Should there be changes made to the human rights and the rights of national minorities?

Friday, March 30th 2012, the recently elected Prime Minister Robert Fico confirmed his intention to abolish the post of Government vice-president responsible for human rights and national minorities. Is this the first sign of a toughening regime or is it simply an austerity measure?

Mistreatment of Human and National Minority Rights

01/31/2013 - 02:22
The abolition of the Government vice-president's post was an insensitive and irresponsible measure. As head of government, Robert Fico isn't known as a staunch protector of human rights, but this time he went too far by institutionalizing insufficient protection to the only checks and balaces of an oppressing regime.

The first term of Robert Fico (2006-2010) as head of government did not leave a good impression with regards to his handling of human- and national minority rights. Entered into coalition with SNS, the Slovak National Party, Fico has apparently drawn inspiration from the party. For example, one can mention the total lack of respect for the rights of national minorities shown by the law of May 25th 2010 which prohibited dual nationality, literally depriving all multinationals in the country of their Slovak citizenship.

An ambiguous attitude towards the non-governmental sector and national minorities

Fico’s values have not changed despite the fact that his party is the one in power. Currently, he seems to follow the Hungarian example showing disregard towards NGOs and associations for the protection of human rights and minorities in particular. Thus, when he invited the trade unions and universities to the negotiating table to discuss the contents of his Memorandum, he conveniently forgot to invite non-governmental organizations, all of which had strong arguments against the removal of the position.

An unjustified measure

According to Fico, the post of the Government Vice-President responsible for human rights and national minorities was established by the coalition government for purely political reasons, in order to be able to provide the opposition with more positions. However, this function already existed in 1998; if Fico considers it completely useless, it should be noted that it was not removed during his first term as head of the government (2006-2010).

Some political observers argue that the removal of the position is not necessarily a problem in itself. If this elimination was a part of a real reform to respond better to the complex issues in the field of human rights and national minorities, there would be no reason to blame him. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Wishes to weaken human rights

Instead of putting in place well-developed reforms, Fico has chosen a simple solution by separating the agenda of human rights and national minorities into smaller entities, giving one to the Ministry of Education, another to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the leftovers to the Ministry of Culture.

However, it is clear that a field of such complexity and importance merits a ministry of its own: to assign its tasks to people with ministerial competences is too simplistic. The transfer of power in the field of national minorities to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a highly symbolic act: it treats minorities as a matter of foreign policy and excludes any desire to integrate and protect them.

In addition, Fico’s decision ignores the current situation of the ministries, which are not ready structurally to assume management of this agenda; they are short of experience and of qualified personnel. Fico’s decision shows that human rights are not his priority. If under his social democratic government social policies have escaped the budgetary cuts, this does not apply to issues such as the protection of human rights and rights of national minorities. They are subjugated to his whims without taking into account the long-term impacts and the need for structural reforms.

However, it may be that this decision was taken in full knowledge of the facts. It is possible that Fico is fully aware of the consequences of the removal of the post of the government vice-president responsible for human rights and national minorities, one of the most important being the weakening of the protection of human rights and minorities. The guarantee of the latter is nevertheless a key indicator of the quality of democracy. But who would care about its degradation in Slovakia, when on the other side of the Danube an increasingly authoritarian system is in the process of being formed?

Thus, Robert Fico can once again thank his Hungarian counterpart. The latter has helped him gain authority during his first term by playing the nationalist card. In 2012, Robert Fico is extending his grip, hiding in the shadow of Viktor Orbán.

This article deliberately presents only one of the many existing points of views of this contorversial subject. Its content is not necessarily representative of its author's personal opinion. Please have a look at Duel Amical's philosophy.

Misinterpretation of the protection of Human Rights

01/31/2013 - 02:22
The decision to rethink the Government vice-president's position was well founded, given the economic and social context of Slovakia. Even though reorganized, the duties of the former post still exist under the name of "Special Prosecutor for national minorities". Once again, this matter was a pretext to attack Fico.

Since Slovakia’s independence, the minority question remains a sensitive issue that animates domestic politics and international relations. It characterizes in particular the period of Fico’s government, the first government to be without Hungarian representation in the coalition. Given the absence of Hungarian parties and their malcontent with the situation, all legislative changes were denounced internationally.

