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Interview with sociologist Ivan Gabal on the human rights situation in the Czech Republic

Prague, 30.12.2010 5:26, (Romano voďi)
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Q: The government of Czech PM Nečas has abolished the post of Human Rights and Minorities Minister and continues to delay appointing a Human Rights Commissioner. Do we need a government official for such an agenda 21 years after the revolution?

A: Personally, I am not bothered that the government is toning down the human rights dimension of its Roma agenda and strengthening the dimension of education and socioeconomic output. The government is not just articulating its increased demands of excluded Roma in terms of their productivity, it is also making use of integration tools such as schooling and higher education. I believe the government and the Prime Minister are right to do this, because it makes the agenda rather more political. However, what is starting to develop is a certain stagnation in the executive branch as far as this area is concerned. There is a certain lack of organizational and staff capacities, for example, at the Czech Education Ministry, a certain distraction from integration, a fading away of the effort to see through what was begun in the Topolánek and Fischer cabinets. This may precisely correlate with the fact that there is no minister to take care of this agenda, to advocate for it in the government, and to collaborate with colleagues from the various ministries.

Q: Can you think of a specific situation from the last six months when a human rights official at government level was clearly lacking?

A: I understand the Education Minister is concentrating on reforming higher education and the statewide graduation exams, but the result has been that norms on inclusion, for example, have been put on the back burner, as has the design and implementation of the legal standards which were criticized by the Strasbourg judgment - not to mention the active policy of support for the educational mobility of Roma pupils agreed to by the most recent meeting of the Czech Government Council for Roma Community Affairs, chaired by the Prime Minister. I also understand that the Czech Labor and Social Affairs Ministry is primarily addressing social policy and pension reform, but the necessary changes to employment policy in the regions most at risk and a specific program for employing new graduates have also been put on the back burner. I believe an independent minister and authority would probably be worthwhile, both for the government and for all of us.

Q: Last month the situation in the town of Nový Bydžov culminated in the mayor publishing an anti-Roma pamphlet and deciding to go the route of harsh repression against all Roma residents after one of them allegedly raped a young girl. If we had a Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner, should that official intervene in such a case, and if so, what should have been done at that moment?

A: As far as we know, the situation there has been escalating for a long time and has now reached a point where the problems are overwhelming the town hall. Nový Bydžov evidently really does have problems with Roma, but at the same time the situation essentially required the initiation of robust integration programs much earlier and much more systematically. I very well understand those residents who are sick of it, who have security problems, who feel anarchy and lawlessness are growing there. Nevertheless, responsibility does not lie only with these rising confrontations and tensions. It primarily lies with the lack of positive, timely policies to nip these problems in the bud instead of waiting for them to become acute. It is the responsibility of politicians, local politicians. I believe the Agency has offered help to the town hall and we hope it will have capacity for that. However, the solution to this problem will not take place overnight. The situation has gone too far, and the responsible Roma living there need to realize that, because in the end the repressive measures will affect them in particular.

Q: So you would not be in favor of a Commissioner/Minister intervening?

A: I believe intervening from the outside, going over the head of the local government, usually rubs people the wrong way. In the "Strategy for Overcoming Social Exclusion" which we developed and which was adopted by the Fischer cabinet, we strictly recommended a synergy of cooperation with those municipalities that want to address their situations and collaborate. They cannot be forced. On this point I am a "social Darwinist" - if the town hall does not have a handle on the situation and does not request cooperation in time, their citizens will feel the effects. By the way, I am not sure whether in the case of Nový Bydžov this shouldn't rather concern the protection of the law, of the rights and security of those citizens who have become the victims of aggression and evidently also of violence, to say nothing of criminal behavior. If violence is being committed there, the police must take action in any event, irrespective of how the town hall defines the situation. The protection of those rights, respect for those rights, is the first necessary condition.

Q: In your opinion, who would be an appropriate candidate for such a post??

