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Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights considers report of the Czech Republic

Committee on Economic, Social
  and Cultural Rights

9 May 2014

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights today considered the second periodic report of the Czech Republic on how the country is implementing the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Andrea Baršová, Head of the Human Rights Department in the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic, in her opening statement, stressed the importance of the adoption of the Anti-Discrimination Act in 2009, designed to strengthen the protection against discrimination in all major areas of social life, such as employment, social welfare, health care, housing and education.  The Government’s Council for Equal Opportunities for Women and Men was focused mainly on reconciling working and private lives of men and women and increasing women’s presence in decision-making positions.  The Strategy for Roma Integration aimed to promote the rights and interests of this group, both as individuals and as a national minority, while the Social Inclusion Strategy focused on the human rights of various vulnerable groups.

During the interactive dialogue, Committee Experts asked about the status of the Covenant in the Czech national legislation and its applicability at various levels of government.  Questions were also raised on the availability of social housing, public health care, inclusive education of children with disabilities, affirmative action to promote the status of women, the effects of austerity measures on social spending, migrant workers, the status of vulnerable groups, and the functioning of the Council of National Minorities.

In concluding remarks, Ms. Baršová thanked the members of the Committee for raising a wide range of issues, giving food for thought for the delegation and sometimes shedding some new light to the already known issues.  Issues which may have been somewhat neglected in the current report would certainly be given more prominent attention in the next periodic report.
Jun Cong, Committee Member acting as Country Rapporteur, expressed her gratitude for the cooperation of the delegation, whose detailed responses made the discussion very fruitful.
Zdzislaw Kedzia, Committee Chairperson, in concluding remarks, said that the Committee members were all struck by the frankness and the constructive approach expressed in the report and the subsequent dialogue.  The Committee appreciated that the delegation had acknowledged some deficiencies and areas to improve, which was helpful for the work of the Committee. 

The delegation of the Czech Republic included representatives of the Human Rights Department in the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic, Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Regional Development and the Permanent Mission of the Czech Republic to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will next meet in public at 10 a.m. on Monday, 12 May, to hold a session with stakeholders and non-governmental organizations from Uzbekistan, El Salvador and Serbia, whose reports will be considered next week.

The second periodic report of the Czech Republic (E/C.12/CZE/2) can be found here.
Presentation of the Report

ANDREA BARŠOVÁ, Head of the Human Rights Department in the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic, said an issue of great importance for the protection of human rights in the Czech Republic was the adoption of the Anti-Discrimination Act in 2009, designed to strengthen the protection against discrimination in all major areas of social life, such as employment, social welfare, health care, housing and education.  The Act defined direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, persecution, and provided victims of discrimination a possibility to apply to the competent State inspection authorities who could prosecute violators.  Alternatively, a court action against discrimination might be taken, consequences of the discriminatory action remedied and reasonable satisfaction granted.
The Government’s Council for Equal Opportunities for Women and Men was now mainly focused on the reconciliation of the working and private lives of women and men, as well as increasing the proportion of women in decision-making positions.  Awareness raising campaigns addressing gender stereotypes and domestic violence were planned for the near future. 
Combating racism and extremism also remained a top priority for the Czech Republic.  The right-wing Workers’ Party had been dissolved by court order in 2010, while the arson attack on a Roma family in Vitkov in 2009 had been successfully investigated.  Community policing and cooperation with local inhabitants in municipalities with socially excluded neighbourhoods contributed to effective social integration and increased mutual respect and tolerance.  The mandate of the Ombudsman was gradually being extended to encompass new human rights portfolios such as the national equality and antidiscrimination body or the protection of the rights of foreigners during detention and expulsion procedures.  In that manner, the Ombudsman exercised many of the functions of a national human rights institution according to the Paris Principles. 
The Social Inclusion Strategy for 2014-2020 was the key document to fight against poverty and social exclusion with the help of European Union structural funds.  The main tool was the promotion and support of social field work with people in need implemented by the State and local communities.   Children, for example, were the target group of the 2012 national strategy entitled “The Right to Childhood”, which was accompanied by detailed action plans.  A new action plan promoting positive ageing for 2013-2017 had also been adopted, increasing public awareness on the needs of older persons and providing them with protection against all forms of discrimination, abuse or neglect.  A national action plan for equal opportunities for persons with disabilities was also being implemented.
A major task for the Czech Republic was the integration of the Roma minority, primarily through the Strategy of Roma Integration.  A new complex system of social housing was being prepared, while the Agency for Social Inclusion was offering municipalities assistance with the development of their own local housing and integration strategies. 
The Government was planning to increase the minimum wage to 40 per cent of the average wage in the coming years, while the full indexation of retirement pensions would be reintroduced from 2015.  A high level of protection of employees in labour relations was being maintained.  Free and informed consent was a general prerequisite for the provision of any health care service, with exceptions reserved only for extreme cases of medical necessity.  The Government was also focusing on the prevention of drug abuse among the public, especially the youth, and promoting equal access to a quality education system as the basis for the country’s future development.  Education remained free of charge from the last year of pre-school education up to tertiary education, while special attention was being paid to pupils with special education needs.  Roma children from disadvantaged backgrounds were especially supported from early age, as a result of which the proportion of Roma children educated within the special education system was decreasing.

