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Czech Prime Minister Commended by Helsinki Commission for Condemning Roma Ghetto in Usti nad Labem

WASHINGTON – Today the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe released the text of a letter to His Excellency Milos Zeman, Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, commending him for his leadership in passing a resolution which overrules the Usti nad Labem city council’s decision to build a wall separating Roma from non-Roma residents and urging him to continue his efforts to remove this barrier which divides the citizens of his country, effectively creating a ghetto reminiscent of 1930s Europe.

The letter was signed by Commissioners Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO), Ranking Members Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD), Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) and Rep. Michael P. Forbes (D-NY). The full text of the letter follows:

Dear Mr. Prime Minister:

We write to commend you for your leadership in the passage of a resolution on October 13 which overrules the Usti nad Labem city council’s decision to build a wall separating Roma from non-Roma residents. We urge you to continue your efforts to remove this barrier which divides the citizens of your country. In May 1998, the international community was shocked when local officials in Usti nad Labem announced plans to build a wall that would separate ethnic Czechs, whom Mayor Ladislav Hruska reportedly deemed “decent” citizens, from the Roma whom he derided as “indecent.” Foreign journalists immediately converged in Usti to report on the proposed wall, often comparing it to the Berlin wall or to Nazi ghettos. A member of the Commission staff also visited Maticni Street in Usti, as an observer on a Council of Europe delegation. In the seventeen months since this controversy erupted, human rights organizations from Skopje to Berlin to New York have criticized the wall. Dozens of representatives from the diplomatic community in Prague and from international organizations, including the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, the Council of Europe, and the European Union have visited Usti and condemned the proposed wall. At a September 6 OSCE meeting in Vienna—a meeting devoted exclusively to Romani human rights issues—Usti was repeatedly held up as the symbol for every injustice faced by Roma. We understand that some local officials have defended the wall as a “noise barrier”; others view it as “just a wall.” But in Usti, this wall was specifically designed to divide a community along racial lines. Accordingly, no matter what euphemism local officials may use for this structure, it will simply be known internationally as a monument to racism. These developments have already inflicted considerable damage to the good name and reputation of your country. We regret that, notwithstanding the Cabinet’s May 26 resolution opposing the wall, local officials in Usti proceeded with construction of the wall at 4:00 a.m. on October 13— behind a police cordon to keep away the dozens of demonstrators who blocked construction last week. Regrettably, local officials in Usti have also stated their intent to disregard the Parliament’s resolution. Mr. Prime Minister, a Czech official from the Foreign Ministry complained at an OSCE-Council of Europe meeting on October 5 that international observers have spent an inordinate amount of time over the past seventeen months talking about a wall that has not even been built yet. Well, now the wall has been built. As long as this controversy persists, the Usti wall will erode the Czech Republic’s international standing and cast a shadow over U.S.-Czech relations. Dialogue on many other issues of mutual interest will inevitably share the agenda with the wall in Usti. Under these circumstances, it is critical that Czech political leaders act decisively and quickly to end this crisis.

Sincerely,

BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL, U.S.S
Co-Chairman

FRANK LAUTENBERG, U.S.S.
Ranking Member

JOSEPH R. PITTS, M.C.
Commissioner

CHRISTOPHER H. SMITH, M.C.
Chairman

STENY H. HOYER, M.C.
Ranking Member

MICHAEL P. FORBES, M.C.
Commissioner 

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