Archive for Europe and Central Asia

The Story of a Young Tunisian Mother’s Struggle for Safety

By Izzy Tomico Ellis, a journalist and activist who has been heavily involved in the refugee crisis since 2015. Additional reporting by Niamh Keady-Tabbal.

Syrine* is sitting on the edge of a bed inside a tidy room for two, in City Plaza — a squatted hotel in Greece where solidarians from all over the world have flocked to bring respite to its refugee residents. Her little son started walking yesterday. In between our conversation, she holds out her hands to catch him as he falls down. Soothing him, she recalls, “I looked on Facebook to find out what to do when he was crying. I was alone with a baby…I didn’t know anything.” 

When we asked her if we could write down her story, she smiled, “I’ve thought about telling it a lot.”

The strength with which she carried herself had compelled me to ask, and at the same time made me worry she’d laugh. For her, a 21-year-old mother, bravery comes so naturally. 

When we first met in Athens in the January darkness, she explained that her husband had gone out the previous night to buy cigarettes and never came home. In the morning, she had called the main hospitals.

“He wasn’t there. I was relieved a little,’’ Syrine recounts shakily. But a few hours later, she had discovered he was in prison after being caught without the legal papers for refugees in Athens.

Too scared to return to where she had been staying, Syrine had been pushing her son, Salah*, around the streets in a buggy ever since.

Alone and homeless, remarkably she kept a clear head. She spoke calmly in English, asking for a lawyer to come the next day to try and resolve the situation for herself and her family, and arranged a room at City Plaza.

It wasn’t the first time. The young Tunisian woman has spent nearly three years running to protect herself, her husband and their son. Salah was just 8-months-old when they had to flee their country after Syrine’s relatives threatened to kill her in revenge for bringing dishonor to the family. The couple had managed to marry just before Salah was born, but Syrine’s family continues to look for her.

“My brother would do it, I know he would,” she said. Until then, she had been at university, hiding the relationship and pregnancy from her family. “I didn’t want an abortion; it’s easy, but it was my baby with the man I loved.”

The International Women’s Day march in Athens, March 08, 2018. // Izzy Tomico Ellis

She described the double-life she was leading in Tunisia, scrolling through old Facebook posts and event pages of the electronic music nights she and her husband would attend in the city of Sousse, close to the country’s capital, Tunis.

Tunisia has made significant legal advancements in the push toward gender equality, including lifting a ban on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men and ending a law that meant rapists could escape punishment by marrying their victims. However, systematic violence against women still persists: In 2016, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women said 70 percent of Tunisian women were victims of abuse and honor killings in Tunisia are still reported.

“One man told me there was no hope for asylum, and I should just go back,” she shakes her head . “He has no idea… My father is a famous man, he cares about what the people think, not about me —  we had to leave.”

After fleeing to Turkey, they arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos. Syrine describes what she saw in the camp as unbelievable. “Everywhere children without clothes or shoes,” she says. “Some people stay there for over a year —  one year!” Her eyes widen. “ I would go crazy.”

Moria camp has become an infamous symbol of the European refugee crisis where living conditions that lie behind barbed wire fences have been repeatedly condemned by leading human rights organizations. 

“We went to a hotel the next day and travelled to the mainland illegally. I couldn’t live there… with a baby,” she shakes her head.

“I think he misses him. He was happier before,” she gestures to Salah, as he refuses food in a restaurant close by to where they are staying.

Syrine has spent the last few weeks trying to arrange paperwork for her husband, to no avail. As the pair had left the previous island camp without the correct documents, she was told she would have to return if their asylum case was to be processed as a couple. Though, Syrine has relentlessly tried other ways.

“Every day I wake up early, I go to this organization — Katahaki (the Greek Asylum Service) — but each day passes and nothing happens,” she says. “Every night I would fall asleep and hope tomorrow will bring a solution.’’

But it hasn’t, so today she is leaving. Her hair is more blonde, and she’s cut it shorter. Her husband is still imprisoned, and Syrine is forced to leave her safe room in the hotel —  to travel back to a camp and live alone.

“It’s a dangerous step, but I must do it. I must go back there to help my husband,” she says. Her voice falters. Only a few days were spent at the camp before —  but she’s seen enough to know the dangers, the difficulties, the fear —  not being able to go to the toilet after a certain time, sleeping with her belongings wrapped in her arms, with her baby.

We find Syrine’s suitcase and bags parked outside the hotel. She comes out a few minutes later. Her face is made up. She looks European. It’s deliberate, for fear of police and discrimination. She pulls a hat over her son’s dark curls, speaking to him in English. Walking toward the train, she runs into friends on the street, another goodbye.

She made the same trip, just in the other direction, with her husband only months before. The closer we get, the more her face looks as if it will crumble —  her nervousness at the uncertainty that awaits her and her little baby lurching closer and closer each station we pass —  but it never does.

“I studied one year of architecture, then nursing, but now I think I want to be a mechanic,” she had told us in the days before.

Off the train, she gathers herself again, struggling to collapse the buggy into a taxi as the driver tuts impatiently, the hinges catching on baby toys —  as ever, she holds her cool —  once again methodically packing her life belongings.

 

*Syrine and Salah are false names used to protect real identities.

 

Izzy Tomico Ellis is a journalist and activist who has been heavily involved in the refugee crisis since 2015. Izzy graduated with a first class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster in 2016 and is currently based in Greece. Additional reporting for this article was contributed by Niamh Keady-Tabbal.

 

Soviet Affirmative Action and Contemporary Inclusion of Minorities

by Ulia Popova, a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University ISHR 

November 7 marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, an event that set in motion one of the controversial political experiments of the 20th century, the development of a socialist state. The legacy of the Soviet experiment is contradictory, given the greatness of the idea that inspired it and the tragedies it engendered. The Soviet treatment of the rights of ethnic minorities is particularly instructive in this regard, not least due to its relevance to the contemporary debate over inclusion and diversity.

