Reflection on Law Society Human Rights Conference

By Simone Abel

On 10 December 2012, I was privileged to attend the annual Law Society Human Rights Conference in London on a Siach Stipend.  The focus of the conference was the impact of human rights principles on discrimination law, particularly in the context of cases concerning discrimination against minority groups.

As the conference explained, the European human rights system endeavours to protect the rights of all people by virtue of their humanity, but at times this requires taking positive steps, such as reasonable accommodation, in order to ensure that certain people or groups of people are not placed in an objectively worse situation on account of their minority background.  This gives rise to all kinds of legal complexities and allegations of reverse discrimination.  It is therefore important that minority groups have a grasp of the relevant human rights principles and how to effectively put them to use in advocating for the full attainment of their rights.

In most parts of Europe these days, including the UK, Jews are considered to be an ‘upwardly mobile minority’, having managed to overcome (sometimes against tremendous odds) the barriers to equality in the societies in which they live.  At René Cassin, we use the historical experience of the Jewish people, and positive Jewish values, to promote and protect the rights of others.  As such, it is not only appropriate but also necessary that we advocate for the rights of more marginalised and excluded minorities such as the Roma.

At the conference we learnt about effective legal advocacy and the use of strategic litigation to prevent discrimination. A good example of the effective utilisation of human rights principles on discrimination law in order to advance the attainment of rights for both Jewish and Roma people, is the case of Sejdić and Finci v Bosnia and Herzegovina. This case concerned a prohibition on Romani and Jewish people standing for election to the Presidency and the House of Peoples in the Bosnia Herzegovina Parliamentary Assembly.  Both Sejdić and Finci are prominent Romani and Jewish public figures respectively who, despite their citizenship of Bosnia and Herzegovina, were ineligible to stand for election to the Presidency and the House of Peoples of the Parliamentary Assembly.  They successfully challenged the discriminatory provision in the constitution at the European Court of Human Rights.

Numerous other cases concerning the interplay of human rights principles and discrimination law have come before the European Court of Human Rights and national courts in Europe and the UK.  They range from cases such as D.H. and Others v. The Czech Republic, a case concerning the de facto segregation of Romani school children into an inferior schooling system; to ERRC v. Bulgaria, a case where Bulgaria had made provision of healthcare or insurance conditional on some form of registration, thereby indirectly discriminating against Roma by virtue of their itinerant lifestyle.  What became increasingly clear during the conference is that the doctrines of direct and indirect discrimination are powerful legal tools that can be applied effectively in the hands of minority groups.  These doctrines, when applied, ensure not only that similar situations are treated equally, but also that different situations are treated differently according to the degree of difference, unless there is objective justification.  In using the human rights framework and discrimination law to advocate for our own rights as well as the rights of other minorities, we enhance Jewish peoplehood and identity by using the ‘Jewish narrative’ for the benefit of other communities who have faced similar historical challenges.

The Law Society Conference therefore gave me a better understanding and ability to utilize tools that are key to both my professional field and to building up the Jewish support critically needed for our campaigns on minority rights.