Czech Green Party candidate Czeslaw Walek: Romani topics have long been ignored
The collaboration between the Green Party (Strana zelených - SZ) and the Equal Opportunities Party (Strana rovných příležitostí - SRP) is the most significant offer to be made to a "Romani" party in the Czech Republic since 1990. The Greens have long focused on the topic of inter-ethnic coexistence and related questions and have also protested manifestations of racism.
Czeslaw Walek is running for the Greens in the third slot on their candidate list in Prague. We interviewed him about this historically significant agreement and other issues:
Q: This is not the first time you have run for the Greens. Is active participation in politics the logical result of your activities and ambitions to date? Why the Green Party?
A: I was chosen by the Green Party for third place on the Prague candidate list in these elections and my engagement in the campaign is different than it was in the previous municipal elections. I am actively participating in the campaign this time, speaking with voters in Prague every day. I'm also seeing my head on posters everywhere for the first time and it's a rather weird feeling. I view this campaign as a way to promote topics that are marginalized in politics but that are important to society nonetheless. We must discuss the fact that while 78 % of people here want to die with dignity at home, that dream comes true for only one-fifth of the population. The state does not contribute to palliative care or support it. It is important to point out that women in this country earn 25 % less money than men over the course of their lives, which influences their economic situations in old age. It is essential to point to the legislative inequality affecting gays and lesbians, and to the fact that Romani people still do not enjoy equal access to education. From this perspective, engagement in politics is a natural continuation of my civic activities.
Q: What are the actual chances for the Greens to succeed in these elections? How do you personally view the collaboration with the SRP in the context of this society's perceptions about Romani people?
A: I want the Greens to get into Parliament because they are the only party that truly advocates for everyone's human rights. The party demonstrated this not only by insisting on the Human Rights Minister post in the Topolánek and then the Fischer governments, but its hundreds of representatives prove this every single day on the local councils of towns where they help homeless people, senior citizens and other at-risk individuals. According to the polls we are getting close to the 5 % threshold [for seats in the lower house]. I would like to ask the readers of Romea.cz to help us cross that threshold by voting for us. The voice of the Greens in the lower house won't just be heard, it will thunder. Our society needs it. I very much welcome the alliance of the Greens with the SRP. It is yet more proof that the Greens are serious about their program. I believe no other party would ever have gone into this - they all are too afraid it would harm them. In that respect the Greens have decided to ignore public opinion and go forward with their program.
Q: You studied law in Cracow. During your studies you focused a great deal on the topic of human rights and on how it is or is not taken up in legislation. How was that study different from what is offered at the Law Faculty in Prague, for example?
A: To be completely honest I don't know, because I didn't study in Prague. From my discussions with friends who did, I know that they rather envy me the human rights clinics we had in Cracow (law students helping people with their individual cases). Besides that, I had a brilliant human rights professor in Cracow, and she is basically the reason my career headed in this direction.
Q: What inspires your interest in human rights, both personally and in terms of your work? What has inspired your selection of jobs?
A: It's definitely determined by the conditions I grew up in and also by my studies. I was born in Třinec, where a large Polish minority lives. As a child I used to hear that we have certain rights as a minority and that we have to learn how to speak up for those rights. At university in Cracow I somehow naturally gravitated towards subjects that addressed human rights protections, and also I worked for a bit in the human rights clinic I mentioned. After graduating I continued to study human rights at the Central European University in Budapest. I knew I wasn't going to be an attorney or business lawyer, I knew I wanted to work in a field where I could influence society by promoting human rights.
Q: Your interest in human rights has run like a thread through all of your professional employment and most of your civic engagement. This is a very broad area. Should it be presented to your political colleagues and the public as a set of common topics including those of national, religious and sexual minorities, or should those issues be separate? How do you make distinctions when you approach everything all at once?
