NEWS - Archive December 2009



By Martin Ehl
Many new EU members are gearing up for bruising political battles in 2010, and hoping the strife doesn’t spread to the streets.

23/12/2009-  For the Visegrad Four, as well as the Baltic states, 2010 will be a year of many elections, and these will provide a platform for the nationalists to excel, especially on both banks of the Danube. Unemployment will grow, and in the midst of the continuing economic crisis this will play to the populists. And Estonia will prepare for the adoption of the euro. With only a little hyperbole, one could say that 2010 will be the most important year since the regime change of 1989 for post-communist Central Europe and the Baltics. A wave of nationalism and populism is in store thanks to the economic crisis and a series of elections. It is only a question of how strong that wave will be. The impact of the economic crisis will test the much-proclaimed solidarity of the European Union and show whether having the European common currency is really an advantage. Following the elections of 2005 and 2006, when nationalists and populists won or at least entered government in many countries, experts warned that after joining the EU and NATO the post-communist countries had lost their motivation to reform, to build democratic institutions, and to fight nepotism and corruption. In these analysts’ judgment, voters have sunk into disillusionment, suffering from a hangover from freedom and the free market, and now see no goal or objective in front of them. But the economies still grew annually by as much as 6 percent and unemployment reached record lows. However, instead of seizing the opportunity to implement structural reforms, most countries preferred political squabbles and instability. State budgets, even in such a situation, increased their already high indebtedness. It’s true that last year Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk attempted pension reform. But he met strong resistance and withdrew at the first symptoms of the credit crisis. Only the Estonians managed to set aside the equivalent of 10 percent of GDP in a special fund – a nice cushion now. But not even they will avoid drastic budget cuts.

Who's coming next?
We’re going to see 2006 all over again, but this time in a much worse economic situation. Yes, the crisis will begin to dissipate, but its impact on normal people will peak in 2010. Next year will see populism rampant in Central Europe. Simple promises for solving complicated economic problems will be heard everywhere, especially in Hungary and Latvia, the countries worst hit. The populists may even help preserve the center-right coalition in Lithuania, where parliamentarians have been leaving the main governing party. The Poles will be electing a president, and this will block the liberal government of Donald Tusk, the favorite for the presidency, from undertaking any resolute steps such as public finance reform. Polish politics won’t avoid the populist wave, and the same goes for the Czech Republic, where political rhetoric will concentrate on the fight around iconic policies such as obligatory medical fees. Unemployment, already above 20 percent in Latvia, will keep rising everywhere. People will make clear to politicians how they are suffering from the recession – whether at the voting booth or at protest rallies. The pressure “from the street” will be fertile ground not only for populism but also for nationalism. In some cases, suspicion of foreigners or domestic “foreign” elements, especially the Roma, is on the rise. It’s worth paying attention, for instance, to the growing opposition to immigration in the Czech Republic. New evidence for this is found in a global survey by the American Pew Research Center. Nationalism will drive election campaigns mainly in Slovakia and Hungary. In Hungary, the openly xenophobic Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) will enter parliament, mostly likely as the third-strongest party, inciting a reaction not only in Slovakia but also in Romania, with its large Hungarian minority. In Slovakia, Prime Minister Robert Fico will try to lure away the nationalist voters of Jan Slota’s Slovak National Party. Since the Hungarian elections will take place a month or two before those in Slovakia, it can’t be excluded that the Slovak nationalists will do well in reaction to Jobbik’s success.

What do you really think about Brussels?
The third theme for the Central Europeans will be their relationship to the EU. It won’t be about enlargement and various agreements but feelings, character, and long-term prospects. The economic and political crisis will test how Central Europeans understand the notion of European solidarity and how Brussels and the old members understand it. Opinion polls have signaled that especially in the countries hit hard by the recession, ardor toward the EU has cooled. And the case of Greece, which the eurozone tolerates with its huge debts and “creative” budgets, evokes real doubts from the new members about whether Brussels views them as equal partners.

Czech Republic: Too long a wait
Voters are still awaiting a final solution to the political stalemate, just as they are also anxiously expecting that the economy will begin to recover. And they’re wondering if the spring parliamentary elections will really bring a solution, or, as is far from impossible, they will again end in a dead heat between left- and center-right forces, like the last ones in 2006. It is also expected that if the Social Democrats form the next government, the Czech Communists, the only unreformed party of its type in Central Europe, will take part in some way – another sign of the overall regional trend of growing extremism. The economy next year will likely be “a positive zero,” in terms of growth, which will deepen the country’s indebtedness.

