Human Rights Protection is Unavailable to Those Most in Need of It

27 May 2004

In December 2003, the ERRC spoke with Mr Jenő Kaltenbach, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities in Hungary.

ERRC: In this issue of Roma Rights we are looking for an answer to the question "What is Roma Rights". Could you explain for us what this means to you?

Jenő Kaltenbach: First of all, let me say that I don't think we can differentiate between the rights of persons on any basis. I think that the rights which are recognised by international law and which are described as minority rights are absolutely human rights, in spite of the fact that many people refuse to recognise minority rights as human rights. The only reason to refuse to recognise minority rights as human rights is that international human rights documents as well as other documents such as the constitution and other national legislation, were created by nation states. The fundamental fault of this whole human rights building is that it is extremely partial, so to say, discriminatory. It does not acknowledge that disadvantaged groups exist. The genetic problem of the whole human rights system is that human rights protection is unavailable exactly to those who are most in need of it. And, this is all based on political considerations. For me, it is not a question at all whether minority rights are human rights, since the latter are the most original human rights. If the task of human rights is (and I am convinced it is) to stop the despotism of nation states in violating human dignity, then the question should be the opposite - apart from minority rights, what other human rights exist?

ERRC: What, in your opinion, makes Roma rights different from other minorities' rights?

Jenő Kaltenbach: To tell you the truth, I do not really like the expression "Roma rights" since it might give the impression that different nations have different rights. I would rather say that Roma, as subjects of minority and human rights, differ from other minorities in the sense that their situation is one of the most problematic. They are the most disadvantaged group and they are the targets of the most intense prejudices. Therefore, they are the most vulnerable minority group as well at least in Hungary. However, other states have their own "Roma". For example, the North Africans in France, the Sudanese in Denmark, the Turks in Germany, etc. Each country has its own vulnerable group, which is often held responsible for all problems in the country. "Blame the victim" is an old, well-functioning method when we do not want to face a problem because it is too sensitive or costs too much money. Then it is easier to say that they, the victims, are responsible for their own situation. Such an attitude is especially characteristic for Hungary and for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

Let's see what happened after World War II. The atrocities committed during the war had been the most serious crimes in the history of humanity but none of the countries of Eastern Europe have been willing to acknowledge responsibility for those crimes. The view that only Hitler, the Nazis and their followers have been responsible for the events of World War II still exists, whereas in reality, a whole bunch of Eastern European countries (including Hungary) contributed to these horrible events. We simply do not want to face this and to see our own role. Moreover, the opposite happens when somebody raises this issue. We feel hurt and we become angry, saying that Hungary has not committed any sins and that we had to suffer enough. This way of thinking remained the same after World War II.

ERRC: Do you think that the solution of the problems facing Roma is more important than the solution of problems facing other minorities?

Jenő Kaltenbach: It is different in each country. I think that most nation-states care about their own nations first. In Hungary, the focus is the ethnic Hungarians in the neighbouring countries and if there exists any consensus among the elite - then it is this issue. What makes me feel really sad is that the political elite seems to have a double standard: On the one hand, it is the issue of Hungarians abroad which is dealt with as an absolute priority, and on the other hand, there is the issue of the minorities inside Hungary which tends to receive less attention. Take, for example, the issue of registration by ethnic origin. The 2001 the Hungarian Status Act, which accords certain benefits to ethnic Hungarians abroad, provided for registration of ethnic Hun-garians as a means to prove belonging to the Hungarian nation. Persons registered have access to the benefits envisioned by the Act. As far as minorities in Hungary are concerned, however, debates in the past few years failed to result in con-sensus to amend the Hungarian Minority Act to require declaration of the belonging to a minority group of the candidates for minority self-government.1

As I said, I think that Roma are the most vulnerable group in Hungary. First, they are less integrated in most of the societies in Central and Eastern Europe, not only in Hungary. Therefore, their ability for self-defence is much weaker. Usually, they do not have or have just a tiny elite and are not capable of promoting their interests because of the lack of material and intellectual resources. Moreover, they are exposed to the most intense prejudice. These factors taken together, make Roma quite vulnerable and, due to many different reasons, Roma have not really been able to become a community to date. Other minority groups are better organised and have relatively consolidated communities. This is not characteristic of the Roma, who are in an early stage of becoming a community. Roma in Hungary are extremely divided - also from the inside. Of course, those who want can easily use this and make [the Romani community] even weaker.

