Working on Behalf of All Minorities

05/09/2015 05:51 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2016

A fundamental element of majority privilege is the blind universality that members of an ethnic, religious, racial or sexual majority often unconsciously embrace. They believe that their perspectives are held -- or should be held -- by everyone. They think that everyone celebrates Christmas, wants to get married to someone of the opposite sex or aspires to the ideal of beauty typified by someone like George Clooney.

One aspect of this universality is that a member of the majority can unquestionably work in any sphere and on any issue. No one raises an eyebrow if a white person works on, say, global human rights issues. If, on the other hand, such a person worked on the "human rights of white people," it would generate accusations of racism, and justifiably so.

Members of minority groups, however, face a challenge in this regard. There is usually a pressing need for advocacy work on behalf of their fellow minority members. And yet, people who choose this path sometimes feel as if this is the only option open to them, that they've been "ghettoized" in their vocation, that only members of the majority are expected to have the necessary skills to work on behalf of people not of their own ilk.

Rita Izsak, a Roma human rights activist from Hungary, has been pushing back against such assumptions her entire life.

When I was in the eighth grade and about to finish primary school, my mother was advised that her daughter should go to an easier school, to a vocational school or maybe to a weaker high school...

She told me in an interview in Budapest in August 2013.

Apparently, though I can't remember, I got so angry that I opened the newspaper and searched for the strongest school in the area, which was the one in Pécs, a Catholic school belonging to the Cistercian order. My mom says I decided to apply there to prove my teachers wrong. I got accepted.

She went on to law school and then to work at the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) in Budapest. There, she handled a number of cases involving discrimination against Roma. She told me about one challenging case involving a small town in Hungary where the kindergarten that Roma children attended was obviously inferior to the one attended by non-Roma. She found three plaintiffs willing to be part of a lawsuit against the municipal authority.

"When I went for the first trial, I found out that out of my three initial clients, only one appeared, and when I found her, she was in tears," Izsak remembered.

When I asked her 'What's going on?' she started screaming at me: 'What did you do to my life? What did you do to me?! They came from the municipality and threatened to take away my children. I have nothing but my children!' She was shaking, literally shaking.

I tried to hold her hand. She said, 'I need to go now, they're waiting for me.' I saw the municipality car waiting outside. An Equal Treatment Authority representative told us she left a letter, which we needed to read aloud now.

He opened the envelope and read this beautifully written letter with correct legal terms that could have never been written by my client. She finished only four years in school. It was all about how she'd been misled in this case, that she wanted to withdraw her authorization and that she had no intention of complaining about the school system.

'Everything is fine in this town,' she wrote. I heard later that this letter was typed by somebody at the primary school.

Today, Izsak is the Special Rapporteur on minority issues appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. "An important step in my career was when I decided to use the knowledge and experience I gained by working on the Roma issue for other minorities too," she told me.

It was partly again to prove a point, to demonstrate that it is possible to protest the intellectual ghetto, the belief and pressure that if you are Roma, you are only able to and are supposed to work on Roma issues.

I was again blessed. I was a fellow with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva in 2006, and they called me back for a consultancy in January 2007. This is how I ended up in a more global human rights environment.

The work remains challenging but also rewarding.

"Sometimes I believe that I would make more change if I established a nice day-care center in northeastern Hungary or somewhere in Africa," she concluded.

I've reached a position where I'm in one of the top jobs in the field of human rights (even if it's unpaid). I talk to BBC, Al Jazeera. I have a privilege that I can write down all my thoughts in a report and it will get a UN logo and be distributed to 193 Member States without any censorship.

But we need to be committed, patient, and persistent to see our work resulting in the actual improvement of people's lives. We need to believe that the seeds we now plant will grow into something in 30, 50, 100 years.

The Interview.

Tell me about your path immediately after this decision you made in law school to go off in the human rights direction. Did you change what you were doing at law school at that moment?

I started working when I was in my third year. During my third, fourth and fifth years, I was a full-time law student and I worked six hours per day at the ERRC office. It was very difficult. And I was a waitress in a restaurant before, a job that I had to keep for a while. Sometimes I had to go to exams without ever having seen the teacher before and apologize. Of course, they were not too happy but I must say that they were very understanding because I was working on the Roma issue and there were very few of us -- Roma students and those who worked on Roma issues. Actually there were only three of us at that time, to be precise. But the work also helped with my thesis, which compared racial discrimination cases before the European Court of Human Rights and before the UN treaty bodies. This was not something that I could have done if I didn't have this job. The professor who worked with me encouraged me to publish it because he said that it was something that hasn't been much discussed before in Hungary.

