Roma students win in Court of Human Rights

published 15 January 2008 updated 15 January 2008

In a momentous decision for Roma across Europe, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that segregating Roma students into "special" schools for children with learning disabilities is a form of unlawful discrimination. “The court has made clear that racial discrimination has no place in 21st century Europe,” said James A. Goldston, counsel for the plaintiffs and executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative. “Roma children must have the same access to quality education as everyone else.”

The ruling, by a vote of 13 to four, came in D.H. and Others v. the Czech Republic, a case launched eight years ago by 18 Roma children who sought legal redress for the common practice of segregating Roma students, regardless of their intellectual abilities, into schools for the learning disabled.

The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) provided evidence based on research in the city of Ostrava that demonstrated school selection processes frequently discriminate on the basis of race. Among its findings:

• Over half of the Roma child population is schooled in remedial special schools.

• Over half of the population of remedial special schools is Roma.

• Any Roma child is 27 times more likely to be placed in a school for the learning disabled than a non-Roma child.

• Even where Roma children manage to avoid the trap of placement in remedial special schooling, they are most often schooled in substandard and predominantly Roma urban schools.

In the landmark decision, issued 14 November 2007, the European Court of Human Rights awarded 4,000 Euros to each of the applicants in respect of non-pecuniary damage and 10,000 Euros jointly in respect of costs and expenses. The judgment is path-breaking in a number of respects:

Patterns of Discrimination: For the first time, the Court found that a pattern of racial discrimination in a particular sphere of public life — public primary schools, in this case — is indeed a violation of the European Convention. Thus it addresses not only specific acts of discrimination, but also systemic practices.

Segregation Is Discrimination: The Court clarified that racial segregation which disadvantages members of a particular racial or ethnic group amounts to discrimination.

Equal Access to Education for Roma is a Persistent Problem throughout Europe: The Court went out of its way to note that the Czech Republic is not alone. Discriminatory barriers to education for Roma children exist in a number of European countries.

For more information: http://www.errc.org and http://www.justiceinitiative.org.