Czeslaw Walek, who studied law with a focus on human rights, has been in the media a lot in recent weeks, due to his role as the director of the Prague Pride festival. Previously, he has held government offices such as director of the Office of the Council for Roma Affairs. He has lived in both Krakow and Budapest and is a member of the Czech Republic’s Polish minority. He speaks about his work, human rights and how he feels the first Prague Pride festival went.
“The festival went exceptionally well, not only Saturday, which was the highlight, but the whole five days were good. Events were massively visited, and that was what we wanted to achieve. Of course, Saturday, the march, the parade and the concert were the absolute highlight. And we didn’t expect the turn-out would be so huge. But what I really liked was that the thousands of people who came brought a positive energy, they were nice and smiling at each other, they just came to celebrate, and that was exactly what we wanted to achieve.”
You were the chairman of the board of organizers. Can you tell how your involvement with the festival came about and how much work it was to put such a festival together?
“It actually was an accident that I became the chairman. My involvement with Prague Pride started last autumn, when I was contacted by a few people asking me to write a by-law for the organization. And I attended several meetings offering my help with communication with the police and with the government, because that is what I have experience in.
And in January, everyone knew that I was leaving my government office and at the same time, the festival was looking for a coordinator, and they all screamed: ‘Czeslaw! You should do it!’ And so I said, ‘Let’s try for a month.’ And I tried and no one else wanted to do it, so I was stuck with the job till the end.”
You worked in the government before this, as director of the Office of the Council for Roma Affairs. Can you tell me a bit about your work there?
“I started in that position, but the last two years, I was the deputy minister for human rights, and then, when the government didn’t have a minister, I replaced the human rights commissioner. I started eight years ago as a director of the office. It was basically a job that concentrated on the policies that the government should create for the Roma minority and their development, their implementation and their monitoring.”
You mentioned that you worked as a deputy to human rights minister Michal Kocáb up through his resignation. How was your experience working in that situation?
“I entered the office in March, so basically two months before the first government we worked with collapsed. And even although for me those two years were incredibly interesting, and I learned a lot, and I think we actually achieved a lot, I have to say that this unstable political environment that we lived in was not very favorable for long-term work. As I said, I entered the office in March, in May we learned the government would collapse. So we were rushing to finalize some documents, because we didn’t know what would happen next.
“Then, there was a new government, and Mr. Kocáb stayed on as a minister for human rights, but the Green Party was pushing for his resignation at one point. So he was forced to resign and it was again five months of work that were interrupted. And then he became a human rights commissioner, but soon after, the government changed again and Prime Minister Petr Nečas called him off, so it was a very politically unstable situation.
On the other hand, we managed to achieve a lot for human rights in this country, and I am very happy for this experience.”
“There were two areas that we concentrated on: In the legal sphere, it was laws that regulate the functioning of NGOs, we passed two amendments to the law on foundations and amendments to the law on public benefit organizations. But also we prepared a law that, once it is passed, will be a breakthrough in the NGO sector, which is the law on public benefit status. In the other area where I think we did a lot is the Roma minority. At that time, racist attacks in this country reached a peak, and together with Prime Minister Jan Fischer, there was an effort to strike the right extreme with the most force I have experienced.
So after twenty years, we managed to find money to transform the former concentration camps for the Roma population in Lety and Hodonín into places of dignified memory. The second thing I am really proud of is that finally, the government apologized for the unlawful sterilization of Roma women.”
You are a lawyer by profession. Which area of law did you specialize in?
“I studied law in Krakow, because I am a member of the Polish minority living in the Czech Republic and the Polish government offers stipendiums for us. From the beginning I knew that I didn’t want to be a classic lawyer, but that I wanted to concentrate on international organizations and human rights. So in my third year of studies, I concentrated on international law and human rights, and then I continued at the Central European University in Budapest, where I studied human rights specifically.”
You have lived in Krakow and Budapest, now you live in Prague, so it is safe to say that you know the Central and Eastern European region fairly well. How would you say does Prague compare to other cities in the region when it comes to tolerance towards LGBT individuals?
“When I was in Krakow, from 1993 to 1999, there was one gay club there. It is a relatively liberal city, although all Catholic institutions are based there, but in terms of culture, people who live there, are rather liberal. But still, when I was studying there, it was not so open towards the LGBT minority. I know that right now, there are more clubs, there is a bigger scene. And I also remember that the first parade to take place there was pretty violent.
“In Budapest, on the other hand, when I lived there in 2000, it was very open, I participated in the first parade there and it was very open. That is why I am shocked at what is going on in Hungary right now, when you look at the last parade, we were kept in a cage along the whole route, basically, like animals, because of the right-wing parties and people. And I always felt that it was a very liberal city, more like Prague. So when I participated in the parade there this year, I was negatively surprised at how it went.”
“My boyfriend and I are going to Spain for four months. I received a stipend to study Spanish, to work there, and study the social policies there, and we will see what will happen afterwards. I would like to continue with Prague Pride, maybe not as a coordinator, but as a team member, but we’ll see, maybe I will stay in Spain.”
And do you believe that Prague Pride will become a regular, annual event in the city?
“Yes, I am sure of it. Many understood that it has incredible potential. And it is not just about those who organize it, but about the clubs and organizations that saw how many people come. And for many, it brought them the business of the year. I am pretty sure that many of the clubs that see business in it will be willing to participate in it again. And I think that the biggest role of the team right now will be to keep the balance between human rights and business, so that it will not become a purely commercial thing.”
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