Senate holds public debate on rights of minorities

Legislation guaranteeing the rights of minorities was recently approved by the lower house of Parliament, and is now being debated by members of the Senate's Human Rights Commission. On Thursday the Commission held a public debate on the draft law at which the representatives of the country's leading minorities - Slovaks, Poles, Ukrainians, Greeks and Germans - were asked to present their views and suggestions. The government's human rights commissioner Jan Jarab was present at the debate and Daniela Lazarova asked him for his impression of the discussion.

Jarab:My impression is that on the whole the representatives of minorities do support this proposal. It must be said however that they often declare that they would have wished to have even broader minority rights granted in the proposal. On the other hand many MPs in the lower house already consider this draft "dangerously radical". So there is a need for compromise, a need to find some middle ground because it is fairly obvious that if the rights which some of the minorities are asking for - for instance to have seats reserved for minorities in Parliament - had been included, the law would never have won approval in the lower house."

Radio Prague: You said you're fairly happy with the draft law - can you tell me in what areas it has made progress?

JJ:"It has made progress in specifying the definition of a national minority, in guaranteeing the right for bilingual signs in areas where that is appropriate, it has introduced a new definition of a misdemeanour involving racial discrimination. We only have racially-motivated crimes in the criminal code and there you need a high threshold of proof so the people who commit these offences are rarely convicted. It is even inappropriate in some instances of minor discrimination to send people to jail. What we needed was this possibility to punish people by fines for trivial but still serious cases of national and racial discrimination."

RP: In your own speech you said that tolerance is not enough in building a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society. Obviously this requires interaction. Do you think that the media do enough to inform the public about the life of minorities?

JJ:"Well, I must say that the media have improved considerably in this respect over the last five, seven years, and yet there is still a residual attitude that the Czech state is a state of ethnic Czechs and that the other people here are visitors who should be tolerated if they behave well - ie. if they assimilate with our cultural norms - and not tolerated if it is otherwise. There doesn't seem to be comprehension that these people are actually part of our society. That seems to be slightly lacking but things are improving even in this respect - gradually."