A: In this case, staffing matters are handled by the Prime Minister and are his responsibility. I do not intend to advise him and I do not know who might meet his idea of a good candidate. Personally, for example, I do not share the bitterness that some members of the public feel over the appointment of Roman Joch as the Prime Minister's adviser, because that is PM Nečas's business, not Ivan Gabal's. Moreover, as it happens, today Roman Joch is doing much more work, studying much more material, and advising the Prime Minister much more than he is commenting on affairs for the media, and that is only correct. I do not know whether it was due to work performed by Mr Joch or by the Prime Minister himself, but at the Government Council meeting I mentioned, the Prime Minister was very well-prepared. He had a clear idea of the structure of the agenda and the work and led a very open discussion, including of his own perspectives. For me it was rather positive to experience that. We'll see how things proceed. Nevertheless, I believe it is possible that, given the fact that the Prime Minister's agenda is naturally overwhelming, we may really be missing a responsible high official or even member of the government to press for the agenda of integrating excluded Roma, step by step, including practical changes. I am slowly coming to the opinion that it would probably help to revive this position.

Given the current state of affairs, I consider it to have been a good move to appoint Czeslaw Walek executive director [of the Office of the Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner]. He has experience with the agenda and he knows administrative and inter-ministerial procedures in particular, which is very important, and he is rather good at seeing things through.

Q: Have you discussed this topic with the PM, or do you plan to?

A: No, I was only invited to a discussion on the educational opportunities and careers of Roma pupils and to a discussion on the possibilities and situation in the realm of education in terms of the inter-generational educational mobility of children and their life opportunities. Again, I repeat, this is the Prime Minister's business. Nevertheless, should I be asked my opinion on this area, I would probably recommend reviving the ministerial post. I would see the costs and benefits of such a step as significantly positive.

Q: Former Deputy Education Minister Klára Laurenčíková has left the Czech Education Ministry along with psychiatrist Viktor Hartoš, who had been appointed by the minister himself. The reason they both left was the minister's lack of interest in correcting the situation in the "practical" elementary schools, where many Roma children are being unjustifiably enrolled. At the same time, the number of professsionals working on this issue has been extremely reduced. In your opinion, what is behind this?

A: Klára Laurenčíková, as far as I know, left as a result of pressure from the previous leadership of the ministry and the destruction of the very competent section she was heading. That pressure was initiated by former Education Minister Kopicová in spite of the fact that she assured PM Fischer she would do the opposite. Now, of course, the breakdown of the organizational and staff capacity of the Czech Education Ministry targeting the initiation of integration processes in the schools has become quite dramatic, including the rapid resignation of director Hartoš and the departure of other leading staffers. It will not be easy to replace them. We are in a situation where it is precisely education that must become the flagship of the integration processes. The previous staff were on the way to initiating a real turnaround in the educational opportunities of Roma girls and boys. Moreover, it seems to me that a certain slowdown in the necessary, required steps has occurred. In relation to the Strasbourg judgment, several new decrees which have yet to be enacted have become very important. The ministry bears complete responsibility for the results of any inaction in this matter. This question was also discussed at the Council session I mentioned, and the Prime Minister is clearly aware of these international obligations. Education Minister Dobeš was present and formulated clear time limits within which the new decrees concerning the "special" schools and classes will take effect. I expect this will be fulfilled, because the information we received from the representative of the Czech Republic to the Strasbourg court was rather ominous. I believe the Education Ministry will not only meet its obligations, but will overcome the current staff crisis with respect to the agenda of socially disadvantaged pupils and will return to the head of the government "flotilla" in terms of addressing - and in the future, overcoming - the social exclusion of Roma pupils.

Q: How did Minister Dobeš explain the personnel changes at his ministry at that meeting?

A: He is evidently aware of the personnel crisis and at the meeting he introduced us to the new director and a new organization combining the agenda of disadvantage with that of special needs schooling - I hope I understood it correctly. Of course, I am not in a position to judge how successful he will be in replacing the experienced staff who have left. As far as the decrees mentioned are concerned, he was not satisfied with how they had been developed and drafted. Of course, that is his right. It will be interesting to see what kinds of changes to them he proposes. However, he has taken responsibility for their delay and has defined a deadline by which they will be adopted.

Q: After that meeting, Czeslaw Walek announced to the media that in future, Minister Dobeš will be consulting any similar personnel changes with the Government Council for Roma Community Affairs prior to making such decisions. Of course, we will have to wait and see if that really happens. What about the current situation with this lack of experts?

