Human rights at the center of a new government controversy

Petr Nečas, photo: CTK

Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas has come under criticism from some members of his government, several Czech NGOs and even exporters over his statement about human rights and their relation to the economy. Mr Nečas said that support for the Dalai Lama or jailed members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot might have a negative impact on trade relations. This earned him accusations that his words ran contrary to the country’s official foreign policy.

Petr Nečas,  photo: CTK
In an opening speech at the annual engineering fair in Brno on Monday, Prime Minister Petr Nečas said that Czech exports needed to be diversified beyond the borders of the EU, warning that some stances of Czech politicians may have a negative impact on relations with countries like Russia or China:

“I would like to mention two such instances. One is the artificial and disingenuous adoration for the Russian group Pussy Riot, whose actions were the height of bad taste, and in no way represent freedom and democracy. Nevertheless, some politicians do get carried away by this fashionable trend, and it has a clear impact on export.”

The second instance the prime minister mentioned was the support for independent Tibet and its leader the Dalai Lama. Mr Nečas insinuated that support for these issues were careless and even superficial and may negatively influence trade relations with countries whose internal affairs are criticized.

Jiří Grund
Yet, Czech export figures for the last three years tell a completely different story. Although the Czech foreign ministry has consistently taken up the case of human rights around the world, it seems to have had little effect trade with those countries. Czech exports to Russia grew by almost 50% from 2010 to 2011, while the growth of exports to China was more than 30% in the same period. In fact, Jiří Grund, the head of the Czech Association of Exporters, considers the prime minister’s position to be completely inappropriate in relation to trade:

“That statement should not have been made at all. It belongs at internal government discussions. Members of the government should represent the interest of the state when they speak publicly. Some things they just have to accept and some things just should not be said out loud. The prime minister’s statement creates tension and disunity in the government. One of the basic rules of trade negotiations is not to speak about politics, but it’s not because of some sort of fears. I just wouldn’t talk about human rights, even though, of course, we want them to be respected, but it just doesn’t belong in discussions about trade.”

Petr Drulák,  photo: Polish Institute Prague
Although the prime minister’s words may not hold water in terms of exports, Petr Drulák, the director of the Institute of International Relations in Prague, says such statements are nothing new. Mr Drulák pointed out that the tension between economic pragmatism and the human rights agenda have always clashed in Czech politics, and that this particular statement should be viewed primarily in terms of its significance for internal government affairs:

“I would put the statement of the prime minister into a different context, because it is mainly about domestic politics. The prime minister and the foreign minister have different ideas about foreign policy and institutional positions and they represent two different parties. So I see this as a way for the prime minister to distance himself from the foreign minister.”

Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: ČTK
Indeed, the reaction of his cabinet was almost immediate. Foreign Minister, and leader of the coalition TOP 09 party Karel Schwarzenberg expressed outrage at the Prime Minister’s words and said Mr Nečas was “throwing the human rights agenda overboard”. For his part, Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek, also from TOP 09, came out in support of the foreign minister but said that these disagreements should not be cause for a coalition scuffle.

Several Czech non-profit organizations also strongly criticized the prime minister, most notably Fórum 2000, founded by Václav Havel. The group released a statement expressing concern the Czech Republic may shift from its “principled position” of standing up to authoritarian regimes.