Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.

Statement of the ERRC on the Occasion
of the Acceptance into NATO of the
Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland

July 10, 1997

This week, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) accepted as members the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, the first three countries to be absorbed into the formal security structure of the West following the end of Soviet rule. NATO's acceptance of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland constitutes approval for the progress these three countries have made, as well as the expectation that human rights practice in these countries will continue to conform to the exemplary standards characteristic of other NATO countries.

It is the position of the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) that all three of these countries have made significant progress in establishing the rule of law, and that one could, indeed, single them out for praise if Roma (Gypsies) are discounted from the equation. However, to deny Roma from the picture is to perpetuate the single unifying factor which links the history of Roma, namely that they are never accounted for when political decisions of direct political significance to them are handed down. A real assessment of Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland must include evaluation of the situation of the hundreds of thousands of Roma living within their borders.

Czech Republic

In 1993, following the division of Czechoslovakia by peaceful means, a law on citizenship went into effect in the new state. The law had been drafted in late 1992 and duly signed by the president. When the law went into effect, approximately 100,000 Roma were suddenly designated foreigners, and were accordingly denied all of the rights they had previously enjoyed as Czechoslovak citizens. This wholesale divestiture of rights was made possible by the decision of the Czech legislature to base the new law on a previously meaningless designation under the 1969 citizenship laws, one added following the Prague Spring of 1968 to appease Slovak nationalists. The purely symbolic "second-level citizenship" that the 1969 law had created suddenly became the sole criteria for legal belonging; people who could be determined to be "Slovak" because of a series of fixed attributes such as place of birth had to apply for citizenship regardless of where within the Federation they had resided, while people discovered to be "Czech" in a similarly arbitrary fashion were automatically granted citizenship in the successor state. This procedure constituted the first act of forced mass statelessness in Europe since the Second World War. All of this was carried out by a parliament and government chosen in elections in which these 100,000 Roma had participated.

The application procedure, moreover, was not designed to clear the way to citizenship. In addition to a number of complicated administrative stipulations, the "Slovaks" which the Czech state had just created were expected to demonstrate a clean criminal record for the previous five years. Legislative amendments to the law, which posed as proper responses to international criticism, allowed the Ministry of the Interior to waive the five-year criminal record if they so desired. Although this procedure has been applied in individual cases, both the fact that inadequate effort was made to inform affected people of its existence and the inherent arbitrariness of its application render it unacceptable as a remedy to the injustice of the law itself.

Indeed, it was instantly apparent to many observers that the Citizenship Law was designed with the intention of ridding the country of Roma. 46 Members of the Czech parliament appealed to the Constitutional Court to overturn "the Romani Clause". The Czech Republic was specifically criticised at the CSCE (now OSCE) conference on Roma in Warsaw in September 1994. A member of the American delegation to that conference said that the new law had created "a humanitarian crisis in the heart of Europe" and CSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Max van der Stoel stated that he "strongly urged that such legislation be changed."

Such legislation has not been significantly changed, and its effects have been those expected; thousands of Roma residing in the Czech Republic are currently de facto stateless as a result of the law. This deprives them access to a range of benefits open only to Czech citizens: those denied citizenship are unable to vote or run for office, and many non-citizens have difficulty receiving permanent residence, which is necessary to receive social benefits from the state. Additionally, as non-citizens, Roma can be and often have been sentenced to the punishment of expulsion for committing any crime whatsoever. This penalty involves 'returning' them to a country which they do not know and to which they have no effective ties. According to the Prague-based NGO Tolerance Foundation, 663 Slovak citizens were sentenced to expulsion by the Czech courts in the period January 1, 1993 to June 30, 1996. Tolerance states that of the first 120 cases they were able to document, in 118 cases, the sentenced individual was a Rom. One expulsion, handed down as part of the sentence of a man convicted of the theft of 140 crowns' (approximately 5 US dollars) worth of sugar beet, was quashed by the Supreme Court in May 1997.

