Czech ombud: Discrimination against Roma underreported
In a recent interview with Czech ombud Anna Šabatová, news server iDNES.cz touches on many current topics related to her work. In addition to discussing the much-publicized case of Muslim nursing students who left their studies because of a school's ban on head scarves, the ombud answered questions about her deputy, Stanislav Křeček, the adoption of children by registered same-sex couples, and extensive discrimination against Romani people in housing, on the labor market, and in other areas of life.
Even though Romani people are often unable to lease apartments or get work because of their nationality, only a fraction of those who experience such treatment ever complain to the Public Defender of Rights (the ombud). For her part, Šabatová does not doubt that there are many more cases of discrimination happening than are reported.
"Often [Romani people] are resigned. They are used to this treatment. Some don't even know they can turn to me.," she told iDNES.cz.
In the interview Šabatová also criticizes her deputy for making the job of the ombud more difficult. He has been publicizing his personal differences of opinion with her on various issues.
Šabatová was born in Brno in 1951. She was a signatory of Charter 77 and was its spokesperson in 1986.
She has been involved in human rights protections her entire life and was a co-founder of the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted. In 1998 she was awarded the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights, and from 2001 - 2007 she worked as the deputy to the Public Defender of Rights, Otakar Motejl.
Q: Recently the case of the Muslim girls who left a nursing school here because of its ban on head scarves has been widely publicized. You stood up for one of them and recently you said the school should change its regulations. Wouldn't that interfere with the school's autonomy as Czech Educational Minister Chládek said?
A: I do not believe that is interference with the school's autonomy. The school's regulations must comply with the laws, by which I mean the Anti-Discrimination Act, the School Act, and ultimately, if you will, the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms.
Q: The director of the nursing school, Ivana Kohoutová, said she would file a criminal report against you for accusing her of discrimination. Has she done that yet?
A: You'd have to ask the director, I know nothing about it. I don't have an opinion about it either.
Q: What about the position taken by Motol Hospital, which is refusing to accept nurses in headscarves for their practicums - in that case, for hygienic reasons?
A: I cannot comment on a case I am unfamiliar with. However, my statement on the case of the girl from Somalia invoved four legal comments. One was that any decree concerning protective equipment in a hospital does not violate the Anti-Discrimination Act. I do not consider such a decree to be discriminatory even though it may require someone to change their clothing. However, in such a case the head scarf is probably replaced by some other covering, which is in order. The girl, naturally, is not concerned with always having a hijab on her head, but with always having her hair covered. Any restrictions resulting from a protective equipment decree are legitimate because their purpose is to protect health.
Q: Would your statement be the same if it concerned a burqa, which covers the entire face?
A: I have never encountered a person in a burqa in the Czech Republic. I have no opinion about hypothetical situations. My comments are always made on the basis of an actual, specific situation.
Q: Recently you said that the behavior of your deputy, Stanislav Křeček, is harming the institution of the ombud. How, specifically?
A: The Public Defender of Rights is a monocratic institution, which means that basically one person makes the decisions, even though that person has the assistance of an entire office. When the Public Defender of Rights states an opinion, the deputy should not give the media a different opinion. Mr Křeček has done that.
Q: Do you mean his statements about the Muslim head scarf case?
A: For example. This also concerns other matters, but that was the most visible one.
Q: Given this situation, is it still possible for you to collaborate with one another productively?
A: We are working together. I am doing my best to work with him, I speak with him normally and we are collaborating normally on substantive issues.
Q: What do you see as being a significantly troubled area in the Czech Republic, what do people often turn to you about?
A: With respect to equal treatment, people turn to me about the schools. These are parents of children with disabilities who are not succeeding in convincing local authorities to grant them the benefits they are entitled to for their children's integration. Parents often turn to me who have been unable to get their child into a nursery school - these are cases of discrimination on the basis of parentage. Sometimes Romani people turn to me who have encountered open discrimination on the apartment market. I dealt with a case of people who were not permitted to bring an assistance dog or a guide dog into a health care facility or onto public transit - that is also indirect discrimination. Generally, however, most of the people who turn to the Public Defender of Rights do so over welfare - meaning benefits for caregiving, for housing, and most of all for pensions. Sometimes in those cases they succeed in determining that the local authorities have proceeded incorrectly. The second most-frequent agenda item are complaints about how Building Works Authorities are proceeding.
Q: In the most recent report on your activity that your office submitted to the Chamber of Deputies, you criticized a law that makes it impossible for registered partners to adopt children. Are you considering filing a legislative motion in that case?
A: I'll tell you about a specific case. A man turned to me who wanted to adopt a child and was living in a registered partnership. In his case, the ban on adopting children flows directly from the law, so I had to find that the authorities had not made an error. The problem is in the law, which is discriminatory. The man then had to turn to the courts. The first-instance court can itself interrupt a proceedings and turn to the Constitutional Court for guidance. Let's let the Constitutional Court rule on this issue.
Q: We have been talking about registered partners adopting children for years now. Why hasn't the situation made progress?
A: These matters move slowly. That's just how it is.
Q: Another never-ending story in our country is that of the discrimination of Romani people in housing, on the labor market and in the schools. Do you see any developments in that respect in recent years?
