It would be hard to exaggerate the level of racism experienced by Roma (widely known as “gypsies,” a word many Roma abhor) in virtually every facet of daily life. Hostility toward Roma runs so wide and deep that it is peculiarly difficult to dismantle: Governments that have an otherwise strong commitment to human rights all too often act on the belief that Roma have earned the stereotypes that are enforced to their detriment.
Thus it is all the more noteworthy that discrimination against Roma in the Czech Republic provided the occasion for this week’s historic judgment by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In the Case of D.H. and Others v. the Czech Republic the Court’s Grand Chamber ruled on November 13, 2007, that Czech Roma have suffered unlawful discrimination in relation to education, a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocol No. 1. (Proud disclosure: My colleagues at the Open Society Justice Initiative, James Goldston and Anthony Lester, were lead attorneys in the case.)
The decision marked a watershed in anti-discrimination law in Europe. For the first time, the ECHR found that a pattern of racial discrimination in primary education, in this case resulting in an especially pernicious form of segregation, violated the anti-discrimination provision of the European Convention.
Like many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic has diverted an astonishingly large percentage of Romani children to "special schools"—schools for children with mental disabilities. The applicants in D.H. v. Czech Republic came from the Czech town of Ostrava, where at the time of one survey Romani children represented only 2.26% of pupils in primary school—yet constituted 56% of pupils placed in special schools. Every way you come at the numbers, they tell a devastating story. Here’s another cut: More than half of Ostrava’s Romani children were assigned to special schools, compared to 1.8% of non-Romani students. And another: Romani children in Ostrava were at the time of one study 27 times more likely to be shunted off to special schools than non-Roma. (photo of Ostrova family courtesy of New York Times)
The facts that gave rise to this week’s ruling should, proverbially, speak for themselves. Yet they were not enough to persuade a seven-judge Chamber of the ECHR, which had rendered judgment against the applicants in the same case in February 2006.
The Grand Chamber, in contrast, saw the problem and, along the way, brought European Convention law in line with the more protective anti-discrimination standards enforced by the European Union. Among other notables, this week’s decision affirmed in clarion terms that indirect discrimination—discrimination resulting from a harmful and disproportinate impact on a particular group despite the apparently neutral terms of a policy—is prohibited by the European human rights convention. And, the Grand Chamber affirmed, it isn’t necessary to prove discriminatory intent on the part of government authorities to find that an official policy produces unlawful indirect discrimination.
Recognizing how hard it can be to prove discrimination that is camouflaged by seemingly neutral rules, the Grand Chamber helpfully clarified what it takes to make a case: Although statistical data are not a necessary form of proof, “statistics which appear on critical examination to be reliable and significant will be sufficient to constitute . . . prima facie evidence” of indirect discrimination.
Implementing this week’s ruling will surely be as daunting as the eight-year legal odyssey that culminated in the ECHR’s breakthrough judgment. As the Grand Chamber recognized, the Czech Republic is hardly alone in its practices, and the discrimination against Roma that pervades the societies in which they live is so ingrained it can be hard even to see. (So perhaps it is not surprising that the lawyers who mounted the Czech government’s defense in Strasbourg tried to defend Ostrava’s segregated education by blaming Romani parents.) Now, though, Roma have the powerful shield of European human rights law on their side.