UN report focuses on plight of Roma

NO RUNNING water, no electricity and no work: this is what life looks like in a typical Roma settlement in Slovakia. Added to this is the ongoing insecurity posed by the threat that one’s house might be viewed as a pile of garbage and torn down accordingly, as well as the high probability that one’s children will not be able to escape this vicious circle of poverty, since from an early age they are put into segregated classes “for the socially disadvantaged”.

NO RUNNING water, no electricity and no work: this is what life looks like in a typical Roma settlement in Slovakia. Added to this is the ongoing insecurity posed by the threat that one’s house might be viewed as a pile of garbage and torn down accordingly, as well as the high probability that one’s children will not be able to escape this vicious circle of poverty, since from an early age they are put into segregated classes “for the socially disadvantaged”.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination highlighted all of these problems, which impact a large portion of Roma communities in Slovakia, in its observations regarding the periodic reports of the Slovak government at its mid-February 2013 meetings. Apart from the government report, the UN Committee also had at its disposal two parallel reports compiled by the non-governmental sector: one by the Centre for Civil and Human Rights (Poradňa) and the Slovak branch of People in Need, and the other by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), the Milan Šimečka Foundation (NMŠ) and the Centre for the Research of Ethnicity and Culture (CVEK).

Education and housing – the basics

In its report, the committee paid particular attention to education and housing, especially the segregation of Roma children in schools, and the violation of the right to proper housing in Roma settlements.

The committee acknowledged some of the measures Slovakia’s government has taken, such as the 2008 Schools Act. It also praised the ruling of a Prešov district court from December 2011 that ordered the desegregation of Roma children in the primary school of Šarišské Michaľany. The Prešov Regional Court confirmed the ruling in November 2012.

The school in question required its Roma students to attend special classes located on a separate floor of the school, beginning in the 2008/09 school year, according to the Center for Civil and Human Rights, which filed the lawsuit in 2010. The court ruled that the school discriminated against students by creating separate classrooms, and did not accept the school’s explanation that it did not separate children according to their ethnicity, but based on the fact that they came from a socially-disadvantaged environment.

Despite some positive developments in the legislation, there is still a problem with enforcement of the Schools Act and the Anti-Discrimination Act in education, the committee noted.

In its recommendations, the committee requested that the Slovak government eradicate segregation and secure equal opportunities for Roma children in education, as well as eliminate the over-representation of Roma students in specialised classes and in special schools, and integrate them into mainstream education, “and increase human and financial resources for the education of Roma, in addition to organising training in Roma rights for teachers and social personnel”.

The results of current research conducted by the United Nations Development Programme, showing that one in five Roma children are enrolled in special education programmes, are alarming, according to Dezideriu Gergely, the ERRC executive director.

“In consequence, a significant part of the Roma population won’t be able to find a place on the labour market in the future,” Gergely noted, adding that there are already several systemic problems that negatively impact Roma citizens’ access to jobs.

In relation to housing, the committee criticised one of the measures presented within the Roma reform by the government’s proxy for Roma communities, Peter Pollák, who proposed that Roma living in settlements should be allowed to buy the land on which their houses currently stand in order to legalise their housing arrangements. That, however, “may increase the segregation of this community”, the committee’s report reads.

Forced sterilisations need to be investigated

The committee also touched upon forced sterilisations of Roma women, a problem less frequently aired in the Slovak media, but which remains unresolved, noting that there is a lack of effective investigation by the government regarding this practice, as well as a lack of compensation to the victims, despite three recent judgements by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) against Slovakia.

Numerous Roma women have claimed that they were involuntarily sterilised and some have taken the issue to the ECHR. Media coverage of the issue began after the 2003 release of a report by the New York Centre for Reproductive Rights and the Advisory Service for Civil and Human Rights titled Body and Soul: Forced Sterilisations and Other Attacks on the Reproductive Freedom of Roma in Slovakia. The report stated that there had been more than 110 cases of forced sterilisations of Roma women in state hospitals in eastern Slovakia since 1989.

Most recently, the ECHR ruled in November 2012 that several medical employees in Slovakia violated Roma women’s right to freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment and their right to a private and family life. The ruling upheld allegations by three women, identified only as I.G., M.K. and R.H., that they had been forcibly sterilised in the gynaecology and obstetrics department of Krompachy Hospital, in eastern Slovakia between 1999 and 2002, which at the time of the incidents in question was run by the Health Ministry.

In addition to full implementation of the ECHR rulings, and full compensation for all victims, the committee also encourages the Slovak government to adopt appropriate measures, including a 2012 decree related to cases of illegal sterilisation of women, and to organise special training for all medical staff on how to obtain informed consent before carrying out sterilisation.

“It is indeed remarkable how perseverant government officials can be in ignoring this problem for years and turning a blind eye to it,” said Vanda Durbáková from the Center for Civil and Human Rights, calling for proper investigation and compensation of the victims.

Statistics on hate crimes requested

Despite several notable legislative and policy developments towards the elimination of racial discrimination, including an amendment to the Anti-Discrimination Act (effective as of April 1, 2013) that introduced temporary special measures – a Slovak version of affirmative action – and the establishment of the post of government proxy for national minorities, the committee still notes a lack of enforcement of anti-discrimination legislation.

The committee’s report points especially to cases of police brutality with potentially racial motives and the subsequent insufficient investigation into such cases.

The investigation of violent, criminal activities by police officers has been seriously lacking over the long term regarding their overall quality and independence, Durbáková said. To do away with this inadequacy, the committee recommends that the Slovak government establish an independent monitoring mechanism to carry out investigations of crimes involving police officers.

Additionally, the committee requests that the government provide updated statistical data on the number and nature of hate crimes, convictions and the sentences imposed on perpetrators.

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