year-old Boris Krendel, the leader of the major human rights group in Tomsk, Siberia, was forced to go into hiding together with his young daughter, when the city was flooded with leaflets telling the citizens of Tomsk that it is intolerable to live in the same city with a man helping the Gypsies. He is helping the Roma, because, being a partner in an ERRC project, he filed a case challenging the impunity of powerful criminal gangs who set on fire the Roma settlement in the town of Iskitim, where a 7-year-old girl died in the fire.
But today is a day of celebrating. ERRC was born under a lucky star which is evident even in such grotesque incidents, as when a drunk man in Ukraine assaulted Jim Goldston, the ERRC's first legal director, and was waving an axe at him, or when KFOR soldiers agreed to rescue a Romani man from paramilitaries in Kosovo only if Claude Cahn walked in front of them through a minefield. The assailant threatening to kill Jim was stopped, and Claude walked through the minefield unharmed. We will need the good luck further. We will also need motivated, competent and hardworking people. Such people are the staff members of the ERRC, hard working and hardly ever thanked, so I will call their names and after they all stand, I will ask you to join me in thanking them.
Ten Years of Action by the European Roma Rights Centre
The text that follows is an edited version of a presentation by six ERRC staff members at the ERRC's tenth anniversary celebration in Budapest in April 2006. The presentation aimed to summarise a few aspects of ERRC action during its first decade. Programmes Director Claude Cahn provided the framework for the presentation, which featured interventions by: (1) Community and Litigation Development Officer Tony Tashev; (2) Staff Attorney Andi Dobrushi; (3) then-Legal Director Dianne Post; (4) Women's Rights Officer Ostalinda Maya Ovalle; and (5) Human Rights Trainer Larry Olomoofe. Framework text is in Roman type below; the five interventions are in italics.
When we started ERRC in 1996, we joined a small group of domestic initiatives:
- NEKI in Hungary
- The Human Rights Project in Bulgaria
- Romano Centro in Vienna
- Liga Pro Europa and Romani CRISS in Romania
…and a handful of others.
For the most part, however, we arrived into a void – a void of action – and even a void of information.
Roma were attacked by vibrant skinhead movements and in some cases even brutally killed – but no one knew what, if anything, had been done to challenge these, or even how many deaths there had been.
Non-Roma burned to the ground Romani settlements, but these events were barely regarded as newsworthy.
Issues related to systemic discrimination in access to goods and services – including in the realisation of fundamental rights such as education – had barely been broached at all.
In charting our achievement today, we focus on five areas of our work:
- Challenging impunity for degrading treatment;
- Anti-discrimination law and policy;
- Pressing for school desegregation;
- Romani women's rights; and
- Capacitating Roma rights activists.
From 1996, until the present day, a major component of our work involves challenging impunity for degrading treatment, including racially motivated violence by vigilante extremists and others, community violence, endemic police treatment. Through lawsuits, international and domestic pressure, as well as through other means, we have tried to ensure that these violent acts degrading the commonweal cannot stand.
In recent years these efforts have begun to bring results in the form of persons punished and damages awarded, strengthened legal norms, new commitments by governments to end these practices, new police structures aimed at countering extremist crime and, most importantly, in some countries at least – for now at least – a demonstrable decline in levels of racially motivated violence.
In seeking to end the impunity of perpetrators of these extreme harms and to bring justice to victims and surviving members of their families, we took on some of the most extreme cases in Europe:
- The 1993 Hadareni pogrom, in which ethnic Hungarian and ethnic Romanian villagers in Romania tortured to death three men accused of a local killing, while police looked on;
- The killing of Mario Goral – doused in gasoline by skinheads and burned to death in Slovakia in 1995;
- The massive pogrom at Danilovgrad, Montenegro in April 1995;
- The case of Anguel Zabchikov, killed by police in Bulgaria;
… to name only a few.
We made serious inroads into securing justice in all of these cases.
Above and beyond these legal actions, we have brought pressure on governments through the publication of comprehensive reports, by providing information to intergovernmental review bodies, and by taking advantage of European Union accession processes to force governments to end these extreme harms.
