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May 23, 2022



Commentary: Roma meeting with Czech Human Rights Minister was good

Prague, 6.4.2014 1:31, (ROMEA)
Drahomír Radek Horváth (center) with Czech Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier (right) in 2014. (PHOTO:  František Bikár)
Drahomír Radek Horváth (center) with Czech Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier (right) in 2014. (PHOTO: František Bikár)

The recent meeting between Romani people from all regions of the Czech Republic and the Czech Minister for Human Rights, Equal Opportunities and Legislation, Jiří Dienstbier, was a very pleasant surprise. I first intended to write a classic reportage about it, without any personal remarks - brief, to the point, and objective - but I can't rid myself of my personal opinion and particular point of view, so this will be a cross between a blog and a news report.

It does not put one in a good mood to travel 120 kilometers by train and then trudge up the hill to the Hradčany quarter of Prague first thing in the morning, and I was therefore grateful that the first person I had the honor of meeting at Hrzánský Palace before the event began was my former colleague Martina Štěpánková, who was once a lawyer with the Counseling Center for Citizenship, Civil and Human Rights (Poradna pro občanství, občanská a lidská práva). She is currently director of the Human Rights Section at the Office of the Government and, in addition to Jarmila Balážová and Kateřina Valachová, is part of the minister's "dream team".     

Our friendly, informal conversation about the hot topics of the day was pleasantly interrupted by the arrival of Minister Dienstbier at our little table. I was introduced and the debate continued with the minister participating as well.

At one point I realized that not only did I share the same perspective on specific topics with the minister, but this is the first time that I have told myself that he just might work - that if anyone is going to lock down and push for something, he just might be the one to do it. In my day I have have had the opportunity to converse personally with [former Human Rights Minister] Michal Kocáb, [former Human Rights Minister] Džamila Stehlíková, and [former Human Rights Commissioner] Ms Monika Šimůnková, but in none of those cases did I harbor any personal hope for a marked change for the better on the primary issues.    

Minister Dienstbier then officially opened the meeting. He clearly defined his priorities as the right to social housing, the right of every child to an equal access to education, the fight against poverty with an accent on addressing collections procedures and indebtedness, enhancing the ombud's competences, addressing socially excluded localities, coexistence, a greater sense of security, and children's entitlement to preschool education from the age of two.

I was also greatly pleased that he raised the debate about those who have been sterilized against their will and said that by the end of the year a draft law on the issue should be ready and that he would then immediately begin the standard procedures, starting with writing the specific language of the law and ending with submitting that language to Parliament for approval. Such human rights issues are an important, primary theme for this current administration and its program declaration has said as much.  

The minister made that very clear in his opening speech. The Roma who were present responded by discussing the rising wave of extremism and the need to amend the law on assembly, but to my great pleasure the minister strictly rejected that idea, saying it would be more essential to learn how to work with the law and generate the political will to immediately disperse such assemblies should they meet the specific requirements for being considered hate demonstrations.

I agree with the minister. Freedoms should not be curtailed.

Many critiques of the media were heard, not just from the Roma in the hall, but also from the minister himself. The media endeavor to create scandal at any cost and its tendentiousness is more palpable today than ever before. 

This one-sided reporting and the constant mentioning of ethnicity even when it has no direct bearing on the scandal being reported is a guaranteed recipe for ratings and readership. It's good to know the minister sees this and that he says he intends to take the due steps to address it. 

The most essential thing for me personally was the minister's clearly declared intention of collaborating with Romani figures and with Romani people in the regions. From all of the statements he made one could sense a tendency to get rid of the Government's previous dysfunctional, paternalistic approach and focus more on the participation of Roma themselves.

Traditionally this has always been expressed by the Roma who were present, but it was surprisingly also expressed in the responses of the minister himself. The Romani representatives present were very critical during the subsequent discussion, but their criticism was mostly aimed at the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion and its director, Martin Šimáček, who was present. 

The Agency was reproached not only for its insufficient effectiveness in the social inclusion process, but for its lack of collaboration with Romani people in the localities and the insufficient participation of Romani people at its Local Partnership meetings, even though such negotiations plan the steps and strategies directly influencing Romani living conditions. The Agency is a traditional target of criticism by many Romani figures.  

There was also a very passionate discussion about the new composition of the Czech Government Inter-ministerial Commission on Roma Community Affairs, which is supposed to be established now. I expected some comments about the status of the Commission or about how there is only one representative per region and how, while the civil part of the Commission is Romani (guaranteeing parity), its members are mainly relevant to their local communities (which doesn't say anything about their quality), but instead we learned why various people should not be appointed to the Commission.  

I hope the minister will rationally, wisely choose competent Romani experts, not loudmouths, people who will be capable of developing, within the framework of the Commission, some motions and resolutions for the Government of the Czech Republic to adopt. I am really looking forward to the concrete results of the work of the office led by the Minister for Human Rights, Equal Opportunities and Legislation, not just with respect to us Roma, but in general.  

Drahomír Radek Horváth, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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