Introduction and Questions from the Country Rapporteur and Committee Members
JUN CONG, Committee Member acting as a Country Rapporteur, said that the Committee could understand from the list of replies the progress made in the implementation of the previous concluding observations.  Regarding the coexistence of Roma and non-Roma populations, the percentage of those supporting it as a positive concept had significantly decreased in recent years, according to Czech studies.  What was the State party doing to prevent racially motivated crimes?  Was the State party planning to access the Second Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights?
An Expert raised the issue of the status of the Covenant in the Czech domestic legislation.  Which courts in the State party were concerned by the Covenant, was it only the highest courts or all of them?  According to the 2002 Constitution, international treaties could have priority over domestic legislation.  Had there been any findings that Covenant provisions were not in line with the domestic legislation? How was the Covenant being respected and observed at the regional level in the State party?
Were the Paris Principles going to be applied fully with regard to the fully functional, independent human rights institution? What was preventing the Czech Republic from fully meeting criteria under the Paris Principles, given that it was a developed, advanced country?  Another Expert noted that only 0.1 per cent of the Czech gross domestic product had been contributed to official development aid.  What was the Czech Republic doing to meet its international obligations in that regard? To what extent were human rights taken into consideration when deciding on recipients of the aid?
While there was a law on anti-discrimination, an Expert wondered why there was no sexual harassment mentioned there?  Did people know how to file complaints on violations in that regard?  On gender equality, the Expert asked why temporary special measures were not being applied in line with the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
Was there an intention to broaden grounds for discrimination, as the Committee would like to see the criteria for discrimination as comprehensive as possible?  Tools to punish people perpetrating discrimination were necessary.  There was a concern that many people could “fall through the cracks”.  What were the practical obstacles and impediments in moving ahead and integrating the Roma in the society?
An Expert asked how the Council for National Minorities was functioning in practice.  How did the austerity measures affect provisions of social services and protection of rights under the Covenant?  A question was asked whether human rights education in the State party was in line with the Covenant.  What was the degree of compliance of State institutions and bodies with the recommendations of the Ombudsperson?  Could an explanation be provided on the average number of working hours per day, which were mentioned in the report?
There was a very low employment rate for women after the age of 50, and a considerable, increasing use of unemployment benefits.  Were policies in that regard going to be revised?  An Expert inquired which exact actions were being taken to change gender stereotypes and whether men were participating in the bringing up of children.  Another Expert raised the issue of increased flexibility in the labour market, and wanted to know what the result was when it came to the increase of employment.  It seemed that it had negatively affected the employment of young people. 
What was the current status of raising the minimum wage, which seemed to have remained unchanged since 2007?  The State party seemed to have cut social benefits, which was a general trend in the countries of the European Union.  To what degree was it acceptable to cut such benefits, especially those for sickness, while ensuring that basic Covenant provisions were met?  Was it true that the State party had moved from the human rights based approach to the material needs approach?