Terry Martin, a Harvard historian, called the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) the “world’s first Affirmative Action Empire.” With the exception of India, no other multi-cultural state before or after the USSR, Martin writes, took action of equivalent scope in support of the cultural and political rights of ethnic minorities. The architects of the Soviet Union envisioned it as a state based on the principle of self-determination of all nations. The new state was diverse: the first census in 1926 accounted for close to 200 distinct cultural communities composing the USSR. Lenin theorized self-determination primarily as political autonomy: the arrangement of the new state would offer oppressed peoples a unique chance to liberate themselves by taking control over their political destinies.

Soviet measures in the area of minority rights became known as “nationalities policies,” after the Russian legal term natsional’nost’ that captures a cultural identity of a group and a citizen, while also having a political component. Nationality linked a specific group to an explicitly defined territory, which that group was entitled to administer as its officially recognized historical homeland.

An elaborate and hierarchical system of institutions of self-government was developed to implement this vision on all levels, beginning with the Union republics, and going down to reach distant and demographically small cultural groups living in the Russian North. Measures of quota-based representation of minorities in the regional and federal institutions of administration reinforced the vision, helping ethnic leaders to advance to positions of power.

Russian Revolution has given national life and development to many groups in Russia. Russian Posters Collection, 1919-1989 and undated. // David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

These policies were implemented in varying degrees throughout the history of the Soviet Union. Despite their promise of political liberation, the Soviet Affirmative Action did not afford minorities self governance. On the contrary, from the start these policies became instruments to maintain a centralized authoritarian state.

Why? The Soviet state architects were not concerned with protecting the institutions of governance that traditionally functioned within the ethnic communities integrated into a new state, such as, for example, kinship-based rule, prevalent among Soviet Asian communities, or the prominence of spiritual leaders (shamans) in decision making among remote indigenous Northern communities. Further, facing the threat of nationalism at the formation of the Union, Soviet leaders could not allow minorities to make decisions in accord with their local contexts and traditions. On the surface, Soviet policies guaranteed ethnic leaders an opportunity to institute a degree of control over their designated homelands, but in reality, the available means of governance were those devised to support communist rule. This approach stripped local authorities of their powers; their influence was limited to the private sphere as a group of new leaders, notoriously known as “ethnic party cadres,” replaced them. Trained in the Soviet system of education and employed within the state administration, they could only stay in power by serving their state and thus extending the institutions of authoritarian rule. The forms of local self-government they helped to institute were– to borrow from Stalin– “national” (i.e. ethnic) in form, “socialist in content.”

The legacies of the nationality policies are sadly known. During the Soviet times, they caused demographic catastrophe for a number of communities, most prominently to the Russian Northern indigenous groups, especially when implemented through forced relocations and industrialization projects. The structural and political arrangements these policies helped to produce became supportive of authoritarian rule during the post-Soviet times. In Russia, for example, a rise of ethnic self-determination movements during the 1990s engendered an extreme rise of autocratic governance leading to a contemporary approach to minority rights– to quote one observer– framed by Moscow’s attempt to “drive ethnicity out of politics.”

The wider significance of the Soviet Affirmative Action experiment is in its relevance to the contemporary projects of multiculturalism. Current visions of political equality often target measures that ensure inclusion of different groups into the state institutions in response to the history of their discrimination based on race, gender, culture and socio-economic conditions. While these measures provide opportunities to some minority individuals, they also support maintenance of the existing social and political order, as opposed to the reform that is promised rhetorically. As with the Soviet Affirmative Action initiatives, they strengthen the existing institutions of governance at the cost of widening the gap between those at the periphery of the system and those with power.

Ulia Popova (Gosart) is a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University ISHR, working with Elsa Stamatopoulou, director of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights program. Her current research focuses on political mobilizations among indigenous peoples living in the post-Soviet states. She has served on Russia’s indigenous umbrella organization for several years as a U.N. representative. Her publications are available at ResearchGate.

A Hidden Population of Disabled Refugees in the U.K.

By Jason Hung, a guest blogger from the University of Warwick

Currently, there are an estimated 118,995 refugees living in the U.K., composing less than one percent of the country’s total population. Three to ten percent of these refugees are thought to have a physical or mental disability. Due to the small number of disabled refugees living in the U.K., the rights of these refugees have often been disregarded, according to Keri Roberts and Jennifer Harris, research fellows from the University of York who generated data on the numbers and social characteristics of disabled refugees and asylum seekers living in Britain. Their research, which was completed in collaboration with the Refugee Council, found that U.K. communities are unable to provide sufficient aid for these vulnerable groups.

“Disabled people in refugee and asylum-seeking communities frequently experienced great hardship,” the authors note. “Considerable confusion about the responsibilities of different agencies and National Asylum Seekers Service (NASS), a lack of coordinated information and service provision, and gaps in professional knowledge on disability-related entitlements increased the difficulties experienced by disabled people in refugee and asylum-seeking communities.” For example, disabled refugees in the U.K. encounter inappropriate housing, as well as inadequate aid and equipment. There is also no official source of data about disabled refugees in the U.K, and it is noteworthy to highlight that even the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) fails to estimate the number of disabled refugees who have been resettled. Roberts and Harris conclude in their report that the insufficient statistical and empirical data about disabled refugees implicates the possibility of an invisible population of disabled refugees residing in the U.K. The extent of the social needs of these refugees remains unknown.