Poland: No more excuses, time for action?
The Poles’ worst bogeyman, unemployment, will get worse even though the economy will be the region’s best performer and businesses feel renewed confidence. The government’s scheme to patch holes in the budget with profits from privatization won’t live up to expectations, but exports, revived domestic consumption, and stadiums and other construction projects for the 2012 European football championships will tow the economy. In politics, everything will be subordinate to the fall battle for the presidency. Tusk currently has no equal competitors, but, with a direct election coming up, his government will hesitate to take any reform-minded (that is, unpopular) steps. The unions will use that to apply greater pressure. Once Tusk wins the election, he’ll have no further excuse to postpone reform (until now a conservative president has vetoed some of his laws).

Slovakia: Promises and Hungary
More likely than a parliamentary majority for Fico’s social-democratic Smer party will be another coalition government after the elections, with one possible partner being Vladimir Meciar. Fico and his ministers act confident when they speak of the budget, but independent experts warn of the many black holes that might lurk there. And as elections approach they are more likely to spend than skimp. The markedly divided political right is focused more on internal duels, so it’s hard to predict which parties will enter the next parliament: the Christian Democrats have a chance, as does the new liberal party, Freedom and Solidarity. Domestic nationalists will be keenly watching to see if one of the two parties representing the Hungarian minority will seat deputies in the new parliament: if not, a further rise in Slovak-Hungarian tensions is likely.

Hungary: Waiting for the right-wing revolution
Hungarians are hoping that elections, probably in April, will finally break the interminable political stalemate of past years. The center-left parties that support Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai’s government don’t have much support. Right-wing Fidesz is breaking popularity records, but its economic policies are shrouded in fog. Fidesz might even win enough seats to be able to introduce constitutional changes and thus change the rules of the political game in play since 1989. The vote-winning ability of Jobbik, and whether the extremist party will join a Fidesz-led coalition, are the big questions. Playing into the extremists’ hands are the high level of political dissatisfaction, as polls show; among EU citizens Hungarians voice the lowest level of support for union membership. Governments across the region are absorbed in crisis management and have little excess capacity to care for the generation of those who were too young to remember the old regimes and are now entering their active working lives. Or at least are trying; graduating students especially will find out how scarce jobs are. At the same time these political neophytes are being exposed to politicians’ easy promises and enticements. In a pattern like that we’ve seen with young Greeks over the past few years, many of these young people may slide into disillusionment over a cloudy future.

Martin Ehl is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared.
Transitions Online



18/11/2009- Why did the Nazis hate the Jews? Why did the Tutsi hate the Hutu? Hate is everywhere, but the fundamental question of why one person can hate another has never been adequately studied, contends Jim Mohr of Gonzaga University, who is developing a new academic field of hate studies. The goal is to explain a condition that has plagued humanity since one caveman looked askance at another. "What makes hate tick?" Mohr, director of Gonzaga's Institute for Action Against Hate, wondered. "How can we stop it?" Gonzaga founded the institute a decade ago after some black law students received threatening letters. It has since started a Journal of Hate Studies, hosted a conference and offered its first class on hatred last spring. The hope is that other universities will follow suit, said Ken Stern of the American Jewish Committee in New York, who has been involved in the effort. "We wanted to approach hate more intelligently," he said. Stern, who has spent 20 years battling anti-Semitism, said the need for hate studies became obvious when people started fighting groups like the Aryan Nations, which once flourished in this area. Opponents galvanized against the Aryans, but didn't really know how best to fight them, Stern said. "We were flying by the seat of our pants," he said. "There was no testable theory." There is not even a good definition of hate, Stern contends.

Philosophers have offered numerous definitions: Rene Descartes said hate was the urge to withdraw from something that is thought bad. Aristotle saw hate as the incurable desire to annihilate an object. In psychology, Sigmund Freud defined hate as an ego state that wishes to destroy the source of its unhappiness. Gonzaga, a Jesuit university best known for its basketball team, offered a class on the subject taught by five professors from different disciplines. Student Kayla De Los Reyes was in that class, and said the information both horrified her and gave her hope. "Hate is something that is part of the human emotional makeup," she said. "Everyone feels it at one point or another. You have to learn to control it." The goal is to create an academic home where a variety of disciplines, including history, psychology, religious studies, anthropology and political science, can be brought together to focus on hate. It's the same sort of effort that led to the creation of disciplines like black studies or women's studies, Mohr said. Such academic efforts are not without controversy. Some skeptics fear they are little more than attacks on the dominant power structure. "This stuff tends to be one dimensional and presumes the guilt of an archetypal white male," said Glenn Ricketts, spokesman for the National Association of Scholars.

