Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The new Czech government must make human rights a priority

The Czech government is currently undergoing a major transition. In the May 28-29 parliamentary elections, left-wing Social Democrats narrowly won, but center-right parties captured more votes overall. Of the 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Parliament, 118 new candidates were replaced.

One of the pressing concerns for many activists in the Roma community is that the post of the Minister of Human Rights will cease to exist under the new administration, because it was established by the outgoing coalition. A number of Czech human rights organizations have joined together to lobby for the preservation of the role. The human rights leaders argue that the funds spent on the position are minimal and that if eliminated, the result would be "the weakening of the broad agenda for protection of human rights."

Currently the post closest to that of Minister of Human Rights is carried out by the Human Rights Commissioner, Michael Kocáb, who was assigned this role by the Prime Minster after resigning from the post of Minister of Human Rights and Minorities under pressure last March. Even in this capacity, the commissioner serves an essential, government-level function in advocating for the marginalized communities in the Czech Republic. The Agency for Social Inclusion in Roma Communities, in existence since 2008, for instance, is a governmental agency in charge of coordinating integration activities in socially excluded regions, in cooperation with the commission on Human Rights and Minorities and under the leadership of the Office of Government.

Regarding the recent elections, the most significant development was that the voters, for the first time outright rejected the country's two largest parties, which formed every government since the early 1990s, in favor of smaller parties. The campaign was the longest in Czech history, launched in the fall. The campaign was expensive as well, costing over 20 million dollars, with the top two parties spending nearly ninety percent of the total budget.

Of the 5,050 candidates running, only one was Roma. Lucie Horváthová ran on the Green Party ticket. The Greens did not make the minimum 5 percent margin of votes to qualify for a Parliamentary seat, however.

The three conservative parties which received the most votes have formed a right-wing coalition. These parties are: The Civic Democrats, TOP 09 and Public Affairs (VV). The newly elected lower house of the Parliament convened for its first session last week. The internim Prime Minister resigned and a new, conservative Prime Minister, Petr Nečas, was just named by President Václav Klaus yesterday.

The new government coalition stresses reducing the state budget deficit as one of its primary goals. However, the measures and concrete steps which will emerge from the current coalition talks must not sideline the human rights agenda. The battle for eliminating poverty and structural barriers to equitable education, health care, employment and affordable housing, must continue with the government taking a strong stance of support. The marginalized communities need a government-level representative to continue lobbying for their cause.


[This piece originally appeared on Tereza Bottman's Advocacy Project blog]

Friday, June 25, 2010

Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015: Words and more words, but where is the action?

This week, the Czech Republic is officially taking over the rotating presidency of the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015, an international initiative whose goal is to improve the living conditions of the Roma across Europe.

The initiative brings together the governments of twelve European countries along with intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations “to accelerate progress toward improving the welfare of Roma.“ The parnter organizations include the World Bank, the Open Society Institute, the United Nations Development Program, the the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Council of Europe, European Roma Information Office, and the European Roma Rights Centre.

According to the Decade of Roma Inclusion website, “the Decade focuses on the priority areas of education, employment, health, and housing, and commits governments to take into account the other core issues of poverty, discrimination, and gender mainstreaming.“

Now midway through the project, the reactions among Roma activists and community members vary, but veer on the side of skepticism.

Today I spoke to Ivan Veselý, head of the Dženo Association and member of the Decade of Roma Inclusion steering committee. Mr. Veselý has been with the intiative since its planning phase and has been so invested in the Decade that he calls the initiative “his child.“

“The initial aim of the Decade was two-fold,“ says Mr. Veselý. “One goal was to demand that member governments change their policies toward the Roma minority. The second major goal was to jumpstart a Roma rights movement across Europe.“

When asked about the effectiveness of the the Decade, he curses, expressing deep disappointment. He feels that the intiative was implemented without the necessary preliminary capacity building and that the efforts towards Roma inclusion are mostly conferences, declarations, reports, and more words; not enough action.

The goals for each country that is part of the Decade have been outlined, measurable indicators set, but, so far, there are few results.

“The main problem,“ says Mr. Veselý, “ is that no money has been allocated by the Czech government to achieve the Decade’s aims.“

During Czech Republic’s presidency, the priorities are: inclusive education (contrary to the current practice of unjustly segragating large numbers of Romany children in schools for the mentally handicapped); children’s living situations and their rights; the empowerment of Romany women; the implementation of local-level integration policies; and improving the image of Roma in the media.

The action plan for the Czech Republic comprises objectives such as providing Romany students equal access to pre-school as well as higher education; training educators in multicultural teaching methods; preventing residential segregation; increasing access of low-income Roma families to affordable housing; and boosting the employability and employment rates of the Roma through training, incentives and investment aimed at the creation of Roma-run small business enterprises.

