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. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Jaro - 2000
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April 17, 2000: Dialogue Forum:
Roma in the Czech Republic
Organized jointly by The Czech Center New York and Columbia University's East Central European Center, Public Interest Law Initiative, and the Center for the Study of Human Rights

e-mail from Erika Schlager:
On Monday, I spoke at "Dialogue Forum: Roma in the Czech Republic," a one-day conference in New York jointly organized by the Czech Center New York (associated with the Czech MFA -- see ) and Columbia University. This event is part of a week-long series of activities in NY focusing on Romani Czechs.

For the occasion, the Czech Center brought over, as panelists, several prominent Romani Czechs (Ondrej Gina, Karel Holomek, and Robert Olah), as well as other Czechs (Milena Hubschmannova, Charles University; Petr Lhotka, Museum of Roma Culture, Brno; Ivan Gabal, sociologist and former Board Member for the Czech Helsinki Committee). Other Romani participants included Ivan Ivanov, a Bulgarian who has a medical degree and a law degree and is now a fellow at Columbia's Public Interest Law Initiative; Hristo Kyuchukov, Open Society Institute; and Karolina Banomova, a Czech whose family fled to Canada in October 1997. Czech Government speakers were Petr Gandalovic, Consul General (New York) and Ambassador to the United States Alexandr Vondra. The only American panelists were myself and Ted Shaw, from the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund.

Forum was chaired by John S. Micgiel, Director of the CU East Central European Center, by Edwin Rekosh of the CU Public Interest Law Initiative and by J. Paul Martin of the CU Center for Study of Human Rights (js)

Speaking Notes of Erika B. Schlager, Counsel for International Law Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (known as Helsinki Commission of the US Congress)

I'd like to begin by thanking the Czech Center and Columbia University for organizing this timely and important forum.

I am not a Rom, nor a Czech, but one who views these issues as an outsider, someone tasked with monitoring and reporting on Romani human rights issues throughout Europe. I will try to reflect on what has been discussed by the previous panelists and, to a small degree, place the Czech Republic into a regional perspective.

About two years ago - I think it was the summer of 1998 - I was on a panel discussing Romani human rights issues in Europe. In my remarks, I gave a lot of attention to the Czech Republic and even handed out a chronology of anti-Roma, anti-foreigner, and anti-Semitic manifestations in the Czech Republic. At the end of my remarks, at Czech diplomat argued that I had unfairly singled out the Czech Republic for disproportionate criticism. Why, he asked, had I focused so much on his country?

My answer was simple. I said that I singled out the Czech Republic for criticism because I believe that it had one of the worst records for respecting Romani human rights. I based my conclusion on several factors. First, out of the 18 newly independent countries that had emerged from the break up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, only three had adopted citizenship laws that were designed to prevent some permanent residents from obtaining citizenship. Of these three, the Czech Republic's citizenship law was the most narrowly written and, alone, was designed to discriminate against Roma.

Second, there were more reports of racially motivated crimes against Roma and others, many of which resulted in deaths or permanent injuries, in the Czech Republic than in other countries in the region.

Third, at that time, the Czech Republic alone had produced a mass exodus of Romani asylum seekers.

Since then, things have improved somewhat. I want to repeat this point, since it might be lost in my subsequent remarks: I believe that the situation for Roma in the Czech Republic has improved in the last two years. There are more people in the government who are, in good faith, working to improve respect for Romani human rights and to address other concerns of the Romani minority. There has been a decrease in reports of the most deadly attacks against Roma. And, most importantly, the citizenship law has been amended.

That's the good news. Here's the bad news.

The amended citizenship law is pretty good on paper, but it is not being effectively implemented. Unlike Estonia and Latvia, which conducted public outreach campaigns to ensure that the intended beneficiaries of the changes to the citizenship laws understood them, there has been no publicity campaign in the Czech Republic. As a consequence, some Roma remain unaware that the law has been changed; even some public officials appear unaware that the law has been changed and have continued to deny citizenship to Romani applicants.

And while there has been a noticeable increase in the number of people in the current government who seek to defend Romani human rights, there are still too few of them and they serve in a weak, minority government. Even when their intentions are good, they are not always capable of delivering on them, either in the national parliament or at the local level. And too often, mainstream political life in the Czech Republic has been characterized by an unwillingness to take potentially unpopular decisions on controversial human rights issues: the government passes responsibility to the parliament, the parliament passes it to the courts, and frankly, Czech courts have performed with little courage and even less vision, as illustrated by the recent constitutional court decision regarding segregated schooling in Ostrava that Ivan Ivanov just described. Unlike courts in Hungary and Poland, Czech courts rarely, if ever, expressly consider international human rights norms as part of their decisions.

Not surprisingly, while the exodus of Romani asylum seekers seems to have peaked in 1997, it has clearly continued - now joined by smaller numbers of Roma from Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland and elsewhere.

Monitoring the flow of asylum seekers is difficult. Some countries, like Denmark, assert information about asylum flows is confidential. In other cases, government officials intentionally present information in such as way as to suggest that virtually no Roma have succeeded in their asylum claims. I believe, for example, that some British officials have misrepresented information in an effort to discourage other Roma from coming to the United Kingdom.

In fact, some Romani asylum seekers have had their claims turned down and have been returned to their country of origin. There are those who argue that this proves that the Roma who left the Czech Republic were really just economic migrants; that this exonerates the Czech Republic on the charge of widespread discrimination. Let me be clear: it does not. This same argument was made after Finland denied asylum to hundreds of Romani Slovaks last year. But while the Finnish President argued that the Slovak Roma had failed to demonstrate, on an individual basis, a well founded fear of persecution, he also stated that Roma in Slovakia face discrimination in every walk of life. The same lesson applies to the Czech Republic.

Moreover, many Romani Czechs have succeeded in gaining asylum. One country that does provide clear, country-by-country information on asylum seekers is Canada. According to data released for calendar year 1998 - the last year for which I have data - of the Romani Czechs who completed the asylum application process, more than 70 percent were found by the Government of Canada to have a well-founded fear of persecution within the meaning of the U.N. Convention on Refugees and were granted refugee status. More than 70 percent were found to have a well-founded fear of persecution within the meaning of the U.N. Convention on Refugees and were granted refugee status. The fact that hundreds of people from the post-Communist Czech Republic have been turned into refugees sends a very loud message.

I commend the Czech Government for its intensified efforts in the last two years to improve respect for Romani human rights. There are two additional steps the Czech Government could take that would, I believe, further that goal. First, Karel Holomek described, a few moments ago, the unmistakable message the Czech citizenship law sent to Romani Czechs in 1993: "we don't want you here." The Czech government can turn that message around today and send the message that Roma really are welcome in the Czech Republic. The Czech Government should implement a public outreach campaign that would ensure that all Romani Czechs know they are eligible for citizenship - and would ensure the local officials tasked with implementing the law get the same message. Second, the Czech Republic should adopt a comprehensive anti-discrimination law as recommended last July in Brussels by the European Commission to representatives of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia (the five applicant countries which have been advised to improve respect for Romani human rights as part of their preparations for European Union membership).

Finally, I'd like to make one last observation about an unusual aspect of the situation of Roma in the Czech Republic.

The Czech Republic has a relatively small Romani population - estimated at 200,000 to 300,000 people. But it is the Czech Republic that has become a focal point for Romani activism across Europe, second only to the activism on behalf of the Roma from Kosovo.

In an article for the London GUARDIAN on April 1, 2000, Anthony Sampson wrote that, when he met with Serbian Roma five years ago, they reckoned that the Czech people were Europe's most intolerant. For Romani activists from Texas to Toronto, the Czech citizenship law became a symbol of the oppression of the Romani people. From London to Lublin, Roma waited to see what would happen to the Lety archives - and still wait to see what will happed to the pig farm that sits on the site of this World War II concentration camp for Roma. And when a wall was built in Usti nad Labem, Roma in Ukraine, Lithuania, Germany, Poland, Macedonia, Slovakia, Hungary, and elsewhere united to send one message: tear down that wall.

In short, Roma around the world have come to have a proprietary and vested interest in what happens to Roma in the Czech Republic. As Prague demonstrators said in 1989, the whole world is watching.
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