Yesterday, four Neo-Nazis were finally sentenced for their roles in a series of brutal killings of Roma families in Hungary in 2008 and 2009.  Although the convictions have been applauded as a human rights victory, advocates are still demanding that Hungary steps up to the plate and protects the rights of Roma, a historically at-risk minority.  The killings were not isolated events against Roma in Hungary; other discriminatory actions have been occurring, without punitive consequences, for quite some time.

Why are Roma still discriminated against in Hungary?  Hungary is an EU state.  The state’s overall level of human rights practices is not altogether that bad but the level of on-the-ground discrimination against this minority group is appalling.  Unfortunately, the discrimination in Hungary against the Roma is not unusual. What, if anything, can be done to lessen discrimination against the Roma and other minority groups?

I’m aware of some really exciting work by Ana Bracic (Visiting Junior Fellow at the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School) on the topic of Roma discrimination.  To note, Bracic’s work is not on Hungary (it’s on Slovenia and Croatia) but I think the general take-away-points offer some really powerful insights into on-the-ground minority discrimination anywhere.  And, the paper is just fascinating.

In 2011 and 2012, Bracic conducted trust game experiments in two towns in Slovenia, then already an EU state, and one town in Croatia, which only recently became a member of the EU but was at the time in the midst of the EU accession process.  Bracic randomly pairs her subjects with either a “Roma or non-Roma partner from their community” (28).  As Bracic states, “levels of discrimination were estimated via trust games played with money, which are particularly appropriate because the Roma are widely stereotyped as cheaters and thieves” (1).

What does Bracic find?  Somewhat surprisingly, Bracic finds no evidence that “top-down diffusion” through the EU accession process helps stop Roma discrimination on the ground.  In fact, Bracic actually finds the opposite.  What does help diminish discrimination on the ground?  A specific NGO strategy appeared to work: the town in Slovenia where there had been on-the-ground inclusive (working with both the Roma and non-Roma) organizing by Roma NGOs had significantly lower levels of discrimination against Roma.

What does this mean?  First, Bracic’s work implies that “bottom-up” strategies to influence human rights can matter at the individual level.  For ending discrimination at the individual level, “carrots” or legal obligations may not be as effective as “norms promotion through activities that soften the public mood and reduce inter-group anxiety” (38).  The findings bode well for those interested in the effectiveness of NGOs at changing individual behavior but also stress how variations in NGO strategies can matter for political outcomes.

What about the Roma in Hungary?  I think Bracic’s findings could be useful evidence for the necessity of actions other than “naming and shaming” – ending discrimination requires inter-group interactions and NGO activities that focus on inclusion should definitely be encouraged.

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