I was lucky because when I graduated, I had a job while many other students were sending their CVs to law firms trying to get a first assignment somewhere for minimum wage. I joined ERRC in September 2002, and in November I was sent to Vienna for a Council of Europe conference. So when I left the university, I was rather well established and known, also internationally. I worked for four years at the ERRC, and I resigned because of internal problems that were morally unacceptable to me.

An important step in my career was when I decided to use the knowledge and experience I gained by working on the Roma issue for other minorities too. It was partly again to prove a point, to demonstrate that it is possible to protest the intellectual ghetto, the belief and pressure that if you are Roma, you are only able to and are supposed to work on Roma issues. I was again blessed. I was a fellow with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva in 2006, and they called me back for a consultancy in January 2007. This is how I ended up in a more global human rights environment.

Then, I also wanted to test myself in the field. I went to Somalia in 2008 for one-and-a-half years. I was teaching at the law school in Somaliland, in Hargeisa. I gave a one-semester lecture in human rights without any equipment, without blackboard or books. I just walked into the room, and there were 81 very curious people who were rather suspicious, too, of this European, white Christian girl going to preach about human rights which was regarded as a Western agenda to be imposed on the Muslim African population. I had to reassure them that I was nothing like that. I was there to help them raise questions, and they were the ones to give the answers. Then I went to Bosnia and Herzegovina as a Human Rights Officer with the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), where I spent half a year in Srebrenica as a seconded diplomat. In Srebrenica, I got a call from Fidesz, which had just won the first round of parliamentary elections and could foresee a major win, asking whether I would be interested in working for them. So I returned home.

There has been a lot of money devoted to the Roma issue and yet there hasn't been the kind of progress that people had hoped to see 20 years ago. On the other hand, having not been in Hungary since 1993, I do see some dramatic improvement, though perhaps only for some individuals. What do you think about this challenge between collective and individual advancement?

The big challenge I see is the weak or sometimes absent solidarity and movement among the Roma. This is a core problem. A positive development is that now we have many committed and dedicated non-Roma and Roma intellectuals and activists devoted to the Roma cause. There is more attention, which is, however, more international than local. If you look at the global human rights game, the Roma issue became very popular, especially among developing countries (I hate this expression) which now have a tool: They can rightly bring up the Roma issue as evidence that Europe is not doing good enough either. The plight of Roma people is a safe and secure topic. You can bring it up without accusing any specific country, because Roma are everywhere in Europe.

It goes back to my concern about the lack of a movement. The Roma issue is a safe topic because Roma are not yet organized at the level that they should be. I don't know the reason for that. People sometimes tell me that there are movements at a local level. Maybe that's true, and I don't know because I work at rather an international level. But I yet have to be convinced. Look at the Dalit women in India who in 2012 marched over a period of two full months and crossed 18 states demanding their rights. It was peaceful and organized. They had their agenda and clear messages. You can't really see anything like this with the Roma. Even when the serial killings of Roma happened, which I was so shocked to learn in Somaliland, there was almost no reaction. It alerted me that we have a long way to go.

I said that there are a lot of non-Roma working on this issue, and that's good. Every minority is in need of support of majority voices because a voice coming from a minority alone might be regarded as inferior. But the problem is that we are not backed by the same number of Roma working on these issues. People are disturbed that the Open Society Foundation is filled with non-Roma working on Roma issues. Of course now it's changing with Zeljko Jovanovic and some Roma folks at the ERRC. But if you look at the management in those NGOs and organizations working on Roma issues, the non-Roma outnumber the Roma. The problem is not why non-Roma are working on this issue but why there are not more Roma, why there's not an equal balance at least.

We also accept things that would be unacceptable elsewhere. I just saw a TV program about a theater piece now in the National Theater in Hungary, which is a play about Roma. It was written by a non-Roma Polish man and played by non-Roma actors. Imagine this in the U.S. context, that a Negro spiritual is being played by non-Black people written by non-Black people. African-Americans would not let this happen. They'd say that they needed to be consulted and included. Here we tend to tolerate things like that.

We need to organize ourselves more. I just had a talk with a good Romanian Roma girlfriend about relaunching a Roma women's movement. We started it some years ago, but it fell apart. We'll be going to Finland for a Roma women's conference, and we could put together a transnational women's network there. I believe Roma women can group together internationally. We can start doing this without men. We seem to be more ready to work in solidarity and without hierarchies.

The civil rights movement was also very patriarchal. At the famous 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. speech, no women were initially invited onto the platform. At the last minute, they put Marian Anderson on stage. Movement leaders said that they should focus on civil rights for African Americans first and the women's issue after that.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.