INTERNATIONAL standards in human rights and treatment of minorities are not the result of an afternoon tea where a group of politicians came up with a bunch of rules. The democratic parts of the world have been shaping these standards, based on historical and sometimes bitter experience, for decades, if not centuries.
This is why talk of “non-standard methods”, when tabled as solutions to minority issues, makes human-rights watchdogs rather edgy. Ethnic groups and minorities are not a laboratory for testing “non-standard” approaches, since the results can be much graver than merely discovering that the new formula does not work.
The Roma community in Slovakia has, over recent decades, experienced it all, including extreme statements by politicians who have tried to assure the public that they are not racist but whose every utterance, calling for radical and effective solutions, has been suffused with racism. It has experienced twists in approach whenever power has changed hands.
Roma have also experienced years of ignorance about the real state of their communities, covered by a colourful tapestry of justifications and cultural programmes to fake interest in their lives.
Every new administration has claimed to know exactly how deep is the rabbit hole of poverty, despair and discrimination in which many Slovak Roma live. As is often the case, most of them turned out to have no idea – or, if they did, they tended to blame the communists for spoiling the system and claimed that it would take time to fix it.
Slovakia’s old-new Prime Minister Robert Fico, during a lecture on human rights, said that Slovakia is unable to solve its Roma problem without achieving certain compromises as far as the scale of human rights is concerned. He told students that with standard methods the problem cannot be solved, but that Slovakia cannot adopt non-standard methods, the SITA newswire reported. Fico even disclosed that enquiries had been made into what sort of response non-standard methods might provoke in Europe.
“They told us: do it as a small country and at that moment you are on the black list of EU countries,” Fico said, as quoted by SITA.
When a prime minister uses such an argument as the main reason why his country should exercise care when deciding how to treat its own citizens, then it is time to worry.
The Smer boss told students that Slovakia is nurturing a third generation of people who have become used to life without work and dependent on income from social benefits, SITA reported.
Among the solutions Smer has been toying with are boarding schools for Roma kids “so that they see that they can live in a different way” or giving Roma food rather than cash benefits.
These “non-standard” methods might include limiting benefits to three children per family only.
According to the Sme daily, state support could also be limited to Roma who do not commit offences. But would this rule be applied to all benefit recipients, or just Roma?
Boarding schools for Roma kids is not a recent invention of Fico’s experts, but such schemes carry risks. Experts warn that tearing children away from their families will not necessarily benefit the community and could prove to hold hidden dangers.
Revealingly, Fico will not appoint a deputy for human rights and minorities. Given the performance of Dušan Čaplovič in this post during Fico’s first government, the status of minorities is not likely to suffer much as a result of his absence or that of someone like him. But it sends a strong message that the agenda is not important enough in Fico’s eyes to warrant appointing a high government official to oversee it, and that it is okay to disperse responsibilities for it among several departments.
While human and minority rights are typically at the core of left-wing agendas elsewhere, in Slovakia these do not necessarily sit well with Smer supporters.
Let’s hope that the new government refrains from treating groups of its own citizens as a test-bed for “non-standard” methods of problem-solving, but instead thoroughly examines the existing methods and, most importantly, entrusts their application to people who understand the community and its problems.