Response by the Delegation
The Head of Delegation explained that the new statement of the Government, adopted in January 2014, presented the basis for the work of the Government in the following four years.  The statement stressed that the same emphasis would be placed on economic, social and cultural rights as on civil and political rights.
There was quite a developed system of participation of persons belonging to various minorities and underprivileged groups, whose voices were heard when new measures were being envisioned. 
Regarding the position of the Covenant in the Czech national law, a delegate explained that the ratified international treaty had precedence over domestic legislation.  If inconsistencies arose, it was the task of courts to apply the international treaty.  The Constitutional Court was following the compliance of laws with the constitutional order, the Czech Charter of Human Rights and the Covenant, and some laws had been struck down.  The jurisprudence of lower courts was not monitored in such a great detail, but they were also obliged to follow the international obligations, including the Covenant.
Local and regional authorities and self-governing units had to comply with the national law and the Covenant.
On the right of housing, the Constitutional Court had decided that it was part of the human rights protection system and had to be applied by the authorities.
The Ombudsperson had taken up a number of various human rights portfolios, including monitoring of rights of foreigners during expulsion processes.  The current Ombudsperson was revising the statute of the office and considering applying for the status of a national human rights institution.  It was a technical issue, as the office was already conducting many tasks normally done by a national human rights institution.  If the Ombudsperson detected some shortcomings of public authorities, they were obliged to comply with the office’s recommendations.  The rights defender could also make recommendations to the private sector.
With regard to the anti-discrimination legislation in the Czech Republic, it was explained that grounds for discrimination included race, ethnic origin, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, age, social view and others.  The Covenant and other international treaties covered additional grounds for discrimination.  Remedies available to victims of discrimination included administrative protection, as well as court processes which could provide reparations or cessations of discriminatory practices.  In some court cases, it had been proven that there had been no discrimination.
Answering a question on the worsening attitude of the population towards the Roma minority, the Head of Delegation said that the anti-discrimination campaign was being resumed, expanded and intensified.  The focus would be on the youth and particularly in the regions most affected by poverty and unemployment.
Integration of the Roma was not as successful as was desired.  It was a complex issue without a definite answer, and it had to do with centuries of discrimination and attempts at assimilation.  Most of the 200,000 Roma living in the Czech Republic today had come from the current-day Slovakia.  Prejudice by a large part of the population against the Roma was hampering their integration, but there was also some lack of trust by the Roma towards institutions.
Regarding national minorities, the Council of National Minorities had been extended to include representatives of Vietnamese and Belarusian minorities.  It was meeting regularly, some four times a week, and was focused on the implementation of the Act on National Minorities, primarily their participation in public and cultural life.
On measures taken to prevent racially motivated crimes, the Government was focusing on both preventive and punitive measures.  Such crimes were mostly committed by groups.  The Neo-Nazi scene had been shattered and some of its members had been arrested.  Perpetrators of arson attacks against Roma had been arrested and prosecuted. 
Punitive measures regarding discrimination were in place for acts of instigation of hatred and defamation, among others.  Murders committed on the ground of perceived or real qualities of the victim were punished much more severely.  Aggravating circumstances were being applied for other crimes motivated by discriminatory hatred.
Answering the questions on official development assistance, it was confirmed that the Czech Republic had contributed 0.12 per cent of its gross domestic income in 2012 and 2013.  The State party remained committed to increasing the amount to 0.3 and then to 0.7 per cent, but it was clear that the goal would be realized only after 2015.  Efforts were also being made beyond purely financial terms, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was the State body in charge of the process.  The transition promotion programme was in place to help countries such as Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Myanmar.
A delegate explained that there were certain areas, such as the judiciary and State prosecution, where the representation of women was excellent.  In other areas, there was still a need for affirmative action.  Women were not so well represented at higher positions in State administration, and the last parliamentary elections did not increase the percentage of women in the legislature.  There was a certain reluctance to apply gender quotas.  Annual reports were submitted to the Government on the equality of men and women.
Teaching of the human rights curriculum was compulsory in elementary and secondary schools.  The system  of primary prevention of risk behaviour had been developed since 2001, engaging well-trained experts.  The focus was on inter-personal behaviour, such as bullying, racism and discrimination.  Tailor-made human rights trainings were provided for judges, police and teachers.
Follow-up Questions from Committee Members
The Country Rapporteur asked about budgets for the action plans for inclusive education and fighting social exclusion.  How was the process of identifying locations with Roma inhabitants progressing?
The issue of temporary special measures to fight gender discrimination was raised by another Expert.  It was stressed that women should not be negatively perceived by the society because of the quotas or target numbers.  There might be many creative ways to promote the status of women, otherwise gender inequality was set to remain.
Was  training of a human rights curriculum obligatory in the training of judges and prosecutors?
Response by the Delegation
The Head of Delegation thanked Committee members for the recommendations on improving the status of women.  The State party was giving consistent attention to that matter along with principles of the United Nations and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
The Strategy to Fight Social Exclusion was run by  a new agency attached to the Office of the Government.  The focus was on providing municipalities with the know-how on how to address discrimination, especially spacious discrimination.  Redistribution of resources and making the work more effective were at the core of current efforts.  The number of socially excluded neighbourhoods stood at around 400.  With a map of such localities, the existing resources could be better targeted. 
Questions from Committee Members
Domestic violence was raised by an Expert, who asked whether there had been any results from the action plan on that matter.  Could more information be provided on how it was being insured that perpetrators would not repeat the offense?  Another Expert asked about social housing, given that most funds were directed towards private housing, and what was being done for those who could no longer pay rent to save them from homelessness.  Which groups were most affected by homelessness?
A question asked who was not covered by the public health insurance scheme and what the total number of such people was.  How was adequate health care being provided to vulnerable groups of migrants and those with chronic diseases?  Was there a guaranteed place for young children in pre-school services?  Why was there such a large difference between the number of men and women in part-time work – was it because of the lack of availability of childcare?
An Expert raised the issue of rights of voluntarily hospitalized mental patients – could they be released at their will?  Could the delegation inform the Committee about measures to address problems of alcoholism and drug abuse?  Were there separate schools providing education for minority students, and, if so, how would that relate to the combat against segregation?  An Expert wondered how come the Vietnamese made up the largest minority group and asked for more information on that.
More details were requested on who served on the Council of Minorities.  Had the Government proposed any legislation to make unlawful any segregation on the basis of disability?  What was being done about inclusive education?  What measures had the Government taken to protect the cultural rights of minority students? What was being done to reduce the prejudices of the general public towards people with disabilities?  Another Expert asked what was being done to promote the place of women in science and technology.  The issue of special schools was raised by an Expert, who wondered if they still existed or had been closed down.
Response by the Delegation
Regarding human rights education for police and the judiciary, a delegate explained that all police officers underwent a year-long legal training before the start of their career.  The education of judges and prosecutors included parts on human rights, both before they undertook their functions and afterwards.
Answering questions on the impact of the austerity measures on rights enshrined in the Covenant, it was stressed that those measures had had a minimal effect on aggregate social indicators.  Sickness benefits had been cut by 15 per cent, but other measures had compensated that move, such as the lowering of the sickness insurance contributions.
There had been no significant changes regarding employment protection.  The minimum wage had not been raised between 2007 and 2013, but there had been changes in the income tax, which had translated in the increase of net income.  In August 2013 the minimum wage had been increased from 8,000 Czech Crowns to 8,500 Czech Crowns.  For the calculation of hours worked per week, 26 weeks per year were used as a reference. 
Youth unemployment was of large concern for the State party, like for most of the European Union.  Internships at companies were now subsidized, so that young people would become better employable, and European structural funds would also be used for that purpose.  Active labour policies for all groups of clients were being developed, and the staff of the Labour Office had increased by 8 per cent.
Occupational safety had a long tradition in the Czech Republic, and included lengthy consultations of social partners.  It was one of the priorities of the labour inspection bodies. 
The principle of equal pay for work of equal value was protected in the Czech Republic, but in practice it was a much more complex issue, and the gender pay gap continued to exist. At the moment, the gap stood at over 21 per cent; it was showing some signs of improvement, but nothing substantial. 