By early in the new millennium, we began to notice a sea change in the way some governments responded to violent abuse of Roma. Where previously no serious investigations had taken place, some governments now responded quickly and comprehensively to attacks.
ERRC Community and Litigation Development Officer Tony Tashev will summarise some of our actions in these areas.
Imagine that you are at the house of your uncle, talking with your relatives, when suddenly two police officers burst in and accuse you of committing the theft of nine cows. They arrest you and bring you to the police station. The name of the person to whom this happened is Slavcho Tsonchev, a 49-year-old Romani man, and this happened in 1994 in Bulgaria. He was beaten at the police station during the whole afternoon. On the evening of the same day, one of the owners of the cows came to the police to inform them that they just found the cows and that Mr Tsonchev had nothing to do with the incident. However, he was not released because of the injuries inflicted by the police and he received no medical treatment. Mr. Tsonchev was found dead in police custody at two o'clock the next afternoon. Like in many other cases of police abuse, there was no effective investigation into the death of Mr Tsonchev.
In the last decade, there have been many such deaths. The police frequently deny wrongdoing by claiming that the person concerned committed suicide or had an accident. In the case of Mr Tsonchev, police said he had fallen on the ground. In another case, that of Mr Anguel Zabchikov, it was said that he had fallen down and hit his head on the asphalt and that due to his pathologically weak skull, he died. In the cases of Zahari Stefanov and Fatima Alexandrovic, it was said that they jumped out of the window of the police station. In all of these cases, the victims and/or their surviving family members waited between 6 and 13 years for justice. Thirteen years… is this justice or impunity?
The ERRC has also worked on issues related to racially motivated violence carried out by persons not working for the state. Skinhead attacks, in particular, have been among the most brutal crimes against Roma in Europe. For instance, in 1995, a 17-year-old Romani boy named Mario Goral was chased through the streets of the town Banska Bystrica in Slovakia by a group of skinheads, stabbed with knives, beaten to a state of unconsciousness and then set on fire. Over 60% of his body was burned and 10 days later he died in hospital. In connection with the killing, police initially charged at least 17 persons, but finally only two of them were convicted. Another illustrative case of racist violence against Roma in Slovakia is the case of 50-year-old Anastazia Balážová. In 2000, three persons broke into the house of a Romani family in the town of Žilina and beat Mrs Balážová and her daughters with baseball bats. Mrs. Balážová died in the hospital three days later. Two of her children also had to be hospitalised as a result of the attack. Later, police detained three suspects, but on the same day released one of them, for lack of evidence. The remaining two men have been charged with violations including racially motivated assault with the intent to cause bodily harm. Prosecutors in the killing of Ms Balážová by racist skinheads never sought convictions under criminal code articles more severe than those pertaining to "bodily harm".
In conclusion, I would like to quote the statement of Mr Christopher Smith, Chairman of the Helsinki Commission of the US Congress, who said on the occasion of this case: "This murder proves that much remains to be done in the fight against injustice towards Roma."
The ERRC's advocacy work was reshaped in the year 2000 by the adoption in that year of two new European instruments against discrimination – the European Union's Race Equality Directive and Protocol 12 was adopted1998 to the European Convention on Human Rights – legal norms which significantly expanded and clarified the scope, content and breadth of European anti-discrimination law.
Because of these sudden and to some extent unexpected gifts, pressing for the adoption of comprehensive anti-discrimination law became a core part of the ERRC's advocacy work. Via the European Commission and through international agencies, we brought pressure on governments – in particular the governments of EU Candidate Countries – to adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination laws. We undertook training of judges, lawyers, policy-makers, advocates and activists in countries throughout Central and Southeastern Europe. And we undertook direct work with governments.
As a result, comprehensive anti-discrimination laws have now been adopted in most of the countries in which we undertake the bulk of our work.
In addition, we have brought groundbreaking legal actions to test and see implemented these new norms.
ERRC Staff Attorney Andi Dobrushi will describe some of the more noteworthy discrimination cases in which we have been involved in recent years.
