‘Břeclav scandal shocked us all,’ says Czech human rights commissioner

By • on June 29, 2012

Monika Šimůnková is the Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner. Right at the start of her appointment, she was handicapped by the fact that Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas had taken several months to find a replacement for the previous Commissioner, Michael Kocáb. The nonprofit sector and some professionals were very circumspect in their response to her appointment. She was cautious too, long refusing to give interviews or make statements on matters, until even some journalists began to consider her a “puppet”. In recent months her activity has significantly intensified – or perhaps it is just more visible now, who knows? In any event, she was the only bureaucrat or political figure who considered it important to make a public statement about the case in which it was revealed that a boy from Břeclav had told lies that misled the entire nation for several weeks, harming the reputation of the Romani community as a result. The powers of the Human Rights Commissioner are significantly restricted, and each statement she makes must be in line with the Office of the Government’s media strategy and undergo a kind of “approval” process.

This interview was conducted at a time when representatives of the Statewide Association of Romani People in the Czech Republic (Celostátní asociace Romů v ČR) met with Prime Minister Nečas to call for the reinstatement of the Human Rights Ministry or, at the very least, the establishment of the position of Government Commissioner for Romani Minority Matters.

You became Human Rights Commissioner on 16 February 2011. For a long time you refused to give interviews and you issued very few statements. Some people began to suspect that you were intentionally avoiding certain topics. When you look back, do you regret that long period of restraint with respect to media appearances? Has it harmed you with the media and in the eyes of representatives of nongovernmental organizations and institutions involved in the areas which come under your purview?

Yes, I am aware that my initial restraint with respect to the media might have had a negative effect. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in my power to dedicate sufficient time to the media during the initial onslaught of work. I was trying to handle two roles that had been merged into one, the Human Rights Commissioner and the Director of the Human Rights Section. I needed to familiarize myself with the operations of the office and a very extensive range of issues. Another reason is that the current position of the Commissioner is formally conceptualized differently than it was previously. The position is much more bureaucratic now, which means the Commissioner is a bureaucrat first and foremost, an employee of the Office of the Government, and subject to the Office of the Government’s media policy.

You are shouldering a great deal as the Government Human Rights Commissioner:  Human rights, topics related to minorities, Roma, people with disabilities, nongovernmental organizations, and social inclusion. Is it possible to manage that all well without any powers or budget and with a continually shrinking staff – for example, at the Human Rights Council? I ask because after the revelations of the lies in the so-called “Břeclav scandal”, several Romani groups, associations, political parties and activists called for a renewal of the post of Human Rights Minister. What is your opinion of the abolition of that position? Is it time to at least discuss enhancing your post, with respect to staff, for example?

From the start I did my best to preserve, to the greatest possible extent, the existing breadth of the human rights agenda and the activity of the individual Advisory Bodies to the Government. I consider their activities very important, even though the state administration is downsizing. As I said when I took office, dialogue with civil society through the platform of those Advisory Bodies is a priority for me.

I don’t believe it is realistic to renew the ministerial post at this time. However, it is important that the person who has the issue of human rights in his or her purview enjoy strong political support when advocating for various measures, particularly on sensitive questions like that of the coexistence between the majority society and the Romani minority in the Czech Republic, and that he or she have sufficient powers and a strong staff.

That relates, among other things, to political will, support – the perception that human rights topics are important too. The lay and professional publics agree that today’s political leaders, the government, do not perceive the topic of human rights as a priority. I myself am shocked to see that even when a demonstration of 2 000 people takes place in Břeclav and there is a three-week media campaign harming the reputation of the Romani minority, none of the leading representatives are stepping forward – not even when it turned out that this all was based on a lie which, once again, groundlessly targeted Romani people. You were the only person, in that context, to make a statement. Why? How do you personally perceive the political support I’m asking about here?

Coexistence between the majority society and the Romani minority is truly exacerbated in the Czech Republic today. The media unfortunately play a specific role in this. After the Břeclav scandal unraveled as it did – which was an unexpected shock for us all and rather the low point of the events of recent months – I considered it my responsibility to make a public statement about it.

In my opinion, it is necessary to take an unequivocal stance, in the sense that the situation is serious and we cannot accept the fact that in the Czech Republic of the 21st century we will grow accustomed to being given untrue information about alleged crimes committed by a particular ethnic minority and just accept this as our everyday reality. That scandal further deteriorated the coexistence between the majority society and Romani people in the Czech Republic. It harmed many respectable Romani people and basically also undid a certain amount of progress which had been achieved on the question of social inclusion in recent months after the Šluknov incidents. Each of us must realize our own responsibility when receiving information and then responding to it, and I hope this scandal was a lesson to us all.

