Czech Republic elected to UN Human Rights Council

Karel Schwarzenberg, photo: archive of the Czech Government

The UN General Assembly on Friday elected the Czech Republic and 14 other states to serve on the UN Human Rights Council for a three year term, starting next month. The Czech Republic, which has served on the council previously, was elected in the first round, gaining support from 148 out of 191 countries present and winning one of the two seats designed for Eastern Europe. The Czech Foreign Ministry says it will give the country a better opportunity to help others on the road to freedom, critics say the Czech Republic itself could learn from the experience.

Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: archive of the Czech Government
It was the result of a concerted several-year-long effort on the part of Czech diplomacy to convince member states that as a country with a totalitarian past the Czech Republic has both the tools and insight needed to help others on the road to freedom. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said a consistent foreign policy in defense of human rights world-wide was behind the country’s success.

“The Czech Republic is acknowledged world-wide as a country that defends human rights indiscriminately. We criticize not only countries such as Burma and Cuba but also the heavyweights and that is widely appreciated. “

As a country which emerged from 40 years of totalitarian rule, the Czech Republic has shown a vested interest in the fate of others who are still struggling to achieve freedom. Czech dissidents who themselves got support from the West in the communist years feel they owe a big debt to others in a similar position. Vaclav Havel, the country’s first post communist president who himself spent years in prison, jump-started the process after 1989 and over the past twenty years the country has not faltered in supporting dissident movements and prisoners of conscience in authoritarian countries. However foreign policy expert Ondřej Horký from the Prague Institute for International Relations says the Czech Republic needs a much broader scope and often suffers from the same vice as others –keeping silent when it should speak out.

Photo: Richard Hewitt / Stock.XCHNG
“The Czech Republic has been very active in defense of human rights, we can say the country has developed its own brand of assistance in this respect such as its activities in Burma, Cuba and Belarus. This assistance is based largely on supporting dissident movements, which the country has continued to do since the communist era and we can see that the Czech dissident movement still has a say in foreign policy even 20 years after the Velvet Revolution. The Foreign Ministry even has a tool to that effect –called the transition policy – it consists of 2 million euro a year spent to help dissident movements in countries where human rights are violated. On the other hand, Czech foreign policy on human rights has been criticized for being very selective. I mean the Czech Republic does not have a strategic interest in countries such as Burma, Cuba or Belarus but we have seen that the Czech Foreign Ministry did not even criticize Gaddafi’s regime in Libya and it was very reluctant to take an active part in international efforts to improve the situation in Libya or even to acknowledge that there are serious human rights problems in the country.”

Where do you see potential for the Czech Republic, now that it has been elected to the council? Does this present a new opportunity?

“Yes, it definitely presents opportunities. And those opportunities are linked with some conceptual questions. So far the Czech Republic has focused on the first generation of human rights, freedom of expression, democracy, free elections and so on. But it has, so far, mostly ignored the second and third generations of human rights such as social rights, or rights that are very much connected to development like the right to food or the right to water which are very much in the focus of attention in the developing world. So I think that for the Czech Republic this is an opportunity to update and to broaden its understanding of human rights both in geographic terms but also in terms of the scope of human rights which is in reality much larger than the basic human rights we have sought to defend here in the Czech Republic during the communist era. “