The ERRC has focused on a number of areas in antidiscrimination law and practice which significantly affect Roma, and where litigation has provided the means to bring about changes in legal practice as well as relevant legislation. Such a strategy has been successfully tried and carried out before both international and domestics fora.
The many ERRC legal challenges to racial discrimination against Roma are a result of years of careful planning on the part of lawyers thinking strategically about how best to present an issue so as to achieve enhancement of rights. Because of these, "Nachova", "Moldovan", "Bekos" have become interchangeable with the word "discrimination" in the context of the European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence.
Nachova and Others v. Bulgaria, which the ERRC won in February 2004 before the Chamber and in July 2005 in the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, constitutes a significant expansion of the interpretation and protection afforded by the Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination on grounds of race and ethnicity. It has opened a new stage for anti-discrimination litigation.
In the case, among other arguments, the applicants pointed out that racial prejudice and hostile attitudes towards Roma played a decisive role in the events surrounding the fatal shootings of their relatives and the failure to carry out a meaningful investigation.
The potential ramifications of the judgment are extraordinary. The ERRC considers this case an opportunity to further expand the protection afforded by Article 14 and to ensure a consistent application of the definition of discrimination as established in the Race Equality Directive, which is not dependent on intent, motivation, or any other subjective reality, but instead relies entirely on the objective characteristics of unequal treatment.
This interpretation will move us toward a more consistent concept of discrimination applied in the different contexts of violent crime, employment, and access to services, which in its turn should result in stronger legal protection against discrimination.
As of the end of 2005, the European Court of Human Rights adjudicated two other cases litigated by the ERRC and found a violation of Article 14. In Moldovan and Others v. Romania (July 12, 2005) – a case which encapsulates the most egregious violations Roma face – the Court found a violation of Article 14 without differentiating between a substantive and a procedural aspect. Additionally, with regard to Article 3 of the Convention, the Court applied an approach it first developed in the 1970s, namely that the racial discrimination to which the applicants have been subjected constitutes a factor giving rise to "degrading treatment" within the meaning of Article 3.
The ERRC litigation before the domestic courts and creative use of available legislation is demonstrated at its best in the cases brought before the UK and Bulgarian domestic courts.
The Prague airport case, which culminated in a decision of the House of Lords on 9 December 2004, was filed by the ERRC together with six Czech Roma. The main claim advanced was that the refusals of leave to enter the United Kingdom were acts of unlawful discrimination against Roma on grounds of race. The House of Lords decided that such practice was "inherently and systematically discriminatory" against Roma.
The implication and impact of the case were immediately felt. The Home Office had to revoke the authorisation to treat certain ethnic groups more rigorously at borders, and no similar authorizations are operating any longer in the area of immigration.
In Bulgaria, the ERRC obtained the first ruling by a Bulgarian court based on the country's new comprehensive anti-discrimination act, no later than seven months after its entry into force. During the past year and a half, the ERRC, in its own capacity and in cooperation with its affiliates, filed and won eight cases of discrimination against Roma in employment and provision of services.
All these examples send a powerful signal that racism and xenophobia have no place in Europe. But perhaps the greatest significance of these cases lies in their very presence on the docket of Europe's tribunals, be it international or local. A decade ago, few minority victims would have been inclined or able to seek legal remedies for discrimination. The success of some in having their claims heard is testimony to the growing power of law as a force for positive change in Europe.
From the beginning, many impressed upon us the idea that, where Roma are concerned, "education is the key". In 1996, this cliché meant everything and nothing at all. It had no policy content.
In 1997, the ERRC began multi-country research into the situation of Roma in the educational systems of Central and Southeastern Europe. This led in 1999 to the publication of a comprehensive report, as well as to the filing of legal action in the Czech Republic to challenge the racial segregation of Romani children in schools for the mentally disabled. This lawsuit has since become a vanguard of efforts throughout the region to press for desegregated education.
Since then, we have worked continuously to press the school desegregation agenda. Thus have we provided policy substance to the cliché as we found it 10 years ago.
ERRC Legal Director Dianne Post will summarise a few of our efforts to secure desegregated schooling in our region.