Indeed, De Los Reyes said one of the more interesting topics in the class involved white privilege. The most recent Journal of Hate Studies contained articles about oppression of gays, Nazi experiments on Jews, the local battle against Aryan Nations, and Muslim support for suicide bombings. Heather Veeder, a graduate assistant for the institute, said the organization has an important mission. "Hate thrives in areas not illuminated by education," she said. But Stern said it is too easy to blame ignorance for hate. People can have plenty of knowledge about something and still hate it, he said. The problem is when one person or group can separate another person or group from their humanity, thinking of them as an "other," Stern said. "We dehumanize them and justify violence against them," Stern said. There is no simple answer to why people hate, Mohr said. Hate can be sparked by greed, or fear, or a tribe bonding together in opposition to another. People looking to belong will hate others to fit into a group, he said. With all the political conflict in the United States, it can seem that hate is on the rise. Some people seem to hate President Obama. Some hate Muslims. Some hate homosexuals. But Mohr said he wouldn't pursue a field of hate studies if he didn't think something positive could be achieved. "We can change," Mohr said. "There has to be hope."
The Associated Press



18/11/2009- Victims of racism in Australia are at increased risk of depression and anxiety and have higher rates of heart disease and alcohol abuse, a new study reveals. While most Australians are accepting of diversity, as many as 30 per cent believe that some groups don't belong, says a report examining discrimination within Victoria. The report, released on Wednesday, says victims of race-based discrimination are two to three times more likely to suffer from mental health issues. Victims encounter discrimination within the workplace, in schools and even at the footy. Dr Yin Paradies, the author of the Building On Our Strengths report, said racism can also lead to high levels of stress, which has links to heart disease and obesity. "We're not saying Australia is the most racist country," he told reporters on Wednesday, explaining that there has been positive progress on the issue. "We're saying this is a problem that everyone has to deal with and let's do some more to keep addressing the issue." About two million Australians will become victims of discrimination in their lifetime, he added. The economic impact is substantial because racism leads to workplaces suffering higher levels of absenteeism, a lower office morale and higher staff turnover as victims internalise their negative experiences.

State and federal government are then burdened with the added healthcare and social services costs of repairing the damage from racist attacks. The study did not quantify the exact financial cost and concluded there was no magic bullet to reduce race-based discrimination. Instead, a broad framework needs to be adopted to target where deeply held stereotypes pop up across the country, said the report, commissioned by Victoria's health promotion foundation and compiled by the University of Melbourne. The framework urges for organisations - schools, businesses, government, sports teams - to be held more accountable, for more contact between different racial and ethnic groups, and for more anti-discrimination policies within local governments and sports clubs. Attorney-General Rob Hulls said discrimination was not always "an obvious intruder" but the government had been working hard on equal opportunity laws, including a sentencing amendment before parliament that will give judges more sentencing discretion for racially-motivated crimes.
The Brisbane Times



13/11/2009- Most children are aware of racism and know the stereotypes other people hold about certain groups by age nine, according to a new study that belies the idea of innocent, colour-blind childhood. "Around the second or third grade, you see a majority of kids understanding that people have stereotypes," says Clark McKown, associate executive director of the Rush NeuroBehavioral Center at Rush University in Chicago. "I think that would be surprising to many people, that by second or third grade a lot of kids get it, they get that there's racism in the world and they understand what it is." The study wasn't examining children's own prejudices, but rather their "stereotype-consciousness" or awareness of other people's views.

The researchers told 124 children ages five to 11 a story about a place called Kidland where Green and Blue people live and Greens think Blues aren't very smart. The children were asked who they thought a Green child would pick to be their study buddy or spelling team member and why, then asked how Kidland is like the real world, and their answers were examined to determine their awareness of prejudice. The older the children were, the more likely they were to understand stereotypes, the researchers found. And by Grade 5, almost all of them understood racism and could explain how the bias against Blues in Kidland related to the real world.

