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All human rights on Czech agenda

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg (right) pictured holding his award with Cuban dissident Hilda Molina (centre) and scholar Ricardo López Göttig (left).
If human rights are a huge priority for the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration, they are equally important for Prague, as Czech Foreign Minister and Vice-President Karel Schwarzenberg made clear at a Thursday session of CADAL think tank — with perhaps the main difference being that nobody would accuse the Czechs of double standards.

Even if President Vaclav Klaus heading the mission has been the most dominant politician of the post-Soviet Czech Republic after his legendary namesake Vaclav Havel, Schwarzenberg is very much a personality in his own right — and not just because of his princely name. Somehow human rights have followed him his whole life since hiding in an attic from the Gestapo in his earliest years before being forced to flee his native land after the Communist takeover in 1948.

For the next 41 years he was based in Austria where Bruno Kreisky (Austrian Chancellor from 1970 to 1983) first lured him into official work as president of the Helsinki International Committee for Human Rights. Like charity, concern for human rights begins at home, Schwarzenberg said, and his initial interest was in the Central and Eastern European region, eventually meeting Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov (an unforgettable experience), but Helsinki work covered the whole world, not even sparing the United States over some executions.

But then Havel asked him to join him following the triumph of the Velvet Revolution in his homeland and Schwarzenberg left international work (not before personally witnessing Romania’s dramatic revolution of 1989). But Czech government work did not mean an end to his human rights commitment — he has had occasion to visit Cuba where he met the main free dissidents (Cubans are “wonderfully friendly” if poor people) and since becoming foreign minister in 2007, he has ticked off the French government over its treatment of gypsies.

How much time does the Foreign Ministry leave him for human rights, the Herald asked him, suggesting that perhaps the Lisbon Treaty and the European Union’s new external service might give him a new freedom. It was not a question of “If it’s Tuesday morning, it must be human rights,” the minister replied — human rights issues come and go at the forefront of foreign policy and some periods are more important than others (now is a case in point with the developments in North Africa).

Two of his concluding thoughts on human rights — since humans are naturally criminal, human rights will always need defending and since dictators always take themselves too seriously, a sense of humour can be the best antidote.

Schwarzenberg also said that he had compared notes with his local counterpart Héctor Timerman on regional integration — whereas the EU’s integration was intensifying, Schwarzenberg noted that in this region there were still separate communities for the economic (Mercosur) and political (Unasur) spheres and this would need to change. A commitment to open markets was also fundamental.

The session was introduced by CADAL President Gabriel Salvia, who said that having suffered dictatorship themselves, the Czechs knew how to respond to the solidarity of others. He was followed by Cuban neurosurgeon Hilda Molina whose gratitude to the efforts of Czech diplomats on behalf of dissidents (singling out Stanislav Kazecky in particular) was so great that she brought along her 92-year-old mother in her care rather than miss the occasion. Molina described the Castro dictatorship as so oppressive that it forced even scientifically minded persons such as herself to politicize — her own break with the regime came over the gross contradiction of medical tourism, turning Cuban patients into second-class citizens in their own country.

Schwarzenberg was then awarded a plaque in honour of the Czech Republic’s human rights commitments by Ricardo López Göttig, a history doctorate from the Karlova (Charles) University in Prague who spoke in fluent Czech. The aristocrat described himself as “touched” by an award he did not deserve — he had simply been lucky to find an activity which was its own reward.

The Herald is not a historical journal but a few lines of history are necessary to underline the importance of the Schwarzenberg family in the history of old Habsburg empire as fabulously wealthy aristocrats — their estates in Bohemia alone covered nearly 200,000 hectares (with several more in Austria and Bavaria). The first-born son of the family has always been called Karel or Karl in German — this Schwarzenberg is Karel VII while the first Karl Schwarzenberg was the victor of the “Battle of the Nations” over Napoleon at Leipzig in 1813 (the year the composer Richard Wagner was born in that Saxon city). Felix Schwarzenberg (from another branch of the princely family) succeeded Metternich as Austrian chancellor following the 1848 revolution.

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