The long history of standard but contested policies

A rather telling example is the law on the protection of the national language, establishing the requirement of bilingualism of inscriptions on boards in communities with minorities. The target of this law was that a citizen who did not speak the minority language could understand and be understood in his country’s territory. In line with European standards, it was nonetheless denounced as a threat to minorities, an interpretation refuted by the Venetian Commission.

But let us remember the case concerning the law of Viktor Orbán on dual citizenship, unprecedented in the history of international law. The acquisition of citizenship on ethnic criteria on the basis of "ancestors" should ring an alarm considering the history of the region. The reaction of Bratislava, which has amended its Citizenship Act, since then unique, is reproached by Hungarians, while it is similar to laws in other European countries in this field. In light of this recent history, the silence of our Hungarian neighbours clearly demonstrates that this pseudo affair of the vice-president post is unimportant.

A logistical change that improves the protection of minority rights

The decision to rethink the post of the Government vice-president responsible for human rights and national minorities is due to current circumstances. Issues such as the economic crisis and the euro zone crisis or the unemployment-rate that is at 13.7% are on the order of the day. Thus, the position is now "substituted" by a Government vice-president for economy and finance. His role will include in particular the coordination of large investment projects that form the basis of Fico’s recovery program. When it comes to priorities, the Slovak Prime Minister cannot be more in agreement with the new French President Hollande.

However, the question of minority rights has not been marginalized. First of all, the agenda of this post will be fully preserved and thus the measure will not in any way harm minority rights. It is true that this agenda is now divided: culture and minority languages ​​belong to the Ministry of Culture, the protection of Slovak minorities to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Isn’t such an insertion within the ministries the best testimony of the desire for greater integration? Let us add to this the creation of the post of the Special Prosecutor for minority rights. The latter will only deal with the issue of the treatment of minorities: thus they get an official who is entirely dedicated to them. This is further strengthened by the fact that Fico intends to offer this post to the opposition, even to the Hungarian party of the Parliament. Placing himself voluntarily under such a control is an unprecedented move, insofar as the former deputy prime minister would necessarily have been a member of the socialist majority. Thus, Slovakia pays particular attention to the protection of minority rights. Indeed, no European country has ever devoted an entire ministry to this topic.

In addition, it should be noted that the creation of such a ministry would be contrary to the objective set by the SMER (currently in power), which is to greatly reduce state spending. Furthermore it is from this perspective that a merger of some ministries has been planned: Defense with Interior, Culture with Education, and Social Affairs with Health. Therefore, the substitution of the post of vice-president by the Special Prosecutor also fits into the context of a greater efficiency.

An unfounded challenge but underlying motivations

Now all that remains is to examine the matters of discontent. After the announcement of the creation of the office of the Special Prosecutor for minority rights, the number of opponents has greatly decreased. Those who remain derive mostly from non-governmental organizations accustomed to the flow of subsidies from the former vice-president. But even these adopt a moderate tone, after the guarantee that the State will continue payments. After the period of uncertainty related to the reorganization of power, the new prosecutor will now take things in charge. The field of human rights is not threatened either, given that activities of the Government Council for human rights, national minorities and parity have not been called into question.

If some political observers question the decision to replace the vice-president by the Prosecutor, it is because they see it as an intention to divide the opposition, or rather to add a new matter of dispute in an atmosphere already prone to chaos and failure. Suggesting a post of control to one oppositional party lead to the malcontent of the other ones, and contributes to the deepening of the crisis of the Slovak right wing.

Apart from purely partisan questions, experts like Pavel Kárász (economist from the Slovak Academy of Sciences) place this decision in the context of Fico’s new guidelines. Faced with the responsibility of a single-party government, he tries to implement safeguards and control mechanisms. Aware of the intense public surveillance which he is subject to, he also put the opposition in charge of management positions of Supreme Audit Office and the Office of Procurement.

Thus, Fico is careful not to override constitutional frameworks and European practices in terms of human rights and minorities. Given its exposure to national and international observers, he has no interest in leaving himself at the mercy of critics. The replacement of the vice-president by the Prosecutor is a good illustration of this trend.

This article deliberately presents only one of the many existing points of views of this contorversial subject. Its content is not necessarily representative of its author's personal opinion. Please have a look at Duel Amical's philosophy.

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