Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.
Interview with Petr Uhl

by Alexandra Klausmann
Petr Uhl is a man who has worn many hats: signatory of Charter 77, confessed Trotskyite, high school teacher, member of the Czechoslovak Parliament and director of the Czech News Agency, to name just a few. Now, as the Czech government's Commissioner for Human Rights, Uhl is also responsible for looking after minority issues.

Why does the Czech Republic need a government commissioner for human rights?

The Czech Republic does not necessarily need a commissioner, but it does need a state authority which collects and registers information about human rights violations as well as information about cases in which Czech legal norms disagree with the country's international obligations. The Czech Republic needs an authority which proposes certain measures and legislative changes to the government, so that such disagreements can be solved. The preceding government has not done anything in this area. It did not normally send information (about human rights violations) to Geneva or to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and if it did, then only too late, when it found itself under pressure to do so.

One case that has already gained international prominence is that of the infamous wall planned in Ústí nad Labem to divide Roma and white Czechs.

If we build such a fence in Ústí or anywhere else, we will in fact build one great Chinese Wall around the Czech Republic - a wall which will divide us from the rest of Europe. I sincerely hope this will not be the case. The construction of the fence was postponed until the spring, the situation can develop in such a way that the fence will not be built at all. If the fence is built it will not have an exit onto the street, and that is a degradation of human dignity. The question now is, whether the government can halt the construction of the fence or to remove it by force. I will take a very close look at this question. I would not be too happy if it came to a situation in which a local decision is revoked by Prague or if we had to change our legislation in order to authorize the government to intervene. And I say this fully aware of the fact that it is solely the government which must guarantee that human rights are not violated: not Parliament, the president or local authorities. And the government bears this responsibility both domestically and internationally.

In a television program you said that people still lived in the old world. What world did you mean?

The world before November 1989 - I did not want to say the Communist world. For us, the expression "old world" is still connected to Austria-Hungary and to the First Czechoslovak Republic which wanted to be a modern, democratic state but was not, especially regarding its minorities. The modern conception of human rights, as expressed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is based on a self-reflection of that part of humankind that lived through the Holocaust and the horrors of Nazism. In Europe today, people live in a new world, a modern, multicultural one. I still remember French xenophobia against the Germans. Now, the French and the Germans cooperate, not only their Presidents but mainly their young people. I wish we, as the Czech Republic, would join this cultural moment. Among the twenty- and thirty-year-olds, things look better in this regard than among older people. But there are still a lot of reservations.

For example, with regards to the local Germans? The Germans who have not been expelled from Czechoslovakia after WWII are still not entitled to restitution.

It took some doing to pass the restitution laws. I remember because I took part in the process as a Parliamentary deputy. We knew that the reparations would give rise to new injustices, and I was among those who wanted to restitute as little as possible. Others wanted to go back to the great agricultural reforms of 1919. As a compromise we agreed to set the cut-off date at 25 February 1948. We did not pass the restitution law with regard to Germans or Jews.

The property of the Germans who lived here until 1945 was confiscated under the Beneš Decrees after the War. The Czech Republic today can not revoke these decrees. I believe they lost their validity on 31 December 1991, because in January of the same year we signed the a convention, and any law which was incompatible with this convention ceased to be valid by the end of that year. I think the flat expulsion of the Germans after WWII was an injustice according to the laws of the pre-war Czechoslovak Republic. Everyone recognizes that it is totally unacceptable - everyone except maybe for some pig-headed, anti-Germanic old fogies.

Do you still have Slovak citizenship?

Yes. After the division of Czechoslovakia chose Slovak citizenship. I did this out of protest against the undemocratic division of the federation and also as a demonstration of the fact that some things can be better in Slovakia than in the Czech Republic, and the Slovak Law on the Retention of Citizenship was better. After I had made this choice, Czech authorities treated me as a non-citizen, because, so they argued, I had lost my Czech citizenship. After a complicated trial before the Constitutional Court, where at first I lost, I finally got the Constitutional Court to declare part of the Law on the Retention of Citizenship to be unconstitutional and that I had not forfeited my Czech citizenship. Since then, I have dual citizenship, and I hope that this will also be bestowed on the 65,000 Czechs living in Slovakia.

If you look at today's society as a former dissident, what would you change?

Still a lot. Under the new conditions in this country, we have to find out, where the state can help and where social legislation can be a guarantor. Our society is democratic but it is a democracy under the sign of a capitalist economic system. With privatization we have also privatized people, their morals, their soul. We are still far away from our objective, the civic society. We will probably never reach it. But as far as social solidarity and common decency are concerned, we have taken a step back.


Interview conducted by Alexandra Klausmann, a freelance journalist in Prague.

A shortened version of this article first appeared in Prager Zeitung. The expanded version appeared in the December 1998 issue of The New Presence, a journal of Central European affairs. Back issues of The New Presence can be found at http://www.new-presence.cz/

This article is reprinted by the Patrin Web Journal with permission of The New Presence.

Posted 10 January 1999.



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