INTOLERANCE can reveal itself in multiple forms, from controlled antipathy through hate speech to physical aggression. But sometimes expressions of intolerance appear in the guise of “personal opinion” which all individuals believe they are entitled to. Racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, and ageism are not just entries in reports about abuse of human rights, with some alarming numbers attached, but also cause widespread personal suffering even in 21st-century societies that claim to respect universal human rights, which no longer assassinate political opponents, and which do not send their citizens to gas chambers.
Economic crises in many European countries and existential uncertainties nourish some people’s drive to find someone to blame for the uncertainties, thus opening the political stage to populist but extremist parties that are not coy about pointing at those who they think should be made scapegoats. In January 2012, Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy organisation, wrote in an essay titled Europe’s Own Human Rights Crisis that the growing success of these kinds of political parties is having a “profound impact on mainstream politics”.
The majority population in multiple European countries keeps failing tolerance tests without even really noticing it: mistreatment of Roma minorities is one of the most common failings. The European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) recently published a report ranking Slovakia among the worst of eleven EU countries in educating young Roma, finding that only 20 percent of Roma under the age of 24 have graduated from secondary school in Slovakia, compared to almost 90 percent of their non-Roma peers. A report by Amnesty International stated that Roma students in some primary and secondary schools in Slovakia sit in segregated classes or in segregated school buildings.
Roma are an easy target for ultra-right-wing extremists who fan the flames among frustrated people searching for scapegoats. Perhaps one of the most prominent examples in this country is Marián Kotleba, the leader of People’s Party – Our Slovakia, who obtained title to about 800 square metres of land lying beneath a Roma community near Krásnohorské Podhradie and now says he intends to demolish the homes there, calling them “debris”. Activists seeking to protect the rights of Roma citizens quickly pointed out that it is quite dangerous when extremists like Kotleba can come up with a “solution” like this and yet meet no resolute protest from most Slovaks.
Slovaks will undergo another test of their tolerance and respect for human rights when the Rainbow Pride rally to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender (LGBT) citizens’ rights is held in Bratislava on June 9.
Eighteen ambassadors to Slovakia have publicly endorsed the event while stating that they are not asking anyone to “abandon their principles in the public debate that occurs in any democracy”. Instead they emphasise that “everyone should have the right to support their perspective without fear of retribution or reprisal”.
It is clear that building a wider level of tolerance towards the LGBT community will not be an overnight task in Slovakia and it will take some time for society here to begin to understand that minorities of any kind do not only want to be tolerated but want to exercise their human right to live a full and dignified life. Too many Slovaks still interpret tolerance to mean “we” will tolerate “them” if they stay out of sight and do not ask for more than they have now. Unfortunately, this ‘we’ and ‘they’ is not only a linguistic tool but an all too accurate description of the actual state of affairs with respect to minority rights.
Perhaps these arrogant and overly self-righteous members of the majority do not realise that one day they too could find themselves caught in the dead-end trap of discrimination. One day they might be pushed to the edge of society for being too old or for speaking a language that a waiter might consider an obscure foreign language, or discover that because of their gender they will be paid less for the same level of work responsibility.
Protection of human rights and equal rights must be extended to any member of a minority whether it is because of his or her nationality, language, race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.
11. Jun 2012 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová