Why you should care

Because human rights evolve too — here, from democracy to minority rights to debt relief. 

Jiří Dienstbier Jr. came of age at a time when human rights meant, mostly, democratic ones: the ability to speak your mind, practice religion, gather and protest, and elect your own leaders. None of that held in the country Dienstbier grew up in — his own father was a famous dissident — but the year he was 20, Communist rule in Czechoslovakia ended, at last. Democracy won.

Now, of course, the country of Czechoslovakia no longer technically exists. And while democracy has prevailed in the Czech Republic, human rights issues haven’t disappeared; they’ve just changed, says Dienstbier, who is the country’s human rights minister. With the outbreak of demonstrations against Islam, the rise of an Islamophobic far-right political party and the 118,000 people who like the Facebook group called “We Don’t Want Muslims in the Czech Republic,” one might think there’s a huge influx of Muslim immigration. Or a recent terrorist attack. Nope. Only about 2,000 Muslims live in the Czech Republic, and they’re pretty peaceful. “I have no idea what people are afraid of,” says Dienstbier.

But Islamophobia isn’t the Czech Republic’s most pressing human rights issue, according to Dienstbier. In the spring, OZY sat down with him in his impressive office, fit with a dozen-seat conference table and plush pocket of couches and armchairs, to talk about the country’s most disenfranchised: the Roma. After a failed presidential run, Dienstbier, a lawyer by training, is trying to address the concerns of the groups of Czechs who need political representation the most.

OZY: So, what’s it like to be Muslim in the Czech Republic? Is there a lot of discrimination or just small pockets of xenophobia?

Jiří Dienstbier Jr.: Obviously, there is Islamophobia here. There have been some extreme activities against Muslims, like threats written on the walls of prayer rooms — there are no mosques in the Czech Republic. Same goes for Facebook. There have been some physical attacks, but very limited.

The anti-Muslim sentiment is mostly in the places that don’t have Muslims. If you live with Muslims, you don’t usually demonstrate. We see the same thing in Germany too, but it’s totally unreasonable. The Czech Republic is in no danger of Islamization. There are only a few thousand Muslims.

OZY: What other human rights problems do you face?

J.D.: The integration of Roma is priority No. 1. The entire community faces some kind of discrimination. As many as 300,000 Roma live here, and about one-third live in extreme poverty, without job or education opportunities, and often in places with a lot of crime. The economic crisis hit the Roma especially hard. It’s sad to say, but the Roma are worse off now than 10 years ago. We’ve had no progress on the Roma situation.

But I’m optimistic. The government adopted a Roma Integration Strategy in February, working mainly on promoting employment and education. The idea is that we tackle all the problems at once. What’s housing without employment or crime reduction? We have had some successful programs already, including the World Roma Festival, or Khamoro Festival (meaning “Sun”). It’s one of the biggest Roma culture festivals in the world: one week a year of music and shows as well as seminars about the Roma.

OZY: One of the problems for a huge number of Czechs is debt. Why is debt so problematic in the Czech Republic?

J.D.: For people in debt, it’s almost impossible to get out. It’s very difficult to declare bankruptcy; indebted people have to pay at least 30 percent of it in five years to qualify. Many can’t, so any money they make is taken by law enforcement. Then, instead of working a legal job, they turn to the black market. Which is not just a problem for them, but for the government, which doesn’t receive taxes from their work. I don’t see these rules changing, either, since it’s a very politically sensitive issue.

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