A: The ministry leadership is fully empowered to address the current situation, for which it is responsible. I believe it is necessary to wait and see whether this critical situation can be overcome. The Education Ministry is one of the most important ministries and it cannot afford to either destabilize or halt this important agenda because the ministry is in a central, strategic position with regard to our international obligations under the Strasbourg judgment. Personally, I do not doubt Minister Dobeš is aware of the current critical situation and will manage to handle it.

Q: Your company was commissioned by the Education Ministry to conduct a research project which has confirmed the long-known fact that many Roma children attend "practical" elementary schools - every third Roma child, to be precise. Since then, has the Czech Republic made any progress in resolving this?

A: I must correct you: We did not determine a fact which has long been known, but a fact which has long not been known about the percentage of Roma pupils attending "special" schools and school programs designed for children with light mental disability - and who, of course, have been selected for such schools either erroneously or inaccurately. These enrollments have been hiding the fact that these children are not disabled - rather, they are socially disadvantaged and backward. The credit in this regard belongs to former Education Minister Liška, who commissioned the study. Its main focus was something different altogether, namely, inequality in educational opportunities and school careers.

By the way, the study is publicly available and those interested will find it on our website, www.gac.cz. The previous estimates of the percentage of Roma children attending "special" schools oscillated between 50-70 %, because no facts had ever been determined and the Education Ministry had never addressed this question before. Unfortunately, it had never been addressed by any basic academic, pedagogical or sociological research, which in my personal opinion is an utterly miserable failure. Our findings were then confirmed by the ministry's Institute for Information in Education (Ústav pro informace ve vzdělávání) and the Czech School Inspection Authority is currently working with our methodology. Where has this brought us? There has been significant progress. The National Action Plan for Inclusive Education has been developed and several significant new decrees are waiting to be implemented, and these will advance progress with this problem. We need to strengthen the capacities of elementary schools to include experienced teachers from the "special" schools and we need the maximum number of Roma children to attend mainstream schools with non-Roma pupils, because there is no doubt such a move will improve their education levels and their opportunities in life. The situation in the "special" schools is such that despite all efforts, the percentage of pupils who leave such schools without ever earning any sort of qualification has never been reduced. Pupils also leave such schools with reduced literacy. We are seeing, in the results of the PISA international comparative research project, a dramatic decline in the functional literacy of 15-year-olds. We must increase pupils' achievement and competencies, stretch them so they can perform under more demanding conditions. This also concerns the need to initiate robust inclusion of "special" school pupils into mainstream education. We currently have more than 16 000 Roma pupils in the "special" schools, and last year less than 50 of them managed to return to mainstream schools - in other words, a miniscule number. This shows that the current state of affairs is not in order. I personally believe children should never attend first grade in such schools. We need to achieve a turnaround in this area. There must be fewer children assigned to "special" classes and their education levels and opportunities must grow, and that can particularly be achieved in mainstream elementary schools. That is the direction of development, not the reverse. Any path toward ethnically homogeneous classes and schools leads into the ghetto, not out of it. We clearly know which path we prefer. We must give these children a chance, and together we will turn this around.

Q: For the time being this exists only on paper and it all depends on the approval of Minister Dobeš. You said he formulated clear time limits at the meeting with the Prime Minister. What were those?

A: Again, I believe that is a question for either the minister or for the head of the Office of the Czech Government Council for Roma Community Affairs.

Sociologist Ivan Gabal works for the GAC and Gabal Analysis & Consulting firms, which concentrate primarily on research, analysis, and proposals for politicians. Four years ago, the Czech public became aware of his work primarily thanks to an analysis of the topic of socially excluded Roma localities commissioned by the Czech Labor and Social Affairs Ministry. Three years later, thanks to his efforts another famous study was conducted for the Czech Education Ministry which proved the act that every third child attending "special" schools was of Roma origin. Before 1989, Mr Gabal worked at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. After the Velvet Revolution, he led Civic Forum's election campaign. He is married to the politician Jana Hybášková; they have two children. Mr Gabal regularly contributes to a blog on news server Aktuálně.cz.

Gwendolyn Albert, Kateřina Čopjaková, Kateřina Čopjaková, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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