Helsinki Committee’s work was only getting started when communism fell, says director Lucie Rybová

Lucie Rybová, foto: Ian Willoughby

Along with Charter 77 and the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted, the Czechoslovak Helsinki Committee was a key dissident organisation in the communist period, pressuring the government to adhere to its human rights commitments. Today known as the Czech Helsinki Committee, it is still active, advocating for people who often have nowhere else to turn. I discussed the committee’s work with its director, Lucie Rybová. But I first asked her about the reasons for its establishment, in November 1988.

Lucie Rybová,  foto: Ian Willoughby
“Originally there was the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, which invited states that had signed the declaration and also covenants to set up national Helsinki Committees, to monitor whether states were keeping their promises.

“Because at that time it was difficult to make a civic organisation, in 1988 a group of critical thinkers and leaders, many of whom had also signed Charter 77, decided to set up an informal group that would monitor how those treaties were kept by the Czech Republic.”

But wasn’t Charter 77 also kind of inspired by the Helsinki Accords?

“Yes. Originally there was the question whether it was better to set up a separate Helsinki Committee or just to maintain the group around Charter 77.

“Because of practical reasons the other organisation was set up. But the people were the same, like Václav Havel or Jiří Hájek and other signatories.”

They were taking quite a big personal risk being involved in the Czechoslovak Helsinki Committee.

“Sure it was risky and it is risky today, as well [laughs].”

But in a different way, because you don’t face harassment or imprisonment by the police, I’m sure.

“Not imprisonment, but I think there are ways in which you can be at least discouraged from getting involved with some specific cases.”

Really? How is the Czech Helsinki Committee today discouraged from getting involved in some specific cases?

“There are many ways in which you may be discouraged. The practical case is that you are not supported by the state in information or funding and in your proposals to amend laws.

“Or your analyses are ignored or denied, or you are requested to get more data, which is very difficult sometimes, because you need access and money to make analyses that are critical of current policies.”

Václav Malý,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
If we could step back in time a little bit, if we speak about the period before 1989, what was would you say the main achievement or impact of the Czechoslovak Helsinki Committee? I was reading a quote from Bishop Václav Malý and he said it was another nail in the coffin of the previous system. What do you think was the major achievement or impact of the Czechoslovak Helsinki Committee?

“I would say it was the first organisation that reminded people that human rights were a value and taught the public that there are international instruments that Czechoslovakia is also obliged to follow and that these instruments are vital to their normal lives. So it was educating the public and the state about their obligations.”

In 1990 after the fall of communism the Czechoslovak Helsinki committee was officially registered, then a few years later it became the Czech Helsinki Committee. Why did it keep going after the fall of communism?

“It kept going because its mission was not finished. It was just getting started.

“The Czech Helsinki Committee’s enemy was not the communist regime, but the state which ignored the rights of individuals in their everyday lives – and that is the mission that we are committed to doing until now.”

What are your main activities today?

“We are trying to help groups which are most vulnerable and not helped by other organisations. We are doing less for the rights of foreigners and refugees now, because there are currently organisations which have separated from the Czech Helsinki Committee and are specialised in this. Nevertheless, we still work in this area to some degree.

Photo: Free Digital Photos
“We are mainly concentrating on the rights of prisoners and the rights of children whose parent is a prisoner, because imprisonment affects the whole family and there are many children who can’t meet their parent who is in prison, because they come from poor families that can’t afford it.

“These children are also traumatised due to the conditions under which they visit their parents in these prisons, because these are often very bad.”

Is there overcrowding in Czech prisons? I was not aware that there are serious problems in the Czech prison system.

“Before President Vaclav Klaus’s amnesty there was a big problem with too many prisoners, low prison capacity and not enough staff to manage them. This impacted prisoner rehabilitation too.

“This problem has gone down since then. However, we think that Czech state policy concerning punishment, which sees imprisoning often as the sole way of punishing people, is wrong and this issue will come back if nothing is changed.”

I know you also work with Romanies and Romany rights. Have you perceived any kind of improvement in the treatment of Romanise in the Czech Republic?

“There are improvements, in the sense that there are more institutions and more professionals concerned with this problem. These are here to help them with access to many rights. Like the rights to housing, health, etc. The only thing is that there aren’t clear visions and ideas on how to implement this right.”

And every few years the government comes out with a new plan and it doesn’t really go anywhere?

“Yes, I mean the plans are on the table already and they should have existed years ago. But the thing is there isn’t enough capacity to implement them or to monitor them.”

What other areas are you involved in?

“There is one specific project which we have been involved in for quite some time, I personally since 2005, and this is the case of illegally sterilised women, though now we know that also older men were victims.

“The Czech Helsinki Committee drafted the law on victim compensation. However, now we have more and more people who are calling us for help and we are unhappy because we are finding out that these victims who need concrete help to get documentation were and are again traumatised by asking the doctors and giving evidence.

“They need concrete assistance: legal, psychological… and support. But all they are getting is ignorance and people accusing them of just wanting money.”

I know you’ve been working on this legislation with minister for human rights, Jiří Dienstbier, who has been in office since last year. How have you found working with him?

“For me working with him is quite easy, because I know his team, which I used to be part of; I used to work for the minister of human rights. I think he is an open person and is willing to make unpopular changes.

“The only problem I see is that he is also minister for legislation and thus the agenda he has is very large. The team he has is not big enough to cover both areas. This is a weakness.”

And also he doesn’t have a ministry.

Jiří Dienstbier,  photo: Filip Jandourek
Yes. This is a fact. He is the minister of a non-existent ministry [laughs].”

If speak about the modern Helsinki Committee, the post-1989 version, what would you say have been your major successes and achievements?

“That’s difficult to say. But I think it is the fact that the organisation has continued to exist despite the lack of resources and the fact that we are open to so many individuals and have such a wide extent of coverage.

“So we have lots of work but because of low resources we are fighting for our existence. In individual cases we have seen the results in the sense that people don’t feel alone. They feel relief.”

And you are dealing with them at a very personal level?

“Yes. Sure. We have counselling centres so they can come to us and share their trauma. And sometimes we are the last institution they can come and talk to. Even in cases where we can’t help at least we give them time and attention.”

Tell me, how do you feel personally working with these traumatised people who come to you as a last hope?

“Many times I feel hopeless just as they do. Because I know that with a larger capacity and more funding we could do more and help them more effectively, especially when they come to us to seek defence representation after being discriminated against.

“I am sure that we could then do more and defend them more effectively. And also sometimes I feel we need to be patient and try to learn from those cases and use them when we are creating or commenting on a law or policies, to use it at least on a systematic level.”