Is the Czech Republic Still Abstaining on Human Rights?

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June 23, 2009

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN in 1948, eight of its 48 member countries abstained from the final vote:  South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Yugoslavia, USSR, Belarus, Poland, Ukraine and Czechoslovakia. While watching developments in human rights protections in the Czech Republic over the past 15 years, I have often reflected on the repercussions of that abstention. The Charter 77 movement, which resulted in Civic Forum and the democratic transition of 1989, has been lauded internationally, especially in the English-speaking world, for having based its challenge to totalitarianism on demanding respect for human rights. However, the minority nature of that movement, and the failure of the Czech justice system since then to give effect to human rights treaties which are supposed to have the force of law, have resulted in a paradox:  The country whose democratization was led by one of the region’s most internationally renowned human rights figures, Václav Havel, currently embodies a very warped societal understanding of what human rights principles entail. There has been a failure of leadership in this area during the past 10 years, and it rests to a great extent with Czech President Klaus.

Opinion polls show that Klaus, who has warned that “human rights-ism” is a dogma akin to communism which threatens “individual freedom”, has consistently been given the thumbs-up by more than half the country during his presidential terms. In the most recent polls, his popularity has risen to 58 % - this at a time when only 10 % of the country is expressing satisfaction with domestic politicians. The most glaring example of his impact in this regard was his veto of the Anti-Discrimination Act, legislation through which the Czech Republic was to have implemented an EU equality directive. While Parliament recently overturned the veto, the  legislation was passed five years late and the country was the very last EU Member State to adopt it. The country is five years behind on its obligation to implement the directive and is the only EU Member State yet to do so. Klaus said he vetoed the act because it would “give citizens the right to equal treatment in civil law relationships, which is by definition impossible. It intervenes in a fundamental way into an area in which customary principles and ethical codes have already been formed in Europe over the course of centuries.”[1]

This remarkable statement embodies many presuppositions which are key to understanding not only why the current discourse on human rights in the Czech Republic is as bizarre as it is, but also why neo-fascist political parties are relentlessly marching on Roma minority neighbourhoods throughout the country and steamrolling over the few local-level politicians who attempt to stop them. The Universal Declaration (and every other important human rights treaty) begins with the presupposition that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and that it is the purpose of law to provide equal protection of those rights to all. Klaus and his ideological supporters simply do not embrace this fundamental notion. They believe equal treatment to be “impossible” and that the centuries of “customary principles” (whatever those are supposed to be) that have “evolved” in Europe are the pinnacle of civilization. They refuse to see or acknowledge the complex mechanisms of indirect discrimination and oppression that are systemically entrenched in Czech society and that endanger the human rights of minorities and the vulnerable here. The past 15 years of European Court for Human Rights verdicts against the country are essentially meaningless to them, because the entire basis for most of those lawsuits does not fit their world view. In other words, to a very real extent, the abstention of 1948 lingers on.

Serious human rights violations continue to be committed in today’s Czech Republic, from the sterilizations of Romani women without their informed consent to the mass forced evictions that of 2006. This last event was a watershed of sorts, as it brought Vsetín mayor Jiří Čunek to national prominence solely on the strength of his anti-Roma words and deeds. Hundreds of mostly Romani tenants of a dilapidated building, property of the town, were evicted from their dwelling and relocated by the town government en masse in a manner reminiscent of communist-era relocations. Some were given the dubious privilege of being housed in temporary “container” housing built on the site of the former dump on the town outskirts, a location with no public transportation connections. Others faced a far worse fate that October:  Roused in the middle of the night by social workers and police, who separated men from their families, they were told they had to assume loans from the town for the purchase of new properties, sight unseen, or their children would be taken into state care. They were then driven by bus into the countryside, some of them into completely different administrative regions as far as 200 km away, and dropped off in front of uninhabitable farm houses featuring black mould on the walls, exposed wiring, and no potable water. The families affected included infants, people with chronic illness, and expectant mothers; some lost employment due to the move.

Čunek opened his container housing “ghetto” to applause from the 40-odd mayors he invited to its much-publicised launch. Timed to coincide with municipal and Senate elections, his move worked brilliantly – he was re-elected mayor, elected Senator, appointed the national head of the Christian Democratic party, and then made Regional Development Minister and for a time even Vice-PM. During his rocky time in office, his expertise consisted of making an anti-Roma remark to someone somewhere on an almost monthly basis; plagued by various scandals, including claims of sexual harassment and corruption, he was eventually forced to resign over the leaked information that he had himself taken state family allowances during the 1990s despite having millions in the bank which he has never satisfactorily explained. The suspension of his prosecution for corruption has caused a serious rift in the Czech legal community and justice system, and he is no longer head of the Christian Democrats, but you can still see him as a frequent guest on Czech Television spouting his “solution” to “the Roma problem”. The ghetto-creation tactics he so proudly espoused have continued in towns across the country.

