“Neo-conservative” is not a term heard too often on the Czech political scene, but when it is then more often than not it’s used in reference to Roman Joch, the outspoken head of the right-wing Christian think tank the Civic Institute (Mr Joch himself prefers the title “paleoconservative”, bestowed upon him by the Prime Minister). That history, along with a certain notoriety for inflammatory rhetoric, lent to waves of criticism when Mr Joch was appointed advisor to the Prime Minister on human rights, the definition and conception of which was the starting point for our conversation.
“In recent years and decades there has been an unfortunate trend to claim that human rights are based on group identities – because I belong to a certain group defined by sex, race, whatever, I should have some privileges. But in my view that’s dehumanising. We have rights as human beings, not because we belong to some crowd.”
But obviously some minorities do need to be taken care of because as minorities they are often trampled on by the majority.
“Well the members of minority groups have the same rights as all other people. If there are equal rights for all under the law then it is impossible for majorities to oppress majorities.”
What do you believe are the main human rights issues in the Czech Republic today? Are there problems with human rights and what are they?
“I would say that the main issue is the concept of human rights, what we understand human rights to be.”
Will you be an advisor on human rights in order to change the conception of human rights?
“I don’t think I would have the power to change anything at all; I can only advise and express my opinions. And I would always advise the prime minister that the human rights of Czech citizens, and even those of all people residing within the Czech territory, are perfectly protected by the Czech constitution and especially by the bill of rights and liberties, and that no new laws or regulations are necessary, because in my view new laws, especially those that coerce people to behave in a certain way in their private sphere, are in fact restricting human freedoms, not enlarging them.”
But are there people who are suffering from human rights violations in the Czech Republic?
Who are they?
“Unborn children. The right to life is not protected by our laws, because that’s the majority opinion of our people, that there should be a right to abortion. So philosophically speaking, that’s the most serious violation of human rights.”
I’d like to come back to that, but what about the traditional issues of human rights and those of 21st century societies? Let me throw a few out: homosexuality.
“All consenting adults should have the same rights and liberties. By the way, there is no word ‘homosexuality’, or ‘homosexual’ or even ‘heterosexual’ in the Czech constitution. So the Czech state should not recognise special rights for heterosexuals and/or homosexuals. It should protect the same rights of all Czech citizens regardless of their sexual orientation. And in my view that’s the case. There is not a single law or government decree that either awards special privileges to homosexuals or discriminates against them, and in my view that’s the way it should be: equal rights for all, regardless of their sexual orientation.”
So then you’re fine with gay marriage in the Czech Republic then, for example.
“It’s called registered partnership, I didn’t consider the bill necessary, but it has been passed, I respect that, and in my view it should stay. I would definitely not advise repealing that law, because I don’t believe that we should change our laws too frequently. It has been passed, it has been voted for by a proper majority, and it should stay as it is I believe.”
Another human rights issue: unemployment and exclusion of the Roma community.
“That’s a social issue; that’s not an issue of human rights. There is a social problem of social cohesion, and of course it should be addressed. The question is what’s the best way, the most prudent way, to integrate the Roma community into the mainstream of Czech society. I think there are two ways, or both. First, direct financial assistance to particular people in need, and secondly, to try to get employment for excluded communities or areas. I would think that special enterprise zones focused on areas with high unemployment should be established, that businesses starting up in such areas should have lower taxes in order to increase employment in those communities. But primarily it is not an issue of race or ethnicity, it’s an issue of poverty.”
But there is discrimination on the part of employers in the Czech Republic against employing Roma, and if the Roma do not have the same opportunities to be employed as anyone else then I’m sure you’d agree that that is a violation of their human rights.
“No, I wouldn’t. I would agree that there is discrimination or rather that there are prejudices among the majority society, but discrimination is a legal term, and according to Czech laws only the government can discriminate against individuals, if it refuses to acknowledge proper constitutional or legal rights. However, I would agree that a majority of Czech society, or rather many members of Czech society, could have personal prejudices against Roma people, and that’s why they don-‘t give them a chance in employment. What’s the proper solution? I would recommend enterprise zones. Any employer of whatever ethnicity who hires people living in underprivileged or socially deprived areas would pay lower taxes. So the bias against the Roma suppressed by incentives, not by law. And then we would see whether people living in underprivileged areas would prefer to work at all. I believe they will, of course, because it’s a part of human dignity.”
Is it possible that you bring a lot of philosophical debate to public attention for the sake of provocation?
“That has been the case, yes, to provoke people to think about ideas, I confess to that, I am guilty as charged. But if your main interest is to protect freedom of speech and of conversation, then what are the common threats to freedom of speech in Western society? There were times when homosexuals were a persecuted minority, and they were viciously, terribly persecuted – and they still are in many parts of the world. But that’s not the case in Western society. In Western society, homosexuals are accepted. And that’s ok, that’s exactly how it should be; they are accepted as human beings with equal rights. But: we see trends in certain Western countries to suppress moral criticism of homosexuality. And that in my view is dangerous, because that restricts the freedom of speech. If homosexuals were persecuted in this country, I would be the first to call for their full freedoms. But I see completely different trends, and attempts to silence those who have moral reservations about homosexuality. It seems to me that the government, or the state, should be completely neutral on this point, and should neither favour, nor disfavour, nor persecute homosexuality, but should let people be free to choose their own sexual orientation on the one hand, and to criticise certain lifestyles on the other hand. If the criticism is non-violent then there is a right to criticism.”
What about hate speech and laws intended primarily against neo-Nazis and neo-fascists?
“My opinion is this: it should be legal to deny that the Holocaust happened, but it should be prohibited and criminal to advocate the Holocaust. So the advocacy of crimes, like violent crimes, like murder, should be prohibited. If someone says ‘I don’t believe there was a Holocaust’, then in my opinion he is a fool, or a bad person, but he or she should be left alone. If somebody says ‘Well there was a Holocaust and it was a very good thing and we should continue in that, or repeat that’, then that should be prohibited and punished with jail terms, I think.”
Well what about the freedom then to give the Hitler salute or to wear Nazi paraphernalia?
“That’s a border case, yes. Is it an expression of opinion or is it support for crimes? I don’t think that an abstract theory of free speech should decide one way or the other. Perhaps some sense for the community’s feeling should be allowed. In this country, where the memories of Nazi crimes and Communist crimes are so fresh, and people who suffered so much are still alive, I think it is possible for political society to prohibit Nazi and Communist paraphernalia.”
Will you stand up for the free speech of someone who is put in jail because they have a swastika tattooed on their back, for example?
If the sole reason for putting him behind bars is that he has a swastika on his back, my inclination would be libertarian: that the punishment was too much. But if he said at the same time that we have to kill all the Jews, I would have no problem putting him behind bars, I would even advocate putting him in jail.
In five years time, what would you like to see changed because of your work as advisor on human rights?
“First of all, my intentions are conservative, so rather to preserve than to change. And I would like to preserve our current state and scope of civil rights and civil liberties against any restrictions, that’s the first point. So my position is more conservative than revolutionary. Secondly, if there are some changes, I would like to shift a little bit the awareness that human rights are the rights of all, not only members of minorities. Members of minorities of course, yes, but all other people as well. So, when we speak about human rights we should speak about the rights of ethnic minorities, women, men, disabled people, that’s okay. But we should also speak about the rights of majorities like parents and taxpayers. Those two groups in my view are underrepresented in government councils dealing with human rights.