Conference urges racial tolerance in Czech Republic

A conference entitled Tolerance, Respect and Human Rights 2001 got underway in Prague on Thursday. Peter Smith was at the opening and is here to tell us more.

The conference is organised by Globea, a transborder human rights group and will include workshops and seminars held by international specialists - the aim being to compare examples of multi-cultural societies from around the globe and suggest how problems stemming from racial or religious intolerance may be best addressed. One of the those passing on her experience is Liz Thompson of the University of Zululand in South Africa.

"Racism, prejudice, discrimination, bias come out of fear and ignorance and concern that one will lose one's rights, own privileges. We believe that only through justice and peace for all will we achieve human rights for all and we believe that justice and peace starts within each one us."

But it's a tough equation, according to Vincent Parrillo of the United States.

"There's a song that was written by Kris Kristofferson. It's called Jesus was a Capricorn. And in that song he says everybody's gotta have somebody to look down on. The truth is we will never get rid of stereotypes and we will never eliminate the differences. In fact, we shouldn't want to eliminate the differences."

The venue for the conference wasn't overlooked at Thursday's launch - with the Canadian lecturer Andy Tamas warning that the Czechs should sit up and take notice.

"One of the speakers said that your entry into the European Union is going to be dependent on how you treat your minorities - so it's a pretty high-stakes game. If you have one group that's been silent and begins to express itself, all the rest of the people need to change what they've been doing so that group can be a full participant."

Many agreed that the answer lay in mother tongue education and better training for teachers in multi-cultural diversity. Jana Hejkrlikova is the Roma advisor to the Pribram Town Hall and she's of the belief that the traditional isolation of Czech society is the root cause for many of the racial tensions today.

"How do we live in a multicultural environment? Here in the Czech Republic we basically do not know. We know maybe in Prague, and maybe in Karlovy Vary where they are used to foreigners. But in other towns and cities they just don't know."

On the whole, though, the mood was upbeat, with the Australian Aborigine delegate, Lillian Holt, confident that solutions would eventually be found.

"I'm a person who lives in hope, otherwise I would not be speaking here today. Things can actually be changed but I think that we all have to look within ourselves about what role we play in this. I wish the Roma well in their struggle in the Czech Republic and I think that if the Czech people open not only their head but their heart, they will be greatly enriched."