In response to the situation created by the Citizenship Law, at a recent hearing of the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe on May 13, 1997, Czech Ambassador to the United States Alexandr Vondra called the Human Rights Watch claim that there is a substantial number of de facto stateless (Roma) children in Czech orphanages a "lie". Ambassador Vondra also claimed that following last year's amendment to the citizenship law, "the Council of Europe [now] considers this law satisfactory and that is also the opinion of the various NGOs, both abroad and in my country." This assertion is false: many organisations criticised the amended Czech citizenship law, noting that the amendments did not remove the substantive defects of the law.

The threat to Roma in the Czech Republic is, however, not only legal. A vital Czech skinhead movement is singularly obsessed with Roma. The number of Roma who became victims of overtly racist attacks since 1989 is alarmingly high. In many cases, Roma have been killed in these attacks. The Czech court system has, additionally, not treated the wave of skinhead violence with the appropriate gravity. Cases of racially-motivated violence have been plagued by administrative delay. Despite the preoccupation of Czech skinheads with Roma, the courts have not viewed participation in the skinhead movement as evidence of racial motivation when attacks have taken place. One example of a failure by the prosecution to invoke the articles of the Czech Criminal Code sanctioning racially motivated crime took place in late 1996. The case involved skinheads who had assaulted a group of Roma and then forced them off a train, on the pretext that the train was for "whites only". The reasoning of the prosecutor was that the crime was not racially motivated since both the skinheads and the Roma belonged to the "Indo-European race".

Similar to the Czech courts' reticence in providing redress for racially-motivated violence, the courts have not acted swiftly to prosecute instances of discrimination by local authorities, even where the abuses are gross. In one well-publicised case, a group of Roma families was forcibly evicted from flats which they legally occupied in the northern Bohemian city of Usti nad Labem, their rental contracts confiscated and under continuous police escort, they were put on a train to Slovakia. A complaint was filed at Usti nad Labem District Court on May 19, 1993, and not heard for three and a half years. During this period, the plaintiffs lived in parks and abandoned garages around the city. It was only when the Czech Constitutional Court interfered in late 1996 that legal action was resumed.

Czech prosecutors have also shown a propensity for bringing the racially motivated crimes provisions, which are relatively new, against Roma. In one recent incident in the northwest Bohemian town of Louny, five Roma were charged with defamation of nation, race or belief (Article 198 of the Criminal Code) after they insulted and attacked police officers who had arrived to break up a fight in a flat. This is clearly not the spirit of racially-motivated crimes provisions, which are intended to protect minorities, and are not intended to protect either representatives of the state or members of the majority population.

The drastic effects of the Citizenship law and judicial tolerance for racially-motivated violence constitute only the most exposed area of Czech failures to uphold international human rights standards in cases concerning Roma. In all areas of life in the Czech Republic, Roma face a daunting array of discriminatory practices and hindrances to their ability to live with dignity. One area in which the Czech Republic was singled out for criticism by the UN Commission on Human Rights concerns the educational system: a disturbing proportion of Romani schoolchildren are placed in schools for the mentally handicapped according to criteria which are dubious and subjective at best.

Hungary

Hungary has, in recent years, taken a series of steps at a legislative level aimed at addressing the disadvantaged position of Roma in Hungarian society. The penal code has been amended to provide specific sanction for racially-motivated crimes. Other legislation has been aimed at ending practices which have a disparate effect on Roma. So, for example, from November 1, 1997, local authorities in Hungary will no longer have a mandate to separate children from their families if they deem their living conditions to be substandard.