A: I don't see any big development. I agree with you that the discrimination of Romani people is very widespread. The problem is that we know this discrimination exists, but very few Roma turn to the ombud with a specific complaint, so it is hard to give any kind of testimony about it. Some Romani people have turned to me and their cases were quite clear when it came to inferring the discrimination, but I have no doubt that there are many more.
Q: What were these cases of clear discrimination about?
A: For example, about access to housing - a real estate office directly rejected a person solely because he was Romani. The office didn't find anything out about him, didn't know who he was, they rejected him solely because his name sounded Romani. During enrollment into a primary school that was attended almost exclusively by non-Romani children, a Romani child had a problem enrolling, even though that child met all the necessary criteria. Or there was a tender for a municipally-owned apartment where people made their bids through the envelope method. The unequivocal winner was a lady who was Romani. The municipality then repeatedly cancelled the tender and would not lease the apartment to her. I found discrimination in all of those cases.
Q: You said you believe you are seeing just a fraction of such cases. Why are Romani people not complaining of this discrimination?
A: Often they are resigned. They are used to this treatment. Some don't even know they can turn to me. We are doing our best now to dismantle such obstacles by travelling into the regions and collaborating with NGOs.
Q: What about the long-term enrollment of Romani children into the "practical" and "specialized" schools?
A: I know this persists because in 2012 the ombud found that about 35 % of the children in such schools are Romani. Shortly thereafter the Czech School Inspection Authority found that 26 % are Romani, and last year they found that 28 % are Romani. So I know that Romani children are being enrolled into the "specialized schools", but no one has turned to me about this issue, nor did anyone ever turn to my predecessor. I could initiate an investigation on my own, but at the moment I don't have the capacity to do so. The Czech School Inspection Authority should be doing that.
Q: Another long-lasting problem is that the operators of residential hotels are collecting exorbitant rents and abusing state housing benefits for the socially vulnerable. What can be done about that?
A: The situation would be significantly improved by adopting a law on social housing. My predecessors repeatedly told the Government to adopt such a law. Now there is an amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress in the Senate, and it includes several elements that should stop this trafficking in poverty - for example, the cases where a landlord leases one room to six people. That will no longer be possible. However, the basic solution would be a law on social housing.
Q: Your office also analyzed job ads to see whether they were discriminatory. What did you find?
A: Racial discrimination didn't turn up much in those. Discrimination on the basis of age and sex occurs repeatedly, for example, ads will say "We are hiring a person into a young collective." Imagine you are my age and you go apply to join a "young collective". It's a way to prevent you from even applying. Employers also require disproportionately lengthy terms of experience - for example, for a janatorial position they require 15 years' experience. That means they evidently do not want to employ a young person.
Q: You mentioned that you will be traveling directly to visit people in the regions. How will you do that?
A: I want to visit all of the regions each year. During those trips a place will be opened up where citizens can file their motions. In the evening there will be a debate with the citizens and an interactive theater performance about a problem that the citizens are usually bothered by. I will also meet with municipal secretaries and regional staffers and I will visit local libraries.
Q: What do you think of the new position of Education Ombud that Education Minister Marcel Chládek has established? Won't your competencies overlap with that position?
A: I think this is something that could be good if it is undertaken correctly. Naturally, this is not an actual ombud. Minister Chládek and I have agreed to meet and come to an agreement on the areas in which the Education Ombud will work and those where I will work. I can work on anything involving the performance of the state administration, i.e., when it comes to enrolling children into the schools and handling complaints. However, we cannot interfere with pedagogical activity or with the relationship between a school director and the teachers. That can be the Education Ombud's area.
Q: Has the position of the ombud changed since you were Otakar Motejl's deputy? Were you surprised by anything after taking office?
A: I was positively surprised by several aspects. I'd say that the team here works better than it did then when it comes to legal knowledge and professionalism. I believe that's because the office has been running for 15 years now, so we have some excellent experts here. I am also finding that the local authorities listen to us more than they did 10 years ago.
Q: Your powers have also expanded.
A: Yes. There are several new things. I can intervene in advance on Constitutional Court proceedings concerning the repeal of legislation. Previously the ombud could only propose that the Constitutional Court repeal sub-regulations, such as decrees. I can file suit in the public interest, which also was not possible before. The Government's rules of procedure have changed and the Public Defender of Rights is now a regular place for comments, so I receive all of the laws without having to insist. I am also holding new roundtables for the state administration, doing my best to unify the administration so they will make the same decisions wherever they are.
Q: How do you view your collaboration with the Chamber of Deputies? Your predecessor, Pavel Varvařovský, said MPs weren't paying much attention to his legislative proposals. Are you having a similar experience?
A: I'm not complaining. I regularly attend the committee meetings in the Chamber of Deputies and discuss issues with their members. Some materials comprised of motions from our office have been sent to the Government, I was involved in that. I'm not saying they met us all the way.
Q: The last ombud promoted the idea of the position of the Public Defender of Rights being anchored in the Constitution. Is that your aim as well?
A: I would be glad if that were the case. If the Commission for the Constitution would start working on a change of that sort, I'd do my best to enforce the idea. However, I will not initiate it if a specific change to the Constitution is not planned.
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