US ambassador calls for Czech action to end Roma exclusion, discrimination

US ambassador to Czech Republic makes public call on Czech government for more action to tackle Roma problem

Politics & Policy|Society
Chris Johnstone | 28.05.2012
Ambassador Norman Eisen this month laying a wreath at the site of the Czech-run Lety internment camp where hundreds of Roma perished during Nazi rule

The US ambassador to the Czech Republic, a former top advisor to President Barack Obama, has made a public all for Czechs to do more for the Roma (“Gypsy”) minority.

“Roma have for a long time faced problems on the margins of society in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Europe. The unequal access to education and job opportunities have further worsened their situation,” Amb. Norman Eisen wrote in an commentary published in Monday’s issue of the business daily Hospodářské noviny.

“If there is one group of people denied basic rights and opportunities that damages the whole of society,” Eisen continued. “I appeal to the Czech government to take more effective measures regarding the Roma. Success will only come when the public administration at all levels  seeks to bring the Roma from the fringes of society.”

The comments follow a critical assessment of the Czech Republic in the US Department of State’s annual evaluation of human rights worldwide, published last week. “During the year, societal discrimination against the country’s Romani population was a serious problem and human rights observers criticized the government’s efforts to overcome it as inadequate.” The report also attacked prison overcrowding, corruption, judicial shortcomings, human trafficking, and discrimination against labor unions and migrant workers.

ʻI appeal to the Czech government to take more effective measures regarding the Roma. Success will only come when the public administration at all levels  seeks to bring the Roma from the fringes of society.ʼ

The country report highlighted what it called the almost non-existent role of Roma in public life: “Few of the country’s estimated 200,000 Roma were integrated into political life. No Roma were members of parliament, had cabinet portfolios, or sat on the Supreme Court. Some Roma were appointed to national and regional advisory councils dealing with Romani affairs.”

The high level of underlying tension between Roma and the majority population, which led to a wave of anti-Roma protests in deprived parts of northern Bohemia last summer after a series of incidents, were also covered in the report. “Throughout the year, extremists targeted Romani neighborhoods as venues for their protests and occasional violence. Police investigated several incidents of torches or Molotov cocktails being thrown at Romani houses. Extremist groups also marched through Romani areas carrying torches and chanting slogans.”

The overwhelming negative tone of the media towards the Roma community, in some cases printing totally fictitious stories which tarnished the community, or, as recently in the case of a Břeclav boy who blamed Roma for attacking him when he injured himself falling over, jumping on an anti-Roma bandwagon, was also highlighted. “The national media gave disproportionate coverage to crime and acts of violence committed by Roma compared with similar behavior on the part of the majority population or other minorities,” the State Department report said.

Local politicians have meanwhile sought to profit from taking extreme anti-Roma stances, it said. “Some mainstream politicians have been outspoken in their criticism of Romani communities. Their statements often vilified the Romani minority, blaming it for community problems and assigning collective guilt for crimes. Some politicians called for municipalities to move Romani residents to the outskirts of town into what is often substandard housing, ban alcohol in areas with high Romani populations, and limit residency options for Roma who commit multiple minor crimes.”

ʻThe USA has its own bad experience with unfairness in education. Our own successes and failures could be an inspiration for those who seek to deal with the issues in a similar way.ʼ

In the meantime, in spite of frequent international demands, including from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for more efforts to harness the abilities of the Roma community, they are often forced to live on social support and state hands outs because of job market discrimination. “An estimated 57 percent of Roma were unemployed. In areas with a high percentage of Romani residents, unemployment among Roma was close to 90 percent according to the Agency for Social Inclusion in Roma Localities,” the report said.

Roma children are still frequently offered the most basic education, often being placed as a matter of course in school’s for children with learning difficulties although Czech authorities maintain that this practice has now stopped. They are almost entirely absent from the upper ranks of education.

“The US has its own bad experience with unfairness in education. Our own successes and failures could be an inspiration for those who seek to deal with the issues in a similar way,” Eisen commented in his opinion piece.

Eisen served for nearly two years in the White House as Special Assistant to the President and as Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform, being given the informal title of Barack Obama’s “ethics czar.” He was confirmed as US ambassador in mid-December in the face of moves by Republicans in the Senate to block the move 

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