What's more, the researchers found that once children understand racism, it affects their achievement. When black and Latino children were given a memory task and told it would measure their abilities, they did more poorly on it than others who were told it was simply a problem-solving exercise, which McKown says is the result of fear that they would live down to stereotypes about the lesser academic abilities of their race. Ayman Al-Yassini, executive director of Canadian Race Relations Foundation, says the findings closely mirror those of other studies in which students were divided up by arbitrary criteria, such as their height or eye colour, and then treated differently.
Canwest News Service



23/11/2009- The caste system originates from the Hindu creation beliefs that the first man split himself to form four castes from different parts of his body. The main castes - Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras - are determined by birth and may influence a person's status and occupation. Outside this system, the Dalits are descendents of feudal-era outcastes. Within the Dalit "caste" there are around 45 sub-castes, further complicating status and boundaries. While the caste system originates in Hindu scriptures, there are an unknown number of Christian Dalits in Bangladesh, and the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) claims the practice of discriminating against Dalits has also been adopted by the country's Muslim majority. Many lower-caste Sikhs - whose religion was borne of a rejection of caste hierarchies - also suffer oppression. Caste discrimination extends beyond south Asia. CasteWatchUK claims the system still has a powerful influence over the lives of millions of Britons of south-Asian origin. After extensive research, two special rapporteurs of the Human Rights Council have drawn up the first UN framework for the "effective elimination of discrimination based on work and descent". Bangladesh Dalit Human Rights and the IDSN are now pushing for the government of Bangladesh to use the framework to address the country's caste discrimination crisis.
The Guardian



A new documentary charts the careers of a legal triumvirate who emerged during Berlin’s protest movement

23/11/2009- In February 2002, Germany’s then interior minister, Otto Schily, went to the country’s highest court seeking to ban the neo-Nazi NPD party. Facing him across the wood-panelled chamber was NPD legal counsel Horst Mahler. Some 30 years earlier, Schily and Mahler were on the same side, friends and allies who, together with colleague Hans-Christian Ströbele, were the legal brains behind Germany’s 1968 student revolution. A compelling new documentary, Die Anwälte (The Lawyers) , reflects on this triumvirate that emerged in West Berlin in the late 1960s, then, as elsewhere in Europe, in the grip of the student protest movement. In Germany, widespread anger at the Vietnam War was aggravated further by the unresolved guilt of their parents’ generation, viewed by students as an unreconstructed bloc of Nazi-era perpetrators.

The bespectacled, burly lawyer Horst Mahler rose to prominence in June 1967 after attending the postmortem of Benno Ohnesorg, a student shot in the back of the head by a police officer at a West Berlin riot. The killing had a radicalising effect on the German protest movement and gave rise to the extreme-left splinter group, the Red Army Faction (RAF). In the early 1970s, the RAF launched a “six against 60 million” guerrilla campaign of bombings and kidnappings. West Germany, the RAF felt, was a morally bankrupt state controlled by ageing Nazis, military-industrial lobbyists and the Vietnam War-tainted US. So convinced was Mahler by the RAF’s mission that he joined up and went underground. Eventually arrested, he was put on trial and defended by two colleagues from West Berlin’s Socialist Lawyers’ Collective, Hans-Christian Ströbele and Otto Schily. At the time, Schily was a rising star who had led a prosecution case against the policeman who shot Ohnesorg.

When Mahler went to prison, Ströbele and Schily went on to defend the captured RAF ringleaders Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin in the notorious “Stammheim trials”. The two lawyers worked inside a political pressure cooker, battling the trial judges and the Bonn authorities who bugged their consultations with clients. They battled, too, in the court of public opinion, where they were dubbed terrorists for defending the RAF. Schily and Ströbele hit back with a provocative argument: that the conservative West German state, in its dogged pursuit of the RAF, had bent the law and gambled away its moral authority to become the very proto-fascist monster the 1968 student generation had feared was rising. “I place great store on the rule of law,” shouts Schily to the trial judge in one Stammheim audio tape, “and when one permits breaches of the rule of law, it will end in catastrophe.” They were removed from the trial before it ended in 1977 with the apparent suicide of RAF leaders in circumstances Schily and Ströbele still doubt. The two went on to become leading members of the Green Party, still Ströbele’s political home. Aged 70, the directly elected MP is a familiar and popular figure cycling around his Berlin Kreuzberg constituency. Schily, today 77, switched to the Social Democrats in 1989 and served as Gerhard Schröder’s federal interior minister for seven years.

