Righting wrongs for Gypsies

Over dinner last week in a Moravian restaurant, a waiter's warm smile turned to ice when our chit-chat touched upon the Roma.

"You mean Gypsies? I hate Gypsies," the young man casually observed. Just like that. A moment of ethnic hatred before dessert.

Nothing unusual here in Europe, where, even as war in the Balkans winds down, violence and discrimination against Roma (Gypsies) proliferate. Skinheads with baseball bats roam city centers, police pummel Romany detainees with impunity, and "no Gypsy wanted" signs adorn the walls of restaurants and employment offices. Even in a refugee camp, June 7, a mob of Kosovo Albanians attacked Romany families suspected of collaborating with Serbs.

More troubling is the passivity of law-enforcement authorities. Three years after a pogrom led to the deaths of three Roma in Romania, a prosecutor defended the failure to bring formal charges, explaining: "But the victims were Gypsies, you know." Even many so-called human rights defenders have a blind spot for Roma. The danger is that, left unpunished, hate crime becomes acceptable - precisely the fertile ground in which full-blown racial wars grow. It is difficult enough to mobilize international action against "ethnic cleansing" that reaches genocidal proportions. It is much harder to see prejudice that appears on a daily basis but does not threaten strategic conflict.

And yet, a grassroots movement for civil rights and ethnic tolerance is gaining ground in courthouses and parliaments. The goal is a deepening and permanent commitment to a Europe where racial hatred has no place.

The first signs of progress are visible. Last October, in its first decision involving a Roma applicant from Central or Eastern Europe, the European Court of Human Rights chastised the Bulgarian government for failing to investigate allegations that a 14-year-old Romany boy had been beaten by police. The landmark ruling has increased human rights protection for victims of police abuse everywhere.

A year earlier, a Hungarian court found that a pub owner's ban on entry to "Gypsies" violated the law. Better still, the court not only awarded damages to the victim; it also ordered the owner to pay for a full-page apology in Hungary's largest daily newspaper.

Perhaps the biggest test started June 15. Twenty Roma children from the Czech Republic launched the first comprehensive legal challenge in post-communist Europe to racially segregated schools. Each child has been warehoused with other Roma in facilities for the mentally retarded, taught a "dumbed down" curriculum, and barred from secondary education. The government itself concedes that, nationwide, more than half of all Roma students are designated retarded. The Czech courts are being asked to proclaim that all children are entitled to equal educational opportunity.

The facts underlying these cases - police abuse and racial exclusion - are, sadly, routine. Their results are not. Most victims of discrimination don't bother to complain; those who do won't easily find a lawyer, let alone a judge willing to uphold the law. The lesson? Efforts to combat racial intolerance take time and must be targeted at those acts of discrimination which, because they're commonplace, seem unobjectionable.

Central and East European governments must enact tough antidiscrimination legislation; establish and fund independent watchdogs with the power to publicly report on and prosecute violations; and expand government-funded legal aid so that human rights violators don't go free just because their victims can't afford to pay a lawyer.

Of course, all this costs money. Since 1989, the West has contributed to the development of post-communism's much-vaunted civil society. But with the end of war in Kosovo, governments and private donors will be tempted to pour every last penny into the resulting humanitarian crisis. That need is real. But healing the wounds of war is not enough. Europe must commit to fighting racism over the long term.

*James A. Goldston, a former US prosecutor, is legal director of the European Roma Rights Center, a public interest law organization based in Budapest, Hungary.

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