Water: Fighting for a Fundamental Human Right in Europe

Imagine living your life in a community with little or no access to a clean and safe source of water. Now imagine this problem existing in countries across Europe. This is the reality of the Roma people in Europe. But this is a reality that is beginning to change as the European Union (“EU”), countries like Slovenia, and the Roma themselves start to fight the legal battle of making water a fundamental right for all citizens. In the pursuit of access to running water, the Roma are on their way to getting access to running water—from online petitions to constitutional amendments.

For hundreds of years, the Roma people of Europe—also derogatorily referred to as “gypsies”—have experienced tremendous discrimination. This discrimination not only still impacts their socio-economic status and education levels, but it also impairs the fulfillment of their basic needs such as housing, sanitation, and access to safe drinking water. While reports of people unable to access proper drinking water in well-developed countries are not as shocking after the crisis of Flint, Michigan, these reports show there are people still fighting all over the world for fundamental rights such as water.

In November 2012, an online petition was launched to urge the European Commission to protect water as a human right and common good. It included three demands: 1) EU institutions and Member States should be obliged to ensure that all EU residents enjoy a right to water and sanitation; 2) water supply and management of water resources should be be subject to internal market rules, and water services should be excluded from economic liberalization; and 3) the EU should increase its efforts to achieve universal access to water and sanitation. The petition managed to collect enough signatures to require a response from the EU, and in December of 2014 the European Citizenship’s Initiative Right2Water started work on finding a solution to this long-standing problem.

In 2014, two Roma families, currently living in Slovenia, filed a lawsuit with the European Court of Human Rights. The case, Hudorovic v.Slovenia, still pending before the European Court, sheds light on the living conditions of Roma settlements. The Hudorovic family in the case describes their settlement as being caravan living and without access to basic infrastructure such as water, sewage, sanitation, and electricity. The water they do have access to is collected from the cemetery or a polluted stream, and sometimes from other established houses nearby. The second family in the lawsuit describes their settlement as “twenty housing units for two-hundred and fifty people,” lacking the same basic infrastructures as the first, resulting in gastrointestinal diseases among the children as well as a lack of dignity and privacy. In both instances, each family and their settlements have attempted to gain the proper permits and governmental aid in obtaining these infrastructures. Both have not succeeded and instead been denied of any help by the government.

This case however, is not unique to Slovenia. In 2011, the European Council (EC) declared that each EU country has a joint responsibility in changing the discrimination against the Roma across Europe. The EC solicited for strategic integration plans in solving this discrimination against the Roma from each country. In 2013 the EU made a recommendation on creating these plans, noting that the Roma were vulnerable to exploitation such as human trafficking and faced higher levels of poverty and difficulties accessing fundamental rights. The EC also explained that children who stayed in poor health, poor housing, and who suffered from poor nutrition were especially vulnerable to dropping out of school—and into trafficking and labor exploitation. Some of the proposed resolutions the EC set out for EU countries include increasing access to public utilities (such as water and sewage) as well as the desegregation of housing and education. While the EU does not have any specific language in its constitution declaring that water is a fundamental right (or requiring its member countries to do so), the UN does. The EU has simply given recommendations to its countries and allows each country to make this decision on its own.

Four years later, many countries are still lacking comprehensive integration plans on water and the Roma. In the report “Thirsting for Justice”, released in March 2017 by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), seven countries were surveyed in their integration of the Roma ethnic group. The countries included France, Romania, Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia, Montenegro, and Albania. All but two of these countries had national strategies referencing water and sanitations in relation to their integration strategies. In every country besides France and Moldova, these integration strategies recognize the innate need and the effects that the lack of access to water can have on hygiene and pregnancy. The report states that seventy-two percent of Roma households in Romania, sixty-six percent in Moldova, and thirty-eight percent in Slovakia are still not connected to drinking water sources certified safe (or even inspected or maintained by government officials). Furthering this research, the United Nations Development Programme Regional Roma Survey (2011) found that forty-five percent of Roma living in households lacked at least an indoor kitchen, indoor toilet, indoor shower/bath, or electricity.

The ERRC’s report concludes urging state authorities to continue or to start adopting laws recognizing access to water as a fundamental human right. They urge state authorities to ensure safe water facilities are adequately provided to Roma neighborhoods and settlements, and to start considering the cost of not providing these centers to the Roma. The ERRC advises that the EC create better monitoring mechanisms in ensuring the social equity of water and sewage in the EU states while helping to find the funds and consider the costs of providing water pipelines to Roma communities within each state.

Though the reports seem grim and the shift to making water accessible seems slow moving, a beacon of hope emerged in late 2016. In November, Slovenia amended its constitution making access to drinking water a fundamental right for all citizens, the start of making water accessible to Roma citizens within the state. Slovenia became the first European country to make water a constitutional right and to prevent it from being commercialized. However, much work is yet to be done in implementing this new law in a way that applies it the 10,000-12,000 Roma people living within the country. As Branko Hudorovic aptly stated in his case (Hudrovic v. Slovenia), and echoed by Amnesty International, “The Roma do not need riches, what we really need is a water pipe for our children to wash and to be able to drink water when thirst.” With Slovenia’s new constitutional water right for all of its people and the EU’s still growing Right2Water Initiative, the Roma people may be able to see that need of accessible water soon be fulfilled, hopefully in a suitable time. Until then, all eyes will be on Slovenia in implementing this new constitutional water right for all citizens and the implications it will have across the European Union.

Kristina Ellis

Sources:

Hudorovic and others v. Slovenia (third party intervention, pending), European Roma Rights Centere report (Sept. 23, 2015), http://www.errc.org/article/hudorovic-and-others-v-slovenia-third-party-intervention-pending/4423.

Slovenia: Constitutional Right to Water “Must Flow Down to” Roma Communities, Amnesty International, (17 Nov 2016), https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/11/slovenia-constitutional-right-to-water-must-flow-down-to-roma-communities/.

Agence France-Presse, Slovenia adds water to constitution as fundamental right for all, The Guardian (Nov. 17 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/18/slovenia-adds-water-to-constitution-as-fundamental-right-for-all.

Roma Data, United Nations Development Programme, (2017) http://www.eurasia.undp.org/content/rbec/en/home/ourwork/sustainable-development/development-planning-and-inclusive-sustainable-growth/roma-in-central-and-southeast-europe/roma-data.html.

EU and Roma, http://ec.europa.eu/justice/discrimination/roma/index_en.htm.

Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, Effective Roma Integration Measures in the Member States 2016, (June 27, 2016), http://ec.europa.eu/justice/discrimination/files/roma-report-2016_en.pdf.

Council Recommendation on effective Roma integration measures in the Member States, Official Journal of European Union, (Dec. 9, 2013), http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/en/TXT/?uri=CELEX:32013H1224%2801%29.

European Roma Rights Centre report, Thirsting for Justice, (March 2017), http://www.errc.org/cms/upload/file/thirsting-for-justice-march-2017.pdf.

Water is a Human Right, http://www.right2water.eu.

Image: Roma girls near Miercurea Ciuc, Romania. Flickr user Rachel Titiriga, Creative Commons.

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