The approach of ERRC to the problem of school segregation of Roma children has been both wide and deep. The ERRC's first legal director, Jim Goldston, started working on the problem in 1999 and organized a case in the Czech Republic where Romani children were overwhelmingly sent to schools for the mentally disabled regardless of their ability. Such tracking then prohibited them from higher education and many opportunities. In spite of asking the European Court of Human Rights to work quickly because the children's future hung in the balance, the court did not make an admissibility decision for five years. In that decision, they struck out all the claims except discrimination in education. In the final decision nearly a year later, they ruled there was no discrimination. That case is now on appeal.
Following on the heels of that case, ERRC has another case at the European Court of Human Rights from Croatia. The facts are somewhat different and hopefully the result will be as well.
In addition to international cases, ERRC has been working at the domestic level in both courts and administrative agencies, most successfully in Bulgaria where two cases have been won in Sofia and seven more are pending pursuant to a project supported by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. ERRC staff members are working with local human rights advocates to convince the government to devise a permanent solution to the problem. Thus far, the government has not been suitably responsive. In Hungary, the new Equal Treatment Authority is being tested on the school segregation topic by filing an administrative claim against the schools in Alsozsolca. The first iteration failed due to pressure from locals and fear of retribution.
That case is a text book example of why community organizing work is so important in human rights work. Attorneys alone and cases alone are insufficient to move the human rights agenda forward. The community must be engaged to ensure that the most salient issues are being addressed and they are being addressed in the way the community wants. Most important is implementation. Without an engaged community to follow up, a legal victory will mean little in the every day lives of clients.
In recent years, we have begun acting in the field of Romani women's rights. These issues were impressed upon us as compelling human rights concerns not addressed adequately by anyone. We had previously been warned not to undertake action which might "inflame stereotypes", by working on issues such as domestic violence and child marriage. However, as we have increasingly worked on internal community issues, we have been met by a growing group of strong individuals seeking our assistance in challenging these serious harms. In addition, we have made major strides toward ending practices such as the coercive sterilisation of Romani women.
ERRC actions and major achievements are presented here by Women's Rights Officer Ostalinda Maya Ovalle.
Ostalinda Maya Ovalle
Romani women are among the most disadvantaged groups in Europe. An area in which the marginalization of Romani women has become particularly evident is health care. To address this issue the ERRC has carried out litigation and advocacy actions in cases of inadequate and degrading treatment by doctors and other hospital staff. An example of such is a Romani woman who gave birth in a hospital toilet and another case in which there was such a lack of postnatal care for a Romani woman that her baby died.
This substandard treatment is immediately visible in some hospitals where Romani women are segregated into "Gypsy rooms". This spatial segregation is a manifestation of the sys temic discrimination and unequal treatment of Romani women that can have such long term effects as permanent sterilization and in some cases even death.
New areas which the ERRC is beginning to focus on include domestic violence against women (last year we took our first legal action in a domestic violence case) and the trafficking of Romani women and children, a terrible human rights violation to which members of the Romani community are particularly vulnerable.
Through our work we have also seen that violations of the fundamental rights of Romani women are sometimes carried out in the name of custom, in the name of tradition. Defying and overcoming discrimination requires courage and leadership. Therefore, it is vital to train Romani women in human rights. The ERRC has capacitated through workshops and training many grassroots Romani women activists to stand up for their rights.
Characteristics often attributed to Romani women are a lack of intelligence and education, illiteracy and passivity. My work at the ERRC has given me a completely different impression. I would like to talk about one of the many courageous women we have come across, Ms. Elena Konstantinova. Ms. Konstantinova came to the Regional Consultation on women and housing last year, held at the offices of the ERRC. She is a Romani woman from Russia and a fortune-teller by profession, but in her free time she is a very committed and outspoken activist. She faced a very difficult start in life. She was abducted at the age of 13, having her first child at 15 and her second child at 19. She became a widow and single mother when she was only 22. After the death of her husband, she was kicked out of her husband's family home. Temporarily, she returned to her parents' house, but they were too poor to sustain her. So she had to leave and was left alone, homeless, poor and with two daughters to look after. After a long struggle Ms. Konstantinova has managed to improve her situation. She remarried and makes her living out of telling fortunes, but in the evenings after work she studies law on her own using books that she borrows from others. In 2003 the Romani Women's Congress (Romano Dzuvljikano Kongreso), the first Romani women's organisation in Russia, was created thanks to her initiative and perseverance.