What many, including Mr. Veselý, would like to see and have been advocating is a systemic change which begins with a firm, sustained, long-term committment on the part of the government. Such committment must take the form of allocation of a sufficient amount of money, so that the carefully crafted action plan can be implemented in all key sectors and throughout all regions.

[Originally posted on Tereza Bottman's Advocacy Project blog.]

Interview with Dženo Association's chairman Ivan Veselý

This video, featuring the Dženo Association's founder and chairman Ivan Veselý, provides a very good overview of some of the issues facing the Roma community in the Czech Republic and in Europe at large. The video was created by Christina Hooson, 2009 Advocacy Project Peace Fellow with Dženo.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Czechs' Response to Rising Extremism: Prevention through education?

With right-wing extremism on the rise, increased risk of racially motivated harassment and violence against minorities has become a reality in the Czech Republic. The economic downturn in Europe, as in the United States, is plunging people into poverty and fueling xenophobia, racism, insecurity and hightening tensions between disadvantaged groups. Extremist ideology is also becoming increasingly used in political rhetoric, and many worry about the possibility of hate becoming a mainstream political vehicle as has happened in Hungary, for instance, where the far-right party Jobbik currently holds 47 of 386 parliamentary seats.

The annual report of the human rights group, Czech Helsinki Commitee, cites as one of the primary issues facing the Czech Republic, "the increasing radicalization of neo-Nazis and violent attacks against the Roma population." An example of this is an April 2009 arson attack on a Roma family, which resulted in a two-year-old girl suffering severe burns to 80 percent of her body. The perpetrators of the attack are associated with a far-right group and are currently on trial.

In light of this alarming trend, what kinds of efforts are Czech institutions undertaking, specifically in the field of education (a later post will focus on violence prevention via the criminal justice system), to curb the appeal of hate group ideology to economically struggling whites?

In response to the growth of the neo-Nazi movement, and with the intention of steering young people away from the dangers of the ideology of hate, Varianty, an educational program of the human rights organization People in Need, created a booklet for teachers to use in the classroom. The booklet is available online and in CD-form to be ordered for free by schools. The organization is, according to the news service iDnes, currently out of funds to provide printed copies of the text.

The approximately two-hundred-page long booklet, "The Threat of Neo-Nazism, Democratic Opportunities", describes the history of homegrown right-wing extremism. The text, developed in cooperation with the police unit specializing in monitoring extremist activity, also contains pictures of neo-Nazis and their insignia as well as topics for facilitated discussions. The most controversial aspect of the booklet is the inclusion of passages from hate group literature. The authors, however, argue that such information is widely available to those students who choose to seek it out and that examining it critically is crucial.

In the booklet, teachers are provided with guidelines on how to present and analyze the materials with their students. However, the reality is that many educators are still unsure about how to approach the subjects of extremism and racism, and as a result steer away from providing their students with the opportunity to examine hate group ideology critically. Clearly, instructors need more tools and support on how to implement such ambitious programs in their classrooms. Additionally, there needs to be a system-wide effort to infuse public school curriculum with anti-bias education.

According to the press agency iDnes, the Czech Ministry of Education is currently preparing "a directive concerning education against racism, xenophobia, and intolerance." It is unclear how this directive will differ from the 1995 version, which simply asks of schools and educators to teach about tolerance without any accountability. Let us hope the initiative goes beyond a directive in outlining a strategy for teacher training and support and in setting some specific, measurable goals. Education countering the power of hate ideology is of crucial importance now.

Of course, one key way of preventing extremism, aside from discussing and taking a strong stance against it outright with students, is through dismantling divisions and prejudice between groups from an early age. In the Czech Republic, where segregation in education is a serious problem affecting the Roma, more of an effort must be made to make schools inclusive and to retain Romani students and teaching assistants in mainstream classrooms.

"Exclusion of Romani students from mainstream classrooms and their education in segregated schools in Romani communities," states the Czech Government Approach toward Roma Integration for the Years 2010-2013, "make experiencing contact impossible for other students, thereby endangering their readiness for peaceful coexistence in the future. Segregation elevates the risk of mistrust, spread of prejudice and xenophobia between the two groups."

[This post originally appeared on Tereza Bottman's Advocacy Project blog]

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Resilience in the Face of Segregation: Slovak Roma settlements

About four hundred miles east of Prague, in the neighboring country of Slovakia, which separated peacefully from the Czech Republic not so long ago, lie the two communities profiled in the documentary "In a Cage" by the Roma Press Agency.

According to the Czech press agency Mlada Fronta, Slovakia has more than 800 Romani settlements, set apart from the majority community. The count is approximately 700, according to the Slovak daily Sme.sk.

