ERRC Demands Effective Action in Halting Czech Apartheid

With construction of a wall to segregate Roma in the north Bohemian town of Usti nad Labem proceeding apace, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), an international non-governmental public interest law organisation, today expressed its dismay at the continued inaction of the Czech government. The ERRC is appalled at the apparent paralysis of the Czech government in the face of clear evidence that local authorities in Usti nad Labem intend to defy the law and segregate Roma on the basis of race. In view of the clearly illegal nature of racial segregation, official attempts to explain away continued national government inaction amount to an apology for apartheid.

In May 1999, the ERRC called on the Czech government to halt municipal plans for construction of a wall which would cordon off a Roma "ghetto" in Usti nad Labem. Since that time, far from heeding appeals for compromise, the municipality has brazenly stampeded ahead. Earlier this week, construction of the wall actually commenced, provoking a situation of extreme danger and inter-ethnic tension. Months of dialogue and hand-wringing have proven ineffective. It is time for the national government to make clear that segregation and racism are not tolerated in the Czech Republic. National authorities should use all appropriate administrative, judicial, and/or other legal measures to prohibit - immediately and unequivocally -- this illegal action and terminate once and for all the prospect of racial segregation in Usti nad Labem.

Since May 1998, municipal officials in Usti nad Labem have publicly voiced their intention to construct a wall to segregate Romani residents. Nonetheless, the Czech government has consistently dragged its feet, with officials first denying that the wall amounts to segregation, then "when that claim proved untenable" suggesting with a straight face that, as a democracy, the Czech Republic cannot forestall this action. But a democracy is hardly powerless to prevent and prohibit racial segregation. Either racial segregation is an offence in the Czech Republic "in which case the national government has abandoned its responsibility to enforce the law" or it is not, in which case the government is in breach of its obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and other international law. Either way, for more than a year, the Czech government has effectively stood by and watched as the Roma of Usti nad Labem have been subjected to the continuing and humiliating threat of racial segregation.

There should be no doubt that the contemplated action of the Usti nad Labem authorities is unlawful. Racial segregation and discrimination infringe Articles 3(1) and 24 of the Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, as well as binding international law. Article 3 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination obliges "States Parties" to "condemn racial segregation and apartheid and [to] undertake to prevent, prohibit and eradicate all practices of this nature in territories under their jurisdiction." Furthermore, racial segregation constitutes "degrading treatment" in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which governments have an obligation to prevent and prohibit. These provisions of international human rights treaties, duly ratified by the government of the Czech Republic, are, by virtue of Article 10 of the Czech Constitution, "applicable as directly binding regulations, having priority before the law."

Furthermore, it is equally clear that the Czech government must and can act to prevent segregation. In March 1999, during consideration of the question under its early warning procedure, members of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination voiced concern that the Government was not doing enough to prohibit an unlawful act of racial segregation. Ion Diaconu, the Committee expert serving as country rapporteur on the situation in the Czech Republic, criticized the Government for having decided to take legal measures only if and when the local authorities started actually to build the fence: "The Government should have declared the decision to build the fence illegal and should have requested its annulation. The country's constitutional system provided that the higher authority could nullify a local decision," he said. Another Committee expert said that he would be satisfied only when the decision of the local authorities to build the fence was in fact nullified. Promises to act in the event construction commenced were deemed insufficient. Indeed, the Czech government's own Commissioner for Human Rights has affirmed that Czech law grants the national government the power effectively to cancel the decision to build a wall.

In view of the foregoing, the inaction of the Czech government is inexcusable. On May 26, 1999, buffeted by a wave of international protest over the wall, the Czech cabinet went so far as to recommend that the local government of Usti nad Labem rescind its decision - but pointedly avoided any further measures which might actually stop the wall's construction. Instead, the issue was simply left for Parliament to address later this month. Meanwhile, construction of the wall continues and the world watches.

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