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PRAGUE, Sep 15 2012 (IPS) - The Czech foreign ministry has insisted the country’s support for human rights is “not for sale” after calls from the prime minister to drop “fashionable political causes” such as supporting the Dalia Lama and the jailed Russian pop group Pussy Riot.
The Dalai Lama is the spiritual and political leader of Tibetans. Pussy Riot is the Russian music group whose members were jailed over singing critically of President Vladimir Putin.
In a country which produced one of the most famous dissidents in recent history, Vaclav Havel, and where human rights and support for dissidents against authoritarian regimes has been a pillar of its post-communist foreign policy, the remarks have sparked outrage.
Human rights activists condemned the comments from Prime Minister Petr Necas, while Foreign Minister Karol Schwarzenberg, who earlier this year publicly denounced the jail sentence for the Pussy Riot band members in Russia, described the prime minister’s remarks as “horrifying”.
His ministry issued a statement saying that support for human rights was a matter of principle which was “not for sale”.
But business groups, as well as the economy minister, have seized on the prime minister’s comments and are now calling for a rethink on Czech foreign policy – a change activists have said would be both wrong and naive.
Jakub Klepal, director of the Forum2000 foundation which Havel helped establish, told IPS: “A principled position on human rights cannot be exchanged for economic trade. What the prime minister said was plainly wrong.
“But moreover, changing the government’s stance on foreign policy and human rights would not have any effect on the economic policies of countries like China and Russia anyway. Such large countries are not going to alter their economic planning based on the opinions of a small country with a population of 10 million people.
“The Czech Republic has had a principled policy on human rights for decades and yet trade with China has been doing very well in recent years despite this. There is no need to change it.”
Less than five percent of Czech exports go to China and Russia, and the Association of Exporters said publicly following the prime minister’s remarks that support for the Dalia Lama or Pussy Riot would have no negative effects on the country’s exports.
Human rights have been a central pillar in Czech post-communist foreign policy. Championed by former president Vaclav Havel, a public supporter of the Dalia Lama, the country is known diplomatically for its strong stance on rights.
The country’s communist past also means that the idea of support for rights, and dissident protest in particular, resonate strongly in wider Czech society.
Because of this, it is unsurprising that Necas’s comments attracted widespread criticism from politicians across the political spectrum as well as media commentators and rights activists.
Speaking at a trade fair in the city Brno attended by Russian and Chinese firms, Necas said: “We must prevent some fashionable political statements that, objectively speaking, affect our exports.”
He said the Czech Republic was committed to a “one China” policy and that “admiration (of the Dalai Lama) is not support for freedom and democracy.” He added that a Tibetan regime would probably have “a half-feudal, theocratic character with strong authoritarian elements.”
The prime minister has since tried to defend his comments and pointed out that in a later part of his speech he made clear his support for human rights.
But his open questioning of the economic consequences of supporting some high-profile rights causes has spurred some business leaders to openly criticise the country’s foreign policy, especially towards China.
Jan Kohout, head of the Czech-Chinese Chamber, an economic and trade promotion group, told local press the comments should be seen as “the beginning of a vital public debate on the relationship between foreign and export policies as a measure to tackle recession.”
Meanwhile, Economy Minister Martin Kuba, a member of PM Necas’s right-wing ODS party, told local media the government should “rapidly and seriously discuss the Czech Republic’s relation to some countries.”
He added that “the philosophy that the foreign ministry is here only because of foreign relations and does not respect the fact that it is so dependent on exports – our share of exports in GDP is almost 80 percent – is not sensible.”
These views have been dismissed by other politicians who argue that while trade is vital to the country’s prosperity, commitment to human rights should always take priority over economic interests.
Former prime minister and candidate in upcoming presidential elections, Jan Fischer, told Czech press: “The promotion of Czech economic interests is one of the government’s obligations, but its concern for human rights in the world must not be sacrificed. Business must not come before freedom.”
Others, though, say that pursuing economic interests and championing human rights need not be mutually exclusive, even when dealing with countries where human rights violations are a concern.
Forum2000’s Klepal told IPS: “People here who know the history of their country have been certainly shocked by the suggestion of giving up principled foreign policy for the very short-term benefits of economic trade, because that is what always happens in cases like this – the benefits are very short term.
“However, a principled policy on human rights as part of foreign policy can be compatible with positive economic engagement with countries where there are human rights concerns.”
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