Civil Society, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS: Czech NGOs Hit Back at President

Pavol Stracansky

PRAGUE, May 26 2005 (IPS) - Former communist dissidents in the Czech Republic have attacked President Vaclav Klaus over comments he made to the Council of Europe suggesting that NGOs could be "risky" and "dangerous".

Members of several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) said in a letter to the president that his comments were an attack on freedom guaranteed by the Czech constitution.

The letter signed by prominent former dissidents including Bishop Vaclav Maly, Rabbi Karol Sidon and former interior minister Jan Ruml came after Klaus attacked NGOs in a speech to the Council of Europe – the oldest human rights body on the continent.

Klaus spoke at the Council summit in Warsaw May 17 of groups "which – without a democratic mandate – try to directly decide various crucial and sensitive public issues."

Klaus said: "I have in mind various manifestations of NGO-ism, of artificial multiculturalism, of radical human right-ism, of aggressive environmentalism. In these activities, I see new ways of endangering and undermining freedom, which those of us who lived in the communist era take very seriously."

He said some NGOs were trying to influence society and developments without the kind of proper democratic mandate that political parties had.

"The democratic mandate is missing here," he said. "It is simply a new phenomenon of the past years, of the past decades, and I consider it to be very risky and very dangerous."

The speech angered some former dissidents. They said the president had belittled the important efforts of civic organisations in societies, and that his comments were an attack on democratic rights guaranteed by the Czech constitution.

"We believe that such criticism should not be made by the president whose task is to guarantee the constitutionality of the state and its institutions," the NGOs said in the letter.

"The letter is a civic reaction by people who do not like the belittling of the effort of civic initiatives," one of its authors, Vaclav Trojan said in a statement.

The dissidents pointed out that members of civic organisations had been persecuted by authorities under the communist regime of former Czechoslovakia.

Transparency International, one of the most influential NGOs in the former communist state, said the comments from the president were "absolutely flawed" and verged on totalitarianism.

"The president’s argument is completely flawed. Every citizen of this country has the right to speak freely to unite with others and to pursue their own goals, all of which are basic human rights," Michal Sticka, project manager at Transparency International told IPS.

"Someone saying that I should stay at home and leave everything to political parties simply does not understand what democracy means," he said. "If someone is to deprive me of the right to say what I want then that amounts almost to totalitarianism and has an air of authoritarianism about it. Democracy is also about civil society."

Playwright Vaclav Havel who went on to become the Czech president was among 230 prominent intellectuals who signed Charter 77 in support of an "open association of people committed to human rights," the NGOs pointed out. Groups such as the Committee for the Protection of the Unjustly Persecuted were dismissed as seditious organisations by the communist government, and their members often arrested.

"We believed that after November 1989 no one would again disparage and belittle the weight of civic initiatives and non-government and non-parliamentary groups and movements, but that the constitution had recognised their irreplaceable role in the process of building a free civic society," the letter said.

"We consider the discrediting of such effort to be a direct attack on the fundamental principles of democracy guaranteed by the constitution," the dissidents wrote in the letter.

But President Klaus has refused to back away from his statements.

In an official response carried in the Czech daily Pravo May 24, he said: "I stand by the opinion that all sorts of movements and groups that lack the courage, strength and ideas to go to a free market and undergo an election battle for their democratic legitimacy may pose a danger to freedom."

He was also quoted by the paper as saying that the former dissidents’ criticism was an example of their "inability to live in a free society."

"I must say that the lack of freedom is probably their own, their personal lack of freedom and they simply are not able to extricate themselves from it and therefore they say what they have," he added.

"I do not forbid them their views…it is they who want to forbid me my views, which only shows their inability to live in a free society. It is sad."

Klaus said his comments at the Council of Europe had not been aimed at them.

"With not a single word did I mention various activities and movements that certainly existed with good reason during in those past totalitarian times when free and democratic elections were not possible," he said.

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