Foreigners in Their Own Land

Most observers have high praise for the Czech Republic's reform efforts, and Czech leaders are quick to boast that theirs is almost the only country in Central Europe that has remained immune to the "return of the Communists" and steadfast on the path of free-market reform. But a flaw that seems to be unmentionable in polite society, including in European diplomatic circles, is that more Roma (Gypsies) have been killed as the result of hate crimes in the Czech Republic since 1989 than in Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia combined.

In short, the otherwise laudable reforms of Czech democracy have regrettably failed to ensure even the most basic human rights for the republic's largest minority. A new report by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki is only the latest of a growing number to document these problems. The report describes the lamentable treatment of Roma in the Czech Republic and focuses on several related problems.

First, in the Czech Republic, as in many other Central European countries, post-Communist freedom of expression has all too often translated into expressions of hatred against Roma. According to Human Rights Watch, Roma in the Czech Republic are victims of an alarming and growing number of hate crimes. For example, Czech officials told Human Rights Watch that 121 racially motivated attacks occurred between 1990 and 1993 and 181 such attacks since; 42 in the first two months of 1996 alone. Moreover, 27 of the attacks were fatal.

And while Czechs may brag about marginalizing the Communist Party, especially in comparison with the post-communist leaderships in nearby countries, perhaps more attention should be paid to the far-right Republican Party, which recently campaigned on a platform of ridding the country of Roma and then picked up four new parliamentary seats in last month's elections. Not surprising in this setting, Roma suffer from a host of prohibited-but-tolerated forms of discrimination in housing, education, and employment.

A second, narrower focus of the Human Rights Watch report concerns Czech citizenship law. This law was denounced in April by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Council of Europe, both of which concluded in reports that the restrictive Czech statute, by denying citizenship to former Czechoslovak citizens who were long-term residents of the Czech Republic, violates international norms. Not coincidentally, as government officials admit, almost every person rendered stateless by this law is a Rom.

Human Rights Watch has significantly added to the research. In particular, its report sheds light on the racially charged atmosphere in the Czech Republic at the time the citizenship law was adopted, examining the humanitarian burdens suffered by those wrongly deported under the law, and exposing the indefensible practice of rendering orphans stateless in the only country they have ever known.

Combating social prejudices is a complex task that defies easy solutions. The first step in addressing this problem is for Czech officials to acknowledge the problem they face. The Czech citizenship law is a problem with a clear remedy, one that the Human Rights Watch report dubs the "zero option." Simply, all former citizens of Czechoslovakia who were permanent residents of the Czech Republic at the time of the dissolution of the Czechoslovak Federation should automatically be given citizenship. This recommendation is not only eminently sensible, it is demanded by the Czech Republic's international human rights obligations. Half-steps are not enough.

*Christopher H. Smith (R) represents New Jersey's Fourth District in the House of Representatives and is chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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