An image of refugee children in school // DFID // Flickr

A lack of financial support and access can bar disabled refugees from learning English and other valuable languages, such as British Sign Language (BSL) for deaf individuals, for example. In addition, communication difficulties have discouraged some disabled refugees from seeking community support and accessing benefits. One Vietnamese refugee missed out on disability-related benefits for 22 years because he was not properly informed about the availability of the Disability Living Allowance, according to a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The same report noted that a disabled Somali woman was never properly informed about how to apply for humanitarian aid due to language barriers. Without a helping hand, disabled refugees could find it challenging to live in the U.K. unless their English proficiency improves.

The year 2017 has further marked a bleak future for disabled refugees in the U.K. The government terminated the acceptance of disabled child refugees arriving from the war in Syria and other countries, including Libya, Yemen and Iraq. The Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme hoped to resettle 3,000 of the most vulnerable disabled child refugees prior to its suspension. These children must now stay in refugee camps, instead of being placed in the U.K. Shantha Barriga, director of Human Rights Watch’s disability rights division, denounced this action, stating, “Shutting the door on vulnerable children is an affront to British values…. People with disabilities endure unimaginable hardship during conflicts, and many faced huge hurdles in escaping the violence.” Lisa Doyle, head of advocacy at the Refugee Council, supplemented this statement by adding that disabled refugees are by definition the most vulnerable groups. The U.K. government should thus prioritize the resettlement of these cohorts and accommodate them safely, advocates argue.

Allan Hennessy // Noticias del Mundo // YouTube

Allan Hennessy, a blind Iraqi refugee and a recent law graduate from the University of Cambridge, told the BBC in July 2017 that he might have joined ISIS or been killed in war if he was not able to stay in the U.K. as a refugee. In the end, the biggest hurdle refugees with disabilities face might not be any physical limitation but the social discrimination that impedes them from pursuing a better life. “When you’re an overweight, brown, blind guy climbing the greasy pole, everyone can see and they judge you – even though they are doing it too.” Hennesy explained to BBC reporters.

Whether individuals have a physical or mental disability does not necessarily limit their work and life prospects; however, there is a contempt for disabled refugees, according to Hennessy. Refugees with disabilities suffer from social discrimination, including being sidelined in many aspects of humanitarian aid, such as health and rehabilitation services, reports the Division of Social Policy and Development Disability.

research report published by Research and Consultancy Unit (RCU) at Refugee Support and Metropolitan Support Trust defines disabled refugees in the U.K. as a “hidden population.” The number of disabled refugees and the multiple disadvantages they are up against are rarely known by local humanitarian service agencies and government authorities, the report notes. The research adds that most disabled refugees, in line with the rest of refugee cohorts, experience war and torture in their home countries and cultural and linguistic differences in their host countries. Their disabilities cast a further shadow on their livelihoods. As Hennessy wrote in The Guardian, “I have a disability; but I am not disabled.” It is the responsibility of both the U.K government and local communities to maximize the social capacity of refugees with disabilities by endeavouring to remove social stigmatization and ongoing impediments to aid.

Jason Hung is a visiting research scholar at UCLA for his original research project, “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: The Existence or Absence of Cultural Tolerance toward American Muslims?” He will be presenting his research at the 7th International Conference on Interdisciplinary Social Science Studies at the University of Oxford. He is also a featured writer for both the Oxford Human Rights Hub and the LSE Human Rights Blog. His research interests include migration issues, refugee rights, feminism affairs, women’s rights, and public health policies.

From the Field: Building a Plurality of Memories in Spain

By Zina Precht-Rodriguez, Columbia College ’19

The story of Spain’s traumatic history is compelling because it is continuously unfolding. One of my most memorable experiences in Barcelona this summer was my visit to an air raid shelter that was designed during the Spanish Civil War to protect thousands of civilians during the fascist bombings of Barcelona. The existence of the shelter was only discovered a couple of years ago by a cable company. The company intended to build an underground landline to connect more people throughout Spain, but the irony of the situation is that something much deeper connects the people of Spain: a traumatic memory that tells the story of a vicious divide within Spain, as well as within Europe, of those who risked their lives for progressive change and those who compromised their own morality.

In 2017, these casual rediscoveries of a traumatic Spanish past are triggering an outpouring of civilian, intellectual and political inquiry. The European Observatory for Memories (EUROM) addresses these so-called “black spots in history” that have resulted in a pact of silence and brought Spanish society to an inevitable tipping point. In essence, an avalanche of unaddressed and unvalidated memories has come falling down, and there is no time to methodically pick up the pieces. To complicate this mess further, we must be reminded that the hands picking up the pieces are more likely to belong to the descendants of those witnesses of the Spanish Civil War, and later, of the Franco regime.

How does the intergenerational nature of the situation influence perspectives of justice? In order to explore this question, it is necessary to dive into my personal perspective and attempt to explain the nature of my own psychological matrix as I woke up everyday and went to work at EUROM. Toward the middle of my spring 2017 semester, I became transfixed with a pending national lawsuit called Juliana v. The United States. In short, the case posits 20 youth plaintiffs against the government. The youths are fighting for a right to a stable climate society; they explicitly argue that the government has disproportionately disfavored younger generations by leaving them with a turbulent climate system. My fascination with the case pushed me to challenge my understanding of generational trauma and justice. Similar to climate change, generational justice cannot be achieved by pointing the finger. It is easy to say that someone is “responsible,” but at the same time, responsibility gets lost in translation as generations elapse.

EUROM and Juliana are similar in the sense that they attempt to reinvent societal consensus; just as Juliana pushes the justice system to reevaluate how crucial climate is to a stable society, EUROM pushes people to finally recognize the gruesome realities of the war and the traumatic impacts it had on collective societal consciousness. In this vein, both actors attempt to evolve a moral spectrum by tapping into a unique emotionality.

Visitors explore the internal structure of La Model // Zina Precht-Rodriguez.

