Legal Empowerment in Practice: European Roma Rights Center
This member spotlight features an interview with @vivienbrassoi
How long have you been using a legal empowerment approach?
The ERRC has been engaged in legal empowerment work in various forms since we were founded in 1996. Our human rights monitors, based in ten countries around Europe, work directly with Romani people to empower them to litigate cases in response to human rights abuses.
Since we became a Roma-led organization on 1 January 2016 things have transformed tremendously for us, and we received significant recognition for these changes in 2018, when we won three prizes:
• The Council of Europe Raoul Wallenberg Prize.
• The Columbia University Global Freedom of Expression Prize.
• The Clifford Chance Access to Justice Award.
We are now moving into a new way of working. We are currently closing down our Budapest office. We have created a new entity in Brussels (a Belgian non-profit association) and we will have a “virtual office” moving forward, with colleagues based around Europe. This allows us to be more effective and gives more freedom to our colleagues to do their jobs better. But it also creates new exciting challenges for us. We can’t wait to take them on.
What is your organization’s mission?
The European Roma Rights Centre combats anti-gypsyism by exposing human rights abuse against all Roma (especially Romani women, girls and youth), litigating that abuse in court, and mobilising Romani women and men to contest illegal practices, unjust power relations, environmental harm, and inequitable resource allocation, and to contribute to positive sustainable development.
What problems or issues does your legal empowerment work address?
Roma are the largest ethnic minority in Europe and, following centuries of exclusion and violence, are its most marginalised. We use legal empowerment to enable Romani women and men to overcome anti-gypsyism and its legacy, to achieve dignity, equality, and full respect for their human rights, and to use their experience to contribute to a more just and sustainable world.
How are you using legal empowerment to address these problems?
For most of our history, we enabled Romani victims of human rights violations to take cases to court. This led to important victories, notably condemning school segregation in the Czech Republic and Hungary and police brutality and Bulgaria and Romania. But this was an elitist approach. The organisation’s almost exclusively non-Roma staff identified cases and convinced Romani litigants to fight them, often for many years and with few tangible results. Schools in the Czech Republic and Hungary are still segregated and police brutality in Bulgaria and Romania continue. We became a Roma-led organisation in early 2016, and about six months ago our staff became Roma-majority for the first time. We are becoming the litigation arm of the Romani movement. We are putting law and litigation in the hands of Romani activists and communities. We are instructed and directed by Roma to solve problems they have identified. We are running legal mobilisation projects in some of the poorest Romani communities in South East Europe and Ukraine, responding to - not directing - Romani people’s calls for litigation. In parallel, when our Romani leadership identifies issues that need litigating, we now focus on taking complaints in our own name as an NGO.
We have statistics that we have become used to repeating: over 500 cases, over €2 million in compensation. We are changing how we measure success. A few months ago a Romani community in Albania got their segregated primary school shut down. We first brought a complaint in our own name to Albania’s equality commissioner and ombudsman, instead of taking the old approach of convincing vulnerable community members to litigate. The commissioner’s and ombudsman’s positive findings empowered the community, who instructed us to go to the European Court of Human Rights, at which point the authorities started bussing all the children to the main school. After we responded to complaints by Macedonian Roma facing racial profiling by border police, and helped 20 families take their cases to court, another 20 were empowered to bring their own cases and a year ago the Interior Minister announced that the racial profiling was ending. We have reached up to 1,000 Roma this way. There are 10 to 12 million in Europe and our aim is to reach all of them.
Is there an aspect of your legal empowerment work that is particularly innovative?
Before the ERRC was founded, a grotesque stereotype – that Roma themselves were responsible for their position in European society – passed for the truth. Now, only a hardened racist would take that view. The key change that has resulted from our work is that Roma themselves, and most policymakers at European level, no longer see the situation Roma face as a "social problem", but instead as the result of human rights violations that can and will be challenged in court. We have worked with Roma to show that anti-gypsyism infects Europe’s older democracies (such as in racial profiling by British border guards) as well as new and aspiring EU member states. Our current work on forced evictions in France, Macedonia, Romania, and Serbia has enabled Roma to challenge vicious stereotypes about themselves and disrupt attempts to force Roma out of cities and into invisibility. We empowered forcibly sterilised Romani women to make some (but not yet enough) gains in the courts, the ERRC is now working with women to expose other, hidden forms of intersectional harm, including abuse in maternity wards, which we are litigating in our own name in Bulgaria and empowered a Hungarian Romani woman to challenge this year.
