Human Rights Developments
Despite several positive legislative reforms in 1999, the Czech Republic continued to lag in redressing a number of serious human rights issues, most notably the widespread discrimination against the ethnic Roma minority. The Czech Republic drew severe criticism from the international community for its policy toward Roma, which, coupled with a sagging economy and public ambivalence about European integration, led to growing concern that Czech accession to the European Union might be delayed.
In July, the Chamber of Deputies approved an amendment to the Czech citizenship law. The law, passed after the 1993 split with Slovakia, had been widely criticized because it rendered tens of thousands of Roma stateless, classified them as aliens, and denied them voting rights and social benefits. The new legislation allowed Roma who were permanent citizens of the Czech Republic to regularize their status. The government also passed Resolution 279 in April, which laid out a twelve-point program to improve minority relations, decrease Roma unemployment, which was a staggering 80 percent in 1998, and better integrate Roma into society.
However, violence against Roma continued at an alarming rate. In May, a group of ten to fifteen skinheads attacked a Roma family in its home in Pilsen. The attackers apparently heard them speaking Romany through an open window and began yelling insults at them. When the family closed the window and called the police, the perpetrators broke down the door and beat them with sticks. One of the attackers was detained temporarily and then released.
On August 27, in the southern Moravian village of Dvorek u Ohrazovic, two neighboring families were attacked in their homes by a group of approximately thirty skinheads, who fired guns and threw bricks and stones into the houses. One man suffered a head wound and was hospitalized. Police eventually charged twelve men with rioting, damaging property, and violent acts, but refused to recognize any racial motivation behind the attack. In May, U.S. Ambassador John Shattuck criticized Czech courts for leniently sentencing perpetrators of crimes against Roma.
The much-publicized plans to build a wall separating a Roma housing compound from its neighbors in Usti nad Labem were temporarily stalled when the Czech cabinet voted to block construction on the grounds that it promoted racial discrimination. However, local authorities claimed that the cabinet had no jurisdiction to interfere in the plan, and on October 13, the concrete wall was erected with local police guarding the site. That same day, the Czech parliament voted to override the local government's decision, and local officials promised to appeal to the Constitutional Court. A senior E.U. official warned the government that the wall could prevent the Czech Republic from gaining E.U. membership. The government had come under
intense national and international pressure to block the plan, which was condemned by President Vaclav Havel, the U.N. Committee Against All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Council of Europe, among others.
In June, a group of Roma parents assisted by the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming racial discrimination on the grounds that Romany children are fifteen times more likely than other Czech children to be sent to schools for the mentally retarded. According to a report by the ERRC released the same day, 75 percent of Roma children were placed in special schools, where they comprised 50 percent of the population, although Roma made up an estimated 5 percent of the total population. Only 4 percent of other Czech children were placed in special schools.
Roma requests for political asylum in the U.K. reached an all-time high of 588 in the first half of 1999, compared to 512 requests in all of 1998, which caused concern that Britain would impose a visa requirement. Most of the applicants claimed state persecution, but none were granted asylum.
Concerns about police brutality remained unresolved. Although government Human Rights Commissioner Petr Uhl acknowledged that police used arbitrary force and made arbitrary arrests during the 1998 Global Street Party, when about fifty demonstrators were beaten and detained, no police officers were indicted for misconduct. The Ministry of the Interior claimed that it was impossible to identify, and thus prosecute, the culpable police officers. In April the Czech Helsinki Committee issued a report documenting widespread police violence, corruption, and discrimination against women in recruitment. The group called for a number of reforms, including the creation of an independent, impartial body of review.
In July, the government proposed a bill that would give the Ministry of Interior power to dissolve extremist organizations which are deemed threatening to human rights.
Commissioner Uhl charged Interior Minister Vaclav Grulich with training police to identify racially motivated crimes.
A bill that would legalize homosexual partnership and afford homosexual couples the financial benefits and rights of conventional marriages was delayed after the lower house in parliament, at the initiative of the Christian Democrats, sent the bill back to committees for reworking.
International journalist organizations condemned a proposed press law which they feared would curb freedom of the press. For example, the law would ban free discussion of certain topics including the Czech constitution, require that subjects who felt their "honor, dignity or privacy" had been violated by a publication be granted space to print a reply, and require publications to register their political "tendency."
Defending Human Rights
Human rights groups worked relatively unencumbered, with one notable exception, to bring attention to various abuses and to improve the situation of the Roma minority. On January 27, fifteen police officers reportedly forcibly removed Stanislav Penc, a member of the Czech Human Rights Committee, from a restaurant in Prague and beat him as they escorted him to the police station. Penc was detained for an hour, and was never charged with a crime or given an explanation for the incident, despite his request for a written statement. The case was under investigation by the Prague Police Complaints and Inspection Department.
The Role of the International Community
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) urged the government to take more pro-active measures to abolish discrimination against Roma, and specifically to act decisively in preventing the plan to create a segregated community in Usti nad Labem.
Council of Europe
The Czech Republic benefitted from Council of Europe programs of governmental cooperation aimed at training police in Council of Europe standards. In a positive step, the lower house of the Czech parliament voted by a large majority to adopt the Council of Europe's European Social Charter, a condition for E.U. membership which, however, did not require any major change in Czech legislation. The Charter awaited final ratification by the Senate.
The Czech Republic's slow progress in harmonizing its legislation with European Union (E.U.) standards threatened to keep the country out of the first wave of E.U. expansion to Eastern Europe. Upon Finnish assumption of the E.U. Presidency in July, Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen stated that the Czech Republic must abolish discriminatory practices toward the Roma population in order to join the E.U. Commissioner Uhl acknowledged that Czech law fell short of the European Convention on Protection of National Minorities.
In addition to concerns about minority relations, both the E.U.'s November 1998 and October 1999 reports on progress toward accession highlighted the need for judicial reform and more effective measures to fight corruption. The E.U. also pressured the government to declare obsolete the 1945 "Benes decrees," which revoked the citizenship and property rights of Germans and Hungarians in Czechoslovakia and expelled most Germans from the Sudetenland.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
In March the Czech Republic entered NATO. As a result of the process of NATO accession, the Czech Republic was required to upgrade its military, raising concerns that weapons made obsolete would be sold to abusive regimes in other parts of the world. In April, Human Rights Watch urged NATO and the Czech Republic to ensure that sufficient arms trade control mechanisms were implemented. Prime Minister Zeman assured Human Rights Watch that the Czech Republic did not export arms to areas with violent conflicts and that Czech weapons were thus "not accessible to malevolent military forces." However, in September he announced the sale of Soviet made T-54 and T-55 tanks to Yemen, and human rights groups were concerned that the tanks would be diverted or resold to another country.
The United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) voiced concern over the violence against Roma and foreigners in the Czech Republic and regretted the lack of progress on the issue of property restitution to non-citizens. U.S. assistance to the Czech Republic focused on facilitating its NATO accession with an estimated U.S.$3.8 million in military financing, training, and assistance. The administration requested that Congress appropriate $9.1 million for these purposes in fiscal year 2000.
Relevant Human Rights Watch Report:
Arsenals on the Cheap: NATO Expansion and the Arms Cascade , 4/99.