Kocab removed from human rights commission

written in SEPTEMBER 2010, with Liz Dana

PRAGUE, Czech Republic – While the debate on Sarkozy’s decision to remove illegal foreign Romas from France continues abroad, the human rights department in the Czech Republic is not taking much of a stand at home. Prime minister Petr Necas officially removed Michael Kocab from human rights commission head on September 16, after weeks of fighting over when he will leave.

The resignation leaves many human rights and minority advocates questioning how much importance is being placed on human rights policy in the Czech Republic. Although Roma issues in the Czech Republic are not as visible as they are in neighboring Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary, some Roma advocates feel Czech politicians are placing human rights on the backburner, and Kocab’s resignation is another loss in a diminishing emphasis on human rights.

Jiri Pehe, Director of New York University in Prague and former Director of the Political Department of Czech President Vaclav Havel, says “This government is not particularly interested in human rights, and with Kocab stepping down it’s certainly just another downgrade in the human rights and minorities department.”

Kocab, a musician-turned-politician, was not as politically-savvy as some of his counterparts, Pehe said. “He never really behaved as a politician … He was, however, an important figure for human rights in general in the Czech Republic.”

Kocab’s advocation for the Roma include his battle at Chomutov, a town which forced its Roma population to move to the outskirts of the city, into what essentially became a ghetto. He was also a strong fighter against compulsory sterilization of Roma women.

Necas had asked Kocab to leave earlier in the month. “I expected the government to immediately appoint a new (human rights) commissioner if it dismissed me Wednesday,” Kocab told CTK. His request was not followed through, but Roman Joch has stepped up as human rights adviser to the prime minister.

Kocab previously held the position of Minister for Human Rights and Minorities.  The Green Party requested that he step down after they withdrew from the cabinet earlier this spring. Since then, Kocab had been serving as a representative for human rights in the human rights commission, which holds less power than his previous position as a cabinet minister.

Kumar Vishwanathan, an advocate for Roma rights, believed Kocab, unlike the current center-right government in power, was not afraid to take a stand on minority issues.  “He had a strong agenda and was not afraid to go against the grain,” Vishwanathan said in a phone interview.

Joch explained in a phone interview that his perception of “human rights” was different from that of Kocab. “It’s too early to say what the future of human rights in the Czech Republic will be, but there will be a shift from collective privileges to a focus on basic rights for everyone.”

Petr Mach, external economic adviser to President Vaclav Klaus and executive director of the Center for Economics and Politics, says Kocab and the left wing focus too much on affirmative action, or privileges, for certain minorities while Joch’s business-minded agenda focuses on taxpayers and the free market. He also went on to explain that it was completely normal for representatives and ministers to shift and step down from office if a new party came into power in the cabinet. “People were making fun of Kocab because he was so insistent on staying,” Mach said.

Joch also stated in the interview that some parts of the human rights commission were unnecessary and that certain small changes will be made, but there will be no dramatic difference in the emphasis on human rights in the Czech government. He was considering abolishing the human rights commission altogether on grounds that it was unnecessary, but has decided it will probably not be removed.

Kocab explained the commission’s agenda to Joch before he stepped down, but said they ran into ideological differences over the commission’s goals.

“What Roman Joch is emphasizing is a misunderstanding of the agenda of my office,” Kocab told The Prague Post. “Of course, the taxpayers and family rights are also very important, but there are many more, bigger government departments to manage these agendas. This is not a task for my office. We deal with minorities.”

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