From Mon Jan 17 07:15:06 2005
Date: Sun, 16 Jan 2005 13:19:50 -0600 (CST)
From: “Michael Givel” <>
Article: 202049
To: undisclosed-recipients: ;

Slovak Roma: Don't disciminate, co-operate

By Lucia Kubosova, TOL correspondent and Lubica Kubosova, student at Trnava University, Slovakia, and an intern at the private Slovak television channel TA 3, 14 January 2005

Specially trained police head for the poorest Roma settlements, and the Slovak elite debates new affirmative-action measures designed to lift minorities out of poverty.

When angry protests and looting broke out in eastern Slovakia almost a year ago as local Roma voiced their fury at the government's plan to cut social benefits, thousands of police and troops were sent in to quell the tensions. Many residents were incensed at the authorities' show of force. This month, 18 freshly trained local police officers are due to begin new assignments in the same region: they will fan out across segregated shantytowns and neighborhoods with the idea of building bridges between the police and the poorest Romani communities. Some are calling them “Roma police,” but don’t look for a single Rom among them. “Our goal is to bring police officers closer to Romani communities, mainly to segregated villages, because some of them have never set foot there, saying the Roma should handle their affairs by themselves,” Klara Orgovanova, the government's commissioner for Romani affairs, said. Her office cooperated with Deputy Prime Minister Pal Csaky, the chief author of the program. The officers will work closely with local authorities, social workers, and civic organizations to help maintain order and deal with minor conflicts in the settlements. They will also try to ensure that local people's rights are respected when larger police operations take place. “A majority of Roma would be open to the specialist police calling at their homes even without a serious reason, just to talk to them,” said Magda Krasulova, spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry's police directorate. Police conducted a survey in the region before launching the project and found clear support for it, and local Roma said they would be willing to cooperate with “their police officers” if they proved trustworthy, she said.

Trust us… Winning the locals' trust will be key to improving policing, but some observers wonder if the police can do that. “Frankly, I’m worried that the project will follow in the tracks of many others before, where things were done only for the sake of doing something,” said Kristina Magdolenova, journalist and director of the Roma Press Agency, which is based in Kosice, the region's largest city. “Preparation for a program like this should be preceded by a broader discussion with experts in the field, but I’m not aware of any in this case.” Magdolenova fears the police will by stymied by a lack of resources and, most of all, a lack of truly qualified people, saying, “Be they Roma or non-Roma, the fundamental criterion for the specialist police officers must be knowledge of the language.” Some Roma did apply for the new policing jobs, but most Romani candidates lacked the required education and experience for the positions, Orgovanova suggested. “It would be perfect if Roma themselves could be chosen. But, when you think about it, a police officer is either good or bad. That—rather than their ethnicity—is crucial.” Magdolenova admits that Roma sometimes more readily accept non-Romani authorities but insists that the language barrier is likely to be a major problem. John Coxhead, an inspector with the Derbyshire Constabulary in England, said working to improve relations between police and Roma is worthwhile despite the challenges. With experience of working alongside a Romani police officer in Hungary, Coxhead said, “I can imagine there is a tension of mistrust in that Roma might say, ‘Why are you doing that, those [police] are not for us,’ etc., but there is also recognition that to improve the situation you need to stand up and do things, sometimes in a pioneering way. Sometimes you can influence more from within than outside.”

Despite our record Perhaps the biggest obstacle police face in trying to build trust and support among the Roma is their past record. Numerous international organizations have accused the Slovak police of discrimination against the Romani minority. In its 2003 annual country report, Amnesty International stated that when police conducted investigations into allegations that members of the force ill-treated Roma in a number of instances, the probes “were not independent and impartial as required by international law.” The European Roma Rights Center goes further, alleging, “In several recent cases, Roma have been killed by Slovak police officers while in police custody.” The center also charges that Slovak authorities “continue to fail to provide Roma with adequate protection against racially motivated violence perpetrated by members and sympathizers of nationalist-extremist movements and other vigilante groups.” The statute establishing specialist police for Romani communities recognizes that discriminatory attitudes and behavior exist among the police and that pressure is sometimes placed on internal opponents of such practices. To guard against this, the statute declares that the new officers “are to have a special position, so that no form of pressure may be put upon them in case they object to nontransparent proceedings taken against the Roma by their colleagues in a local police office.” Jan Buzo of the Slovak border police, himself a Rom, argues that as in any other public agency there are both decent and less-than-decent professionals in the police. “Although I myself know police officers who act without prejudice, there are some who behave impolitely to the Roma without an obvious reason. And, overall, there are still very few Romani police officers, and even those few only serve in positions from which they cannot influence anything. And that can lead to accusations that police are employing Roma only because they are asked to do so—by Brussels, for example,” Buzo said, as quoted by the Roma Press Agency.

Few reject the truism that segregated Romani neighborhoods and settlements experience high levels of crime. Magdolenova argues, though, that solutions should be sought based on better understanding of Romani society and cultural traditions because, while the Slovak majority may view some acts as crimes, “they may be understood completely differently by the Roma, mainly if the crime reflects their poor economic status and harsh conditions.” Loan sharking, theft, and minor violence are the most common crimes among poor Roma, she said. In fact, one recent sociological survey found that the economic situation of the Roma overall is not quite as dire as many assumed. The survey, conducted by the Institute for Public Affairs, the Presov Regional Center for Roma Issues, and the Social Policy Analysis Center, indicated that 60 percent of Roma live in integrated villages and neighborhoods. Still, it found 218 segregated Romani settlements where some 50,000 of the country's poorest people live. In 46 of those settlements, conditions were exceptionally poor. Unemployment in these places can reach 90 percent, and many families are completely dependent on social benefits. Orgovanova insisted that raising living conditions in the worst settlements must take priority over other measures, even improving the schools.

New legal instruments One avenue toward improving conditions for the Roma is currently the subject of legal and ethical debate in Slovakia. In May 2004, parliament easily passed an anti-discrimination law that opened the door to “positive discrimination” measures such as quotas to bring more minorities into the schools and work force. The law came into effect in July, but Justice Minister Daniel Lipsic, who opposes positive discrimination, sent it to the Constitutional Court for review. Lipsic said such legal measures “strengthen the common stereotypes and suggest that some groups are not able to succeed without special protection. The quotas for employing minorities send signals about their inferiority, and they go against the human dignity of all those involved.” Several experts on Slovak constitutional law agree with Lipsic, but many directly involved with Romani communities oppose such an interpretation. “[Roma] are living in the same country, but we can’t go for the same opportunities that society offers. Therefore, [the government] introduced these temporary leveling measures,” Orgovanova said, adding that she doesn’t believe “we can say that we are equal, and pretend that kids growing up in places without drinking water and where 20 people live in a shack have the same chances as those living in normal conditions.” Orgovanova admits that the implementation of positive discrimination is spelled out a bit clumsily in the law. The measures are not meant to favor the Romani minority as a whole, as the Justice Ministry claimed, she argues. Instead, they are aimed at allowing those who are disadvantaged because of their background to exploit their rights to the full. But that's where the trouble lies, say some legal experts. It would be difficult to enforce the rules regarding employment and access to education, not to mention apply them in practice, law lecturer Ludmila Somorova of Kosice's Pavol Safarik University was quoted as saying by the SITA agency. “Who will decide whether to use the provisions or not, in which cases and for how long?” The Constitutional Court has already decided that it will not ask the government to suspend the entire anti-discrimination law while it deliberates the positive discrimination clause. With or without the disputed provision, the law itself should establish a crucial legal setting for preventing ethnic discrimination.