International Human Rights Day: Time for Celebration?

Through its very motto, this year’s International Human Rights Day is inviting us to acclaim the most important achievements of the human rights movement from the past two decades. For those of us interested in Romani issues, the 10th of December proves itself a good opportunity to reflect on the recent gains and losses of Roma Human Rights Movement in Central and Eastern Europe. 
by Bálint Németh
The globally organized celebration of human rights marks a double anniversary today. Conferences and cultural events serve as reminders of the date on which the first global enunciation of the human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, on 10th of December 1948. Additionally, the theme of the Human Rights Day this year,“20 years working for Your Rights”, functions as commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, which is considered to be a significant milestone in the history of promoting and protecting the rights and dignity of all people across the globe.
© Romedia Foundation

© Romedia Foundation

Additionally, we shouldn’t omit from memory that today also marks the 20th anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, and politician Nelson Mandela, given to him in pair with Frederik Willem de Klerk “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa”. As a reflection on the recent passing of Mandela, let us commemorate his legacy by recalling his famous words from 1964, spoken out on trial for plotting to overthrow the country’s all-white apartheid government. He was subsequently sentenced to three decades of imprisonment, only to emerge 27 years later as a victor and to lead a fulminant political career that saw him elected as president of his country and becoming a worldwide symbol in the fight for human rights:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.”

The equal opportunities Mandela makes reference to is the cross-cutting principle of non-discrimination which is present in all major human rights treaties. The world-scale protection of this principle was also brightly declared at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, which noted that it is the duty of states to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems. In times of stubbornly high unemployment and strained budgets, however, it seems that European Union countries decided to stop being a staunch advocate of human rights and continued the ever-present scapegoating of the Roma communities who face overt and growing discrimination and prejudice in their everyday life, a situation also exacerbated by the economic rut that the continent is still not out of.

© Romedia Foundation

© Romedia Foundation

According to reports on human rights practices conducted by the U.S. Department of State, in 2012 societal discrimination of the Romani population was the most pressing human rights problem in an alarming number of Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries among which Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Hungary were present.[1] In Czech Republic, for instance, racial prejudices against Romani communities often result in brutal violence. Sadly, since the horrific Molotov cocktail-attack on a Roma household in 2009 where a two-year-old baby girl named Natalka Kudrikova suffered burns covering 80% of her body, the number of followers of extremist mentalities is constantly increasing. This has culminated in the biggest and most violent protests against Roma in the history of Czech Republic; the demonstrations took place in August of this year. [2]

Lunik IX Ghetto, where the army lived during communism; now in 'democracy' it is home to 5500 Romani people. There is no free public collection of rubbish. The regional government says it will collect when the Roma pay for it. Whilst the human rights record and treatment of ethnic minorities by Eastern European countries is suspect. The 550 thousand Roma Gypsies in Slovakia are the poorest citizens, they attend segregated schools, are often registered as mentally sub-normal. © Nigel Dickinson/Leader Photos

Lunik IX Ghetto, where the army lived during communism; now in ‘democracy’ it is home to 5500 Romani people. There is no free public collection of rubbish. The regional government says it will collect when the Roma pay for it. Whilst the human rights record and treatment of ethnic minorities by Eastern European countries is suspect. The 550 thousand Roma Gypsies in Slovakia are the poorest citizens, they attend segregated schools, are often registered as mentally sub-normal. © Nigel Dickinson/Leader Photos

Racially motivated attacks on Roma minorities are also extremely common among other CEE countries. Reports reveal that in 2012 Slovakian authorities received 105 call-ins of violent crimes with a racial motive and a further 27 cases of violence against groups.[3] On the 29th of June, a bomb which was placed in a bag exploded in a Romani club in Sandanski – Bulgaria, resulting in the death of a Romani man. [4] Whereas in Romania, the situation is even worse: besides being refused service in public places, Roma people are regularly exposed to police brutality including beatings, and harassment.

This year in Miskolc a city in the North-Eastern part of Hungary, the seat of the Borsod-Abauj-Zemplen county and the third biggest city in Hungary attacks on Romani families continued, this time exerted through forced evictions. Its recent history is one typical for highly industrialized cities during the socialist regime. With a booming economy before the 1990s, it attracted many unskilled workers from the neighbouring area, which led to an increase in the demographics, with a population of more than 200.000. More than twenty years after the political regime changed, the failed industrial past of the area left deep marks on its inhabitants, currently less than 170.000, with rampant poverty and unemployment, especially among the members of the Roma minority, physically concentrated mostly at the outskirts of the city.

During Romedia Foundation’s media and citizen journalism camp for young Romani women, one of the teams visited Miskolc in August 2014, after the municipality’s decision to evict the inhabitants of the numbered streets, where around 900 families live, mostly Roma, in low-comfort housing units.

