Interview with former Czech Human Rights Commissioner Petr Uhl
The Czech journal A2 recently published a very interesting interview with leading Czech human rights figure Petr Uhl, conducted by journalists Filip Pospíšil and Lukáš Rychetský. Conducted in honor of Uhl's 70th birthday, the interview sums up the last 22 years of his life. Below is the part of the interview that touches on Romani people and the recent events in Šluknov district. You can read the full interview (in Czech only) online at http://www.advojka.cz/archiv/2011/24/pomalu-se-stavam-odpurcem-systemu
Q: One way to evaluate the quality of life here, and of our democracy during the past 22 years, would be to appraise the transformations that have occurred in the lived reality of the poorest among us, mainly the Romani people in the Czech Republic. By that measure, what would an evaluation of these past years look like?
A: In that case, the evaluation of the changes would probably be the harshest, with the worst results. There have been many changes and fluctuations in the historical development of our state policy vis-á-vis Romani people. Entire concepts and theories about this issue have been developed. During the 1950s and 1960s, the cultural difference between Romani people and the majority population was significantly greater than it is today. Given the fact that in those days most work was manual, and there was enough of it, Romani people were very often employed back then, and no one was very surprised when Romani people from Slovakia were being recruited for work…
Q: The changes in 1989 put a stop to that.A: After the November revolution, people here fought for the freedom, as it were, to behave abusively, dismissively, even roughly toward Romani people. Young non-Romani children learn this at home. There is extensive ethnic and racial tension here, and it is 90 % prejudice and 10 % people's personal experiences, from which they then overgeneralize. Thousands of people, some of them even in government bodies, as well as others working in nonprofit, non-state organizations, including Romani studies experts, are fighting back against this situation today.
Surprisingly enough, there is a certain percentage of municipalities with enlightened people in charge who are advocating for the opinion that integration must be comprehensive and voluntary, i.e., that it is not assimilation. The social subtext of the matter is definitely important, but we should not overlook those advocating for the idea that the Romani language should become an elective subject in the schools, or for the cultural autonomy and emancipation of Romani people.
Q: Could you explain that concept of cultural autonomy and emancipation, which you sometimes make use of?
A: In 1978, those of us in Charter 77 published a Romani studies document by several experts. I wrote the introduction to it. Based on what I learned from those experts, I wrote that every Romani person must constantly decide, during the course of his or her entire life, which of the Romani customs, observances, and rules will be accepted by mainstream society and to what extent, as well as how to hold on to a traditional, albeit altered, Romani approach to life.
That is roughly the basis of the cultural autonomy to which I refer, with the proviso that the majority population has to know what Romani observances are, what the internal, sub-ethnic divisions are among the Roma. On that basis, various procedures, programs and projects can be designed. I personally was very sympathetic, for example, when college students from the (now-defunct )Romani students' association Athinganoi spent a summer traveling in horse-drawn wagons recently.
Their past is our past too. It is the past of Czech society as a whole. I start from the constitutional basis that it is up to the individual whether he or she considers herself or himself Czech, French or Romani. Moreover, I hold to the principle that anyone can change that affiliation at any time. Czech ethnicity is not recorded in any documents - in this country, nationality as a personal piece of information is an invention of the year 1945, from the time of radical struggle against the Germans. It is really horrible that people today, when they hear the word "Czech", link that feeling with the sense of ethnicity expressed by the slogan: "If you're not jumping, you're not a Czech." ("Kdo neskáče, není Čech.") I don't want to force this vision on Romani people, but because I have friends who consider themselves Romani, and because they perceive Romani history, observances and traditions, including oral poetry and rhetoric, as a significant element of their culture, I would like to see the state financially support this nationality option.
Q: We are currently encountering a completely different situation, especially in the north of Bohemia, one in which some people may not be choosing to label themselves Romani. Racial tension is rising from the side of some members of the majority society. What can be done about this?
A: This must start with full-hearted resistance to the population being divided into "decent" and "inadaptable" citizens. I don't believe this is only a problem of North Bohemia; rather, several well-publicized attacks have taken place there. Here I would given an example from France, where they very inadvisedly built housing estates into which they stuffed all the people from the Maghreb whom they had given work. The state then had to concede that anyone born in France has the right to request French citizenship at the age of 20 and cannot be denied it. Those people all speak French, even as the language of the less-educated. They don't speak Arabic anymore.
Drugs and petty crime are a part of life at those housing estates. My daughter lived there for one year, subletting a place from a lady who was from that half of the population who are not the descendants of people from the Magreb. When we rode the tram into town, it bothered me - primarily for health reasons - that the young people were smoking inside the tram car. My daughter told me I shouldn't reprehend them because they might attack me.
Q: Do you have the feeling that the atmosphere in the Šluknov foothills is similar?
A: I think it's the same. The good name of the people from the Maghreb has been so damaged - among people from the majority society, of course. When, at the end of the 1990s in France, Arab youth carried out several terrorist attacks as an act of jihad due to their personal frustrations and their feeling of religious devotion to a "just" cause, everyone there started saying the same kinds of things that we are saying here. For example, in light of problems with the Roma, we are now discussing how we don't have any problems with the Vietnamese migrants among us. In France at that time, what they said was that with black people - unlike with Arabs - there were no problems.
This example illustrates that these prejudices are artificially created by the media. After all, people who commit petty crimes are not the same people as those responsible for assassinations. There is no connection there. Similarly, we cannot blame all of the Romani people in the Czech Republic for a few incidents committed by some individuals. When one is an Arab in France, one is not perceived as negatively as Romani people are in the Czech Republic, but it is a handicap all the same. For example, police monitoring focuses more on Arabs than on other people.
Q: Precisely such prejudices are now becoming instruments of political populism in the Czech Republic. Even some representatives of the Social Democratic party have recently started talking this way. As a well-known left-wing journalist, what do you make of that?
A: That is one of the main reasons I am not a member of the Czech Social Democrats. However, I very much welcomed that fact that not only Jiří Dienstbier, Jr, but also their party chair, Bohuslav Sobotka, have rejected this tendency of abusing prejudices in order to further the party.
Q: In the case of Jiří Dienstbier, isn't he the sole voice of reason?
A: No. Among the Social Democratic representatives, only about 5 % of them are just scraping things together to steal for themselves and perpetrating other crimes, including making racist speeches. Jiří Dienstbier has not completely lost his battle, because he was elected party vice-chair and is also their Shadow Justice Minister as well as a senator, which shows he enjoys a certain degree of support in the party. Because I am worried about any and all racist tendencies within the Social Democrats, I am a member of their expert commission on Romani affairs. I also do my best to cover the discrimination of Romani people in my regular commentaries for the daily Právo.
Petr Uhl (born 1941) is a Czech journalist, politician, signatory of Charter 77 and co-founder of the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted (Výbor na obranu nespravedlivě stíhaných). He was imprisoned more than once during the previous regime (for a total of nine years). In 1990 he was elected a deputy to the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly for Civic Forum (Občanské fórum). From 1991 - 2001 he was an expert on the UN Human Rights Commission. From 1998 - 2001 he was the Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner, chairing the Government Council for Nationalities, the Human Rights Council, and the Inter-ministerial Commission for Romani Community Affairs. He was also a deputy to the Vice-Premier for Human Rights. He is currently a staff commentator for the Czech daily Právo.
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