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Europe’s High Court Confronts Racism

The European Court of Human Rights is hearing oral arguments in two of the most important cases in its history. As in Brown v. Board of Education , the case that ultimately broke the back of racial segregation in America half a century ago, the European Court is being asked to give meaning to the fundamental principle of equality. The resulting decisions could establish clear ground rules to guide future policy toward Europe’s increasingly numerous ethnic and religious minorities.

The plaintiffs are members of Europe’s poorest and largest minority group – the Roma, or Gypsies, whose ancestors are believed to have migrated from India centuries ago.

One case concerns 18 Roma children from the northeastern city of Ostrava in the Czech Republic who were placed in “special” schools for those deemed mentally deficient, where they receive a markedly inferior education. The children argue that such schools are a barrier to social and economic progress. Many Roma are sent to special schools even though they show no sign of mental disability. Few go on to finish high school or attend university. As a result, Roma unemployment rates in the Czech Republic, as in much of Europe, far exceed those for the rest of the population.

Evidence before the Court indicates that, in some Czech communities, Roma children are 27 times more likely to be sent to special schools than non-Roma children. The plaintiffs suggest that this amounts to racial segregation. The government vigorously denies this. The Court’s hearing is set for March 1.