[Chmiňanské Jakubovany, Eastern Slovakia. Photo credit: Lukáš Houdek]

These settlements usually have very high unemployment rates (some even close to 100%) and lack basic services such as running water, sewers, electricity, gas or garbage collection.

The settlements featured in the 2006 documentary "In a Cage" are the village of Rankovce, near the city of Kosice, and the community of Podskalka.

[Chmiňanské Jakubovany, Eastern Slovakia. Photo credit: Lukáš Houdek]

What impressed me was that despite the isolation, lack of opportunities and the deep poverty which the residents experience, they have found ways to preserve their dignity, to establish self-governance and daily routines, and to focus on hope for the future, especially when it comes to education for the young generation.

The documentary's director-producer is Kristína Magdolenová, a human rights journalist and editor-in-chief at the Roma Press Agency. Her aim is to open doors and to break down barriers of prejudice between the majority population and the Roma, but to also sound an alarm about the dire situation of the Roma living in segregation. Magdolenová says:

"Our aim was to open the door to the world of the Roma. To show them such as the majority doesn't know them, through their daily problems, joys and cares. To show their real face without prejudice, without fear from their otherness, without misgivings. To show that Slovak society plays with the Roma community, always pushes them further to the edge in this overly hazardous game. A game with human potential, a game which can also be turned against themselves. The film wants to point out that we're nearing the midnight hour and that we need to stop playing this hazardous game."

The Czech Republic, where I will be on assignment for my fellowship, also has serious issues with housing segregation in its approximately three hundred "excluded locations," as Czech ghettos are also termed. But more about that in another post.

The excellent short documentary "In a Cage" about isolated Roma communities can be seen here: In a Cage.

[This post was originally published on Tereza Bottman's Advocacy Project blog]

Thursday, June 3, 2010

History of the Czech Roma

Czech Radio has a very informative article on the history of the Roma in the Czech Republic.

The article speculates that the arrival of the Roma to what is now Czech Republic may have been as early as the 13th century. However, "solid proof of the Roma's residence on Czech territory is actually (a letter) of protection, which was issued on April 17th, 1423 . . . by the Holy Roman Emperor and Czech King, Zikmund."

Many historians refer to the 15th century as the "Golden Age of the Roma in Europe," because the Roma were at that time often "received by aristocrats and. . . given letters of protection and other privileges." In the 15th century, however, the persecution of the Roma began when they were observed by the Catholic Church to not be "servants of God." The Roma were also suspected of being spies for the Turks.

The article details the types of persecution experienced by the Roma in Medieval and Renaissance Europe:

Rulers of individual countries began to issue decrees by which the Roma were ordered out of their territory. With the persecution, the Roma were exposed to torture, bodily mutilation, and then execution. The greatest persecution in the Czech Lands came after 1697, when the Roma were placed by Imperial decree outside the law. Anyone could shoot, hang or drown them, and killing Roma wasn't considered a crime. . . The Roma's life was never easy, they were always among the poorest population groups

In Central and Eastern Europe, if they could find work, the Roma were most commonly employed as builders and blacksmiths.

In mid-18th century, Austrian Empress Maria Theresa issued a decree which forbade nomadic life and the use of the Romani language. The Roma were also "forced to wear different clothes, and children were taken away and placed witn non-Roma families for re-education." At that time, a sizable population of Roma settled in Czech territory. As Czech Radio reports, "the settlers were mostly bricklayers, tinkers, blacksmiths, trough-makers, road-menders, musicians."

Further restrictions and assimilation efforts continued in early 20th century. Then during WWII, the Nazis rounded up, deported and killed approximately ninety percent of the Czech Roma. After the war, most of the Roma coming to the Czech Republic were Slovak. In 1965, a law was passed "concerning the procedure of dispersing the gypsy population, through which Roma from eastern Slovakian Romani villages had to move to Bohemia to work."

Not covered in the Czech Radio piece is the fact that during communism, and continuing through at least 2003, Romani women were coercively sterilized as part of a state policy to reduce their population. The Roma experience systemic discrimination in housing, health care, the justice system, and education as a result of past and current state and social practices.

The Czech Radio article concludes with a very important point in understanding today's dynamics between majority and minority population, the former of which often blames the Roma for being too dependent on the state:
In state social policy, the Roma were dealt with as a socially backward group of the population, and the state's remedies were confined to various forms of social support, which helped the Roma survive, but also taught them to rely completely on the state.

As a final note, I do want to point out that it is important to be critical of the view that the Roma have been completely reliant on the state, because there are multiple, innovative ways in which communities, including the Roma, find to survive despite the discrimination and poverty they experience. These ways may be invisible or unrecognized by the majority community. However, as a documentary I recently watched points out, the old adage "necessity breeds invention" is quite pertinent in the Romani community. My next post and future articles will show just what I mean.


[This post was originally published on Tereza Bottman's Advocacy Project blog.]