By Erika B. Schlager
Counsel for International Law
In 1999, several Romani students from the Czech Republic brought a suit before the European Court on Human Rights alleging that their assignment to “special schools” for the mentally disabled was tainted by racial prejudice and therefore violated European human rights law. On February 7, 2006, a seven-member Chamber of the Court held that the applicants failed to prove that their placement in “special schools” was the singular result of intentional racial discrimination. The plaintiffs have 3 months to appeal to a 17-member Grand Chamber. Elsewhere in Central and Southern Europe, Roma are also pursuing efforts to achieve equal access to education.
During the Communist-era, many East European countries developed a practice of channeling Roma into schools for children with mental disabilities, called “special schools.” Critics have argued that this practice constitutes, de facto, a form of segregating Roma into a separate and inferior school system.
The Ostrava Case
“Unsatisfactory performance of Gypsy children in Czech and Slovak schools is often “solved” by transferring the children to special schools for the mentally retarded. During the school year of 1970-71 in the Czech lands alone, about 20% of Gypsy children attended these special schools as against only 3% of children from the rest of the population. According to psychological tests the great majority of these children should not be in these schools. This indiscriminate transferring of Gypsy children to these special schools, which is the general practice, reflects unfavorably on the whole Gypsy population. A child who “graduates” from such a school has the same standing as a child who did not finish his basic schooling. Access to better employment opportunities is closed. Even art schools are closed to them, while persons with special musical talent – not uncommon among Gypsies – are shunned. Musical and dance groups are interested in these talented persons, however, they cannot employ them.
“The main reason for the unsatisfactory performances of Gypsy children is the fact that there are no schools which teach Gypsy culture and try to develop it. The powers that be are, on the contrary, doing everything to suppress Gypsy culture and the media assists in this destruction by spreading lies, such as that Gypsy culture does not exist. Gypsy children are forced to attend schools where they are taught in the Czech or Slovak language and where, from the pictures in the primer, they get the impression that they are foreign, that they are second class citizens, without their own language, without a past and without a future.”
– Situation of the Gypsies in Czechoslovakia, Charter 77 Document No. 23, issued December 13, 1978 by Vaclav Havel and Dr. Ladislav Hejdanek, Charter 77 Spokesmen
In 1999, a group of Roma from Ostrava, the Czech Republic’s third largest city, brought suit against their government, alleging that their assignment to “special schools” for the mentally disabled was tainted by racial prejudice and therefore violated Czech national and constitutional law, as well as European human rights law.
At the time the case was brought, a number of Czech newspapers ran editorials indirectly espousing some form of school segregation. For example, one leading newspaper ran an article arguing that educating a “future plumber” and a “future brain surgeon” together ultimately benefits neither one.
On October 20, 1999, the Czech Constitutional Court rejected the plaintiffs’ claim. In the view of the court, it did not have the jurisdiction to address the broad pattern of discriminatory treatment alleged – allegations supported by compelling statistical evidence but no smoking gun that proved an explicit intent to discriminate against the individual plaintiffs.
Notwithstanding the Constitutional Court’s perceived jurisdictional inability to provide a remedy to the plaintiffs, the Court recognized “the persuasiveness of the applicants’ arguments” and “assume[d] that the relevant administrative authorities of the Czech Republic shall intensively and effectively deal with the plaintiffs’ proposals.”
Having exhausted their domestic remedies, the students then turned to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, an organ of the Council of Europe.
In connection with that suit, Case of D.H. and Others v. The Czech Republic, the Czech Government acknowledged that, nationwide, 75 percent of Czech Roma were channeled into special schools. In some special schools, Roma made up 80-90 percent of the student body. The Czech Government also acknowledged that “Roman[i] children with average or above-average intellect [we]re often placed in such schools” for children with mental disability.
In opposing the plaintiffs’ claims, the Czech Ministry of Education attempted to deflect an examination of whether their placement in schools for the mentally disabled was the result of racial bias by claiming (among other things) that Romani parents have a “negative attitude” toward education. This assertion was particularly ironic, given the lengths to which the plaintiffs’ parents were willing to go – all the way to Europe’s highest human rights court – to ensure their children could get a good education.
“In countries with substantial Romani communities, it is commonplace for Romani children to attend schools that are largely comprised of Roma or to be relegated to Roma classes within mixed schools. In its most pernicious form, segregation is achieved by routing Romani children into ‘special schools’ – schools for the mentally disabled – or into classes for mentally disabled children within regular schools”.
