KOSICE, Slovakia -- A case making its way through the courts in Slovakia is giving a new sense of hope to Europe's most persecuted minority. But it also could be the catalyst that unleashes the Roma people's many decades of pent-up frustration.
The number of Roma (Gypsies) in the European Union roughly tripled in January, when Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, making the outcome of this case consequential for all Europeans - as it should be for people everywhere who care about justice.
Slovakia's Constitutional Court has decided to re-examine a case brought on behalf of three young women who allegedly were forcibly sterilized simply because they are Roma. This medieval practice reached genocidal proportions under Eastern Europe's 20th-century fascist and communist rulers; most Westerners are not aware that it is still widespread in the region.
This matter touches the very core of race relations and human rights in a traditionally repressive region. The Roma - Europe's most deprived and fastest-growing minority - have been encouraged by the EU to look to its administrative headquarters in Brussels for defense of their basic human rights. Many fear that their disappointment could spark an explosion of violent resistance.
These warnings are being raised by politicians throughout the region at a time of mounting racial tension in the EU, fueled by the violent rage of disenchanted, second-generation Muslim immigrants locked in their isolated, grim industrial suburbs in northern England and around Paris.
The three Slovakian plaintiffs and the human rights organizations championing their case assert that they were put through medical sterilization in the absence of informed consent in 2003, when they were still underage. The hospital charged with the offense claims the girls were properly briefed of the implications of sterilization. But it accepts that it failed to inform their parents or the competent state authority empowered to make medical decisions on behalf of minors.
The re-examination of the case by the country's highest judicial authority is significant because - as it is too usual in Eastern Europe - the Slovakian state prosecution service had dismissed it.
Other countries are also being scrutinized for their treatment of their Roma population. In March, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination formally expressed concern over the "lack of sufficient and prompt action" by the authorities in the neighboring Czech Republic "to impede the illegal performance of coercive sterilization" of Romani women. And late last year, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women condemned Hungary, another neighbor of Slovakia, after its judicial authorities had dismissed a similar case brought by another Romani woman.
Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia joined the EU in 2004, adding a Romani population of about 1.2 million. Racial discrimination against Roma in the provision of basic services, including health and education, is frequently reported even in such old EU members as Greece, France and Italy.
There is room for hope. The Constitutional Court has reopened the case because the judges have found aspects of previous investigations into the complaints superficial and unconvincing. This year, the High Court of the Czech Republic also upheld a complaint over a case of forced sterilization from 2001, and the plaintiff is awaiting restitution.
Several governments of the region are making real efforts to end the widespread, callous abuse of human rights. The EU, the World Bank and the Open Society Institute have launched a regional program called Decade of Roma Inclusion, seeking urgent improvements through reforms in health, housing and education. The EU is about to make incitement to racism a crime in all member countries.
But an authoritative analysis just issued by the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest finds no evidence that legislative and administrative remedies have broken the entrenched resistance of racist civic authorities. Roma children are still almost routinely segregated throughout this region in schools for the mentally and physically disabled. The World Health Organization states that Roma children are frequently not vaccinated against serious diseases.
Roma have the lowest life expectancy and the highest infant mortality rate in Eastern Europe. Violent riots erupted recently in Slovakia in protest against welfare budget cuts that would have left entire communities of unemployed Roma destitute. More than 100 cases of well-researched, recent complaints over forced sterilization await judicial inquiry.
All this has generated waves of Roma migration to more generous countries, such as Britain, Canada and Sweden, in search of better lives, often provoking violence from racist skinheads there as well as legislation to tighten further immigration. Most of the hopeful migrants have been turned back, exacerbating the tension in Eastern Europe.
But the rules of international migration are changing. The expanding EU is committed to the free circulation of workers, as well as their dependents, within all member countries, reasonably raising expectations of decent treatment. This makes the persistence of Eastern European racism a common European concern, for an explosion of Roma frustration could dwarf the recent race riots experienced by Britain and France.
Thomas Land is a writer and journalist whose most recent book is "Tales of Matriarchy & Other Poems."