(London, November 14, 2007) – The European Court of Human Rights ruling that the Czech government engaged in indirect discrimination against Roma children is a major step forward in implementing the European Convention on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch and INTERIGHTS said today.

The applicants in the case, 18 Czech nationals of Roma origin, had all been assigned to special schools for children with learning difficulties following psychological tests designed to assess their intellectual capacity. The court ruled yesterday that their placement amounted to a discriminatory denial of the children’s right to education and as such violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

“The European Court recognized that the right to education is vital to the future of these children,” said Lois Whitman, director of the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “Our research across the world shows that access to education is critical to breaking cycles of disadvantage for children everywhere.”

In the course of a powerful Grand Chamber judgment, the court clarified and strengthened a number of principles related to equality in the context of the European Convention on Human Rights. In particular the court, in its clearest statement on the issue to date, recognized that indirect discrimination – whereby a general policy or measure has a disproportionate prejudicial effect on a particular group – is prohibited by the convention in the same way as direct discrimination. The ruling also confirmed that once an applicant alleging indirect discrimination has established that the effect of a measure or practice is discriminatory, the burden shifts to the state to prove that the difference in impact has an objective and reasonable justification.

Equally important, the court also clarified that “reliable and significant” statistics may be used to establish prima facie discriminatory impact. In support of their claim, the applicants had provided statistical evidence showing that a disproportionately high number of Roma children were attending these special schools. Indeed in Ostrava, the region from which the applicants came, more than half the children in special schools were from the Roma community.

“This judgment has important implications not just for Roma children who have experienced discrimination in education and in other areas protected by the European Convention,” said David Geer, executive director of INTERIGHTS, “it also establishes an important precedent and provides valuable guidance for those wanting to challenge inequality across different grounds of discrimination.”

Noting that as a result of their “turbulent history and constant uprooting” the Roma are a specific type of disadvantaged and vulnerable minority in need of special protection under the convention, the court concluded that, due to segregation, the applicants “received an education which compounded their difficulties and compromised their subsequent personal development instead of tackling their real problems or helping them to integrate into ... ordinary schools and develop the skills that would facilitate life among the majority of the population.”

Background

The case was brought by 18 Czech nationals of Roma origin living in the Ostrava region of the Czech Republic. Between 1996 and 1999 all of the applicants were assigned to special schools for children with learning difficulties where they received education from a more basic curriculum.

In 2000 the applicants complained to the European Court of Human Rights arguing that their treatment amounted to a discriminatory denial of their right to education in breach of Article 14 taken together with Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In their submissions before the court they drew on extensive research indicating that Roma children were systematically assigned to segregated schools based on their racial or ethnic identity rather than their intellectual capacities.

A first decision was handed down in the case by a chamber of the court in February 2006. In this judgment the court found that although the applicants had raised serious arguments, the convention had not been violated. The case was then referred to the Grand Chamber which subsequently agreed to hear the case afresh.

INTERIGHTS, the International Centre for the Legal Protection of Human Rights, together with Human Rights Watch intervened at both stages in the case with third-party submissions focusing on the concept of indirect discrimination and the relevance of statistics and overall context in establishing such discrimination before the court. The intervention was extensively reflected in the court’s analysis of these issues.

The applicants were represented by the European Roma Rights Centre and the Open Society Justice Initiative.