I was lucky enough to witness EUROM succeed in this mission; one of their most exciting recent developments includes the closure of a former men’s prison, La Model. The organization worked alongside the city government and other bilateral community organizations in a participatory process to close the prison, which served as one of Franco’s torture centers of innocent people during the Spanish Civil War. The process transformed the prison into a cultural and memorial space. The logic of this transformation is to recognize the significance of this space and to dismantle the tortuous and imprisoning aspect of it. Refashioning the space to facilitate activities that promote justice signifies to society that communities cannot only come to terms with the cruelty once committed in this space but also can positively address it.

But the impacts of the transformation go beyond mere symbols; the men once imprisoned in La Model are now emancipated and starting to integrate back into society. They have the opportunity to work during the day to earn money and then are required to return to government supervision at night. This experiment is called the “open prison model.” The model releases the men from the panopticon watch that the prison was designed to promote.

Projects like La Model exhibit how EUROM advocates that justice cannot be achieved when paired with amnesia. The process of remembering, recovering and retelling is central to the process of healing. Just because first-hand memories are gradually dissolving in numbers, it does not mean that younger generations facilitate civil society with a clean slate. I am returning to Columbia College reinvigorated by my experience at EUROM. I am approaching my studies with a strong belief that we inherit history, and as civilians, it is our duty to deal with and learn from it, passing this philosophy onto others when we leave earth.

This summer, Columbia College student Zina Precht-Rodriguez participated in an eight-week international internship program sponsored by Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR). Her research interests include climate policy and intergenerational justice. In this entry, she reflects on her time in Barcelona, Spain, at an ISHR affiliate organization, the European Observatory on Memories (EUROM), a “transnational network of institutions and organizations committed to the analysis and promotion of remembrance public policies.” The mission of EUROM is to “reflect on the recent history of the struggle for democracy and freedom in Spain and Europe, and to advocate for a plurality of memories.”

Viktor Orbán’s Hungary: A Nationalist Government Within the European Union

By Bárbara Matias, an M.A. student in human rights

In late May, thousands of Hungarians marched against Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s educational reform laws subduing foreign universities and non-governmental organizations. The educational reforms were the latest in a series of clashes between the right-wing Hungarian government and the European Union (EU); the protests yet another manifestation of civil society’s mobilization against Orbán’s opposition to EU frameworks. On May 1, the 13th anniversary of Hungary’s accession to the EU, for example, thousands took to the streets in a pro-EU rally, suitably called “We Belong to Europe.’’

This past April, Prime Minister Orbán and Hungary’s parliament passed an amendment to Hungary’s national law on higher education, tightening regulations on independent and foreign-funded universities. Specifically, the law targets the Central European University (CEU), a Budapest-based university founded by Hungarian-born American financier George Soros and accredited in the United States and Hungary since 1993. The current government under Orbán sought legal means to shut the university down, viewing it as a foreign NGO whose liberal and internationalist teachings undermine the power of the elected government.

Hungarians marched against Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in April 2017 // jennifer.ang // Fickr

The act defines new requirements such as opening a campus in the country of accreditation and tightening bilateral agreements between Hungary and the university’s country of origin, in this case, the United States. It pushes back against globalization and liberalism, and further threatens to slide the country into an authoritarian state. As academics worldwide and international organizations condemned the passage of this law, Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, stated, “The Hungarian government’s contempt for critical voices in society and academic freedom is unworthy of an EU member state.”

Hungary has been under the current administration of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s national conservative rule since 2010. Openly skeptical of EU integration, Orbán said in May 2014 during the European Union elections that Hungary “must tell Brussels loudly and resolutely: respect the Hungarians!” He quickly opposed the EU Commission’s mandatory quotas for relocating migrants, calling a national referendum to vote on the EU plan, which prompted EU representatives to question how such a referendum “would fit into the decision-making process which was agreed to by all member states, including Hungary, under EU treaties.”

Viktor Orbán // Creative Commons

The referendum sought to legitimize the government’s conservative, anti-European and anti-immigration stance through a popular domestic vote – in fact, Orbán spent 10 bn Hungarian forints (around €30m) campaigning for the ‘No’ vote and feeding the concerns of the electorate.

Prime Minister Orbán also notably sparked outrage in 2013, by amending the country’s constitution to boost his executive powers. At the time, German media outlet Der Spiegel noted, “In other words, a country at the center of the European Union is moving away from the principles of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.’’

In 2014, the Hungarian Prime Minister incensed EU counterparts once more by claiming that the EU does not deter Hungary from “building an illiberal new state based on economic hardship.” In 2015, Orbán similarly faced European outcry by stating that he believes the death penalty should be put back on the government’s agenda – even as a total ban of capital punishment is enshrined in both the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU (Article 2 reads that “no one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed’’) and the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 1 of the 13th Protocol establishes that “the death penalty shall be abolished’’).

Protest in April 2017 against Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in solidarity with CEU // jennifer.ang // Fickr

Most recently, with the amended education law, the Hungarian government has once more challenged core values of the union it belongs to. Article 13 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU states that “the arts and scientific research shall be free of constraint” and “academic freedom shall be respected,’’ much like Article 14 safeguards the right to education. EU officials finally launched an infringement procedure against Hungary in late April, demanding that is either justify or amend its breaches to EU human rights and open-market standards, at the risk of a referral to the European Court of Justice and possible fines.

Clearly, there is an evident downward spiral of human rights and rule-of-law in Hungary as Prime Minister Orbán insists on continuing to defy EU standards of academic freedom and democratic governance. As EU citizens and rights-holders, Hungarian’s freedoms remain at risk under Orbán’s repressive crackdowns and government of supranationalism.

Bárbara Matias is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Her research interests include refugee rights, forced displacement, and human rights affairs in the context of the European Union.

