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Former Czech Govt Human Rights Commissioner says Interior Ministry wants rights agenda

Prague, 18.10.2013 22:07, (ROMEA)
Monika Šimůnková (PHOTO:  Czech News Agency)
Monika Šimůnková (PHOTO: Czech News Agency)

According to former Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner Monika Šimůnková, efforts are underway in the outgoing Rusnok government to transfer the human rights agenda on minorities and other vulnerable groups from the Office of the Government to the Interior Ministry. Šimůnková views the cabinet's different perspective on human rights issues as one of the reasons she was dismissed from her post as head of the Human Rights Section, and that difference is the reason she has resigned as commissioner.

Šimůnková made her remarks to journalists today. According to outgoing PM Jiří Rusnok, the government is focused on the human rights agenda and on its human rights section even though its efforts are not "seen in the media". 

Radek Agustin (SPOZ), the administrative head of the Office of the Government, dismissed Šimůnková on Tuesday from her post as head of the section, allegedly because of her failure to respect working hours and her poor work ethic. Šimůnková disagrees with her dismissal and considers the reasons given for it to be "bogus and defamatory."  

Today Šimůnková sad that prior to her dismissal, her subordinate, the director of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, Martin Šimáček, was tapped to become her replacement "behind her back". "If the Government no longer wanted me in the post of Government Human Rights Commissioner, they should have honorably dismissed me," Šimůnková said.  

For the time being Šimůnková remains an employee of the Office of the Government. However, she expects to be given notice soon.

Šimůnková believes the cause of her dismissal, 10 days before elections to the lower house, is that she and the Rusnok cabinet have "different viewpoints" on the issue of human rights. "Since the new [Rusnok] government took power, I have faced efforts by the Interior Minister to move the Human Rights Section into the Interior Ministry's agenda," she said today.

Šimůnková does not consider this a good idea and sees it as demonstrating a "lack of respect for civil society". She reminded the press today that the human rights agenda includes not just Romani issues, but the topics of at-risk children, the mentally ill, senior citizens and sexual minorities.   

Rusnok met with Šimůnková yesterday, two days after her dismissal as section head. She says he did not want to resolve the situation and that she therefore decided to resign.

"Monika Šimůnková came to bring me her resignation, which I accepted. I am not interested in her further media appearances," Rusnok told Czech Television.

Rusnok disagrees that his cabinet is not paying attention to human rights. "It's not true that we take no interest in the human rights agenda. We are interested in the people of this country, very intensively interested. The section is continuing its work, we will continue to work in these areas within the realm of the possibilities available to our government, but we probably will not be as visible in the media as Ms Šimůnková was," Rusnok said. 

The former commissioner has also faced criticism for being not visible enough and for little being known about her work. Former Human Rights Minister Michael Kocáb, Šimůnková's predecessor as commissioner, was the most recent person to criticize her. 

According to Šimůnková, changes in the management of the Office of the Government after the arrival of the Rusnok cabinet  have greatly weakened the position of Human Rights Commissioner. Reportedly whoever will hold this post now has no staff, no powers, and will not be permitted to attend cabinet sessions.  

The head of the Human Rights Section has instead been empowered to attend cabinet sessions instead of the Human Rights Commissioner. Šimůnková does not consider it rational to weaken the post of commissioner at a time when anti-Romani marches are taking place.

The former commissioner believes there should be a Human Rights Minister who could vote during cabinet sessions. The same sort of axing of the human rights section was attempted by the previous government of former PM Petr Nečas (ODS). which did not continue the ministerial-level human rights position. 

The Nečas cabinet justified its moves mainly as part of budget cuts. Šimůnková was appointed Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner in February 2011 by the Nečas government. 

The move prompted uneasiness among representatives of nonprofit organizations. Many criticized Šimůnková for taking a bureaucratic approach to the role of commissioner. 

Some of her former critics are standing by her side today. Those include the former head of the Czech Helsinki Committee, Anna Šabatová, sociologist Ivan Gabal, and the head of the Human Rights Research Center at Charles University in Prague, Pavel Šturma.

Zdeněk Ryšavý, executive director of the ROMEA association, said Šimůnková was unable to enforce several things because she wasn't political and had no enforcement mechanisms at her disposal. "The function of commissioner didn't permit her to do much. For example, I can appreciate that she clearly stated the pig farm at Lety by Písek must be removed. However, there wasn't the political will to do it. That's how it was with many other things. However, I appreciate that she put a great deal of effort into getting the media to report objectively about Romani people," he said.   

Ryšavý agrees that the human rights agenda should have a minister directly assigned to it. "This definitely should not head in the direction of having the human rights agenda shifted under the control of the Interior Ministry. That is just absurd and unacceptable. A Human Rights Minister should have control of this who will have a greater chance of enforcing what he says than a commissioner will," he said.

Šimůnková said today that during her time in office she managed to enforce the continuation of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, which was supposed to operate just as a pilot through last year. A strategy for the fight against social exclusion was also adopted by the government. 

A proposal to compensate women who have been illegally sterilized is also ready. However, that document has been inactive since the start of last year at government level, with neither the Nečas nor the Rusnok cabinet discussing it.    

In some regions of the country relationships between Romani people and other inhabitants have become tense and unrest has broken out. The economic crisis and rising unemployment have contributed to the unrest.

ČTK, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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