In their everyday lives, many Romani women in Europe have to deal with difficult economic situations, discrimination by society and pressures from the community, but instead of giving up they are responding to this situation with courage and action. As was made clear in Beijing in 1995, women's rights are human rights. The ERRC is about human rights. It is past time that Romani women speak up for their own rights and have the ability to guide their own future. Our aim is to assist in making this a reality.
ERRC capacitation work also dates from 1997. It was born of the twin realisations that we cannot succeed without empowered Romani communities, and we would be irresponsible if we did not take up the issue of bringing human rights approaches, laws and norms to Romani activists themselves.
Our strategy was honed by 2001 into the following five-pronged approach:
- Scholarships for Romani university students of law and public administration;
- Internships and externships for Romani activists;
- Training workshops in ERRC methods and approaches;
- Event-specific action, such as bringing a 55-member delegation to the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001;
- Publishing books, and audio and video human rights training materials.
ERRC Human Rights Trainer Larry Olomoofe will now detail some of the highlights of our human rights training work.
Over the past decade, ERRC human rights education programming has striven to implement the ERRC's mandate to empower Romani communities and individuals through a variety of quality- driven initiatives allowing them to acquire knowledge, understanding and experience in:
1. Human rights/Roma rights concepts and the underlying values and attitudes that lead to respect for human rights;
2. The instruments that protect human rights/ Roma rights;
3. The skills, values and attitudes that uphold equal rights for all and encourage action in defence of these rights;
4. Discrimination and violence against Roma in Europe.
Allied to these points highlighted above, The ERRC aims to raise awareness of Romani communities about their Rights as well as to improve people's skills through the application of the following mechanisms in Roma rights action: legal representation, advocacy, community based and targeted projects, advisory skills, educational initiatives, outreach programmes and communication.
Recently, the human rights education capacitation workshops of the ERRC have become widely acknowledged and accepted by a range of general practitioners in the sphere of human rights as well-organised and robust initiatives that have a sustained and sustainable impact. Because of this, the ERRC has been asked by a variety of organisations and public institutions across Europe to implement training initiatives on their behalf for both Romani and non-Romani groups – activists, students, judges, journalists and governmental public officials. This has led to training workshops moving to the centre of ERRC human rights education programming for the foreseeable future.
An example of the sustained impact of ERRC capacity- building initiatives is the work on which we currently collaborate with the Swedish Ombudsman's Office Against Ethnic Discrimination (DO). Since October 2004, the ERRC has been working closely with the Swedish DO's office in training and capacitating a selected group of Romani activists and students from across Sweden. The first training event took place in 2004, and in 2005, the DO's office witnessed an unprecedented rise in the number of reported cases of discrimination among the Swedish Roma groups. The DO attributed this rise to ERRC's training efforts the previous year, claiming that the training had improved people's capacities to recognise, monitor and record cases of discrimination previously accepted as part of Romani life in Sweden. Consequently, a number of measures have been taken by the Swedish government to combat racial discrimination faced by the Romani communities in Sweden. The ERRC and the DO are continuing to collaborate on anti-discrimination training and capacitation in Sweden.
These presentations of necessity have conveyed only a narrow sliver of the broad spectrum of actions we have undertaken in our first ten years.
By way of synthesis, I would like to tell briefly the story of ERRC Publications Officer Dzavit Berisha.