Follow-up Questions by Experts
An Expert wondered whether the impact of the austerity measures had truly been minimal. While the figures might be very good at the macro level, it might be concealing effects on particular groups and hiding some “pockets of poverty”.  What effect had they had on child poverty?  It was difficult to believe that such serious cuts had not had significant consequences on people’s wellbeing.
To which extent had the measures to fight youth unemployment been implemented?  Another Expert inquired how the increase of the minimal wage had helped improve the subsistence level of individuals.  Did the Government have a more specific timeline to increase the minimum wage to 40 per cent of the average salary?
A question was asked on how much responsibility for raising children were men taking in the Czech Republic nowadays.  Another Expert wanted to know whether migrant workers had the right to participate in trade unions.  Could more information be provided on the informal economy?
Response by the Delegation
The Head of Delegation explained that there were bodies representing vulnerable groups, who had the right to formulate proposals to be submitted to the Government.  If there were  long-term impacts of the austerity measures, they might not be perceived at the moment, given that the measures had been introduced relatively recently, in 2011-2012.
The Government was focusing on improving the social situation in the upcoming period, in addition to promoting and developing employment policies, a delegate explained.  Youth unemployment had long, scaring effects, which was why it was given priority consideration. 
It was explained that long-term unemployment was seen as the main driver behind falling below the poverty line.  The increase of the minimum wage along with the decrease of taxes meant that the net income in people’s pockets was larger than only 500 Crowns.
There was no exact information on how much of the upbringing of children was being carried out by men.  Campaigns to promote burden sharing were underway, but it might take some time to change traditional ways of thinking.  Often times, couples would agree that the spouse with  a larger income would continue to work, while the other one, usually the woman, would stay at home.  Increasing the capacities of child care facilities and kindergartens was also important.
There were action plans in place for combatting domestic violence.  The awareness of that problem had certainly increased in the Czech society.  It was now known that more than 80 per cent of victims were women, and some 80 per cent of children witnessed acts of violence at home.  Wide-spread intervention centres were now able to provide speedy assistance to victims of domestic violence.  Safe temporary accommodation for battered women was also expanding.  The State party was considering ratifying the convention of the Council of Europe on domestic and gender-based violence.  Figures were provided to demonstrate that the incidence of domestic violence was decreasing.
With regard to social housing, a delegate explained that a significant portion of newly constructed housing had to be dedicated to vulnerable groups, including the elderly and the Roma.  The Czech Government was promoting an integrated approach to the issue of housing.  Rental housing was regulated by civil code, which protected tenants.  Termination notices had to be provided in writing three months in advance, and there was a possibility to challenge them in courts.  In the political programme of the new Government, it was specified that new initiatives would be undertaken.
The estimated number of homeless people and people living in poor conditions stood at 100,000, and the main factors were the history of social exclusion, abuse of substances and mental diseases.  Indebtedness and disruption of the household also contributed to that phenomenon.
The mission of the reform of the psychiatric care had for its goal ensuring that the human rights of patients were fulfilled in the broadest sense.  High suicide rates were a traditional problem of Central European countries.  There was hope that better psychiatric care and more advanced medical drugs could reverse the worrying trend.
Written informed consent had to be signed by the patient or legal authority, not only for hospitalization, but for any major medical procedure.  Patients were free to withdraw their consent at any stage; the only exceptions were infectious diseases and certain mental diseases, in which case a court had to decide within 24 hours.
The number of teenage pregnancies was showing a steep decrease compared to the period under communist rule.
A delegate explained that third-country, non-European Union foreigners were eligible for public health insurance if they were permanent residents or if they were employed in the Czech Republic, but their families were not eligible.  Temporary residents and the unemployed were not eligible, and their number amounted to around 130,000, which was an important issue.  All emergency patients were provided necessary care regardless of their insurance.