– Report on the Situation of Roma and Sinti in the OSCE Area, issued by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, 2000
Moreover, this broad sweeping generalization, originally made before the Czech Constitutional Court, was viewed by some as confirmation of racial prejudice in the Czech education system. Remarkably, it was repeated without comment in the European Court’s decision. Putting aside the bias reflected in the Ministry of Education’s assertion, there is no evidence demonstrating that a parent’s “negative attitude” results in actual mental disability in his or her children.
Meanwhile, the Czech Government adopted some changes to the law on special schools which came into effect on January 1, 2005 (Law No. 561/2004) and on February 17, 2005 (Decree No. 73/2005). To some degree, these changes were reactive to the issues raised by the Ostrava suit, including the criticisms of the procedures by which parental consent was purportedly obtained for the placement of children in special schools. Nevertheless, non-governmental groups monitoring this situation argue that the changes have not dismantled an education system that remains effectively segregated and that the changes fail to provide redress or damages for the Romani plaintiffs from Ostrava who were denied equal access to mainstream schools.
The case in Strasbourg was heard by a seven-member Chamber of European Court and resulted in a 6-1 decision. Significantly, the President of the Chamber issued a concurring decision, in which he stated that some of the arguments of the dissenting judge were very strong. He also suggested that in order to hold that there had been a violation of the Convention in this case, the Chamber might have to depart from previous decisions of the Court. In his view, overturning or deviating from past rulings is a task better undertaken by the Grand Chamber of the Court. The applicants have three months to decide whether to appeal this decision to a 17-member Grand Chamber.
While the underlying issues which led Roma to bring this suit still persist, there are many indications that prejudices against Roma in the Czech Republic have diminished since the Ostrava case was first heard by the Czech Constitutional Court. For example, when the European Court issued its holding in the case, a leading daily paper wrote that although the Czech Government “won” its case, there were still significant problems for Roma in the Czech educational system that needed to be addressed.
Limitations of the European Court Decision
Significantly, there were several issues the court did not address.
The suit in question was brought under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is the non-discrimination provision of the Convention, in conjunction with Article 2 of Protocol 1 to the Convention, which provides for a right to education. In essence, discrimination in education based on race, ethnicity or social origin is prohibited.
When interpreting this standard, the Court referred to previous cases in which it held that States party to the European Convention “enjoy a certain margin of appreciation in assessing whether and to what extent differences in otherwise similar situations justify a difference in treatment.” The Court also reiterated “that the setting and planning of the curriculum falls in principle within the competence of the Contracting States.” In short, while European Convention norms prohibit discrimination in education, States still have considerable discretion in designing their education programs. But while the Court reiterated this jurisprudence, it failed to indicate what is meaningfully left of Articles 14 and Protocol 1, Article 2? What threshold must be crossed before the court will actually determine that alleged discrimination takes a case out of the discretion of the States party to the Convention and brings it within the reach of the Court?
Two other issues the court did not address do not relate so much to the court’s own jurisprudence, but from parallel developments in European Union norms in the field of non-discrimination.
“The European Parliament [ . . . c]alls on Member States in which Roma children are segregated into schools for the mentally disabled or placed in separate classrooms from their peers to move forward with desegregation programmes within a predetermined period of time, thus ensuring free access to quality education for Roma children and preventing the rise of anti-Romani sentiment amongst school-children.”
– European Parliament resolution on the situation of the Roma in the European Union, adopted April 25, 2005
In 2000, the European Union adopted “Directive 2000/43/EC of 29 June 2000 implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin,” more commonly known as the “Race Directive.” The directive is binding on all current 25 Member States of the European Union and is intended to ensure a minimum level of protection from race discrimination in all EU countries in several areas, including education. (The fifteen countries that were EU members as of 2000 had until July 19, 2003, to transfer the directive into national law; applicant countries had until the date of their accession. The Czech Republic joined the EU in 2004 but, in fact, it has not yet adopted comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation. Legislation was introduced in the parliament in late 2005, but the draft was narrowly rejected by the Senate in January 2006.)
The Race Directive requires Member States to adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation that, among other things, requires anti-discrimination legislation to include both direct and indirect discrimination. Indirect discrimination, which is at issue in the Ostrava case, is defined by the directive as occurring when “an apparently neutral provision, criterion or practice would put persons of a racial or ethnic origin at a particular disadvantage compared with other persons, unless that provision, criterion or practice is objectively justified by a legitimate aim and the means of achieving that aim are proportionate and necessary.” The legislation should also shift the burden of proof in civil cases from the plaintiffs to the defendants once a prima facie case of discrimination has been made.
Thus, the EU Race Directive anticipates exactly the kind of case the plaintiffs in the Ostrava case presented. Under the provisions of the directive, the overwhelming pattern of disparate treatment of Roma demonstrated by the plaintiffs should shift the burden of proof from them to the Czech Government. (Notably, the directive was not applicable to the Czech Republic at the time of the Constitutional Court’s decision.)
