The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) was founded in 1996 by Hungarian human rights activist and dissident Ferenc Koszeg. The Roma minority – collectively the largest minority in Europe – has been marginalized for centuries. It has been ERRC’s hope that the establishing of new legal norms to guide government conduct with regard to Roma will carry over to private citizens and, over time, be at least a contributing factor to changing attitudes. Through strategic litigation, national and international advocacy, research and policy development, and training of Romani activists, the ERRC has battled anti-Romani racism and human rights abuse of Roma in more than 27 countries for the past 13 years. More than 255 of the approximately 300 cases that have been completed in ERRC’s history have been decided in its favor or resulted in positive settlement. In all, over two million euro has been paid in compensation to Romani victims of human rights abuse and the subsequent failure of government to remedy it. ERRC has won more than 22 cases in international jurisdictions, including more than 15 cases before the European Court of Human Rights. ERRC efforts have resulted in groundbreaking European precedents and heightened awareness in the areas of school segregation (Czech Republic), the state’s obligation to investigate racial motivation in crimes committed by non-state actors (Croatia, Bulgaria), police brutality (Bulgaria, Macedonia), housing rights and forced eviction issues (Montenegro, Slovakia, Greece, Italy, Bulgaria), and compensation to victimized community and implementation of anti-racism and non-discrimination programs (Romania), and coerced sterilization of Romani women (Hungary). The organization has developed and lobbied for key pieces of legislation, including anti-discrimination law, in Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Poland, and Latvia. The magnitude of the challenge faced by ERRC can perhaps be better appreciated through reference to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Whereas there was always a recognition among certain parts of society in the United States that the problems engendered by discrimination against African Americans was a legacy of American history, the tendency for many people in Europe – both on a popular level and within government – is still to view discriminatory practices against Roma as “not our problem.” The exact origins of Roma are uncertain and, because the Roma people are not identified with any specific country, European nations have been reluctant to accept individual responsibility for the historical mistreatment of Roma and the creation of a marginalized underclass. Another distinction is that the development of a professional class of Roma individuals in Europe is just beginning to take place. Without the cohesion that comes with a longer tradition of education and leadership training such as was seen among African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, less opportunity exists to develop the kind of human infrastructure required to produce effective advocates within the Roma community.
ERRC has also become the world’s largest information resource on Roma rights, producing and contributing to more than 580 publications in the last 13 years. ERRC has organized national and international symposia to debate key issues and has provided national and regional training of judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and other legal professionals in the implementation of anti-discrimination and human rights law. Its complex research models for documenting systemic human rights abuses and discriminatory practices have been used systematically to fight segregation and secure equal access to quality education, employment, housing, access to social services and healthcare, and child protection for Roma, as well as to document violence against Roma communities. More than 200 Roma interns have been trained by ERRC and have contributed to its work. Some of them are now working in influential positions in government agencies, international NGOs, and national equality bodies, as well as in national Romani NGOs in their home countries – enhancing and sustaining the results of the ERRC.
The organization’s greatest achievement, however, may have been to demonstrate that the justice system – particularly in the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc – can be a meaningful tool with which to protect rights. Even with its initial uncertainty over the possibility of individual rights being protected by former Soviet bloc justice systems thought to be dominated by political interests, ERRC has shown that the system could be made to work on behalf of a particular minority group and that the European Court of Human Rights has a valuable role to play as well. Indeed, ERRC considers every victory important. In Hungary, for example, the government has agreed to pay compensation to the victim of forced sterilization – the first such case in Europe where a government has been implicated. In Bulgaria, there have been changes in the law and in the behavior of law enforcement toward all citizens, not only people of Roma origin. And ERRC has succeeded in getting governments to realize that they have a responsibility to investigate and prosecute people who have committed violence against Roma, even if the government was not directly implicated in violence itself. But ERRC also recognizes that litigation has its limits. In a Czech Republic case, the European Court of Human Rights found that the Czech system of segregating Roma children in schools intended for those with mental disabilities amounted to illegal discrimination. Yet, a year later, this system continues under a different name. Cases such as this have underscored the need for using a diverse array of tools. This includes continuing to train Roma activists and focusing on certain areas where much work remains to be done, such as housing and access to healthcare – areas in which ERRC favors a mix of litigation and other forms of legal advocacy, and perhaps even working with governments that may be willing to cooperate on real reform.