Dzavit lived in Kosovo until he and his family were expelled violently to Macedonia during the ethnic cleansing in 1999. His house was burned to the ground by ethnic Albanians. He and his wife Bolije returned to Kosovo as part of a voluntary returns program in 2001, aiming to make a positive contribution to life in post-conflict Kosovo, and to re-establish their lives there. However, after several months in Kosovo, Dzavit was picked up and mauled by ethnic Albanians and he and Bolije subsequently fled again to Macedonia. Dzavit entered our orbit first as an ERRC extern in a Skopje-based organisation, then later, after Macedonia refouled Dzavit and Bolije to Kosovo in 2003, as a plaintiff in a lawsuit at the European Court of Human Rights. After they came to Hungary the same year, Dzavit also became first an ERRC intern, and then later an ERRC employee. Dzavit is responsible for the handsome ERRC publications you see here today.
I recount Dzavit's story because it exemplifies one of the central lessons of a decade of Roma rights – the Romani issue is very close at hand. It is all around us. The legendary wild and exotic Gypsy is in fact your neighbour, your barber, your bus driver, your brain surgeon, your prime minister, your colleague, your family. If that is not true yet, then it will be soon.
The work of the ERRC in the next years will be to see realised the promise that Roma can live with equal dignity in the societies to which they belong and in Europe as a whole.
It is an honor to be here and it is not easy to come last after so much has been said about the achievements of the ERRC. This has been a rich discussion today. It is yet another reason to thank the European Roma Rights Centre for its leadership in putting the Roma rights issue on the map and in playing a leading role in building a Roma rights movement. As has been noted earlier, many Roma in leading rights and activist positions were introduced to human rights through the ERRC over the past decade, and many others have been trained or employed by the ERRC, received scholarships, worked as interns, local monitors or partners and learned to frame their issues in terms of rights.
The Roma story is a rights story. All policy discussions addressing Roma unemployment, education, health systems and housing issues come back to the rights of Roma. For this reason, the Decade of Roma Inclusion must embrace the issue of rights. And it is therefore critical that we do not let this overriding issue of rights get lost in the political, technical or bureaucratic discussions that have tended to define the Decade discourse so far.
It is significant that the ERRC has already successfully completed 10 years – a decade – of important work which we are celebrating tonight. Who would have imagined when the ERRC started out 10 years ago that the Roma issue would be so solidly on the agenda of many countries – not only in this region, but on the European level and on the international level? This is a paramount achievement and one to which we owe the leadership a resounding show of confidence.
Roma friends, your most natural ally going forward is the ERRC. They have the capacity to offer you much intellectual, advocacy and policy guidance and to support your work in a greater way than we have even seen in their first 10 years. I am urging you and the ERRC to get solidly behind the Decade of Roma Inclusion and make sure it succeeds. It is the only hope on the drawing board today to broadly address Roma issues. The days of the small projects may go on for years but they will not affect the broad policy and enforcement changes needed to fix the terrible situation we are in.
I am asking the ERRC to begin to offer sustained and extensive policy development and policy advocacy training to Roma activists and leaders. I am suggesting that the ERRC dedicate its next years to assuring with you that the Decade does not fail. For, if it fails, I believe it may be your last hope to right the wrongs in your countries. The world will move on with new issues and we will have failed.
A very special word to my dear friend and colleague Dimitrina Petrova. I met her in 1992 in Sofia. We talked about setting up a Roma legal defense NGO there. I told her I would fund it. I didn't think she believed me. She set it up. It was the forerunner of the ERRC. I am immensely proud of her acomplishments. It has been a personal joy to watch her build two highly effective organizations and to have served on the board of the ERRC since its inception. The ERRC staff also deserves all of our thanks. They work long hours, care deeply and produce excellent and high quality work. I have had the great honor of serving on the board of the ERRC since its inception and watched the staff and its leadership grow and succeed over these past 10 years. I thank them for their commitment. I thank Bob Hepple for his leadership as Board Chair; and I thank Aryeh Neier for the vision of creating such a success.
Thank you all for coming and for participating in this conference. Please join Budapest Mayor Gábor Demszky, British Ambassador John Nichols and our guest speaker Mr. George Soros, a founding ERRC funder and an outspoken supporter of Roma rights, next door for a reception.
- Aryeh Neier is the President of the Open Society Institute.
- Dr Deborah Harding is a Board Member of ERRC. She has recently retired from the position of Vice-President of the Open Society Institute - OSI (New York).