While the European Court of Human Rights does not adjudicate compliance with or implementation of the EU Race Directive, the Court’s overall approach to the Ostrava case appears to lag behind the legal developments in the European Union and, potentially, render the European Court a less effective vehicle for addressing discrimination than other existing or emerging tools in Europe.
Regional Issues and Trends
On November 27, 2003, the OSCE Permanent Council adopted “Decision No. 566, Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area.” In particular, that Action Plan calls on the participating States to “[e]nsure that national legislation includes adequate provisions banning racial segregation and discrimination in education and provides effective remedies for violations of such legislation.” In addition, participating States were urged to:
73. Develop and implement comprehensive school desegregation programmes aiming at:
(1) discontinuing the practice of systematically routing Roma children to special schools or classes (e.g., schools for mentally disabled persons, schools and classes exclusively designed for Roma and Sinti children); and
(2) transferring Roma children from special schools to mainstream schools.
74. Allocate financial resources for the transfer of the Roma children to mainstream education and for the development of school support programmes to ease the transition to mainstream education.
Thus, all OSCE participating States, including the Czech Republic, have agreed, in principle, to the goal of integrating Roma in education and eradicating de facto segregated school where it may exist.
In 2004, the European Roma Rights Center issued a report, Stigmata: Segregated Schooling of Roma in Central and Eastern Europe, examining the experiences of five countries (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia). The report describes the most common ways of segregating Romani children from non-Roma: channeling Roma into “special schools” for children with developmental disabilities; the de facto segregation that goes hand-in-hand with existence of Romani ghettos; having mixed-population schools where Romani children are segregated into all-Romani classes; and the refusal of some local authorities to enroll Romani children in mainstream schools. The report concludes that, unfortunately, “with the exception of Hungary, concrete government action aimed at desegregating the school system has not been initiated to date.”
In addition to the countries examined in Stigmata, the European Roma Rights Center has reported on unequal access to education for Roma in other countries, including Greece and Denmark. In a 2004 Danish case, Roma were placed into separate classes in one particular locality. Following complaints from a Romani non-governmental organization, the Danish Ministry of Education intervened to end this practice. In the case of Greece, the Greek Helsinki Monitor has reported on several localities where Roma are denied equal access to schools. These cases remain unresolved.
In Hungary and Bulgaria, some efforts to litigate this issue have made their way into the courts, with mixed results.
“Education is a prerequisite to the participation of Roma and Sinti people in the political, social and economic life of their respective countries on a footing of equality with others. Strong immediate measures in this field, particularly those that foster school attendance and combat illiteracy, should be assigned the highest priority both by decision-makers and by Roma and Sinti communities. Educational policies should aim to integrate Roma and Sinti people into mainstream education by providing full and equal access at all levels, while remaining sensitive to cultural differences.”
– OSCE Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area, 2003
In October 2004, the Budapest Metropolitan City Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision ordering a primary school and the local government of Tiszatarjan to pay damages to nine Romani families whose children were wrongly placed in “special schools” between 1994 and 1999. In June 2005, a court dismissed a case brought against the Miskolc Municipality alleging city-wide segregation. A Hungarian non-governmental organization which assisted in filing the suit, Chance for Children Foundation, is appealing. Other legal disputes continue to surround a self-proclaimed “private school” in Jaszladany (established at least in part with municipal resources). A study commissioned by the Ministry of Education found the “private school” violated the law and contributed to racial segregation.
Notwithstanding some recent government initiatives to address this problem in Hungary, desegregation initiatives have met resistance in significant quarters. Former Prime Minister Victor Orban (who also heads of Hungary’s largest opposition party, FIDESZ), argued in a speech on January 29, 2006, that integrated schooling should not be mandatory, but left to local officials and parents to “choose” or reject. In fact, the greatest resistance to integrated schooling often comes at the local level.
In Bulgaria – where the government continues to deal with Roma through an office for “demographic issues” – efforts to address the causes of segregation have largely originated with the non-governmental community. Particularly promising results have been achieved in Viden, where community-based efforts, supported by international non-governmental organizations, have resulted in integrating Roma and ethnic Bulgarian school children. Efforts to replicate that program elsewhere, however, have not been embraced by the government.
In addition, in a landmark holding, the Sofia District Court held on October 25, 2005, that the Bulgarian Ministry of Education, the Sofia Municipality and School Number 103 of Sofia violated the prohibition of racial segregation and unequal treatment provided in Bulgarian and international law. In welcoming that ruling, the European Roma Rights Center declared, “After a period of 51 years, the soul of Brown v. Board of Education has crossed the Atlantic.”