Strasbourg Observers

The Power of Definition: Stereotypes of Roma in Aksu v. Turkey

July 29, 2010

The European Court of Human Rights just rendered a judgment on the issue of stereotyped images of Roma in government-funded publications in Turkey. I think the majority decision (4 to 3) lacks sustained analysis and requires problematization. 

In the case of Aksu v. Turkey the applicant, mr Aksu, is of Roma origin. He complained about two publications (a book and a dictionary) that included harmful images of Roma, like the suggestion that Roma are stingy, fraudulent and aggressive. In his view, he had been discriminated against on account of his ethnic identity and he felt that these publications harmed his dignity. The Court treats his complaint under art. 14 in conjunction with art. 8. I will discuss the two publications and the Court’s treatment of them separately, as well as the dissenting opinion.

Publication no. 1: “The Gypsies of Turkey”
In 2000 the Turkish Ministry of Culture published a book entitled “The Gypsies of Turkey”, written by an associate professor. Among other denigrating insinuations, the author had stated that Gypsies were engaged in illegitimate activities, lived as “thieves, pickpockets, swindlers, robbers, usurers, beggars, drug dealers, prostitutes and brothel keepers” and were polygamist and aggressive. The Turkish Courts denied the applicant’s request that that the sale of the book be stopped and all copies seized.

The majority of the Strasbourg Court notes that: “when the book is examined as a whole it is not possible to conclude that the author acted with bad faith or had any intention to insult the Roma community.” The Court also attaches weight to the fact that it was an academic study, focusing on the history and socio-economic living conditions of the Roma people in Turkey, and that the passages that the applicant objected to did not reflect the author’s own opinion, but that they were “but examples of the perception of Roma people in Turkish society.” The Court holds that the author in fact tried to correct such prejudices. (par. 56) The Court implicitly refers here to the conclusion of the book, which said among other things: “In our opinion, these people, who suffer from humiliation and rejection everywhere, could be transformed into citizens who are an asset to our State and our nation once their educational, social, cultural and medical problems are solved. The only thing that needs to be done is to focus on this issue with patience and determination.”  (par. 19)

The central issue here is, I think, the author’s use of harmful stereotypes of the Roma people. As the dissent notes, in this context it is irrelevant whether the author intended his stereotypical remarks to be insulting. It is irrelevant on two counts. First, intent is not a defining characteristic of stereotyping. The crucial point in our use of stereotypes is that they are often unconsciously triggered, a lot of psychological research has established that. Moreover, intent is not critical legally: in D.H. and Others v. the Czech Republic the Court has established that intent is not necessarily the hallmark of discrimination, that the effect of a certain action is just as important as the intent behind it. Why did the majority not apply D.H.? Why did they not recognize the harm of these stereotypes to Roma? The conclusion of the book in question is surely not sufficient to dispel the impression these stereotypical remarks leave behind: the conclusion is both negative and patronizing of Roma in tone, and affirms the idea that Roma are not valuable citizens of Turkey at the moment.

Publication no. 2: “Turkish Dictionary for Pupils”
The second publication concerned a dictionary for school pupils, financed by the Turkish Ministry of Culture. Certain entries in the dictionary are highly offensive to Roma, such as: 

                “Gypsy” (çingene): (metaphorically) stingy.
                “Gypsyness” (çingenelik) (metaphorically): stinginess, greediness.  
                “Gypsy’s debt” (Çingene borcu): an unimportant debt.
                “Gypsy tent” (Çingene çergesi) (metaphorically): a dirty and poor place.
                “Gypsy wedding” (Çingene düğünü): a crowded and noisy meeting. (par. 21)

The applicant asked for these entries to be removed, but the Turkish courts did not grant his request. The Courts held that “the definitions and expressions in the dictionary were based on historical and sociological reality and that there had been no intention to humiliate or debase an ethnic group.” (par. 26)

The Strasbourg Court sees no reason to disagree with the Turkish courts and further only notes that “the definitions provided by the dictionary were prefaced with the comment that the terms were of a metaphorical nature.” (par. 57)

 To start I am puzzled by the use of historical prejudice as an excuse for present prejudice. Why this reification of historical discrimination? I would argue the other way round; the fact that the Roma are an especially vulnerable group due to past discrimination means that their position in society needs to be protected.

 But most importantly, what is lacking in this judgment is an analysis of the real issue at stake, namely; what does the state do when it allows these definitions to stand? What does the state do when it condones a definition of “Gypsy” as “stingy” in a dictionary that is meant for children? Surely the state sends a signal to the children who use the dictionary, but it goes further than that as definitions have constitutive power. The judges refuse to enter into a conversation about the role of language and about the significance of the power of definition. How do these definitions, which are really just stereotypical representations of Roma, contribute to preserving unequal power relations? What is the role of definitions in shaping group identities? By saying that these definitions are mere metaphors the Court denies that something more fundamental is at stake here.

Dissenting opinion
The three dissenters – Tulkens, Tsotsoria and Pardalos – frame the case as one concerning prejudice against Roma. Framing the issue like this makes a lot of difference. They refer to a host of international reports that emphasize the need to address the precarious situation of Roma in Europe. The dissenters observe that: “In a publication financed by the Ministry of Culture and intended for pupils, the national authorities had an obligation to take all measures to ensure respect for Roma identity and to avoid any stigmatisation.” (par. 3)

The dissenters did a good job of trying to create a richer account of the harms Roma are subjected to through the use of invidious stereotypes in government-sanctioned publications. It is unfortunate that they did not prevail.

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  • Stijn Smet says:

    Following our team discussion, I think that a good alternative approach by the Court would have been to focus on the active involvement of the Ministry of Culture in both publications. It is clear to me that as an organ of the State, financing both publications, the Ministry of Culture had a responsibility in this respect.

    Regarding the book they should arguably have insisted that its language be altered and refused to sponsor and publish the book if the changes were not made. It is not entirely clear from the judgment whether the passages referred to by the applicant as insulting were phrased in terms of “in turkish society, Roma are perceived as…” or “Roma are…”. This is quite relevant I would say. I in any case do not agree with the majority’s finding that the conclusion to the book advocates respect for Roma. The use of the word “transform” itself I consider to be disrespectful and could even be read as confirming the previous insults (otherwise, what is there left to transform?).

    From the judgment, it seems that the Court did not want to find a positive obligation of the state to do away with such language in (academic) publications, presumably because it would have strong negative consequences for freedom of expression, effectively leading to censorship. I agree with that position. However, what I think the Court could have done instead was to focus on the negative obligations of the state. In my opinion the Court could have found a violation on the basis that the Ministry of Culture, an organ of the state, was responsible for the publication as its financer. Finding a violation of art. 8 j. art. 14 on the basis of the negative obligations of the state would have offered a good way out of the difficult situation the Court found itself in, I would say.

    If the case would go to the Grand Chamber, which seems plausible in light of its narrow 4-3 majority, it would be interesting to see whether the Grand Chamber would take such an approach to the case.

    As for the dictionary, as we discussed in our team, the inclusion of a better term than “metaphorically” would have been appropriate. I do not think the contested expressions should be deleted from the dictionary. After all they are being used in society and a dictionary’s purpose is to objectively reflect the language as used in society. But the dictionary should then also indicate that the terms are used in an insulting or pejorative manner, reflecting existing stereotypes in society. “Metaphorically” is too neutral in this respect.

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  • Archibald McIntyre says:

    I must have missed the Article that sets out stereotyping is a violation. Bad news for the International “”See You Jimmy” hat market!