While observers of Czech politics can take a certain satisfaction in Čunek’s gradual demise, no such catharsis seems on the horizon for the survivors of forced sterilization in the Czech Republic. The ranks of Romani victims of the system to coercively promote sterilization during the communist era in Czechoslovakia have been joined by more recent victims during the 1990s and even the early 21st century in the democratic CzechRepublic and Slovakia, women who have been sterilized without their informed consent during Caesarian deliveries or other gynaecological and obstetrical services. Some of them were never asked to give their consent at all, others were asked to sign consent forms during labour, others were asked to sign off on their operations afterwards, when it was too late. Here too, the Czech justice system is simply not delivering:  All of the criminal charges filed on behalf of the women who recently complained of these crimes to the Czech ombudsman have been shelved, and civil court cases so far have resulted in no compensation for victims of these abuses due to statutes of limitations expiring. For five years, survivors have been campaigning for redress to be delivered directly by the government and legislature, as has happened in Sweden and in other countries with such regrettable violations as part of their history, but so far their complaints have fallen on deaf ears. Hopefully current Czech Human Rights and Minorities Minister Michael Kocáb will succeed in making the case to the interim government that it is in the country’s best interest to take responsibility for these violations and usher in legislation to make sure they do not recur. The most recent allegations, from 2007, unfortunately once again involve social worker coercion. The state needs to make the obligations of both social workers and physicians with respect to protecting the human rights of their clients crystal clear and eliminate the atmosphere of impunity in which abuse thrives.

It is precisely this atmosphere of impunity that has led to the recent exodus of Czech Roma to Canada during the past nine months. Neo-Nazi demonstrations and attempted pogroms have cost taxpayers millions during the run-up to the EP elections, and now the Worker’s Party, the primary culprit, will receive three-quarters of a million crowns from the Czech state as a reward for having made it past the 1 % threshold in the recent polls. The asylum seekers include Anna Poláková, a well-known Roma programming editor at Czech Radio who has fled for fear of her family’s safety. Poláková’s experience of the Czech justice system is instructive:  After skinheads beat her son unconscious on the streets of Prague, a court awarded compensation for his rights having been violated, but when two of the perpetrators failed to pay up and the family sued for their sentencing to be enforced, they became subjected to persecution. Their addresses were revealed to the perpetrators and their associates, who beganfollowing Poláková’s husband around on the streets, threatening and then assaulting him in an effort to extort the return of the compensation already paid. Police were unable to recommend any measures for their protection, so the family is now living with other asylum-seekers in Hamilton, outside Toronto. This attitude to paying compensation on the part of the perpetrators should hardly be surprising, as the system itself has not generated much of a precedent in this regard due to flaws in existing legislation; a substantial number of legal experts want monetary compensation for rights violations to remain subject to a two or  three-year statute of limitations. As former Czech Justice Minister Pospísil noted recently, it is easier in the Czech system for a rape victim to be compensated for damage done to clothing or other material property than to be compensated for the psychological damage and violation of personality rights inflicted by such violence.   

The country does now have the institution of the ombudsman (the Public Defender of Rights), who reports on rights violations and mistakes of the state administration to parliament. Both the forced sterilization issue and the evictions from Vsetín have been analysed carefully and extensively by the ombudsman, who unfortunately has no powers for making sure his analyses of these rights violations are ever acted upon. However, neither his position, nor that of the relatively new post of Human Rights and Minorities Minister, nor the personalities currently holding these posts command anywhere near the respect in Czech society or have anywhere near the impact that Klaus does – in fact, it is clear that Kocáb has become a target of derision for his uncompromising defence of the Roma minority against not only neo-Nazi attacks, but attacks by politicians such as the Mayor of Chomutov, Ivana Řápková (ODS), who has also not hesitated to use legally very dubious means while playing the “Roma card” in her town and confiscating welfare recipients’ allowances.

Sadly, it seems all that is left of Havel’s human rights legacy is the Czech Republic’s foreign policy critiques of totalitarian regimes – Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba. Unfortunately, here the Czech government has also extended its “blind spot” to include the USA, failing to critique it on human rights grounds when it deserved critique the most under the Bush administration. Having watched the Czech justice system fail to properly address domestic human rights issues, as well as the recent scandals with regard to government interference in state prosecutions, it is hard for anyone who knows anything about the country to take its foreign policy critiques seriously - the credit built up by Havel in that direction has effectively been squandered.

One of these days, neither Havel nor Klaus will be on the scene. Only time will tell whether there is new leadership on the horizon to help this country finally embrace the human rights ideal of equality and deliver justice to those who seek it.


Gwendolyn Albert is a human rights activist living in Prague.