Do you have any key tips or advice for other practitioners?
You need to think about two dimensions in legal work.
The first - which lawyers always think about - is how novel the legal argument is. But while sometimes you may need a clever legal argument (for example, to establish that statistics can be evidence in discrimination cases), sometimes a simple legal argument is the best, if you are looking to expose a problem (such as segregated maternity wards).
The second dimension, which lawyers too often ignore, is the position of the litigants. Many assume that in legal empowerment work, the litigant is always "self-interested" - someone litigating a case to improve her situation. There is another kind of litigant: the activist litigant, such as a situation tester in a discrimination case or an NGO pressing a legal point. Where community members are particularly vulnerable, litigating with an activist litigant, which can even take the form of an NGO complaint to an ombudsman, can be the best first step. We encourage others in the network to think along both dimensions. Sometimes a legal aid project is needed ("self-interested" litigants, simple legal arguments), sometimes a groundbreaking case (innovative argument, activist litigant), or another combination.
We are pioneering the idea of the "activist litigant" - which includes not only empowered Romani litigants such as situation testers but also putting ourselves as an NGO forward as litigants, to create a safe space in which Roma can then choose to litigate. As we explained above, for many years the ERRC, at the time led by non-Roma, engaged mainly in attempting to convince vulnerable Romani victims of human rights violations to litigate their own cases. This often put litigants in a risky position in an attempt to achieve long-term aims through slow litigation. Under our new Romani leadership, we are doing something different. The activist litigant may be an empowered Romani person or community whom we inform about their legal rights and who instruct us to take legal action on their behalf. Or it may be the ERRC itself, taking complaints with the approval, understanding, and encouragement of community members not in a position to position themselves as litigants.
What are the strategies you employ to ensure the long-term sustainability of your work?
Our main sustainability strategy is to put forward activist litigants - including ourselves as an institutional plaintiff - to open up space for Roma to be empowered to emerge as litigants in their own right (see also above, previous question). Roma recognise that they are victims of serious rights violations but for many reasons are often not willing to litigate: fear of victimisation; lack of faith in the system; the need to focus on urgent, short-term needs. If the ERRC brings complaints in our own name (through so-called "actio popularis" cases in court, or complaints to decision-making equality bodies or other institutions), and we succeed in those complaints, we create a space for Roma to see recognition that their rights are being violated and then emerge to fight themselves in court or elsewhere. We are also working to train and motivate the first generation of Romani lawyers who will bring Roma rights cases. In addition to our own Romani legal trainees and lawyers, our paralegal projects employ Romani law graduates, including placing some of them in firms for training contracts (apprenticeships) that are notoriously difficult for Roma to secure, because of litigation.
Do you have any advice for other organizations about achieving scale?
There is no one-size-fits-all model for scalability. You must be adaptive to local conditions. For example, in France our work fighting forced evictions has been easily scalable because of the availability of legal aid; once a few lawyers saw it was possible to bring challenges - and particularly, following our example, take them to the European Court of Human Rights - they used the legal aid system to create a thriving practice. This is, of course, rare. A more effective solution is to focus on the activist litigant, which will often be your NGO, and which can press a legal point, hopefully with low costs, in order to achieve a precedent that can be taken forward by empowered victims of the rights violation that has been exposed. It took us almost as much time this year, for example, to empower one woman (in Hungary) to challenge racist abuse while she was giving birth as it did for us to start two pieces of litigation challenging the widespread practice of abuse in segregated maternity wards across Bulgaria. The hope is that once our cases in Bulgaria achieve initial precedents establishing that the situation is unlawful, Romani women in Bulgaria, who are understandably now unwilling to expose themselves as plaintiffs in individual cases will be empowered to do so, securing compensation and other specific remedies.
If you have questions or thoughts to share about this member’s work, please share them below or reach out to @vivienbrassoi
Member Spotlights are short interview profiles focusing on members of the Global Legal Empowerment Network. Spotlight articles use case studies to provide useful insights into the work of other network members. Whether you are working in the same country, with similar issues, or want to understand new legal empowerment approaches, the Member Spotlight is a useful learning resource. You can read more about other organizations in our network here (https://community.namati.org/tags/spotlights) or by searching spotlight in our forum.