The Czech Republic had witnessed a steep increase in immigration since 1990, which was a relatively new phenomenon.  Today, immigrants represented close to 5 per cent of the Czech population. 
The delegation was not aware of any particular discrimination of elderly persons as such.  An effort was being made to move from institution to community care services of the elderly.  Social workers were being increasingly trained in the field of elderly care.
The Head of Delegation said that the Vietnamese minority had been invited to join the Council of National Minorities in 2013, making it the fourteenth minority group to join that body.  Viet Nam and Czechoslovakia used to belong to the same group of socialist countries, and the ties between the two countries had been quite strong since the 1950s.  The Vietnamese were now one of the prosperous migrant communities, and their number was close to 30,000 in the last census.  Many of them still did not have the status of citizens, but were either temporary or permanent residents.
The Council of National Minorities was seen as a channel for national minorities to actively participate in decision-making, in particular when it came to their particular rights.  At the moment, there were 14 minority groups represented in that body, and some of their languages were officially recognized as minority languages.  Reports of the Council were submitted to the Government and the Council of Europe.
Regarding the education of pupils with disabilities and Roma pupils, it was stated that the Government was working towards inclusivity.  It was in the child’s best interest not to simply be an extra body in the classroom, but to receive individual attention.  The right of every child was to be educated, but unfortunately not all schools were technically equipped to accept and educate every child.  There were some so-called inclusive schools in the Czech Republic at the moment.  More work had to be done to change attitudes of head teachers, teachers and parents.  Funds for supportive measures were going towards the children in need.  Instruction was provided in German, Polish and Roma languages.
The sector of education was traditionally quite segregated – in kindergartens, most educators were female, for example.  Large proportions of university and doctoral students were female today, but there were not that many women in technical sciences, either as students or faculty members.  Women researchers enjoyed the support of the Academy of Sciences, but their number ought to increase.
Follow-up Questions by Experts
An Expert asked whether there was a yearly target of changing mainstream schools into inclusive schools.  Another Expert asked if there were any instruments to monitor the status of the Roma minority.  How could children of asylum seekers receive education in the Czech Republic?  A question was asked on public access to the internet.
Response by the Delegation
The Head of Delegation stated that, under the Czech legislation, persons could freely declare their ethnicity at any point.  Such questions were also asked in national censuses, but answering them was not compulsory.  Respondents were also free to declare dual ethnic affiliations.  There was no comprehensive information covering only the Roma minority as such.  The target was to increase the number of inclusive schools up to 1,500 within six years.  Children of both asylum-seekers and irregular migrants had access to primary education in the State party.  A delegate explained that the Government was going to use European Union funds to ensure wide access to the internet.
Concluding Remarks
ANDREA BARŠOVÁ, Head of the Human Rights Department in the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic, thanked the members of the Committee for raising a wide range of issues, giving food for thought for the delegation and sometimes shedding some new light to the already known issues.  Issues which may have been somewhat neglected in the current report would certainly be given more prominent attention in the next periodic report.
JUN CONG, Committee Member acting as a Country Rapporteur, expressed her gratitude for the cooperation of the delegation, whose detailed responses made the discussion very fruitful.
ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Committee Chairperson, said that the Committee members were all struck by the frankness and the constructive approach expressed in the report and the subsequent dialogue.  The Committee appreciated that the delegation had acknowledged some deficiencies and areas to improve, which was helpful for the work of the Committee.  He also expressed appreciation for the representation of various ministries of the Czech Government.


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