After September 11th, 2001, for the second time in his career, Schily became a deeply divisive character, pushing through anti-terrorism and electronic surveillance legislation some said was as heavy-handed as the anti-terrorism laws Schily so detested in the RAF era. Schily says he sees no rupture with his own past, but the filmmakers appear to disagree, showing images of a smiling Schily as interior minister trying on police riot gear and waving a baton for television cameras. Images of 1968 protesters – including Schily – being dragged away by police sit uncomfortably with contemporary footage of police, on Schily’s watch as interior minister, battling anti-globalisation protesters and seizing computers from left-wing groups. “I try to avoid direct personal conflict with [Schily],” says Ströbele, “but I have the distinct impression that terrorism was being used as a cover to push through many old ambitions of the state. Things have come full circle from the RAF time.” Mahler has come full circle, too: behind bars again, no longer as a left-wing radical but as an NPD member and convicted Holocaust denier. Like Schily, Mahler sees no radical shift in his own views, just what he calls a “political progression”. Then he recalls reading in prison in the 1970s the collected works of Hegel presented to him by Schily. “Hegel says that what doesn’t lead to contradiction is untrue,” says Mahler. “It is contradiction that is a sign of truth.”

It’s an interesting final point of consideration for these three former friends and allies from 1968: in a changing world, Ströbele appears to have remained constant, Schily has changed radically, while the third, Mahler, has gone off the chart.
The Irish Times



How the Nazis Stole Christmas

13/11/2009- Swastika Christmas tree ornaments, "Germanic" cookies and made-up traditions: A new exhibition highlights how the Nazis tried to take Christ out of Christmas. But their attempts to hijack a festival that began with the birth of a Jewish child weren't entirely successful. It all started innocently enough. Back in the mid-1970s, Rita Breuer began collecting old German Christmas ornaments after her husband expressed the desire for a good old-fashioned Christmas tree like his grandmother used to have. Breuer, who hails from the small town of Olpe, 60 kilometers from Cologne, scoured flea markets and raided friends' attics in the search for baubles and came to accumulate quite a collection which included not only tree ornaments, but also Advent calendars, cribs and Christmas cards. But then something strange happened. Breuer, who was now being helped in her quest by her daughter Judith, came across more and more objects that didn't fit with the usual peaceful image of Christmas, such as World War I-era miniature soldiers, bombs and hand grenades designed to hang on the tree. The Breuers started to get interested in how Christmas had been abused for propaganda purposes over the years, most blatantly by the Nazis. Their hobby turned into a full-fledged amateur research project. Now, more than 30 years after Rita Breuer first began collecting Christmas knickknacks, selected objects from the family collection have gone on show at the National Socialism Documentation Center in Cologne. The exhibition, which looks at the history of Christmas and propaganda from the 19th century until the present day, focuses on how the Nazis misused Christmas for their own foul purposes and tried to turn it into a "Germanic" winter solstice festival.

"Christmas was a provocation for the Nazis -- after all, the baby Jesus was a Jewish child," Judith Breuer, who helped prepare the exhibition and co-authored the accompanying book with her mother, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The most important celebration in the year didn't fit with their racist beliefs so they had to react, by trying to make it less Christian." The exhibition, which includes such peculiar objects from the Breuers' massive collection as swastika-shaped cookie-cutters and Christmas tree baubles emblazoned with the Nazi symbol, shows the bizarre ways the Nazis came up with to try to take the Christ out of Christmas. They tried to persuade housewives to bake cookies in the shape of a sun wheel, a form similar to the swastika, and they attempted to replace the Christian figure of Saint Nicholas, who traditionally brings German children treats on Dec. 6, with the figure of Odin, the Norse god. One symbol posed a particular problem for the Nazis, namely the star, which traditionally decorates Christmas trees. "Either it was a six-pointed star, which was a symbol of the Jews, or it was a five-pointed star, which represented the Soviets," Breuer says. Either way, the star had to go.

The Changing Face of Christmas
The exhibition also details how the Nazi approach to Christmas changed over the years. In the 1930s, their efforts were aimed mainly at changing the ideology of Christmas, Breuer explains. But when World War II started, the focus became more practical. The state encouraged those at home to send Christmas cards to the soldiers at the front and gave tips on how to make Christmas cookies in the face of food shortages. Then in 1944-1945, as the tide of the war turned against Germany, the Nazi apparatus tried to reinvent the festival once again as a day to commemorate the dead, in particular fallen soldiers. "By then nobody felt like celebrating," Breuer says. However Breuer points out that, despite the Nazis' best efforts, habits among the population were not so easy to change. "People largely continued with the same traditions as before," she says. But the legacy of the Nazi Christmas is more long-lasting than might be suspected. The Nazi-era version of the traditional Christmas carol "Es ist für uns eine Zeit angekommen" ("Unto us a time has come") is still sung in Germany today, for example. "The Nazis took out the references to Jesus and made it into a song about walking through the snow," Breuer says. Of course the festival of Christmas has been largely secularized in much of the world over since the start of the 20th century, but the Nazi treatment was different. This had nothing to do with commercialism or growing secularism, but was based on their racist ideology and a yearning for a mythical Germanic past. One particular sinister example of the Nazi Christmas tradition is the Julleuchter ("Yule lantern"), a kind of candlestick which can also be seen in the exhibition. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, had the supposedly "Germanic" lantern produced by inmates in the Dachau and Neuengamme concentration camps to give as a present to members of the SS. The same version of the Julleuchter that Himmler had made is still sold today in certain shops with a New Age bent as a traditional Christmas decoration. And many of the myths that the Nazis invented are still circulating. "You can still read in places about how Christmas is really an ancient Germanic festival of the winter solstice," Breuer says, pointing out that there is little evidence of any such celebration.