 

Roma Communities in the EU Continue to Lack Access to Equal Education Opportunities

By Claudia Kania, guest blogger from Reavis high school

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) released a statement in 2000 that acknowledged “the place of the Roma communities among those most disadvantaged and most subject to discrimination in the contemporary world.” Such socially and institutionally-accepted xenophobia is perhaps most clearly epitomized by the European school system. Although academic institutions are often portrayed as “the great equalizers,” a system founded on the principles of ignorance and prejudice frequently separates Roma, one of the largest minority groups in Europe, from reaping the benefits of education.

The right to education is universally established as a fundamental guiding principle within international human rights discourse. It is recognized as a human right by Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as Articles 28, 29, and 40 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. To further contextualize the premise of academic equity, UNESCO put forth the 1960 Convention against Discrimination in Education, an international legislative framework adopted to promote “the ideal of equality of educational opportunity without regard to race, sex or any distinctions, economic or social.” This convention recognizes education as not only a right in and of itself, but also as an intrinsic vehicle in realizing other rights. It is an instrument vital in securing a life free of financial hardship, disenfranchisement and social exclusion.

A report released in 2016 detailed the true scope of the expulsion of Roma communities to the fringes of European society. For example, while approximately 17 percent of EU citizens are at risk of poverty, that number is more than four times higher for Romani individuals. In the month prior to the study, only about 30 percent of Romani households received paid work. The Office for National Statistics further revealed that out of 60,000 individuals who identified as Roma, 60 percent had no formal schooling. Moreover, Roma individuals are often the victims of hate crimes and police brutality.  

Interior of container school for Roma children in Slovakia // Amnesty International

Segregation remains one of the primary obstacles standing between Roma pupils and equal education opportunities. Although prejudice is sometimes blatantly propagated by biased media and political campaigns, such instances present a gateway to other less conspicuous modes of discrimination. For instance, lower expectations for Roma students subsequently led to higher dropout rates within their communities, which substantially decreases the prospects of secondary and tertiary education for Roma individuals. This, in turn, translates to higher unemployment rates and hinders the participation of Roma in the democratic process. Thus, the cycle continues.

A 2015 report by Amnesty International illustrates discriminatory placement of Romani students in remote classes separating students from their non-Roma peers. A UNICEF report, specifically noting a 2002 case in Hungary, states that, in general, all-Roma classrooms typically lack fundamental resources otherwise available to students not of the Roma ethnicity, including experienced teachers and up-to-date curricula. More recently, the European Commission specifically targeted discrimination within Hungarian schools. Although EU member states are expected to abide by equal education frameworks, legal directives such as the Racial Equality Directive and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights oftentimes have little impact on institutionalized forms of ethnic discrimination.

In 2012, The Slovakian Regional Court condemned the segregation of Roma in its schools. Although the ruling sent a message to the Slovakian Ministry of Education regarding the country’s international obligations to provide impartial access to education, it did little to prevent ethnic-based segregation. Not only do schools continue to run all-Roma classes, but Slovakian Roma pupils are faced with the prospect of being sent to “container schools,” schools made from material resembling shipping containers, and isolated from the rest of Slovak society. When the guardians of Roma students attempt to enroll their children in non-container schools, their pleas are refused by school board officials who argue that their schools do not have the capacity to accommodate Roma pupils. The “convenient” construction of substandard learning institutions within close geographic proximity to Roma settlements is nothing other than an arm of ethnic discrimination and social exclusion, as noted by Amnesty International.

The European Roma community also faces another kind of widespread segregation: Roma pupils are frequently placed in learning disability schools, regardless of scholastic comprehension. A 2013 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights remarked that Hungary’s systematic misdiagnosis of learning disabilities violated the European Convention on Human Rights. In addition, a 2012 report by the Roma Education Fund highlights the prejudicial nature of such entrance level examinations, which focus specifically on cultural and linguistic biases.

A young student // Daniel Mihailescu/Getty

Cases of outright denial to enroll Romani children to academic institutions continue to remain prominent. The mayors of several French municipalities, for example, refused to enroll Roma children in public schools on the basis of their lack of certification. Certification, however, is not easily achieved by Roma parents, as informal settlements are almost never recognized by government officials. As identity documents remain largely inaccessible to Roma individuals, most families remain stateless. Thus, admission, in most cases, is granted only after the intervention of the French Ombudsmen. A recent article by the New York Times highlights the bureaucratic obstacles Roma students face when attempting to gain access to French schools. The country has made headlines due to the forced evacuation of hundreds of Roma families.

Former Columbia Law professor Jack Greenberg linked the Roma battle for equal education to the American Civil Rights Movement. Both groups have experienced the harrowing realities of slavery, societal disenfranchisement, and discrimination, propagated in part by stereotyping in a biased media. Schools today segregate non-Roma students from their Roma peers, providing the latter with substandard educational resources. The case of Horváth and Kiss v. Hungary bears a striking resemblance to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Although both rely on the concept of strategic litigation, the successful implementation of anti-discriminatory education policy is currently a far reach for contemporary Europe. It will require not only the willingness of policymakers, but also the active mobilization of Roma civil society.

Locally, individual schools should engage in active redistricting in order to achieve ethnic diversity within academic institutions, as well as incorporate Romani culture into standing curricula to promote diversity and ethnic tolerance. It is well within the means of any school within the EU to guarantee an environment based on social inclusion and academic equity. Likewise, it is crucial that international bodies, such as the European Commission and European Union,  apply political pressure on national governments to uphold international and national legislative standards of equality. The implementation of such standards and their effects on academic institutions should be monitored by national bodies, benefiting from the interests of both grassroot NGOs and international donors.

Claudia Kania is a contributing researcher for the University of Cambridge Centre for Governance and Human Rights research project, “ICTs and Human Rights,” as well as featured writer for the Oxford Human Rights Hub. Her research interests include minority rights, women’s rights, and education policy. 

Turkey and the European Human Rights Regime: Is it right to derogate?

By Marina Kumskova, an MA student in Human Rights

Several human rights treaties allow for states to derogate from their obligations to protect certain rights. These adjustments can only take place temporarily, however, and in exceptional circumstances – i.e. in times of public emergency threatening the life of a nation. Yet, despite the professedly innocuous  intent of such systems, states of emergency have a dark history of being used in controversial ways to usher in tyrannical regimes, under the facade of confronting a threat to the existence of the nation.

Take the example of France. The perceived threat to the life of the nation from terrorist attacks, caused by people only loosely connected by an ideology, is  seemingly tremendous. However, France has proven that the introduction of emergency powers, which allow for the derogation of rights, also ushers in a temptation for misuse. France’s state of emergency last December was less than a month old when its emergency powers were used, not in the fight against suspected ISIS terrorists, but to place climate change protesters under house arrest during the Paris Climate Summit. Although the state did not hesitate to make the most of its extended powers against the protesters, it was still unable to prevent the Bastille Day attack in Nice a few months later. Given the events of the past few months, France’s state of emergency appears more effective in breaching its social contract, rather than in delivering a proportionate response to terrorist threats.

Citizens protesting against Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan // Al Jazeera

Following the recent failed coup in its territory, the Turkish government announced its intent to derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights as part of the country’s state of emergency. It is a State’s legal right to derogate from some obligations under the Convention in response to crises. However, Turkey’s response to the uprising requires further detailed investigation into what exactly constitutes a threat to the life of the nation.”

The Human Rights Council interprets derogation measures as measures that must be limited “to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” In other words, such measures need to be proportionate. The requirement of proportionality constitutes one of the substantive limits to emergency powers, requiring specific scrutiny and justification of each measure taken in response to an emergency, rather than an abstract assessment of the overall situation.

Is the response of Turkey to the failed coup proportionate? “The first state of emergency decree goes well beyond the legitimate aim of promoting accountability for the bloody July 15 coup attempt,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director at Human Rights Watch. “It is an unvarnished move for an arbitrary, mass, and permanent purge of the civil service, prosecutors, and judges, and to close down private institutions and associations without evidence, justification, or due process.” As a result of the vague and open-ended wording of the original Turkish decree, roughly 18,000 people have been detained since July 16, and another 60,000 government workers have lost their jobs.

Much remains uncertain about the coup, allegedly organized by a community of people inspired by the US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen. However, the Turkish government’s response to the attempted coup can be used to target any adversary – perceived or real – beyond those in the Gülen movement. The striking non-proportionality of Turkey’s derogation has already further affected its foreign relations, complicated the fight against ISIS, and raised questions about whether the country is drifting towards a Putin-style government where power is concentrated in the hands of one person.

Turkish protestor // Petros Giannakouris

It cannot be left unsaid that Turkey, along with Russia, is one of the countries most frequently found by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to have violated the European Convention. Therefore, it is unclear why Turkey is keen to suspend the Convention now, given that its previous violations have been met with relative impunity. However, the suspension of the Convention by Turkey does not guarantee that the government will not be tried for human rights violations committed during times of emergency in the future. Anyone claiming to be the victim of a violation of the Convention by Turkey as a result of new measures adopted under the state of emergency will have the right to bring their case to the European Court of Human Rights. As Turkey has learned before through the ruling of a 1996 ECHR case, derogation  does not mean that the authorities have carte blanche to violate people’s’ rights without retribution..

The drafters of the international treaties intended to give states the flexibility to deal with particularly serious crisis situations while simultaneously imposing strict binds in order to prevent abuses. Resorting to extraordinary measures should always go hand in hand with strict limitations and international accountability.

Looking at the world today, it is clear that the declaration of the state of emergency has been used over and over to justify extreme “measures” such as interventions, occupations, civilian killings, and torture programs. On the other hand, it has barely proven its effectiveness in addressing crisis situations. The case of Turkey is another example of derogation used to strengthen authoritarian regimes and prioritize militarism at the expense of safeguarding human rights.

Marina Kumskova is a graduate student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University and a research assistant at the Center for International Human Rights at John Jay College. In her research, she focuses on religious discrimination in the context of counter-terrorism policies.

Strasbourg delivers a blow to reproductive rights, women’s rights, and Roma rights in one go

By Judit Geller, Adam Weiss, and Bernard Rorke, guest bloggers from the European Roma Rights Centre

On June 9th 2015, the European Court of Human Rights declared an application submitted by the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) on behalf of a victim of forced sterilization inadmissible. The injustices visited upon the applicant from the moment of being sterilized in Hungary are disturbing – the legal reasoning behind the decision is deeply troubling for anyone interested in reproductive rights, anti-Roma discrimination, women’s rights, or the emerging legal field of intersectionality.

The facts (which can be found in an anonymised version of the application on the ERRC website) are as follows: On February 9th 2008, the applicant G.H. was admitted to the hospital, twenty-two weeks pregnant with twins and bleeding heavily. An urgent Caesarean section was ordered. The applicant signed a form consenting to this procedure. It was discovered that the foetuses were dead, and they were removed. During the operation, the applicant’s fallopian tubes were tied, and during her stay in the hospital, she was placed in a ward of the hospital occupied only by Roma patients (although not Roma herself, her husband was).

On the day of the applicant’s release, the hospital issued a medical discharge document which included a reference to the fact that the applicant had been sterilized. The document did not refer to her giving consent. It was only upon seeing this document after her release that the applicant first understood that she had been sterilized.

The courts in Hungary found that the hospital should have asked G.H. to sign a consent form, and that because they did not do so, she was to be compensated for those administrative oversights. But not too much: the two million Hungarian forints (about €6,000) she had been awarded were deemed excessive. On appeal, the Supreme Court slashed the amount in half, since according to the doctors, the applicant had consented to the sterilization, but the hospital had just forgotten to follow the formalities.

