Open Letter to the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic

28 May 1999

The Honorable Milos Zeman
Prime Minister of the Czech Republic
Nabrezi Edvarda Benese 4
I 10 00 Prague 1

Dear Mr. Minister:

The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) notes with favor the belated, May 26, 1999 decision of the Czech cabinet to recommend formally that the regional government of Usti nad Labem rescind its decision to build a wall - euphemistically called a ceramic fence -- for the purpose of segregating Romani residents by barring direct access to the street. At the same time, ERRC is concerned that, notwithstanding the cabinet's decision, the threat of segregation continues to hang over Romani residents of Usti nad Labem. In this regard, we wonder why it has taken almost a year for the Czech government to act in response to such a blatantly unlawful act, and why it has not been possible, not merely to recommend, but rather to require as a matter of law, rescission of the decision to build the wall. We thus urge that the Czech government 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.

We note that numerous press organs, NGOs and inter-governmental monitoring organizations have consistently reported - and many have condemned -- the publicly voiced intentions of municipal officials since May 1998 to construct a wall to segregate Romani residents. In August 1998, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination undertook the unusual step of making a special request for information - under its urgent action procedures -- from the Czech government about "disturbing reports that in certain municipalities measures are contemplated for the physical segregation of some residential units housing Roma families." In January 1999, the Czech government reported on its efforts to address the situation in Usti nad Labem. At that time, the government steadfastly refused to concede - against all evidence to the contrary -- that the threatened construction of a ceramic fence 1.8 metres high without gates would result in segregation. The government limited itself to hypothesizing that the local authorities would not ultimately press ahead with plans to build a wall and promising to consider legal action in the event that prediction proved unfounded.

At the UN Committee's most recent meeting in March 1999, Committee members voiced concern that the Government was not doing enough to prohibit an unlawful act of racial segregation. Thus, 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.

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 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. 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."

In view of the clearly illegal nature of the local authority's decision, and the serious concerns expressed by United Nations experts and others about the inadequacy of the Czech government's response to date, the cabinet's decision of May 26, while welcome as a sign that at long last the gravity of the violation is more fully appreciated, does not definitively and clearly remove the threat of segregation. It is thus insufficient. We urge you, Mr. Minister, to take all actions necessary and proper to prohibit, now and forever, this illegal act.

Sincerely yours,

Dimitrina Petrova
Executive Director


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