The political scene has gotten rough, in particular at regional level, and former mayors are now coming into both chambers of the Czech Parliament. Are you succeeding in communicating with municipalities? What are your options in that regard?

While I do my best to communicate as much as possible with many mayors, especially on addressing the actual problems of coexistence between the majority society and the Romani minority (in particular in the Šluknov district), it is the staff of the Agency for Social Inclusion who are primarily in regular contact with municipalities. The Agency is now working in 25 towns throughout the country, where it is doing its best to bring representatives of municipal leaderships and organizations, police members, school directors, and staffers from nonprofit organizations together to negotiate. The communication varies, but it is based on the presumption that the town and its leadership espouse this collaboration and are interested in addressing the situation of social exclusion. In many places, thanks to this, we have succeeded in designing many interesting projects supporting solutions to the situation of socially excluded residents. If municipal leaderships, despite their declared interest, start a pattern of prioritizing interests other than those which support the agreed-to measures, we sometimes end our collaboration with them early.

We have been discussing how a certain part of the political spectrum has gotten rougher. Those politicians are also responsible, through their statements in the media, for the deteriorating media image of Romani people, and therefore for the deterioration in public opinion. What can be done about this? What are you planning to do in the context of the media and work with public opinion?

Currently we have commissioned the design of an extensive analysis of media output on Romani people. That should bring us detailed data, information, as well as recommendations on how those depicting Romani people in the media should proceed so that their articles and reportage are minimally tendentious and stereotyping and won’t further damage the already poor image of Romani people held by the public. I would like to meet as soon as possible with the chief editors of selected media outlets to discuss this topic with them. I would also like to share with them several concrete experiences we have had in the places we have been working, examples of the kind of direct impact sensationalist articles have on the places written about and how they influence the shape of civil coexistence at the local level. I think the practice of mentioning ethnicity, especially for the alleged perpetrators of crimes, should be significantly restricted in the media, and also that the media should have clearly established mechanisms for verifying possible rumors so that some reports can be stopped before they are published, particularly when the events at issue are very unclear.

Your office and you personally are also responsible for communication with the public administration bodies (municipalities and the state administration), with nongovernmental nonprofit organizations, and with experts on the issue of human rights protections and the integration of Romani communities into society. I am particularly interested in the public administration bodies and the various ministries. Can you name those with whom collaboration is good and with whom it is not? You are also responsible for social inclusion, but the Agency for Social Inclusion has not yet been anchored legislatively. Its future is significantly “in flux”. What can be done about this? How do you see its further existence?

I would give a positive evaluation to our collaboration with the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, the Health Ministry, and the Justice Ministry. Collaboration with the Education Ministry was worse under the previous leadership, primarily on the question of inclusive education and, for example, the fulfillment of the Strategy for the Fight against Social Exclusion. I firmly hope that I will see eye-to-eye with the new minister, with whom I am to meet next week, on the question of Romani children’s education. We also have a very good, intensive collaboration with the office of the Public Defender of Rights (the ombudsman).

With respect to the Agency, in my opinion it should remain part of the Office of the Government, and I proposed that to the Government, which will come to a decision about it at the end of June/start of July. Naturally, I am aware that its activity would be far more effective if its powers were stronger (especially in advocating for many of the measures proposed), and I will do my best, within the realm of possibility, to improve the current state of affairs.

The last topic is very current:  The fundamental importance of education has been spoken of for years. A judgment of the European Court of Human Rights five years ago found against the Czech Republic, but not much has changed in practice since then. The ombudsman has just published the results of his research into the ethnic composition of pupils attending the former “special” schools. Those results show that Romani pupils are disproportionately represented at those schools, which the ombudsman says is caused by the indirectly discriminatory practices of those who decide to recommend children enroll into special education. You expressed appreciation for the contribution made by this research and you agree with the proposals mentioned by the ombudsman in his research. What can you personally propose and then enforce in this area?

The results of the research clearly say that we must intensify our effort to strengthen so-called inclusive (or inter-communal) education in our country. For me, the priority is that the measures in the Strategy for the Fight against Social Exclusion, adopted by the Government in September 2011, start being fulfilled. The measures which the Education Ministry in particular is responsible for concern reducing the number of “practical” schools, strengthening the mainstream elementary schools, and primarily providing better preschool preparations for pupils from socially deprived environments such that they will not be unnecessarily excluded from mainstream education, but on the contrary, that they will be included. Only a full-fledged, high-quality education will assure Romani children a high-quality future. This will have a positive impact on the coexistence between the majority society and Romani people throughout the entire Czech Republic.