G.H.’s contrasting and more credible version of the story bears a striking resemblance to A.S. v. Hungary,  another case where a Romani woman was sterilized in a Hungarian hospital in 2001. Just as in the A.S. case, despite the doctor’s claims, it does not matter whether G.H. ‘consented’ in the middle of a traumatic medical emergency. Sterilization without fully informed consent is a serious human rights violation and an arbitrary interference with a woman’s bodily integrity, reproductive health, and right to family and private life. International bodies have already established this, including the Strasbourg Court itself. However, the intersectional discrimination has never been acknowledged: these women are targeted because they are female and Roma.

The European Court disposes of most inadmissible applications it receives by having them decided by a single judge and sending a short rejection letter without reasons. G.H. was given the less usual benefit of a reasoned inadmissibility decision from a seven-judge Chamber explaining why she lacked victim status. The Strasbourg Court found that the applicant “was in the position to take an informed decision,” had received compensation and an apology. In short, there was nothing left to complain about.  

The Chamber found that compensation received from the domestic courts deprived her of victim status:

  • To the extent that the applicant claims that the medical intervention, which was carried out with her consent but without a written procedure required by the domestic law, amounts to an infringement of her right to respect for private life under Article 8, the Court finds that the applicant can no longer claim to be a victim of a violation for the following reasons.
  • The Court notes that material compensation, in an amount of EUR 3,300, was awarded to the applicant for the grievance in question, that the courts recognised a breach of her rights, and that the hospital apologised for the procedural irregularity committed.
  • In these circumstances, the Court considers that an express acknowledgement of the violation of the applicant’s rights occurred and she received adequate redress.

It comes as no surprise that the Court, when faced with conflicting versions, opted for the domestic court’s preference for the defendant’s account. Subsidiarity dictates this kind of deference to national courts. But the Court went further: it put the hospital’s version of events into the applicant’s mouth. Bluntly ignoring G.H.’s own claim that she never asked to be sterilized, the Court summarised the application submitted by ERRC as follows:

“The applicant mentioned to her doctors that she thought it was reasonable to tie her Fallopian tubes in order to sterilise her. The doctors repeatedly asked her if that was indeed her desire and explained that this intervention could not be subsequently undone. The applicant answered in the affirmative, confirming that she wanted no more children. These statements were made to three doctors and a midwife.”

The core of the problem, though, is with the result the domestic courts and the Strasbourg Court drew from that version of the facts: if a woman gives some form of consent to sterilisation in the middle of a pregnancy-related medical emergency, her approval under duress somehow mitigates the human rights violation.

The International Federation of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians has said, in its own guidelines on the subject, that “No woman may be sterilised without her own, previously-given informed consent, with no coercion, pressure or undue inducement by healthcare providers or institutions”, and that “Sterilisation for prevention of future pregnancy is not an emergency procedure. It does not justify departure from the general principles of free and informed consent.”

The European Court normally awards tens of thousands of euros in cases of forced sterilization. The €3,000 G.H. received from the Hungarian courts was not just stingy – it was based on the conclusion that the applicant’s “consent” mitigated the damage. The Strasbourg inadmissibility decision finding that she was not a victim confirmed this approach. It is a procedural blow to reproductive rights, women’s rights, and Roma rights. A woman in the middle of a pregnancy-related medical emergency is vulnerable to serious abuse and irreparable harm.

It is no accident that so many Romani women are affected by forced sterilization: one of the most common racist stereotypes about Roma is that they have large families, and one of the most common racist beliefs is that they should not. The challenge for the future is to frame such cases in ways that force judges to address the discriminatory structures at play. The Court had an opportunity to examine these intersectional issues in a sophisticated way. Instead, they passed up on this opportunity, and chose instead to see it as a case of someone quibbling over money.

The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) is an international public interest law organization working to combat anti-Romani racism and human rights abuse of Roma through strategic litigation, research and policy development, advocacy and human rights education. You can read more of their writing here.

The Enforced Disappearance of Human Rights in the World

By Marina Kumskova, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

___________________________________________________________________________

1Between March 2002 and July 2004, eight individuals of Chechen origin were “arrested by groups of armed and masked men in a manner resembling a security operation”. Pointing guns at the family members, the soldiers took men away in military carriers. Similarly, on April 28, 1991, Jeremías Osorio Rivera was officially detained by a military patrol when he went to the village of Nunumia to take part in a sports event. He was accused of making a terrorist threat for carrying an officially registered gun and explosives materials.

None of these men have been seen or heard from since, despite their families’ tireless efforts to find them. In both cases, the males were abducted and detained by armed men without arrest warrant, held in solitary confinement under mortifying circumstances for unidentified periods of time, and deprived of legal assistance or any other contact with the outside world. In both cases, after the abduction of the individuals and in the absence of any information about their whereabouts, the domestic criminal justice systems in the respective countries did not take any measures to provide remedies for determining the fate of the disappeared individuals. They also failed to safeguard the relatives’ right of access to justice and right to know the truth through effective investigation and through holding accountable those responsible for the crimes.

The aforementioned cases are typical examples of the crime that is internationally known as “enforced disappearance.” Today, this crime continues to take place in 88 states all over the world, and constitutes a continuous violation of multiple rights. Enforced disappearances emerged in international discourse after World War II, and the narrative of violations carried out by Latin American military dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s shaped the development of this discourse. Since that time, the international community has begun to acknowledge that a wide range of human rights of both the victims and their families are denied by the act of enforced disappearance, claiming that states should be held accountable for their failure to prevent the disappearances, to investigate them, and to punish the perpetrators in light of their obligations under several international agreements.