As it becomes obvious after watching the interviews, most of the people affected received only a plain notification stating that their contracts are to be terminated, with no further explanation. Some were just waiting, having no idea when and why they will be evicted. People who have been living there for 30 years ought to leave their homes, in order to make room for what it is thought to be a parking lot. Just some are to be compensated, under the condition that they move out of Miskolc, obliged not to sell or mortgage the newly acquired property out of the financial compensations. Unfortunately, when the team went to a neighbouring town, Tiszaujvaros, to survey the public opinion about the prospective arrival there of the evicted Roma, one of the replies was terrifying: to create a separate city, only for the Roma, to keep them away since they cannot be ‘integrated’ in the society. This is not a singular remark, since in 2009, the chief of police at that moment, publicly declared that the integration of the Roma was not successful and the attempts to the peaceful cohabitation of the Roma and the Hungarians is doomed to failure.[10]. The authorities in the surrounding cities immediately reacted: in Sátoraljaújhely an ordinance being drafted as to ensure that those who purchase real estate properties with money received from another municipality are not eligible to receive welfare or to be employed in public work, for five years.[11] As one of the inhabitants of the numbered streets mentioned, there is this double game when it comes to the around 25.000 Roma, when it serves a purpose, they suddenly count as Hungarian citizens, while being reduced to just a group of outsiders when other interests are at bay.

The Numbered streets, where low-comfort social units accommodate more than 900 families,  are now the subject of local dispute, after 35.000 people signed a petition “calling for the cleaning up of the place”, according to an article in Budapost [12], analyzing the controversial situation in Miskolc, after the municipality decided to get rid of the slums. (Short Film about The Numbered Streets – available here – https://vimeo.com/105855165) 

Recalling the gains and the advancements of Romani issues that have occurred in Hungary this year shows that the plight of Hungarian Romani people is very much present and acute. On March 29th, a proposal was put forward by the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice in the Hungarian Parliament, aiming at modifying the Equal Treatment and the Promotion of Equal Opportunities, leaving an open door for legalizing segregation under the guise of “integration”. Despite the fact that all relevant academic expertise on the issue firmly warn about the harmful consequences of segregation,[5] the proposed modifications were easily accepted. As a response to the worrying developments, a small crowd gathered to protest before the building of the Ministry of Human Resources in May, though the number of protesters did not reach more than 400.[6]

Even so, during the summer of 2013, long-awaited legal improvements were finally achieved. On July 9th, many Hungarian sighed with relief as we finally welcomed the European Court of Human Rights’ positive decision on upholding a ban on the neo-Nazi paramilitary group, the Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard). Still, it’s not easy to forget that this had taken over four years, following an appeal by the Hungarian Guard of a decision by the Metropolitan Court of Budapest to disband the group on the grounds of its activities infringing the human rights of minorities.[7]

Additionally, in the beginning of August, we could finally witness the conviction of the three neo-Nazi serial killers who were sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering 7 Roma Hungarians in 2008. It was deeply saddening to see that the trial garnered only scant public attention in the last few years in spite of the fact that the investigation reported serious procedural errors and police misconducts. After the murders, not that much has changed: according to the reports of the European Roma Rights Center, only in 2012 eight Romani families have been attacked by extremists.[8]

Extremists during this years recent anti-Roma riots in Czech Republic. *creative commons licence

Extremists during this years recent anti-Roma riots in Czech Republic.
*creative commons licence

As a sign of the a growing transnational extreme right wing movement, an attack on a Romani family has occurred again in the middle of November at Bögöt,[9] located in the county of Vas, western Hungary. According to locals from the village, before the attack, Roma and non-Roma were living peacefully together, a fragile status quo akin to Mandela’s vision of a better world, expressed in his famous quotation that was brutally shattered by an absurd attack.

In her opening remarks of the Human Rights Day Commemoration event held in Palais des Nations in Geneva on December 5th, Navy Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Right admitted that “we have much to celebrate in terms of achievements, but still much to fight for. We can and we must do better”. Taking a brief look at recent political and social developments in Central and East Europe, the picture depicted is of countries where there is still a pressing need for vigorous actions against the violations of human rights that occur on a daily basis. Today is a moment for celebrating the achievements we are struggling for, but by tomorrow it should be about further improvements again.

References:

[1] US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in 2012, report available at http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/humanrightsreport/index.htm#wrapper

[2] More on the issue: https://romediafoundation.wordpress.com/2013/10/02/the-anti-roma-riots-in-czech-republic/

[3] US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012, Slovakia, report available at http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/humanrightsreport/index.htm#wrapper

[4] ROMEA: Bulgaria: Man dies as result of bombing of Euroroma office. 2012.08.01. Availble at http://www.romea.cz/en/news/world/bulgaria-man-dies-as-result-of-bombing-of-euroroma-office

[5] For more studies see Kertesi G. – Kézdi G. 2009. Általános iskolai szegregáció Magyarországon az ezredforduló után. Közgazdasági Szemle, LVI. November. Available: http://epa.oszk.hu/00000/00017/00164/pdf/1_kertesi-kezdi.pdf

[6] To gain an insight into the issue, read our previous article on the protest: https://romediafoundation.wordpress.com/2013/05/28/budapest-protest-against-the-legalization-of-segregation-in-hungary/

[7] For more details, read our previous article: https://romediafoundation.wordpress.com/2013/08/12/is-this-the-end-for-the-magyar-garda/

[8] For more facts, see ERRC’s report: http://www.errc.org/cms/upload/file/attacks-list-in-hungary.pdf

[9] Romedia also reported on the attack: https://romediafoundation.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/a-new-attack-on-a-roma-family-from-bogot/