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The Wrong Rights

A top Czech official asks if civil liberties should remain his government’s priority. 

by Katerina Safarikova 19 February 2014

The EU should guarantee its citizens the right to water, the first valid EU citizens’ petition has declared.


The motion is the first successful use of the so-called European citizens’ initiative, which was introduced by the Lisbon treaty and allows for 1 million EU citizens to assign the European Commission with a task, by way of their signatures. The petition was initiated by a group of mostly German civic groups with the goal, spurred by an internal German debate, to prohibit the privatization of the water supply and to secure water and sanitation across the bloc by 2016.


It’s interesting and clear and marked by a catchy and provocative name: Right2Water. Is there really a right to water? Does it belong to the body of human rights as we know them from most constitutions on both sides of the Atlantic? If so, does it mean that one day the residents of villages served only by wells will be able to sue their national government for not securing them the right to a public water system? Might the EU apply political sanctions against a country where people are regularly dying because of droughts?


Similar questions were prompted by a recent commentary in which the Czech Republic’s new deputy foreign minister, Petr Drulak, criticized the approach of previous Czech administrations toward human rights.


Most governments took an overly narrow definition of human rights, Drulak wrote, focusing on political or civil freedoms – expression, assembly, religion. And defense of those was selective, he said, driven by ideology, which led to the Czech Republic sometimes allying itself with violators.


Drulak’s argument is too abstract at times, but it’s a good guess that when he cites loopholes in and failures of Czech human rights policy up until now, he has things like water boarding and the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo in mind.


He goes on to say that the emphasis on civil rights has eclipsed more fundamental rights. “For a few billion people, liberation from hunger is still more important than freedom of speech,” Drulak writes. Social and environmental rights should be an integral part of any human rights approach, he adds, and should walk hand in hand with the humanitarian policy of the state so that it truly helps people in need.


On the face of it, there’s little there to argue with. But dig a little deeper and the faults in Drulak’s line become plainer.


The deputy foreign minister is right when he says the human rights approach of the Czech government has been very Atlantic alliance- or U.S.-driven. The late President Vaclav Havel and his allies would criticize the Cuban regime or the Burmese junta but showed little interest in, say, violence against women in Saudi Arabia. The Czechs would make a motion for sanctions because of torture and forced confessions in Belarus but would stay silent on the subject of torturing the Guantanamo prisoners.


It’s true, too, that the longstanding resistance of U.S. company Union Carbide and its subsequent owner, Anglo-American Dow Chemical, to accept responsibility for catastrophic 1984 chemical leak in Bhopal, India, and to compensate the many victims there raise no reaction from the Czech freedom fighters.


Some of this is understandable. The human rights policy of the Czech state is a legacy of Havel, who, as a prisoner of the communist regime, longed for civil and political rights and felt obliged to fight for them worldwide when he had the chance. The silence of the Czech political elite on Guantanamo was pathetic, but there is a difference between an acknowledged excess by the U.S. government and the endemic torture of a state like Belarus or Burma.


Environmental and social rights are legitimate causes, but a state uneasy about recognizing them on its own soil is hardly their best champion. In Czech post-communist society, ensuring social rights via such means as unemployment and welfare benefits is often seen as a sop to lazy people. And agitation for a green agenda is hardly credible coming from a country eager to build new nuclear reactors, and where the forced eviction of villages due to the mining industry is on every government’s agenda.


On the contrary, support for political prisoners, dissidents, and civil society in countries with totalitarian regimes sounds credible coming from Czech mouths because of the nation’s own experience, and our government already has a solid background in these issues worldwide. Let others agitate for the rest – the French for the social rights of Pakistani workers, the northern Europeans for green issues.


If we de-emphasize human rights just because the world is more complex than that, the Czechs may end up like the hunter in the Czech proverb that says if you try to catch too many rabbits, you won’t catch a one. Getting rid of Havel’s “naïve” legacy, as Drulak dubs it, is a highway to oblivion, and a direct betrayal of the ones in need who have learned to trust us.

Katerina Safarikova is a journalist at Ceska Pozice.

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