Citizens' initiative seeks anti-discrimination law

Since the New Year began, Czechs have been marking the 30th anniversary of Charter 77, the dissident movement that sought to bring respect for human rights to Communist Czechoslovakia. Since that time, the Czech Republic has enjoyed well over a decade of freedom and democracy, but a new citizens' group says there is still work to be done in the realm of human rights.

Karel Holomek
The movement calls itself "Jsme Obcane!", or "We are citizens!" It has no leader, and not even an official spokesperson. Amid much fuzzy talk of participatory democracy at the press conference on Thursday, one participant at least had some very concrete concerns.

Karel Holomek is a longtime leader of the Roma community in Brno:

"This definitely isn't an abstract matter....look how politicians swing elections using political steps directed against Roma citizens. It shows that the human rights situation is still poor, and that we need laws that actually protect people's rights. Czech Roma are simply not accepted in our society!"

A clear reference to Jiri Cunek, the politician who made his name by evicting Roma tenants who had defaulted on their rent from city-owned buildings. This week Mr. Cunek became the country's Deputy Prime Minister.

But what changes exactly would the 200-plus supporters of the "We Are Citizens!" petition - among them some original Charter 77 signatories - like to see? For one thing, they want an anti-discrimination law to be passed in the Czech Republic, in accordance with EU ordinances that have been adopted by all other member states. Organizer Mirek Prokes explains:

"There are two European guidelines in fact, number 43 and number 78. One of them forbids discrimination in employment and the other forbids racial discrimination in all spheres of society, like housing, employment, health services, social services, and so on."

The petition also demands a mechanism be inserted into the Czech Constitution, allowing for more citizens' referenda.

"Only once in 17 years there was a referendum on the European Union. But we need direct democracy for other questions as well."

Certainly, Czech electoral democracy has not been experiencing its finest moment since last June's inconclusive elections. For months, political discussions have focused more on personalities than on the big questions facing Czech society. Opinion polls regularly show that citizens are fed up, or just bored by the circus.

Who is to blame? At the press conference, there was a lively exchange between Mr. Holomek, who faulted the politicians, and Senator Alena Gajduskova who criticized the media.

For both of them, hope now rests with the Czech people.