European Discrimination on Trial

What good are Europe’s treaties aimed at ensuring the legal equality of all citizens when entire groups face systematic discrimination? That is the question that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) faces this week as its Grand Chamber, consisting of 17 judges, begins considering an appeal of an initial ruling that rejected claims of discrimination against the Roma by the Czech Republic’s education authorities.

All European states are members of the Council of Europe, all have signed the European Convention on Human Rights, 39 of the 46 member states have adopted the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, and 14 have ratified Protocol 12 on the prohibition against discrimination. Nevertheless, the living conditions of many Roma remain appalling.

Although recent reports published in 2006 by the European Union’s Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia and the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner note some improvements, they indicate Roma living conditions have stagnated, if not deteriorated. Roma are still victims of discrimination in access to housing, employment, healthcare, and education, despite significant local efforts at the Council of Europe’s instigation and with its support.

Discrimination in educational access is particularly important, given its profound effect on its victims’ life prospects. In the most extreme cases, the education system itself is segregated: isolated schools in remote camps; special classes for Roma children in mainstream schools; and an over-representation of Roma children in classes for children with learning difficulties.