Activist: ‘patriarchal’ government has emasculated human rights agenda

Monika Šimůnková, photo: CTK

The government’s human rights commissioner Monika Šimůnková resigned on Thursday, claiming the cabinet had marginalised the position to the point where it was becoming meaningless. Ms Šimůnková has had her critics, even among those whose rights she was appointed to defend. But many have placed the blame squarely at the foot of successive governments which have slowly sought to undermine the post. The Ostrava social worker Kumar Vishwanathan, who works with the local Roma community, sat on the commission from its inception in 1998 and was in close contact with Ms Šimůnková.

Monika Šimůnková,  photo: CTK
“I’ve always seen her in a very difficult situation. I’ve seen so many commissioners come and go. I’ve seen the weight of the commission increasing and decreasing, and during the past five years I’ve seen it also disappearing. And Monika was actually trying to hold on to this disappearing human rights commission, trying to give it all the weight it could muster. The agenda, the topic of human rights, has been completely castrated over the past five years by the Czech government. It has been reduced from a real force in the past to hardly anything.”

Obviously she had her critics. Many people she said she was just not up to the task. Not the right woman, not the right background, no background in ethnic minorities or anything like that. She just wasn’t strong enough to stand up for this area and fight for the rights of minorities in the Czech Republic.

“The duty of a human rights commissioner is to guide the government to implement and to be consistent with the Czech government’s international obligations. That’s their duty. It’s not just a question of minorities. It’s across the board. Prisoners, LGBT, women, children, the Roma, etc etc etc. I would compare her situation to a leading surgeon; if you remove from the hands of this surgeon all their tools, and if you switch off all the electricity in the operating theatre, you cannot blame the surgeon for not being able to do his duty, or her duty.”

So you reject the claim that she was just something of a Yes man, or a Yes woman, for the government.

Kumar Vishwanathan,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“I reject it completely. She used to work until around eight or nine in the evening because she didn’t have the people to do her work, and she was combining so many duties just to get the government going. I’m grateful that there was this lone lady who was trying to do her best. Because if she hadn’t been there for these past years, the agenda would have disappeared earlier.”

And so what happens now Kumar?

“I’m extremely concerned. Monika giving up is a real sign of a disaster in the making. This is a total disrespect for the human rights agenda. As the prime minister said today – we speak about people, and not about human rights. This is a very patriarchal kind of statement. You know? ‘We know better. We take care of everybody. We take care of you. You have your rights but shut up, you can’t claim them.’ I think this is a clear signal that the government had derailed itself on the human rights track.”

So you think even if there is a new human rights commissioner, it won’t be a commissioner with any real teeth, any real power to protect human rights in this country?

“Exactly, that’s what I fear. Because even if you bring in the best possible person, this person is sooner or later going to give up. Because there is no possibility, there are no instruments available, there are no resources to support the position.”