City Authorities Build Ghetto Wall in Usti nad Labem, Czech Republic

Municipal authorities in the northern Czech city of Usti nad Labem yesterday, Wednesday October 13, went ahead with plans to wall in a series of buildings inhabited predominently by Roma. According to articles appearing in the Czech press, inhabitants of the buildings on Maticni Street were awoken at approximately four in the morning when builders arrived and began constructing a two-metre-high wall under an approximately eighty-person-strong police guard. Construction was completed by evening. According to press reports, Czech parliament finally acted the same day to annul the municipal resolution to build the wall.

Over the approximately one and a half years which have passed since city officials first announced plans to build a wall to separate Roma and non-Roma on Maticni Street in Usti nad Labem in May 1998, the international community has repeatedly indicated that such segregation stands in violation of international law, and has called upon the Czech government to annul the resolution. 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." More recently, in June of this year, according to an article appearing in the Czech weekly "Respekt", European Union Envoy to the Czech Republic Ramiro Cibrian stated that should the wall be constructed, the Czech Republic could not be considered for EU membership. In a statement issued on October 7, 1999, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) called on Czech authorities to halt municipal plans for construction of a wall which would cordon off a Roma "ghetto" in Usti nad Labem. The ERRC had made a similar appeal in May 1999.

Building of the wall began on October 5, when builders succeeded in constructing a series of pillars, a gate, and three sections of wall before Roma, acting peacefully, blocked further construction. On October 6, Romani activists from around the Czech Republic went to Usti nad Labem and dismantled sections of wall. Romani activists took down the rest of the wall on October 7. Protests against the wall in Usti and around the Czech Republic continued throughout the week.

In response to the actions of the Usti nad Labem municipality, Prime Minister Milos Zeman reportedly stated on October 7, "The wall in Usti divides the Czech Republic from the European Union." However, other high ranking Czech officials have downplayed the importance of the wall and, most importantly, although legally empowered to do so, Czech authorities failed entirely to act to prevent construction; Czech parliament finally annulled the original resolution by the Usti nad Labem town council in the afternoon of October 13, during or shortly after the wall was built.

The wall now segregating Roma from non-Roma stands in violation of international and Czech domestic law, effectively contravening prohibitions on racial discrimination, racial segregation and degrading treatment set down in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, as well as the Czech Charter of fundamental Rights and Freedoms. The ERRC welcomes the actions of the Czech parliament in canceling the Usti nad Labem resolution. It is now incumbent upon Czech authorities to use all powers available to them under domestic and international law to dismantle the wall constructed, and to hold legally accountable those municipal authorities responsible for violating the rights of the Roma in Maticni Street. The ERRC will continue to monitor the situation to establish how long it will take to bring down the shameful wall and how long it will take to restore justice and provide remedy for the severe racist assault on human dignity caused by Czech officials.

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