A: That is not a simple question. Both approaches are correct. There are matters that concern everyone, all of society, that are anchored in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It would be a bad idea to split up those matters according to the interests of various groups. However, we also have areas that concern just one group in particular, for example, opening up the possibility for everyone to marry irrespective of sexual orientation. That topic must be presented separately because it does not concern all of society. Then you have borderline topics, such as equalizing the salaries of men and women, which actually still concern everyone. When women earn 25 % more, their family budgets improve and everyone will be better off, but that topic is often presented as if it were purely a gender issue. I don't have a recipe book for which approach to use, I do this case by case after evaluating what might benefit the given situation most.
Q: Are our political representatives clear on this topic - those who, for example, choose and appoint the Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner?
A: I'm not completely sure. From my own experience I know that the selection of the Human Rights Commissioner is not a priority question for the parties. When a party is to choose a commissioner, the criterion of their expertise rarely plays a role. I believe what does play a role is the candidate's ideological proximity to the party and their personality. In my experience, it is essential that the commissioner be a personality capable of fighting for the Government's attention, someone whom all of the constitutional officers will respect and take seriously. In the ideal scenario, the specialized work would be left by the commissioner to the bureaucrats. The problem is that the number of bureaucrats working in the Human Rights Section during the time of Commissioner Šimůnková has radically decreased, I would even go so far as to claim that the best professionals have left the office. It is going to be very difficult to put it back together again. Without a professional support apparatus, the best commissioner in the world won't get anything done.
Q: There has been frequent discussion of the fact that addressing human rights topics continues to be undervalued. Do you have a recipe for changing this, especially since you are claiming to advocate equal treatment in more than one area (equal pay for men and women performing the same work, equal access to education, dignified care for the dying, the opportunity to marry irrespective of sexual orientation, etc.)?
A: It's true, human rights protections are a question politicians here do not concern themselves with. That's why the government has a commissioner for this issue, and that is also why whoever is commissioner must be respected by everyone so the ministers will listen to what he or she has to say. There is no simple solution for this, but I dare say that when Michael Kocáb was Human Rights Minister and then Human Rights Commissioner, things managed to get promoted because he knew how to negotiate with his ministerial partners and how to achieve good compromises. Who would have ever thought the government would apologize for the sterilization of Romani women? Or that it would discuss changes to a law introducing quotas for female political candidates? My experience negotiating human rights materials with the government gives me a good basis for negotiating laws in Parliament, should I be elected. It's necessary to convince the other MPs that these topics are important to the public - what's more, in many cases all that is needed is a simple amendment to existing laws. It's all about the art of communication and compromise.
Q: How to resolve issues is one thing, but it's another thing to enforce a resolution at the political level while framing it as something the public won't oppose. Why doesn't this work? What is wrong here, what are we waiting for when it comes, for example, to the continually-discussed issue of equal access to education?
A: With respect to equal access to education I am sure that topic has public support. [Czech sociologist] Ivan Gabal has performed research into public support for integration measures, and his survey unambiguously showed that most of society supports changes in education, everyone realizes that the Romani people's lifelong disadvantage begins there. From a general point of view, I see the problem as lying in a sort of unwritten tradition that commands each new government not to continue the work of the previous one even if that work was the best it could have been. In the case of the human rights agenda, the examples scream to high heaven. The previous government destroyed everything we and Michael Kocáb left behind us at the Office of the Government. There is no continuity. All of the concepts are rewritten, the measures are halted, everything starts anew. Just recently I was agitated when I learned that the Czech School Inspectorate is mapping the numbers of children in the "practical" schools so that measures to equalize education for Romani children can begin. I am not against mapping or qualified estimates, just to be clear - what agitated me was that we were supposed to have ascertained that number long ago. The government adopted its National Action Plan for Inclusive Education and the Nečas cabinet was supposed to continue it, but [Education] Minister Dobeš stuck in his heels and didn't want to continue it. I was a witness to a session of the Inter-ministerial Commission for Roma Community Affairs where PM Nečas suggested to Dobeš that he design measures to reduce the capacity of the practical schools by 40 %. Minister Dobeš nodded his head, took notes - and nothing happened. The second problem is the unpreparedness of mainstream education for Romani children and the resistance of teachers to such change. For precisely that reason, political continuity is important. Part of the National Action Plan for Inclusive Education is working with teachers and preparing schools for these changes. We won't see the effects of such measures until several years from now (possibly even decades). During that time several governments will come and go, and if each new government radically changes the system every time, progress is impossible.