ERRC: The Hungarian Minority Act was attacked many times for allowing majority voters to vote for minority self-governments. What do you think about the possibility of registering Romani voters for the minority self-government elections?

Jenő Kaltenbach: The situation is that in Hungary (and I am sure that not only here) there is never enough time and capacity to prepare an act properly. We are making acts without examining what is needed and what is the reality. As for the registration: One Romani politician says that it is good for Roma, others say it is not acceptable. It is understandable that many have misgivings about the possibility of registration conducted by the state regarding self-determination. That is why we are trying to arrange for minorities to do registration themselves, within the community and in this way reduce hostile feelings. As I can see, this would be acceptable for most of people.

ERRC: Do you think that affirmative action is needed?

Jenő Kaltenbach: Yes, absolutely. And it should not mean only legal instruments. I think primarily non-legal instruments should be used - various programmes should be implemented that are able to improve the situation of disadvantaged groups. There should be a policy aimed at abolishing the differences in employment and education. However, such programs have a chance only if they target the whole society, since a change of society's perspective is needed. In a hostile environment, all kinds of Roma programmes will be rejected and killed.

ERRC: What should be done to make such programmes work?

Jenő Kaltenbach: The whole education system, the media, churches, trade unions and other bodies should take part in establishing a wide social co-operation. At first sight, achieving such co-operation would appear to be a difficult task, but in reality it is very simple. If the country's elite wants something, it can always happen. There should be a consensus in the elite that the disadvantages facing Roma are a serious problem in society, affecting not only Roma, but also the society as a whole. The recognition of this fact is a big challenge for Hungary, but without the acceptance of this, we cannot be a modern European country, a consolidated civil democracy. Unfortunately, we are in a vicious cycle because today's elite could only recognise this need if their predecessors had been aware of it, that is, if they had grown up in an environment where promoting Roma and other minorities had been a part of national policies. Another problem is that, generations of lawyers graduate without acquiring any knowledge about human rights law, which is still considered of low value. I think that separate human rights departments should be established in Hungarian universities. But again, to achieve this, the elite should recognise its importance.

ERRC: How much do you think "soft law" can work?

Jenő Kaltenbach: I think that some goals can be achieved by "soft methods" and others cannot. I think that the Roma topic belongs to the latter category. Compulsory methods and the straight and clear standpoints of the state should be used simultaneously. Sanctions are needed too. The state should not be afraid to make clear what values have to be acknowledged and promoted.

ERRC: Do you think Roma trust and use your office?

Jenő Kaltenbach: Two-thirds of the complaints my office receives come from Roma. This fact indicates that we deal mainly with problems affecting Roma. I have personally often been invited to various communities to meet Roma as well as other minorities. As I can see, they trust the Minority Ombudsman's office. However, it is [the Roma] who should be asked about this rather than me. As for the results, our main weapon is publicity. We are often in the press and media sending the message to a wider society. I could provide a number of examples from the last 8 years, which made people think about minorities' problems. Of course, reactions were not always positive. However, the fact that the people have had to face these problems is a big step compared to the situation 10 years ago, when the Romani issue was absolutely marginal.

ERRC: What is the future for Roma and their rights?

Jenő Kaltenbach: I do not think that I should answer this question, since I don't want to speak about the situation of Roma for the Roma themselves. I think that all over Europe an emancipation process has started, which includes the recognition of Roma as one community and the codification of their culture and language. If this process continues, we may expect that the prejudice against them would decrease. The alternatives, however, are clear: Roma will integrate and will become equal members of society or they will start along the way to "becoming a nation" because of the refusal of the environment to accept them.


  1. Editor’s note: In the context of the debates on the amendment of the Hungarian Minority Act, it was proposed that the right to vote and stand as a candidate in minority self-government elections could be enjoyed by members of national minorities who declare their belonging to the respective minority and who are registered in minority electors’ register. Minority Ombudsman Jenõ Kaltenbach also proposed that one should become a candidate only if he/she is a member of or supported by a minority organisation and that the candidate should also meet certain objective criteria for belonging to a certain minority to be determined by law after minority consultation. It is believed that such measures would preclude the occurrence of situations in which the majority circumvents the minority will by putting up candidates in the minority elections who would meet the approval of majority voters. A situation in which the majority population outvoted the Romani minority in minority-self government elections has occurred in the village of Jászladány in the October 2002 minority-self government elections. For more information, see Anita Danka and Nicole Pallai. “Legal but Illegitimate: The Gypsy Minority Self-Government in Jászladány”. In Roma Rights 4/2003 at:


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