ARTICLE 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is very simple: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of their person. This short and clear formulation, which reflects the legacy of the bloody experiences of human societies over centuries, manifests a will to build safe and sound human societies. This plain but powerful sentence establishes one of the most fundamental pillars of any society.
The right to life and security are prerequisites for all other rights. A dead person does not need the right to access education or health care. A person who is not safe and secure in society cannot pursue a decent life.
Human rights, including the right to life and security, are only abstract principles unless they are enforced, protected and promoted. In modern society, the nation state is the only legitimate body which can and should provide security to those under its sovereignty.
This obligation has been fundamentally breached in Slovakia.
On the evening of February 28, 2002, in the Slovak village of Gánovce-Filice, a group of men, some of them armed with baseball bats and iron bars and wearing masks, went to the Roma settlement in the village. They shouted racist slogans, raided three houses and destroyed belongings. But they did not stop. They attacked people and injured them. Police arrived about half an hour after the attack, started an investigation and conducted interviews with victims and witnesses. But almost two months later, on April 26, 2002, Slovak authorities stated that “no evidence had been established allowing it to bring charges against a specific person”. Case closed…
Slovak authorities did not deliver on their obligation to provide security to citizens in April 2002; they broke the agreement.
The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) filed a joint application in 2003 with a Slovak partner organisation, the League of Human Rights Advocates, to Europe’s highest human rights tribunal, the European Court of Human Rights, on behalf of 10 Roma individuals who were the victims of that aggression. The claim was simple: The Slovak state failed to conduct an effective investigation. On June 12, 2012, the European Court of Human Rights delivered its judgment in Koky et al vs.
Slovakia, ruling that the Slovak state had failed to fulfil its obligations. The court stated that the Slovak Republic violated the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits inhuman treatment and requires the state to conduct an effective investigation into incidents involving such kind of treatment.
But this incident was not an isolated one. Rather, what happened to Mr Koky and his friends was just another example of a trend that is ongoing: the Slovak state does not properly investigate crimes against its Roma citizens. In our report titled Imperfect Justice published in 2011, the ERRC demonstrated the unwillingness of Slovak authorities (as well as Hungarian and Czech authorities) to conduct proper investigations and bring perpetrators to justice if the victims are Roma.
This is a very dangerous trend. If the Slovak state does not change its position and provide security to all people living on its territory, its ability to establish and enforce law and order in the public interest, and therefore its legitimacy, will be in question. A state should be an impartial provider of justice, guided by international human rights standards. Slovakia should be that kind of state. Slovakia made commitments for the full integration of its Roma citizens as part of a national strategy it recently developed. However, building trust between Roma citizens and Slovak authorities is the key to the success of any integration project. This trust can only be established by providing security to Roma, finding those individuals who take aggressive acts against them and bringing those individuals to justice.
Slovakia needs to decide whether it will be a state providing security and justice to all citizens or only to certain, privileged ones. If the state has a monopoly over the “legitimate use of violence”, as sociologist Max Weber stated, why does Slovakia seem ready and willing to share this power with a bunch of racist perpetrators by letting them act so freely?
Injustices wound societies. Untended wounds become gangrenous.
It is not too late for Slovakia to start healing wounds and to prevent gangrene from developing. Through its judgment in the Koky case, the European Court of Human Rights presented the Slovak government with an opportunity to reconsider its practices and make necessary changes. Slovakia should not miss this window of opportunity to turn human rights into real rights for all.
In the immediate term, Slovak authorities can utilise this opportunity by thoroughly investigating the events of this past weekend in Hurbanovo, where an off-duty police officer allegedly killed three Roma individuals and wounded two others. The shooter is in custody and an investigation has started. It is difficult to understand why Slovak Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák stated that the “victims of the assault are known to police and that four of the five reportedly have criminal pasts”.
Even if this is true, how is it relevant to the attack against them? Does it justify their death? Will not this statement by a very high ranking Slovak ministry official misguide police investigators and prosecutors?
We hope that Slovakia will use this recent tragedy as an opportunity to prove that it is committed to providing security and justice to all its citizens.
Dezideriu Gergely is the executive director of the European Roma Rights Centre