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.
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.