NGOs pan human rights strategy

FOR THREE years, dozens of people have been working to complete what is to become Slovakia’s first-ever comprehensive strategy to protect human rights. The 30-page document is now on the table, but human rights activists who participated in its creation are disappointed with the result.

FOR THREE years, dozens of people have been working to complete what is to become Slovakia’s first-ever comprehensive strategy to protect human rights. The 30-page document is now on the table, but human rights activists who participated in its creation are disappointed with the result.

“To put it in sports terminology: we are not even close to breaking the finish line tape, we have only just started from the starting line,” Peter Susko from the Foreign Ministry’s press department told The Slovak Spectator.

The non-governmental human rights watchdogs involved in the council are, however, unhappy with such a start. They say the Human Rights Strategy as it was presented to them on June 23, after its interdepartmental review elicited over 300 suggestions and comments from the expert public, will not improve the protection and support of human rights in Slovakia, which is supposed to be its main aim. “Three years of work of a number of experts will go in vain”, the 13 council members who spoke up against passing the strategy wrote in a press release on June 24.

The activists say that what they prepared as the key parts of the text, with specific suggestions for each group vulnerable to discrimination, have ended up as mere appendices to the document, serving only informational purposes.

Insufficient, NGOs say

Slovakia’s Foreign Ministry has covered the country’s human rights agenda ever since the current government cancelled the post of deputy prime minister for human rights and minorities in 2012.

In cooperation with the government’s Council for Human Rights, National Minorities and Gender Equality, the ministry’s main task is to design the Human Rights Strategy, which is supposed to be a framework document mapping the situation of human rights protection in the country and identifying the areas that the government should focus on, according to Susko.

Only days before the strategy is to be submitted to the cabinet, 13 council members and 50 NGOs have said it will be yet another formal document with no real impact on human rights in the country.

While the NGOs claim the strategy was intended to propose concrete measures to improve the enforcement of human rights in Slovakia (and insist that the document does not meet this goal), the Foreign Ministry maintains it was only supposed to be a framework, and that the specific measures the NGOs mention should only be proposed in action plans, with a specific one for each area.

“The strategy is not an aim in itself, but just the first step in this process; it must be seen as a foundation to build on,” Susko told The Slovak Spectator, adding that the strategy does assign three ministries to propose specific action plans, and other subjects to observe the action plans for the vulnerable, marginalised groups and individuals.

Invited but left out?

Human rights activists however say that the documents for specific areas of human rights protection (divided based on groups, such as children, women, the disabled, LGBTI people, national minorities, the elderly, etc.) that they wrote, and which actually describe the reality of these groups and contain specific measures and priorities for carrying them out, are the most important parts of the strategy. They complain that the ministry left these documents out of the text and only used them as informational appendices.

“Even though the ministry has stressed all through the three years the strategy was being prepared that it is a participatory process, at the end it wants to leave out of the actual text of the strategy those parts that were written within the expert participatory process, and downgrade them to informational appendices,” the NGOs wrote. These documents were designed by the council and the wider expert public, and approved by the respective ministries, the NGOs noted, accusing the Foreign Ministry of devaluing the work of all the people who participated in the process.

Turning these informational appendices, written by expert groups, into basic frameworks for preparation and implementation of public policies in the specific areas of human rights protection is therefore one of the two main requirements the NGOs voiced in regard to the document.

The other main requirement is to propose a change in the law to define the authorities of the public office that would oversee the creation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of human rights policies.

Among their other requirements, the activists want the government to increase personnel and funding to make sure the tasks set out by the strategy will actually be carried out and not remain just empty promises.

Ombudswoman joins criticism

Ombudswoman Jana Dubovcová, who is also a member of the government’s Human Rights Council, submitted her own comments and proposals to the strategy during the interdepartmental review. Most importantly, she proposed that the document include a strategic aim to protect the rights and freedoms of people who do not live in marriage as a unique bond between a man and a woman, and their children.

This comes as a reaction to the recently passed constitutional amendment which introduced a traditional definition of marriage as a unique bond between a man and a woman, a move that LGBTI activists have called a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Dubovcová now argues that the strategy is a long-term strategic document that should reflect the recent changes in the constitution.

The Foreign Ministry has incorporated this suggestion in the introductory section of the strategy, according to Susko, with a disclaimer that during the preparation of the strategy other processes to support and protect human rights have been underway, which the strategy could not encompass due to timing.

Conservative groups protest too

Clashes between conservative groups on one side, and LGBTI rights activists and gender equality advocates on the other, have led to disruptions in the strategy’s preparation.

The Alliance for Family, a grouping of organisations and individuals supporting traditional values of marriage and family, has voiced its own criticism of the final text of the strategy, deeming it dangerous “that it plans to create new financially supported institutes for LGBTI rights at the ministerial level”, the alliance wrote in its press statement.

The alliance is also concerned about the fact that the strategy “wants to introduce state sex education in the sense of gender ideology”, saying that sex education for children should be in the hands of the parents rather than the state.

“The proposed strategy makes it clear that its content is subject to lobbyist groups who have their plans and intentions, for which they want to win financial support from public resources,” the alliance stated.

On the other hand, LGBTI groups accuse the government of having ties with religious organisations and associations, arguing with the fact that some specific issues, LGBTI-related issues among them, have been left out of the strategy, as LGBTI activist Romana Schlesinger said.

“The Slovak government actively talks with [conservative groups] and allows itself to be influenced by them, even though based on the constitution, which was recently changed in an unfortunate way, we are a secular state,” Schlesinger told The Slovak Spectator.

The deadlines

The ministry previously moved the deadline for submitting the strategy to the cabinet from September 30, 2013, to June 2014, after critics organised a mass spamming of the ministry’s email address, which included messages containing hateful blackmail and personal invectives. Several religious organisations, MPs and supporters of traditional family slammed the strategy for furthering LGBTI rights. Yet, at that time, 40 representatives of civil society organisations and 23 individuals signed a declaration to support the strategy. They are more or less the same people who are now criticising the final text.

In fact, the ministry is working on a tight deadline. After having postponed the passing of the strategy from last year, the Foreign Ministry now has to submit the document for the cabinet’s session by June 30, 2014.

When the council convened on June 26, its members agreed to continue talks on the final version of the strategy. The ministry has thus postponed submitting the strategy to the cabinet. The new deadline has not been specified.

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