Keeping Quiet
One of the most surprising aspects of the Nazi hijacking of Christmas is the lack of reaction from the German churches at the time. "You would have expected them to protest loudly and insist that it was a Christian festival," says Breuer. "But instead they largely kept quiet, out of fear."
The Spiegel



21/11/2009- In the grimy corridors and cramped rooms of the municipal hostel on Ceskova Street, communist-era methods of social control are thriving. There has been no revolution here, velvet or otherwise, in the 20 years since the Czech Republic gained its freedom. Uniformed security guards control the entrance and the building is continually monitored by CCTV. All visitors must present identification and may only visit a specified family. The families here pay 6,000 crowns (£200) a month for a cramped single room for five or six people without a bath, shower or kitchen. They must ask permission for the key to use washing facilities, which costs an extra 15 crowns (50p). Children may not play in the corridor. After three warnings, the family may be evicted. This is life for the Roma in the Czech Republic and places such as this are the country’s secret shame. The story in Pardubice, a picturesque city on the Elbe, 65 miles east of Prague, is not an isolated one. Some tenants have been evicted for unpaid rent; others, say activists, have got in the way of property developers or vindictive municipal bureaucrats. Nobody at the Pardubice municipality would comment on conditions in the hostel.

This week the Czech Republic celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, although the situation of the country’s Roma belies its carefully nurtured image as a beacon of human rights. After the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993, one of the first acts of the new Czech Government was to pass a law depriving most Roma of their citizenship since they came from Slovakia. The legal wrangles still continue. The Czech Republic was the last EU member state to adopt anti-discrimination legislation; it did so in June, narrowly escaping legal proceedings from the European Commission. President Klaus had vetoed the Bill, arguing that existing legislation should be improved rather than a new framework introduced. The squalid hostels embody the institutionalised racism against the Roma and their powerlessness. The 200,000 to 300,000 Roma in the Czech Republic have a higher infant mortality rate, are more likely to be unemployed, live in extreme poverty and have a shorter life expectancy. Racist violence is on the increase. Last November hundreds of activists from the extreme-right Workers Party attacked Romas in Litvínov with stones and petrol bombs.

Racism is openly expressed, even among the educated. In May, the Czech National Party called for a “final solution” to the Gypsy issue in a television campaign for the European Union elections. The previous month a two-year-old, Natalka Sivakova, suffered 80 per cent burns after an arson attack on the family home in Vitkov, near the Polish border. About 30 per cent of Roma children are segregated and placed into special schools for the mentally handicapped, compared with 2 per cent of non- Roma children, even after a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights declared the practice illegal. A psychologist recommended that Edita Stejskalova should be sent to a special school at the age of 7. Her mother resisted, and now Ms Stejskalova is a university graduate aged 29 who runs a non-governmental organisation campaigning for equal legal rights for Roma. “Czech society is very racist,” she says. “If a Roma family lives in a block of flats the other families will often organise a petition to remove them. Non-Roma parents demand that Roma children at school are segregated, in different classes, even in different buildings. The school agrees because it wants the parents to enrol their children there.” Czech officials say that the political will exists to tackle Roma issues and that the Government is committed to equal rights. A new Agency for Social Inclusion aims to co-ordinate national policy across different ministries. However, decisions taken in Prague and Brussels often have little impact. “The Government passes good legislation but it is not implemented,” says Michael Kocáb, the Human Rights Minister.

