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Czech Helsinki Committee: Ombudsman's statements risk reducing public confidence

Prague, 17.2.2011 17:56, (ROMEA)

The Czech Helsinki Committee (CHC) has sent an open letter responding to public statements made by Czech ombudsman Varvařovský in which he impugned the country's anti-discrimination law. The statements were published on 31 January and 5 February in the newspaper Lidové noviny. The CHC believes the ombudsman's statements have endangered the general confidence in and credibility of that office. The letter is published below in full.

OPEN LETTER FROM THE CZECH HELSINKI COMMITTEE TO THE PUBLIC DEFENDER OF RIGHTS (THE OMBUDSMAN)

Esteemed Sir,

We are writing in response to your public statements regarding the anti-discrimination agenda of the Public Defender of Rights (published on 31 January and 5 February in the Lidové noviny daily). We consider your statements inappropriate and capable of undermining general confidence in the office of the Public Defender of Rights.

The impugning of the anti-discrimination law by someone who is supposed to guarantee the protection of rights and freedoms is a delicate problem. The meaningfulness of anti-discrimination measures has been verified both through international experience, as reflected in the relevant EU directives, and through several years of discourse among experts in the Czech Republic. The function of the ombudsman is not to impugn the conclusions of these expert debates, but to effectively contribute to fulfilling the law and implementing its powers. Within that purview, it is the task of the ombudsman to also spread awareness of the principle of the ban on discrimination and of measures for guarding against it. However, through your statements you are instead promoting among the victims of discrimination a lack of confidence in the very point of turning to you for help.

The message that you personally doubt whether discrimination is even occurring on a large scale in the Czech Republic is very striking. It is incorrect, and in the case of an ombudsman unprofessional, to generally construe the level of discrimination from static data, such as the number of filings sent to the ombudsman, without comparing that data with data from other sources.

Moreover, it is completely unacceptable for an ombudsman to discuss the content of specific filings with evident derision. Disparagement of those who complain to the public administration is not allowed in the behavior of those working for the public administration. If the ombudsman himself publicly commits such behavior (irrespective of whether the anonymity of the individuals concerned is preserved), then the ombudsman seriously threatens the credibility of the office, both vis-á-vis the institutions whose work he follows and vis-á-vis future filers of complaints.

We must also remind you that disparaging the anti-discrimination law constitutes an attack from within on the very essence and purpose of the ombudsman. The ombudsman cannot authentically require the public administration to honor the letter of the law if he himself behaves in a similar fashion to the institutions being criticized, i.e., he does not honor, but instead publicly impugns, the law that is the very foundation of his powers and his tasks.

During the time that the Public Defender of Rights has existed in the Czech Republic, the institution has earned a high reputation and the general confidence of the public. It would be a great mistake to endanger that status with unconsidered remarks which, in our opinion, contravene the obligation of the ombudsman to perform his office "in a way which will not damage the office or endanger confidence in its impartiality and independence" (see Section 3 paragraph 2 of the Law on the Public Defender of Rights). You have already seriously endangered confidence in the ombudsman in the area of anti-discrimination through your remarks.

Sincerely,

Michael Kocáb, Vice-Chair, Czech Helsinki Committee

František Valeš, Vice-Chair, Czech Helsinki Committee

Gwendolyn Albert, Radka Steklá, ras, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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