Despite the number of treaties and agreements signed in order to establish an understanding as to the nature of enforced disappearance and determine state responsibilities, the international community has repeatedly failed to create a conceptual framework for enforced disappearances and to establish monitoring mechanisms that can proactively address the problem. This is likely due to political influence in the shaping human rights norms.

The context of the crime of forced disappearance implies that the perpetrator has an unfair advantage over the victim, because evidence is often under the exclusive control of the perpetrator, who typically has intent to hide it. As a consequence of this distinctive characteristic of disappearances, it is up to international human rights bodies, such as the Inter-American and European Courts of Human Rights, to promote and protect individuals from this violation.

2Unfortunately, the details and procedures of implementing judgment are specific to each Court. Both courts can and do force states to pay financial compensation to family members of disappeared persons. However, the whereabouts of victims have never been established, and required remedies have never been fulfilled, causing severe suffering of the victims’ loved ones. Under pressure from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission, Peru adopted legislative amendments and provided special reparation policies. Overall, the Inter-American system has managed to develop valuable jurisprudence that still requires more work in terms of influencing state compliance. On the other hand, the European Court was not able to require any action to be taken by Russia as result of the judgment in the joint case of the enforced disappearance of the eight Chechen individuals referenced above, since it issues only declaratory judgments. Russia has failed to adopt any measures to ensure that no similar violations take place in the future, that violators are adequately deterred, or that family members of the disappeared persons are provided with necessary remedies.

Overall, despite the gravity of the crime, enforced disappearance continues to be ineffectively addressed by regional and international mechanisms. Unfortunately, international human rights courts cannot do much to prevent this crime from happening, especially when the courts investigate cases in which one of the parties is a so-called “powerful” country. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the Courts fail to provide effective remedies to the family members of disappeared persons. While countless people around the world are subjected to injustices, international courts and human rights activists cannot do much about it unless states express their willingness to comply with the judgments. In this light, the most promising method would be to lodge interstate complaints against the countries that are not willing to comply with recommendations or declaratory judgments by creating political pressure. However, the questions remain: which countries will be able to proceed with this legitimate measure without creating political tensions, and how can non-governmental organizations influence this process?


Marina Kumskova is a graduate student in Human Rights Studies Program at Columbia University and a research assistant at the Center for International Human Rights at John Jay College. In her research, she focuses on religious discrimination in the context of counter-terrorism policies.

How the Iran Deal Affects Ordinary People’s Lives in Iran

By Roya Pakzad, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

___________________________________________________________________________

Iran Deal 1

Chinese ambassador Wu Hailong; French foreign secretary Laurent Fabius; German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier; EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini; Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif; Alexey Karpov, the deputy director of the department for nonproliferation and arms control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia; British foreign secretary Philip Hammond; and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Iran and the world powers reached an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.

Earlier this week, President Obama gathered enough votes for the Iran Deal, by securing the support of 34 Senators and thus the ability to sustain a veto in Congress. According to the deal, Iran will significantly limit its nuclear program activities. In return, the international community will lift oil and financial sanctions that have been imposed on Iran for more than a decade.

For many people around the world this news showed the victory of diplomacy over aggression. For me it was an instant journey two years into the past, when I received a call from Iran informing me that my 41 year-old cousin, Azim, was suffering from liver cancer. There was not sufficient medical access, no way to receive the necessary medications through official International postage, and the currency was falling to a record low, making dollars hard to come by and proliferating black markets for fake medications. And it is this context that led to the death of Azim, who died struggling to receive proper care and medication.

As I look at the news headlines I am reminded that Azim was far from the only Iranian citizen who lost his or her fundamental right to live because of these intolerable medical, technological, and economic sanctions. For more than a decade, ordinary Iranians bore the brunt of penalties imposed on the Iranian government. Multiple sanctions imposed by the international community have isolated Iran from the global financial system, limited oil exports, and prohibited US and some EU firms from trading with and investing in Iran. Collectively, these sanctions have taken a severe toll on the country’s economy.

Some opponents of the deal in Congress defend their negative vote by citing massive violations of freedom of speech and of the press in Iran. But have they considered that not letting Iran import food, medicine, and life-saving technologies violates the right to an adequate standard of living? Have they considered that isolating Iran from the international community in the name of human rights not only contributes to the economic hardship of ordinary citizens, but also eases the path to further civil rights violations by the Islamic Republic Regime? The interdependence of rights means we have to consider how attempting to protect one’s freedom can negatively influence other rights including health, food, and life itself.

An Iranian dancing on a street of Tehran,celebrating nuclear agreement.

An Iranian dancing on a street of Tehran,celebrating nuclear agreement.

I do not deny the regime’s persecution of journalists and activists. In fact, I myself was threatened with expulsion from university in Tehran when I was nineteen, simply for being a member of an Iranian women rights and gender equality campaign. Yet many of those same human rights activists supported the Iran Deal because they believe isolating Iran and imposing more sanctions (and more aggressive alternatives, like the threat of military strikes) will not solve the human rights issues in the country, and will certainly not bring more freedom and democracy for ordinary Iranian people. Furthermore, a lack of monitoring and communication could result in what we now witness in North Korea, a completely isolated state with a government that refuses to answer for any of its abusive actions. In this era of globalization, politicians should come to understand that isolating states is not only politically impractical, but harmful to the interests of the global community as a whole.

Thousands of miles from my homeland, I celebrate through the photos of Iranians dancing in the streets. I am delighted by the thrill in their eyes and pleased that finally diplomacy has finally worked. However, with joy in my heart and a lump in my throat, it is hard not to think of the hundreds of Azims who could have been there in those streets with their fellow Iranians, laughing, enjoying, celebrating.


Roya Pakzad is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the impact of technology on women’s rights.