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Barbora Bukovska

Barbora Bukovska

Year: 1998
Location: London, UK
Area of Advocacy: Roma Rights, Public Interest Law
Organization: ARTICLE 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression

“The idea of human rights and freedoms must be an integral part of any meaningful world order,” said the Czech politician, playwright, and human rights activist Václav Havel.

Growing up in Czechoslovakia prior to the country’s Velvet Revolution, Barbora Bukovska saw first-hand the urgency of advocating for human rights in a region that had long denied basic civil protections.


Even before she chose to become a lawyer, Barbora—who was one of PILnet’s inaugural International Fellows—began to advocate for protection of marginalized populations, in particular prisoners and Roma. By the mid-1990s it was abundantly clear to her that traditional human rights NGOs were not in the business of using litigation to fight for human rights.

A committed champion of legal justice, Barbora—who is now the senior director of Law and Policy at London’s Article 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression—received a two-year PILnet Fellowship in 1997. During the first year in New York she audited courses at Columbia Law School, including community development and constitutional law, and formed lasting associations outside the classroom with a network of human rights activists and scholars with whom she remains in contact to this day.

That year Barbora also interned with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. There she noticed striking similarities between the segregation and discrimination faced by African Americans (which correlated with higher rates of incarceration) and that endured by Roma in the Czech Republic. Taking her insights about the impact of segregation and inequality back home, Barbora began instrumental efforts to document discrimination against the Roma within the Czech criminal justice system—a topic that few organizations were willing to talk about at the time.

After completing her PILnet Fellowship, she moved into high gear as a human rights advocate, using the legal tools she had honed to advance the cause of justice and fight discrimination in Central Europe. In the Czech Republic, she worked with the Center for Citizenship, Civil, and Human Rights spearheading strategic litigation to advance human rights; later she replicated this work in Slovakia, where she set up the Center for Civil and Human Rights. She also oversaw human rights monitoring in the Czech Republic’s psychiatric hospitals and developed the first legal clinic in the country: the Refugee Legal Clinic of the Charles University Law School.

But human rights law always comes down to the lives of individuals, and throughout her career Barbora has worked closely with communities that have been directly affected by discrimination, including Roma women who have been illegally sterilized. These cases take a particularly long time to process and the wait for justice—if it comes at all—demands persistence and commitment from the women, their communities, and advocates. One case that Barbora began in 2007 against the Slovak government was only argued in March 2011 at the European Court of Human Rights, but other cases (as yet unheard) were filed as early as 2004.

By rooting their work deeply within communities and working hand-in-hand with clients who are deeply involved with the issues at stake, Barbora and her colleagues at the Center for Human Rights are able to help sustain the commitment required to prevail during the slow process of seeking justice. This community-based strategy is one that Barbora argues is key to advancing the rule of law, and she believes that international human rights donors should be vigilant about supporting this approach. Even more support is needed to advance the rights of disadvantaged groups, especially minority women. 

“I’m proud that we have worked with communities in a very cooperative way,” she said. “Our clients have taken power into their own hands.”

While Barbora continues to pursue strategic cases in Central Europe, these days she is based in London, where she is engaged with global human rights issues as director of the law program at ARTICLE 19, a freedom of expression organization credited with standardizing the rights to information and national security. Growing up under the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, Bukovska is inspired by the work she’s able to do now with ARTICLE 19, securing the right of freedom of speech that was not possible just a few decades ago.

Barbora’s work continues to expand the impact of legal justice around the world. In late 2011 a landmark decision was announced in the case she filed back in 2007, a ruling that declared Slovakia's sterilization policies unconstitutional. As one of PILnet’s first Fellows, her efforts exemplify in many ways the goals of the program: to deliver on the promise of justice. For Barbora, whose pace has not let up for almost 30 years, serving the public good means making law work for all.

Related stories: Forcibly Sterilized Roma Woman Wins Landmark Court Ruling