For Josef Lakatos and his family, the Velvet Revolution ushered in a new era of poverty and racism. Although under communism the Roma were subjected to forced assimilation and resettlement and women were frequently sterilised, they were part of wider society and, like all citizens, guaranteed work, housing and income. Mr Lakatos, 48, lives with his wife, seven children, mother and another relative in a one-room flat of 33sq m (355sq ft) in a tenement on the edge of Pardubice. “It was better under communism because we had work, there was much less racism and there were no skinheads,” Mr Lakatos said. “I want to work, but when they see a Roma they say there is nothing.” Arguably, Roma traditions have magnified the difficulties of the transition to capitalism. Roma society is deeply traditional, conservative and patriarchal. Many Roma women are still pressured to marry young, have numerous children and stay at home, while some are forced into arranged marriages. In Ostravany, in neighbouring Slovakia, locals have built a wall, 150m long, to keep out their Roma neighbours after residents complained that Roma children were raiding their gardens and stealing fruit. “These new walls against Roma will be harder to tear down than the Berlin Wall,” warns Rob Kushen, the director of the European Roma Rights Centre.

History of persecution
The Roma appeared in Europe between the 13th and 15th centuries and were commonly referred to as Egyptians or Gypsies. In the 18th century scholars discovered that the Romany language was a Sanskrit dialect that originated in the Indus Valley in northern India in the 9th century. Europe’s Romany population is an estimated 4-14 million, but its members frequently remain unregistered. The Roma have frequently been persecuted in Europe; during the Holocaust, about 500,000 were killed. In recent years, the International Organisation for Migration has won compensation for survivors of about €7,000 (£6,300) each. In Britain, Roma people have a life expectancy about ten years lower than the rest of the population.
European Roma Rights Center



The West should co-opt Islam in the fight for a better environment, says Evert Faber van der Meulen (reads Islamic Studies and History (M.Phil) at Oxford University)

22/12/2009- Despite the disappointing agreement reached at the climate conference in Copenhagen, the US seems to have joined the EU in its commitment to binding carbon dioxide reduction schemes. This guarantees climate change will remain at the top of the agenda in the Western world in the coming years. In the Islamic world, however, this is not the case. Hardly any country has put climate change on the agenda at all. This is made all the more tragic because Islamic countries will face the brunt of a changing climate. Desertification is a major threat in North Africa and the Middle East, and rising sea levels are expected to have dire consequences for the worlds’ poor in countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia. The 1.2 billion Muslims of this world currently produce a relatively small amount of carbon dioxide emissions. Islamic countries are roughly responsible for ten percent of global carbon dioxide output, whilst 300 million US citizens alone produce more than 20 percent. But over the last ten years both energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions have risen by 4.5 percent annually in the Islamic world. It is only a matter of time before the carbon dioxide output of Islamic countries will become a major problem, and the sooner these countries can be involved in global climate policy, the better.

One of the lessons learnt from the Western world is that it took time before climate change moved from the scientific to the political agenda. Individuals and NGOs played an important part in this process by bringing the existing scientific evidence to the fore. But what to do in countries where freedom of speech is limited and Western-style NGOs don’t exist? We can look to the grassroots organisation that is able to reach the population at large in these countries: Islam. Born in the deserts of Arabia, where means of livelihood were scarce, early Islam already pleaded for modesty and humility, especially at a material level. Moreover, Islam sees humanity as the pinnacle of creation and therefore charged with the responsibility to safeguard this world. Islam and the climate movement also have something in common, the colour green. Green is the colour of the prophet and represents paradise, because the desert people of early Islam imagined paradise to be a fertile green oasis. Islamic ‘green’ initiatives are rare. Many Muslim countries are poor, and one cannot really blame the population that climate change is not its first priority. Of course, oil and gas are mostly found in Islamic countries, which gives them a vested interest in the non-sustainable energy mix. But equally important is that Islamic countries see climate policy as simply the next initiative produced by a Western neo-colonial mentality.

In the short term the West can do two relatively simple things. First, it should support the global Islamic initiatives that are taking place. For instance, in July of this year, the Muslim Association for Climate Change (MACCA) was founded by a number of influential Muslims, including several influential Islamic spiritual leaders. Western governments and NGOs could work together with such an organisation and supply funding and knowledge for concrete initiatives. A first initiative could involve supplying green power to all mosques worldwide, for instance. Secondly, our own European Muslim minority could fulfil an important role as mediator between the West and the Islamic world. Especially in the UK, a number of Islamic organisations is already trying to enhance ecological awareness amongst Muslims in their own country and abroad. As an example we can look at the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES). One of their most interesting projects involved the introduction of sustainable fishing methods in Zanzibar. During the 1990s, the World Wildlife Foundation had started a campaign in order to discourage local fishermen from using dynamite as their preferred method of fishing. The situation started to improve only when IFEES was asked for help in 2000. Via an Islamic educational program IFEES explained to the local populace that this fishing method was against Islamic values. As a result the population has now declared the area to be a ‘Hima’ (an Islamic reservation).

