Roma as a minority in Hungary. International protection of minority rights

Essay, 2021

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Definition of Minorities

3. Roma People

4. International Legal protection of minorities

5. Roma people in Hungary

6. Protection measures of Roma in Hungary

7. Examination

8. Conclusion


1. Introduction

With the creation of nation states in the 18. and 19. century, attempts were made to make the newly developed states “linguistically and culturally homogeneous” (Balazs Vizi). The new nation states tried to reach the goal of national unity by implementing a centralized government, national symbols, one official state language as well as state supported cultural development (ibid., p.7). Non-dominant groups put an effort into keeping their individual cultural, religious, ethnic or linguistic heritages from extinction. They were anxious about the future of the ongoing process of nation-building and democratization which equalizes to the lead of the majority group (ibid., p.7f.).

Already the League of Nations which was found in 1920 started recognizing and protecting minority rights by adopting minority treaties (UN Human Rights Office of the High Commission 2010). The replacement of the League of Nation was the United Nations, found in 1945. The organization continued these efforts by establishing minority protection mechanism, political instruments and conventions based on the principle of non­discrimination. Those are providing for example minority rights like non-discrimination at work places and education in minority languages. (UN Human Rights Office of the High Commission 2010) Yet, the common problem occurs concerning the difficulty of enforceability of international law. The state obligations vary and the conventions were perceived as “hindering the creation of modern unitary nations” (Balazs Vizi) for example by the newly emerged states of former Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia or Greater-Romania (ibid., p.8)

There are several reasons how minorities come into being like the redefinition of borders after wars, forced displacement or other settlement policies. Nonetheless, all minorities are commonly victims of discrimination regarding their recognition, possession of land, nationality and political participation rights. Therefore, their protection is of special concern.

2. Definition of Minorities

In 1991 the United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 47/135 which is a Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. In Article 1 of the Resolution it states that minorities are based on a national or ethnic, cultural, religious or linguistic identity (UN Human Rights Office of the High Commission 2010) and states have to protect their existence and adopt appropriate legislative and other measures to achieve those ends. Thereby, the question arises if the stated list of characteristics of a minority is exhaustive or if persons with a particular sexual orientation, gender or disabilities could be considered as a minority as well (UN Human Rights Office of the High Commission 2010).

There is no international, legally binding definition of what is considered to be a minority. Still, in most cases the existence of a minority is connected to two factors. Firstly, objective factors including the existence of a shared ethnicity, language or religion (UN Human Rights Office of the High Commission 2010). Secondly, subjective factors meaning that individuals identify themselves as members of a particular minority group (UN Human Rights Office of the High Commission 2010).

Apart from that, Minorities can also be categorized as a positive or negative type of minority (subjective approach). Positive minorities are “constituted as associates for the purposes of pursuing a shared ideal or life plan which differs from those of the majority” (Balazs Vizi). Whereas, negative minorities are “constituted as associates for the purposes of defending themselves against discriminatory treatment or other violations of human rights and, as such, seek to achieve only the fundamental equality they have unjustly been denied” (Balazs Vizi).

The establishment of a definition for minorities which would be internationally acceptable is complex due to the diversity of identities and life circumstances. The differences lay for example in the minorities sense of a common identity and cultural heritage, their recorded history or the living circumstances, which can be in a defined territory or spread over the country (UN Human Rights Office of the High Commission 2010). Furthermore, the “inclusion or exclusion of specific groups or individuals from the definition” (Balazs Vizi) has a serious impact, as it determines the access to granted rights.

In 1977 Francesco Capotorti, a special rapporteur of the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities defined minorities as “a group numerically inferior to the rest of the population of a State, in a non-dominant position, whose members being nationals of the State possess ethnic, religious or linguistic characteristics differing from those of the rest of the population and show, if only implicitly, a sense of solidarity, directed towards preserving their culture, traditions, religion or language” (UN Human Rights Office of the High Commission 2010). Hereby, especially the criteria of being in a non­dominant position is characteristically.

3. Roma People

Roma descend from South Asia, between 224 and 642 they migrated from northwest India to Persia (cummingsfoundation). Later on, in the 14th century they firstly came to Europe, especially the Balkans and some went to North America (cummingsfoundation).

Roma people represent one of the largest ethnic minority group within Europe (Iskra Kirova) It is exceptionally difficult to assert the population of Roma accurately because some governments do not count Roma in their census figures or Roma hide their ethnic origin out of anxiety to face discrimination (cummingsfoundation). Nevertheless, it is estimated that between 10 to 12 million Roma live in the continent of Europe today (Catrinel Motoc 2015).

The term Roma does not refer to a homogeneous ethnic group but rather summarizes various groups with a different culture and history. The language “Rromanës” can be considered to be the common language between Roma people but it has numerous dialects (Catrinel Motoc 2015) and many Roma have been linguistically assimilated and speak Hungarian (Minority Rights 2018; minority rights group international 2018).

Still nowadays, Roma face racial discrimination and harsh exclusion from society (Kimberly Birdsall 2003). This type of discrimination and hostility directed towards Roma is called Antiziganism or anti-Romanyism (cummingsfoundation). Often, they “remain social outcasts within their societies” (Iskra Kirova), living in separated neighborhoods and children going to separated schools. A report by the European Commission in 2004 “placed the treatment of Roma among the most pressing political, social and human rights issues facing Europe” (Iskra Kirova). Roma people are mostly not politically represented, have a poor access to health care and social services as well as a lower standard of education (red-network). Moreover, Roma face police harassment and in particular children and women are vulnerable to traffickers (cummingsfoundation). Leading to Roma having more health problems, a worse housing situation and generally a lower literacy rate than non-Roma people (Catrinel Motoc 2015). This is caused by “centuries of prejudice and discrimination from governments, institutions and individuals” (Catrinel Motoc 2015).

