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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

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Gypsy Law: Romani Legal Traditions and Culture
Walter O. Weyrauch (ed.)

University of California Press
287pp., PB 17.95/$24.95, ISBN 0-520-22186-9



The work by Walter O. Weyrauch et al. provides an articulate discussion of the system of laws and social rules within Romani communities. It contributes to de-construct the misconception, prevalent in western societies, that Romani society is essentially lawless and criminal by its very nature. The authors of these essays describe a complex set of social norms, which can help understanding the administration of power and moral values amongst the Roma.

The theoretical contribution of this work provides a valuable approach for a fundamental aspect of ethnic-conflict resolution, namely the need for co-existence of the laws of the state and the rules that govern relations within ethnic minority groups. Multi-ethnic states aim to provide a set of laws, which can be observed by all their citizens, regardless of their ethnic origins. If one ethnic minority is perceived to repeatedly fail to respect the laws of the state, this contributes to their discrimination. This, however, does not take into account that some aspects of the law, even in a liberal democracy, can inherently contradict the norms that regulate social interaction of that ethnic minority.

The legal systems of western democracies rely heavily on unwritten rules of social behaviour, particularly in common law systems like the US or the UK. The essays by Weyrauch et al. suggest that we can treat the social norms of Romani society as a form of autonomous private law. It is implied that this system can co-exist with the dominant legal norms. The Roma legal system has principles (based on definition of what is pure or impure behaviour), it has procedures (the tribunal, or Kris, or the blood feud) and evolving practice, as different aspects of implementation of the law change with time, also in communication with the dominant non-Roma society.

The observation of Roma law is particularly difficult because of the isolation of Roma communities. Marginalisation is a fundamental characteristic of the Roma community, which makes it particularly difficult to study. The Roma are not clearly identified nation in the west-European sense, as they do not have a codified language, a shared religion, a territory or homeland for identification. One of the problems of any study of Romani society is the difficulty of communication. There are relatively few individuals of Romani origin, who are sufficiently integrated in non-Roma society to provide a bridge and help academic study, as well as political or judicial representation. The separation from non-Roma society and the state of isolation is a fundamental characteristic of the community, which has allowed it to maintain a distinctive identity for many centuries.

One of the merits of this book is that it prefers the approach of the lawyer to that of the anthropologist. It does not limit itself to observation of cultural norms, but it attempts to describe a legal system, which is complex and dynamic. This has the advantage of allowing evolution in the system and change, whether endogenous or exogenous, not in isolation but in relation with evolving prevalent social norms.

This discussion and several of the observational essays in the book will be useful not only to the academic community, but also to policy practitioners in areas of ethnic conflict, where the Roma community is particularly marginalised, such as the Balkans. The only draw-back of the descriptions is that they are largely based on the study of the Roma minority in the USA, with some reference to the Finnish Roma, the British and the Spanish. What remains missing is a good discussion of the situation of the Roma community in central and eastern Europe, who had the very specific experience of living under totalitarian communist regimes. The communist regimes often made attempts to forcibly integrate the Roma with the rest of society and left a deep impact on the nature of relations between the ethnic Slavic majority and the Roma minority. The political and social implication of the recent history of region deserves specific attention.


Guido Dolara, Consultant, Control Risks Group



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