Finally, there is another reason why Islam should be involved in the debate on climate change. Generally western politicians and NGOs have terse discussions with Islamic countries on topics such as democracy, human rights and freedom of speech. Islamic leaders often interpret these discussions as veiled attempts to undermine Islamic values. However, the challenge posed by climate change is a global problem that affects both Islam and the West equally. In that sense climate change is not only a major problem, but also a golden opportunity to show that the world does have to sink into a ‘clash of civilisations’.


Switzerland's system of direct democracy has won it praise in the past, but a vote to ban minarets has led many to question the much vaunted ideal.

1/12/2009- Much of the feedback received on the vote has focused on this aspect of the Swiss political system, which means that ordinary people have the right to shape laws. But the history of direct democracy over the past 150 years is one of slow evolution and adaptation, and the result of the minaret vote has resulted in calls for change. In the opinion of many lawyers, the decision to ban minarets is a clear infringement of articles of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to which Switzerland is a signatory. The problem is that there is currently nothing to stop an initiative being submitted to a popular vote which cannot legally be implemented if it is accepted. At the moment the only grounds on which an initiative can be declared invalid before a vote is held is if it violates "peremptory norms", in other words norms which are obligatory under international law. These include such things as the prohibition of crimes against humanity, genocide, slavery and torture. The provisions of the ECHR are not regarded as peremptory norms – but Switzerland is nevertheless obliged to follow them. Two years ago Daniel Vischer, a Green Party member of the commission on political institutions of the House of Representatives, submitted a parliamentary motion to make popular initiatives invalid if they violate fundamental rights. Vischer wanted to avoid situations where voters are invited to make changes to the constitution which cannot be implemented. His proposal is currently making its way through Switzerland's complex parliamentary system.

Incompatible demands
Vischer is not the only person to be concerned about the anomaly in the law governing direct democracy. "We must find how we can prevent people from launching initiatives that directly violate internationally guaranteed human rights," Andreas Auer, professor of constitutional law at Zurich university and director of the centre for democracy in Aarau, told Such a move would not call direct democracy into question, he stressed. "We defend it to the last, and it's precisely because we defend it that we must recognise that there are some limits to it." He pointed out that popular votes at cantonal level have for years had to be compatible with federal law and with human rights requirements. The same should apply at federal level, he believes. How exactly this is to be done is something that still has to be worked out but needs to be discussed, he added. Auer thinks that the government and parliament could examine proposals that are put forward, but that they should not have the final say on whether a vote can be submitted to the people or not. "It must end up in a court. This is my conviction. These questions cannot be decided by political bodies like parliament or the government, but by judges. Human rights questions are delicate questions."

No contradiction
But for Ulrich Schlüer, member of parliament for the rightwing Swiss People's Party and a member of the committee which proposed the anti-minaret initiative, there is no contradiction between human rights and direct democracy. The opposite is true, he assured "Not only human rights, but rights and democracy are twins, in my view. Rights which come out of the decision-making process in direct democracy are the most stable and most recognised law," he said. For him, asking courts to decide on the legitimacy of popular initiatives would be the end of direct democracy. He accused the "establishment" of wanting to change the system because they had lost the vote. "But in a democracy, and a direct democracy, the people are allowed to decide the opposite of what the government wants." Bruno Kaufman, the president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, told that direct democracy had evolved. In the "pre-modern kind" the people could decide everything, he explained, but the world has changed. The current case of the minaret ban raises the question of where exactly the limits are for direct democracy, he explained. "A modern direct democracy has to consider the limits of its own powers, which all other institutions in a modern democracy also have to do."

Basic principles
Auer says that the debate now sparked about the issue is in fact a reminder of fundamental principles. "We are not pushing human rights above direct democracy," he said. "Everyone agrees they are there. The people have never had the right to violate human rights. We just want to remind those who have provoked this decision that human rights are something we must not fail to respect." Despite Schlüer's conviction that the minaret ban does not infringe the rights of Muslims, numerous legal experts expect appeals against it to be lodged with the European Court of Human Rights. That is something that Auer hopes can be avoided in the future at least. Any amendment to the current system would have to be voted on by the people – but he hopes they would accept. "It's a patriotic measure to say we want to do this at home. These are our problems, it's our direct democracy, and we should have the procedures that allow us to solve these problems before a court because there is no other solution."


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