The low attained educational skills lead then to working in economically marginalized hard labor jobs which entail socio-economic insecurity (cummingsfoundation). Due to these issues a report by the United Nations Development Program described Roma as “Europe's most vulnerable group in terms of poverty or the risk of falling into poverty” (Iskra Kirova). The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe describes the Roma as "the poorest, least healthy, least educated and most discriminated sector of society" (cummingsfoundation).

The discrimination and exclusion of Roma people is strongly connected to this poverty circle (red-network). The low attained educational skill level is leading to either working in hard labor jobs with a low salary or to unemployment. This again leads to many Roma households being dependent on social welfare. Due to this dependence or the low income not many Roma actively participate in the economy which is paying for social welfare. Meaning that only a small number of Roma pay the social security taxes which is deducted from ones income to fund the social welfare system. This generates an asymmetrical participation in the social welfare system and causes further intolerance, discrimination and exclusion (Iskra Kirova).

4. International Legal protection of minorities

The international community adapted numerous legal frameworks or articles within declarations, prohibiting all forms of direct or indirect racial discrimination (Iskra Kirova). For instance, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, adopted in 1965 or the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Art. 2), adopted in 1966, both by the United Nations General Assembly.

Still, the awareness of the need of declarations addressed directly towards Minorities and their protection took considerably more time. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, was adopted in 1966 by the United Nations General Assembly. It already grants protection for Minorities in its Article 27; the rights of minorities to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language, in community with the other members of their group which shall not be denied by the state they live in.

But finally in 1992 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities which had not only the goal to prohibit discrimination but was implemented with the goal to recognize but to specifically protect the rights of persons belonging to national minorities.

In a short summary, the nine articles of the declaration grant state protection for minorities to enable them to freely live out their own culture, religion and use their language without discrimination privately and publicly. States shall secure their identity and establish favorable conditions due to legislative measures. Members of minorities have the right to effectively participate in all societal sectors and enjoy full equality before the law. Especially important is also the granting of state support towards education for minorities, they shall be able to gain knowledge of the history, traditions and culture and be able to learn the minorities specific language and have instruction in their mother tongue.

In 1989, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Thereby, the organization continued its efforts in minority protection. With Article 30, it secures children of minorities the rights to enjoy their own culture, profess and practice their own religion and use their own language.

In 1995 the European Council followed the sample of the United Nations, by adapting Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. The framework follows the big picture of the United Nations Declaration but is going into more legal detail.

5. International action programs to improve the situation of Roma

Although numerous international legal frameworks for the protection of minority rights emerged, the marginalization and discrimination cannot be eradicated solemnly by legal action. It is important that legal guarantees are “coupled with measures addressing the socio-economic status of minorities” (Iskra Kirova), like development programs and action plans to address the challenges of the everyday life of Roma. In essence, legal guarantees securing human rights in the long run are tied to effective measures working in short terms.

Further, it needs to be emphasized that these action plans and governmental policies need public support in order to be effective. Therefore, Roma and non-Roma people need to “jointly participate in the development process as partners” (Iskra Kirova). By doing so, trust can be developed and ethnic tension as well as stereotypes erased.

This can be exemplified by “the Decade of Roma Inclusion”, an international initiative launched in 2005 and running until 2015 (Iskra Kirova). Governments, inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations cooperated to improve the marginalized position of Roma in society, eliminate stereotypes and discrimination. The overall goal was to maximize resources to improve their economic and social position by equaling their educational and employment opportunities to those of other members of society. Nine participating countries signed the Decade Declaration, committing to “closing the unacceptable gaps between Roma and the rest of society” (Iskra Kirova). The initiative was funded by international organizations like the World Bank, the United Nations United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union and various Roma organizations (Iskra Kirova).

Prior to this initiative, similar international action plans have been organized like the program of action of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in 2002 (World Conference 2002) but this was the very first one specifically targeted to Roma.

5. Roma people in Hungary

Traditionally, Roma worked as farm workers, artisans, musicians, fortune-tellers or entertainers travelling from one place to another. Firstly, governments were open towards Roma and their non-sedentary lifestyle but later on people started feeling suspicious and treated them as outsiders (Catrinel Motoc 2015).

The Habsburg monarchs Maria Theresa and Joseph II reigning over today's Hungarian territory passed laws banning the Roma nomadic way of living. Roma became increasingly stigmatized and persecuted. Those Roma who adapted to the new laws and assimilated stayed in Hungary and started to give Hungarian as the first language to the next generations. “The earliest source relating to Roma in the territory of Hungary is a document dating from 1416” (minority rights group international 2018). Roma who were not willing to change their lifestyle moved to other European countries. With the start of the industrialization in the 20th century, many already well integrated Roma fell into unemployment. Traditional crafts became redundant and unprofitable which fueled more discrimination and stigmatization towards Roma. This significantly worsened during World War II and concluded in “mass killings of tens of thousands of Hungarian Roma in Nazi concentration camps” (minority rights group international 2018), (cummingsfoundation).


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Roma as a minority in Hungary. International protection of minority rights
National University of Public Service  (LUDOVIKA, Budapest, Hungary)
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ISBN (Book)
Minority Rights, Hungary
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Julia Müller (Author), 2021, Roma as a minority in Hungary. International protection of minority rights, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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