Finally, Hungary has enacted legislation under which, according to Ombudsman for Ethnic and National Minorities Jeno Kaltenbach, "the state of Hungary wishes to realise the cultural autonomy of minorities." The 1993 Minorities Act establishes the possibility for "local minority self-governments" to act in an advisory role to the local governments should a minority wish to establish such a body in a given locality. Although the law specifies that a minority must display an historical connection to Hungary of over 100 years, thirteen minorities have proven eligible and established one or more of the local minority self-governments envisioned in the provisions of the Minorities Act. More than any other minority in Hungary, Roma have acted upon the opportunity provided by the Minorities Act; according to a 1997 report by the Office of the Prime Minister of Hungary, Roma have established over 450 such bodies, roughly 300 minority self-governments more than Germans, the second "most organised" minority. Indeed, Roma have established more local minority self-governments than all other minorities combined.

In addition to the local minority self-governments, the Minorities Act also empowers minorities to establish a national minority self-government, and envisions such a body as procedurally independent, although financed by the Hungarian state. In short, in the words of the French daily Le Monde, Hungary "aspires to be a model in the struggle against ethnic discrimination" (May 27, 1997).

The idyllic image presented by Hungarian legislation and the proclamations of the government is tainted only by the real conditions in which Hungarian Roma continue to live. The "Local Minority Self-Governments" and "National Minority Self-Government" established by the Minorities Act are in fact only advisory bodies which do not guarantee the right of Roma to participate in administrative decision-making. Notably, there is no obligation of the real organs of government to act on the commentary of the bodies established by the Minorities Act, and no one may be held accountable for failing to uphold its provisions.

Meanwhile, unemployment among Roma approaches full and the material conditions in which most Roma live continue to worsen. Roma remain significantly over-represented in Hungarian jails and institutions for the mentally disabled. According to one expert on mental health care in Hungary, three out of every four individuals in so-called "Social Care Homes"-- facilities for permanently housing mental patients who have no hope of recovery-- are Roma. Political opposition to reform of the mental health care system seems to stem largely from the fear that such reforms would necessitate the reintegration of many Roma into Hungarian society.

The discriminatory treatment, incidence of police brutality, racially-motivated attacks and legal vulnerability documented by two successive Human Rights Watch reports (1993 and 1996) continues. On May 27, 1997, the Ozd city council announced plans to blow up a building located in the city centre which is inhabited primarily by Roma. The reasons cited for this decision were unpaid utility bills, which had earlier resulted in the disconnection of electricity to the building, and sanitary conditions. Roma activists pointed out that the latter was precipitated by the former and Member of Parliament Antonia Haga stated that "issues of poverty cannot be resolved with dynamite."

Skinhead attacks of the kind which resulted in the death of a Romani man in the northern city of Salgotarjan in November 1992 continue to be documented. Most recently, a Romani boy on a school excursion was beaten by a group of skinheads in the town of Kismaros in April 1997. Police brutality is also still a problem in Hungary: the ERRC documented the severe ill-treatment of two Romani men following the detention of a mixed group of Roma and non-Roma in the western Hungarian city of Szombathely in February 1997. According to Ombudsman for Ethnic and National Minorities Jeno Kaltenbach, the majority of the complaints filed by Roma with his office concern police brutality.

Most importantly, although the Hungarian government has signalled its willingness to adopt legislation aimed at sanctioning administrative discrimination and police brutality, there is little evidence that resolve at a national level is having significant impact locally, or that the practices themselves are being curbed. To name only two examples, on January 22, 1997, a second instance court upheld a lower court verdict in the city of Pecs, southern Hungary in the trial of a pub owner who had explicitly refused to serve a Romani man because he is a Rom. The court found that although the pub owners remarks were personally slanderous, they did not amount to defamation of race (Article 179 (1)). Similarly, officers charged in connection with an incident of police brutality in the town of Fajsz, Kiskun County first had the charges against them reduced to misdemeanour and then received only nominal fines. No suspensions from duty were handed down by the court.

Poland

In Poland, the official policy with regard to Roma has to date been close to non-existent. As the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights states in a 1995 report on Roma, "During the period of the last five years, (...), no comprehensive program of policy with regard to the Roma group in Poland has been developed."

