Gypsies Gain a Legal Tool in Rights Fight

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon May 8 21:44:08 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes, May 7, 2006

Gypsies Gain a Legal Tool in Rights Fight

MISKOLC, Hungary For the Gypsies of Eastern Europe, like Agnes Krappai,
life never seems to improve. She lives in an impoverished section of this
Hungarian town, in a house with no running water. Her neighbor washes a
rug in the street, coaxing water out of a hand-pumped well. "It's a
constant crisis, if there is such a thing," Ms. Krappai says. But now,
some leaders of the Gypsies, or Roma, are looking to a new model to try to
achieve equality: the civil rights struggle of black Americans.  More and
more, the Roma are going to court to secure their rights, and doing so
where they think it will have the best chance for success among the new
East European members of the European Union and those trying to join,
which are seeking to impress Western Europe with strict interpretations of
their new antidiscrimination laws.

The Roma strategy was rewarded in October, when a Bulgarian court for the
Sofia district ruled for them in a school segregation case. "This is Brown
v. Board of Education in Europe," said Dimitrina Petrova, executive
director of the European Roma Rights Center, recalling the 1954 Supreme
Court decision that the official system of "separate but equal" school
segregation by race was unconstitutional. "This is a purely American
paradigm," said Ms. Petrova, whose group filed the suit. "It's not a right
if you can't defend it in a court." An appeal is under way, but the
Bulgarian government has already begun enacting changes in state education
policy, and the Romani Baht Foundation, the Bulgarian rights group that
argued the case, said it planned about 50 more school segregation cases in
the fall.

In 2002, the foundation filed suit against a coffee shop in Stara Zagora,
Bulgaria, for refusing to serve Roma. The foundation won, and has since
filed suits against nightclub owners, hospitals and other companies,
charging that they refuse to hire or serve Roma. The cases cited
antidiscrimination laws enacted to prepare Bulgaria to join the European
Union, which it hopes to do next year. Some of those working on behalf of
the Roma say these efforts offer a model for helping other groups that
face discrimination.

George Soros, the billionaire who is one of the biggest donors to Roma
rights groups, promises that "a similar effort will be made with the
Muslim minority" of Europe once Roma gains have been secured. However,
European law is based on civil law, meaning that a court decision does not
automatically become the law of the land and that court victories achieved
in campaigns of strategic litigation do not necessarily have far-reaching
effects. Still, Panayote Dimitras, executive director of the Greek branch
of Helsinki Monitor, a human rights group that also operates in the
Balkans, said he had cited court decisions from Eastern Europe in his Roma
cases in Greece. Ms. Petrova said she hoped the gains made in Eastern
Europe would reverberate in Western Europe, where Roma also struggle for
their rights.

The Roma efforts go beyond legal challenges. In December, Gyorgy Makula, a
young police officer in Budapest, founded the Roma Police Association in
Budapest. He modeled it on the National Black Police Association, a group
founded in Illinois in 1972 to help black officers around the United
States fight racist law enforcement practices and create a more positive
relationship with minority communities. For the first time, there is even
Roma representation in Brussels. After Hungary joined the European Union
in 2004, it elected two Roma to the union's Parliament. Still, there is no
unified Roma movement and no leader like the Rev. Dr.  Martin Luther King
Jr. to help create one, nor galvanizing figures like Malcolm X or Rosa

And not all legal cases succeed. The European Court of Human Rights in
Strasbourg rejected a case about 18 nonhandicapped Czech Roma children
allowed to enroll only in schools for the handicapped. Estimates are that
up to 75 percent of Roma children in the Czech Republic are shunted to
special schools. The case has been resubmitted. Roma are believed to have
migrated from India to Europe up to 1,000 years ago, bringing nomadic
ways, dark skin, insular culture and strange customs that paved the way
for permanent marginalization. The Nazis considered the Roma racially
inferior, grouping them with Jews and the disabled, and killed half a
million in concentration camps in World War II.

Even today, much remains unclear about the Roma. There is no agreement
even on their numbers in Europe. Estimates range from 7 million to 15
million, and 5 percent to 10 percent of the population in many Eastern
European countries. In Hungary, the struggle to desegregate schools has
come here to Miskolc, one of the poorest regions in the European Union.
Andras Ujlaky, president of the Chance for Children Foundation, a
Hungarian group that focuses on Roma schooling, recently visited Roma
community leaders here to discuss integration of a school near the
neighborhood of scores of squalid buildings where Ms. Krappai lives. Mr.
Ujlaky drank instant coffee as he sat on a worn couch in the small, tidy
home of a community leader and discussed plans for children to refuse to
enroll in the all-Roma school nearby.

If the children have trouble transferring, he said, he plans to file a
discrimination suit, hoping to prompt a procedural review that would close
the Roma-only school. "Now that the law is in place we should use it," Mr.
Ujlaky said.

[Moderator's Note: Speakers of Romanes (Gypsy) and their language rights
in the EU are not protected by the Charter, because Roma are not connected
to a particular territory. (HS)]

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