Rights and policies

15 August 2001

Dimitrina Petrova

This issue's special theme is governmental policy programmes related to Roma. We offer critical comments on the existing programmes and the policy-making processes in several countries: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain. However, I should note several ERRC assumptions that may have remained only very implicit in this issue.

Most importantly, the main target of our concerns in the area of governmental policies is missing here: the governments which have not developed any Roma-related programmes at all. It may be argued that a bad programme is worse than no programme. The articles in this issue suggest rather that the contrary is true. Policy making everywhere has turned out to be a long and unfinished process: it goes through stages, overcomes resistance from various actors, is prone to regress, followed by seemingly sudden leaps forward, and in some cases produces quite good results, at least on paper. The process is, in other words, markedly political. It is all about power and empowerment, opposition of group interests and negotiated agreements. Roma in Italy, Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine – to name just a few places where no comprehensive, specifically-targeted governmental policy programmes have been adopted – may gain from looking at the experience of those Roma who have been involved in this complex undertaking: getting the government do its job of complying with international and constitutional obligations, and even working together with the government to ensure that Roma rights are protected and Romani interests are promoted.

Second assumption: Not all governmental policies come in the form of adopted and publicised official programs. Look at page 68 herein to find a document that we are sure the Czech authorities would not appreciate seeing broadly circulated: these are instructions for foreign service officials concerning public relations policy in dealing with Romani issues, especially when communicating at the international level. Czech diplomats are told to stress the "Europeanisation" of the "Roma problem", downplay its human rights aspect, etc. In other cases, a policy may be so entrenched that tracing its documental origins is a highly specialised task for the historian of public bureaucracies. Many Czech and Hungarian educational specialists, for example, would deny that placing Romani children in schools for the mentally handicapped is or has been a policy. But research has demonstrated that it actually is a policy, as opposed to a spontaneous and unintended statistical effect that has worked in ways unrelated to human planning, a policy built on the underlying stereotype that Roma are inferior, and "Romani children are not ready for normal school."

Thirdly, defending Roma against discrimination requires, on behalf of the state, more than a passive toleration of the exercise of narrowly defined basic rights. It would involve, as indeed international law recommends and sometimes mandates, positive action. In many cases, it may be easier to achieve certain goals toward empowerment of ethnic groups not through the articulation of rights but through formulation and adoption of policies. There may be situations in which the difference is eclipsed, as perhaps in the case of the European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages, which speaks strictly in terms of policy, yet can be seen as defending language rights.

However, the difference between rights and policies should be insisted upon as an essential one in most cases. A policy, even when achieved through dialogue between state and minority representatives, will always remain dependent on the political will of the elite, while a right, including even a "group right", is an entitlement. A right can be seen as a need or an interest for which the interested party has obtained the passivity of the bearers of the opposite interest. The "right" signifies the overriding of the opposite interest. The "right" is a fortified interest – claimed, recognised, guaranteed and often morally due. For example, affirmative action in higher education may be easier to defend in terms of policy. Yet, it would be a higher achievement of the anti-racist movement if the same results were formulated as lasting rights of minority members.

Finally, as follows from the foregoing, policy programmes regarding Roma can be viewed as instruments of advancing human rights. They are good if they are negotiated plans of action promoting the whole spectrum of Roma rights. They should include measures addressing the root causes of Roma rights violations. Anti-racism training for police officers, for example, would be one of the ways to target root causes of police brutality, and would play a preventive role, if done well. A good policy programme further is one that is comprehensive, and combines legal and non-legal strategies in complementary or even mutually reinforcing ways. As the removal or reduction of police crime cannot be accomplished only via the criminal justice system, no matter how well developed the latter is, so the removal or reduction of anti-Romani racial discrimination is impossible if the only measure applied is the prohibition of its damaging manifestations. Together with protective laws, a broad range of non-legal policies promoting equality is the way forward for the Roma and other disadvantaged groups.


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