In 1989, when responsibility for minorities was shifted from the Ministry of the Interior to the Ministry of Culture and Arts, a special office was established for the "minorities issue". The mandate of the Office for the Culture for National Minorities is, however, as its name indicates, limited to support for cultural activities such as music festivals and publications. Subsequently, real problems faced by the majority of the Polish Roma in the fields of housing, unemployment and education are not addressed at all.

In 1992, a so-called "schooling experiment" was initiated by a Catholic priest in southern Poland. He established special Roma classes with lower standards within regular schools whose aim is to reduce illiteracy among Romani children and youth who had failed to begin attending school at the requisite age. Recent research conducted by the ERRC revealed that in practice, this well-meaning initiative has not been implemented properly. In several communities visited by the ERRC, all Roma children have been involuntarily forced into these separate classes. In the community of Lososina Gurna, the Roma class has been placed in an old fire-brigade building and is thus entirely isolated from the regular school. In neighbouring Maszkowice, inhabitants reported that their children were sent home and told not to come during the school year 1996-97 because "there is no place for them this year."

Many Roma children and parents are strongly opposed to the schooling experiment and see it only as leading to an increasing marginalisation and ghettoisation of the Roma population. Nevertheless, governmental officials-- who themselves remain passive in fighting the high absenteeism and drop-out rate of Roma children from schools-- apparently consider it unequivocally successful: according to our information, the Ministry of Education has agreed to finance the existing special Roma classes-- around thirty-- for the coming school year.

Although racist attacks against Roma in Poland have not reached the number and intensity that they have in the Czech Republic, expressions of intolerance occur. A recent opinion survey carried out on the subject of the attitude of Poles towards other nationalities revealed that Roma are by far the least liked of all ethnic groups living in the country. Although local human rights groups are of the opinion that the negative perception of Roma in Poland does not transform into aggressive action, recent field research carried out by the ERRC revealed that several Roma communities in the country face regular attacks by groups of local youths. These attacks have, moreover, gone without legal redress, despite several official complaints filed by the Roma victims at the local police departments. The last such incident documented by the ERRC occurred in the western town of Wiebodzice in the beginning of June 1997.

According to information gathered by the ERRC, local authorities such as the police and the mayor's office downplay the importance of racism in the Polish society. Many such officials expressed the opinion that regularly occurring attacks are isolated incidents in which "young individuals express their frustration over the local Gypsy population, who tend to expose their economic wealth in a provocative way." The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights describes the local authorities in Poland as lacking sensitivity to the specific problems of Roma and define their attitude toward them as "frequently ill-disposed".

Finally, the police in Poland has also resorted to violence against Roma individuals, and the judiciary has proven ineffective at prosecuting such violence. In November of 1996, for instance, a 15-year-old Romani boy was severely ill-treated by a police officer in the southern town of Wodzislaw. An investigation was launched into the police behaviour but the prosecutor responsible did not bring charges and subsequently dropped the case in January 1997. Following a protest filed by the lawyer of the victim, Dr. Leszek Piotrowski, the case was reopened on the order of the Katowice County Prosecutor's Office and is presently under investigation. According to Dr. Piotrowski, although police brutality is a problem in Poland, such incidents rarely reach the courts.

Conclusion

The position of Roma in all three countries is, today, precarious. As the certainties of the past have broken down and economic reforms have brought disenchantment and bitterness, Roma have found that in addition to being saddled with the economic burdens with the rest of the population, they have become exposed to practices which harm and humiliate. Ethnic origin again has discriminatory potential in Central Europe, and Roma bear the least appreciated markers on their skin. One common experience which unites Roma in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, is that, "before 1989, we were people; after the changes, we were forced to become Roma." In order for integration into western structures to have real positive meaning therefore, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland must acknowledge the continuing effects of racism in their societies, and adopt the measures necessary to welcome Roma into Europe as well.

The European Roma Rights Center is an international public interest law organisation which monitors the rights of Roma and provides legal defence in cases of human rights abuse.

European Roma Rights Center
P.O.Box 10/24
1525 Budapest, Hungary

Web: http://errc.org/


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