Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.
Public Awareness of Civil Society
and Human Rights after 1989

by Hana Havelková
The lack of public awareness of human rights in post-Communist countries has often been attributed to a direct Communist legacy. However, in the case of the Czech Republic, given that almost ten years have passed since the Velvet Revolution, the direct Communist legacy can no longer be the only excuse for the weak civic consciousness which exists in the country today. On the contrary, a set of new political doctrines, myths, prejudices, false loyalties and a new narrow-mindedness are to blame. These new limitations result from strong anti-Communist reactions that are part of a new post-Communist legacy, which is far less publicized than the Communist legacy.

Under Communism, the structural prerequisites for a civil society - public discourse and non-governmental organizations - were missing. The public sphere was reduced to the workplace and official government initiatives. The hundreds of groups, initiatives and clubs which existed during pre-Communist times were banned by the restriction of public assembly.

In terms of human rights, the situation was more complex. The Communist states were usually among the first to ratify conventions concerning social and economic rights, or group-specific conventions such as the CEDAW (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women). They not only ratified them, but also followed them, for example with respect to the right to employment and housing. However, given that citizens were deprived of their basic civil and political rights, these social and economic rights were applied without public input. Correspondingly, no nongovernmental organizations advocating these rights emerged and the only NGOs which did exist under socialism were those concerned exclusively with basic civil and political rights, such as Charter 77 and the Jazz Section. What resulted was a kind of silent social contract between the state and those it provided with paternalist protection.

This has lead to a hierarchical, "two-tiered" perception of human rights in which some rights are considered to be more legitimate than others: there is a preference for civil and political rights over social and economic ones. In the post-1989 political rhetoric, civil and political rights have been emphasized and social and economic rights have been branded "inflated." It is telling that the Czech Parliament has yet to approve the EU Social Charter.

Moreover, Czech governments have been very careful to keep the earlier social agreement alive. The generous social policy inherited from Communism has continued to be silently practiced. Under these circumstances, very few citizens find themselves in a state of need, and with the hesitant pace of economic transformation, problems such as unemployment have been postponed as well. As a result, the basic transformation of citizens from passive recipients of state provisions into active social agents has been very slow.

Neglect and indifference

In the Czech Republic there is a wide-spread belief that all society needs to do to form a functioning democratic society is to create the basic institutions of the legal state, build a standard party system and add a bill of rights to the constitution. This oversimplified scheme, this automatism, was clearly followed by the Klaus governments.

The governments under Premier Václav Klaus, repeatedly rejected the establishment of unique institutions, specifically designed to foster the assertion of human rights, such as the implementation of an ombudsperson. Such additional posts were seen as superfluous, and a serious discussion on the matter has yet to be revived. Poland and Hungary are both much further ahead in this area: Poland introduced the position of ombudsperson soon after 1989 and Hungary currently has four such posts.

Neglect of human rights institutions went further. The importance of human rights education has been downgraded, as demonstrated by the government's elimination of the UNESCO-affiliated European Center for Human Rights Education in Prague, at the end of 1992. This pattern of neglect is also vividly apparent in the new law on NGOs, which took effect on 1 January 1998. This law imposes a myriad of complex bureaucratic procedures that unnecessarily complicate the registration procedure, especially for smaller interest groups.

Nevertheless, such government policies did not provoke much opposition among the general public or among the very supporters of a civil society and human rights, such as Václav Havel, who saw no need for a Czech Helsinki Committee after 1989, since "democracy" had descended on the land. It seems that the public more or less shared the government's attitude of automatism. Very few needs or social interests have been publicly expressed "from below." The oversimplified vision of automatism has prevented Czech citizens from publicly recognizing and asserting their rights, such as the loudly celebrated but rarely practiced right of public assembly.

Czechs have, for the most part, refrained from gathering, both in the form of regular meetings and occasional, organized demonstrations. The very idea of civil disobedience has been frequently denounced as indecent and egoistic. An uncritical political loyalty to the new "democratic" regime is expected not only by the government, but also by the citizens themselves. Ironically, this means that in the proclaimed "free" society, social consensus is strongly advocated, while the right to social "dissent" seems to be less acknowledged than before.

A turning point for this post-Velvet Revolution political habit was the Global Street Party, organized in May 1998. This was the first major demonstration since 1989, and the global and generational aspects of this expression of social dissent brought new dimensions to the public's understanding of politics. Not only has that event been misunderstood by the police and politicians, but it has even been denounced by the representative of the so-called Civic Institute (Obèanský institut) Roman Joch, who referred to the demonstrators as "the mob" and "the mad young people."

The civic principle

Another form of automatism can be identified in the belief that abstract and broadly articulated equal individual rights are sufficient: this is the ill-defined "civic principle" based on an overemphasis of individual rights. It rests on an unawareness of historically, socially and culturally constructed barriers and glass ceilings. The individualistic civic principle has completely ignored the notion that, given certain group-based inequalities, there are some individual rights that can only be articulated and asserted through a group. It has devalued the idea of group interests, claiming they are politically irrelevant, or again "egoistic." For some time, such arguments were used against nascent lobby groups concerned with the rights of Roma, women, children, doctors and teachers.

Resistance to the concept of group-based human rights also exists among high-profile human rights activists and former dissidents. The Czech Helsinki Committee, for example, only published its first report on women's rights in 1997. Even the newly emerging non-governmental organizations practice a certain amount of self-censorship and self-limitation. Jiøina Šiklová, the co-founder of the Gender Studies Center in Prague, appeased a television audience by saying that gender issues should not be stressed too much, for it would only add to the social tension. In other words, when citizens have formed groups or initiatives, their interest has been perceived, both by the general public and by themselves, to be only semi-public, and semi-legitimate.

In the West, the ability to recognize de facto mechanisms of group-based social barriers that prevent the universal applicability of human rights developed over a relatively long time. This development was prompted by the social movements of the 1960s which brought about new structures of civil society based around what sociologist Anthony Giddens calls "life politics," rather than mere "emancipatory politics." Through this development, the concept of discrimination acquired a new content, which included indirect, structural or symbolic (that is, not open or legally codified) forms of discrimination. Correspondingly, a new language was generated which recognized these forms: ageism, sexism, homophobia, political incorrectness.

This experience is historically absent in Central and Eastern Europe and hence this wider concept of discrimination is often denounced as another import from the West which does not correspond to "our" experience. As a result, the concept of discrimination, and its presentation in the Czech media, remains locked in 19th-century imagery. This outdated understanding also permeates the legal code, which although not discriminatory itself, fails to explicitly define discrimination. It has only been very recently that public consciousness has slowly begun to acknowledge that additional, explicitly anti-discriminatory laws have to be adopted in order to prevent de facto discrimination.

The public discourse

Apart from the historical perspective, the structural inadequacies of Czech civil society today have to do predominantly with the concept of "the public" as such. The concept of civil society has been reduced and lacks the public dimension that has been so crucial in the Western tradition.

The structures of civil society that came into existence after the collapse of Communism tended to remain on the level of free association, without becoming really public, in the sense of actively representing common concerns and working to affect state policy. We can again look to the example of post-Communist initiatives of women's groups, which did not allow themselves to make concrete women's issues into public or even political issues, but hid them behind apolitical claims of "morality" or "humanity." As a result, an empty space remains between official political structures, such as political parties and state institutions, and civic groups, which are only semi-public.

The crucial role of the media in bridging and reducing this gap has only gradually been recognized. Journalists have tended to ridicule civic initiatives in the name of the civic principle, and have often simply mediated the views of politicians. Little information has been reported about the existence of highly-structured, non-governmental organizations in pre-Communist times, although it is precisely such an example which could dispel the false notion that group-based civil, public and political activities are simply something imported from the West, which contradicts the Czech tradition.

Often the media fail to recognize human rights issues and unintentionally ghettoize them. For example, a story in the weekly Týden about the right of hearing-impaired children to receive education in sign-language was presented not in terms of the human right to education but under the heading "social care." The adoption of new legislation concerning relevant public issues, such as family law, child protection or the registered cohabitation of homosexuals, is almost never accompanied by public discussion in the press. Communication between journalists and legal experts and social scientists has been severely lacking.


Although over the past two years there have been some gradual changes in approaches to human rights, in particular minority issues, on the side of the media and civil organizations, the development of civil society in the Czech Republic after 1989 has been slowed down both in terms of public discourse and in terms of the articulation and defense of particular interests. The articulation of less ideologically bound civic issues has suffered under a two-tiered view in which some issues are seen as more basic or "historical," and others as "luxury" - not noble enough to receive public or political status. This restricted interpretation of human rights has prevented the broader assertion and recognition of these rights, and unless it is expanded will continue to pose a major obstacle to the spread of plurality and the appreciation of plurality as a value within Czech society.

The author, Hana Havelková, is a professor of political philosophy and sociology at the Institute of Humanities at Charles University in Prague, the Deputy Chairwoman of the Czech Helsinki Committee and a member of the Board of Directors of the International Association of Women Philosophers. This article is an abbreviated version of a speech given at the Prague International Conference on Human Rights '98, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Copyright (c) 1999 by The New Presence magazine.
Originally printed in January 1999 and reproduced by the Patrin Web Journal with permission.
Posted 22 February 1999.

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