AN ALLERGIC reaction to regular reports that monitor respect for human rights or the state of societies is simply in the nature of governments. Their responses to criticism rarely exhibit much inventiveness.
The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, reacted to the annual Human Rights Report on his country by the US Department of State by suggesting that the United States should first clean up its own backyard and only then start criticising other countries.
It would be a fair guess to say that this is probably the response of most governments fingered in these reports.
Governments also frequently insinuate that the authors either misunderstood the situation, misinterpreted the facts provided to them, did not have enough information or simply used the wrong sources.
Even when grumbling governments say they do not consider the reports relevant, the efforts they make to broadcast their reactions and the way they season them with words like lies, cynicism, or self-righteousness suggests that they still have the power to unsettle.
Fortunately, the reports keep emerging, giving governments pause for at least some self-reflection and enforcing the feeling that the things politicians do or say do not just sink into oblivion, but are being recorded somewhere and will be inscribed permanently as a gloomy record of failure or a refreshing comment on improvement.
In a short space of time Slovakia has been the subject of two reports monitoring the state of Slovak society. Both served to remind the government of Robert Fico of some of the less flattering aspects of society here.
“Social discrimination and unprovoked violence against Roma and other minorities” was a continuing problem, according to the US State Department report, which also highlighted extensive discrimination against the Roma in employment, housing, education, health services, and loan practices. Yet these words are nothing new to anyone who each year takes the time to at least scan the regular reports on Slovakia. Sad to say, these words are likely to occur in the next year’s report as well.
This year it is likely that such comments and many other parts of this report or any other report will be overshadowed by the gigantic economic challenge and the government’s effort to keep the economy above water.
But perhaps the main purpose this report might fulfil within Slovakia is to remind us that in the blinding light of economic concerns and challenges there will still be groups of people who - in addition of being affected by the downturn - might also be tackling problems that have always been around and lurking beneath the surface of our progress.
One does not have to travel very far to see how vulnerable some groups might be.
“With Hungary in the depths of economic despair, its Roma minority has become an easy target for many people’s resentments,” reads a recent Spiegel Online International press release suggesting that “a series of violent crimes in Hungary have targeted Roma in recent months, including fire bombings of Roma homes.”
The Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), a leading think-tank in Slovakia, has also released its regular report on the state of the society, which reminds readers of some worrying trends, which have perhaps been around for some time but are unlikely to be cured any time soon.
IVO found that in 2008 the ruling coalition strengthened the influence of the state over the country’s economy, regulatory bodies and public life, while party cronyism grew. Parliament openly exercised the tyranny of the majority, the report said, according to the SITA newswire.
The IVO report also pointed at the ruling coalition’s deepening confrontation with the opposition, the media and non-governmental institutions.
The ruling coalition also adopted laws that drew criticism both home and abroad. Some of those laws strengthened the position of the state and secured deals for people close to the ruling coalition.
Despite the growing corruption, which citizens view as the fourth most serious problem in society, Smer, the party led by Prime Minister Robert Fico, has seen its support grow, the report noted.
And the reaction of the ruling coalition, when it bothers to respond at all tends to be predictable, normally containing reference to biased sources, incorrect data, ill-will towards the government, and so on.
Where such a report scores is in reminding the public that in what is currently being portrayed as a heroic fight by the government to preserve people’s jobs and grease the wheels of the economy, those heroic ministers are from the same parties which have inspired IVO to come to the conclusions it has. It also reinforces the point that citizens should continue scrutinising carefully what kind of decisions are being made in their name, and what impact these decisions will have on society - perhaps with an eye to next year’s global report.