Example 1: Justice for Roma women coercively sterilized in Central Europe

Project Type: Advocacy/Litigation

Organization

European Roma Rights Centre
Budapest, Hungary
Email: office@errc.org
Web: www.errc.org 

The European Roma Rights Centre (A Roma Legal Advocacy Organization), Life Together (a Roma-Czech CBO), the League of Human Rights (a Czech NGO), the Group of Women Harmed by Forced Sterilization (a victims advocacy group), the Peacework Development Fund, the Counseling Center for Citizenship, Civil and Human Rights (a Czech NGO) and the Center for Reproductive Rights (a global legal advocacy organization) have worked together on litigation and advocacy campaigns in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia to secure public recognition and compensation for harms suffered by Roma women who were coercively sterilized.

Problem

From the 1970s until 1990, the Czechoslovak government coercively sterilized Roma women, programmatically aiming to reduce their “high, unhealthy” birth rates. Forced sterilization has been documented as late as 2004 in the Czech Republic. Cases have also reportedly occurred in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia. Hundreds of Roma women await justice.

Actions Taken

  • In 2003, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and the Slovak Counseling Center published “Body and Soul,” a report on coercive and forced sterilizations of Romani women in Slovakia. In 2004, The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), and Life Together, along with other local NGOs, documented cases of coercive sterilization and filed complaints with the Ombudsman—the Czech Public Defender of Rights.
  • In 2005, Roma women established an advocacy group in the Czech Republic for victims, the Group of Women Harmed by Forced Sterilisation (GWHFS), to push the government and medical authorities for a formal apology and to establish a compensation fund.
  • GWHFS used demonstrations and awareness campaigns, and in 2006, a member testified before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
  • In July 2011, the ERRC submitted a report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), inter alia, advocating for the elimination of the three-year statute of limitation for involuntary sterilization claims in the Czech Republic and proposing that the Czech Government distribute the FIGO Guidelines on female sterilization to health service providers throughout the country (guidelines available at: www.figo.org/files/figo-corp/FIGO%20-%20Female%20contraceptive%20sterilization.pdf).
  • • ERRC filed a parallel report to the Universal Periodic Review on the Czech Republic in 2012. The report described the experience of Czech women of Roma origin with respect to involuntary sterilization and recommended that the Czech Government take various measures to comply with its international human rights obligations.
  • ERRC, with the support of the Roma Health Project Health Program and OSF, represented a Hungarian woman of Roma origin in a civil action for damages on civil rights and negligence claims. ERRC argued their client’s sterilization occurred without full and informed consent. The domestic court of appeal ruled that since sterilizations are reversible no damages were due to ERRC’s client. This ruling is based on incorrect medical expert testimony. Therefore, after having exhausted domestic remedies, ERRC brought their client’s case to the UN Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women under its Optional Protocol, where the committee found multiple violations of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and entered judgment for ERRC’s client, who was eventually compensated.

Results and Lessons Learned 

  • In 2005, the Ombudsman undertook an investigation and published a report recognizing coercive sterilization and racial targeting in the Czech medical and social work community. The report recommended changes in domestic law to ensure informed consent and the simplification of compensation procedures.
  • The Ombudsman also filed 54 criminal complaints with the local prosecuting office, but many have been dismissed.
  • The 2006 CEDAW report to the Czech government expressed concern over cases of coercive sterilization and recommended the adoption of legislative changes to ensure informed consent and victim compensation.
  • In 2006, in A.S. v. Hungary, CEDAW found Hungary in violation and likewise called for informed consent and compensation legislation. This marks the first time an international human rights tribunal has held a government accountable for failing to provide necessary information to a woman to enable her to give informed consent to a reproductive health-related medical procedure.
  • In 2009, the Czech Prime Minister apologized to the country’s victims of coercive sterilization .
  • The Czech Government is further along in acknowledging its wrongdoings, while the Slovak government has strenuously rejected all allegations made concerning these cases over the last ten years. Slovak government officials have recently called for re-incentivizing sterilization of Romani women in Slovakia .
  • In 2011, the International Federation of Obstetrics and Gynecology revised and updated its ethical guidelines on the performance of female sterilization in light of these cases and developments.
  • In 2012, the Czech Human Rights Council passed a decision urging the Czech government to introduce a compensation mechanism for all victims of involuntary sterilization.
  • On November 13, 2012, the European Court of Human Rights issued its latest judgment in a series of cases dealing with the involuntary sterilization of Roma women in Slovakia. The court unanimously found that two applicants were the victims of coerced sterilization in violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) and Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Court of Human Rights has issued three decisions finding Slovakia in violation of reproductive rights of Romani women due to their forced and sterilization: V.C. v. Slovakia [2011], N.B. v. Slovakia [2012], and I.G. and Others v. Slovakia [2012].
  • In 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture included the issue of forced sterilization in his report on torture in health care.
  • International treaties and standards were critical to the litigation to complement the lack of medical experts in Hungary and Czech Republic willing to testify that sterilization is irreversible and the lack of domestic support for such litigation in general.
  • Patients whose rights have been violated are the best advocates for change. Collaborations between legal service providers, patient advocates, and Roma activists brought attention to the matter and helped address larger issues.