Q: When you were Deputy Human Rights Minister under Michael Kocáb, what were you able to influence, what not, and why?
A: Personally I am convinced that Michael and I did good work, especially when you consider that for two years were were living from month to month waiting for elections that never came, votes of "no confidence" that never turned out - we had no idea how much time we had left, everything had to be ready immediately. I am proud that we saw through the changes at [former concentration camps for Romani people] Hodonín and Lety. I know that for many people Lety is not yet resolved, and I agree with them - the only true solution is to buy out the pig farm [on the site]. However, if you compare what used to be there with how the Lidice Memorial is taking care of the site today, it's a night and day difference. I am proud that we submitted amendments to the [press] "muzzle" law and to the law on foundations and public benefit corporations. We beautifully managed the Czech EU Presidency and the Council of the European Union, for the first time ever, adopted its "Ten Principles of Romani Integration". Ultimately I am glad that despite all of the budget cuts, I handed over an office to Monika Šimůnková that was staffed by experts who were prepared to keep working on the many projects already underway. Unfortunately, she didn't take advantage of that. However, I am sorry I was unable to convince Michael Kocáb to submit a motion to the government making it possible for couples in registered partnerships to adopt children. My later activity in Prague Pride was because of that.
Q: Should the human rights agenda have its own minister and if so, why?
A: Yes, for one prosaic reason. The minister will attend the weekly cabinet meetings and talk with his or her colleagues, convince them to support not just his or her own motions, but to intervene in other resolutions that may not seem to concern human rights (although it's hard to find any area that does not concern human rights). Furthermore, the minister can attend sessions of Parliament and discuss legislative amendments with the MPs and senators. As a minister, that person is a natural partner of the constitutional officers. The same does not apply to the Human Rights Commissioner. Whoever is in that position has to wrestle it into significance.
Q: Why, in your view, is the topic of Romani people such a "hot potato" not only in the Czech Republic, but in Europe as a whole?
A: Because it has long been ignored. Where it is being addressed, such as in Spain, the Roma are not a topic at all. In this country and elsewhere in Europe there are concepts, plans, and strategies being adopted about the Roma, by their relation to specific measures is minimal. All you have to do is look at the concepts and at where EU money is being dispersed. It's a shame that no one is performing an in-depth analysis of how the EU funds have actually helped Romani people in the Czech Republic.
Q: Many solutions are on the table, they exist, but mostly just on paper, and in practice the situation in many regions is deteriorating and even those who offer quick-fix solutions are getting the floor in politics. How can the Green Party improve this? Does the party want to improve it and do its candidates, including you, have a real chance?
A: It depends what the position of the Greens will be after the elections. The Greens can choose to make two or three areas a priority and education must be one of them. We must promote it at all levels. We are already in a good position to do that, because the Greens have local representatives who can implement the party's priorities. We have senators who can propose legislative amendments and if we seat MPs, they can help too.
Q: How do you intend to achieve the greater involvement of Romani people in ministerial and political structures in places where they can exercise influence? When will Romani people themselves be included in positions of leadership and actual decision-making?
A: One of the biggest disputes I always had with Martin Šimáček, director of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, was that I consistently demanded that he give a chance to Romani candidates when hiring new people. In short, it's necessary to promote this come what may and stand by it. The same applies to women in high managerial posts. It's necessary to find candidates with thick skins who can take flagrant remarks of the type that this or that Romani man or woman "can't handle it". Whoever it is has to be certain that management supports them fully. The Greens have now joined forces with the SRP and our common efforts can begin. I am fully determined to see this happen.
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