“I consider myself first and foremost a European and then a citizen of the world.”
I met Klára Skřivánková at the Women Trust Conference in London. She was the expert and moderator of the panel addressing the issue of modern day slavery. She represents the new generation of the Czechs, those who grew up without boarders and limits. She has lived and worked in several countries; she is now based in London. Her career journey includes working at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, a research for a German parliament member and work at La Strada NGO in Prague.
I admired and enjoyed her global perspective on human rights issues including women´s rights combined with her engaging approach.
How do you perceive today´s world?
I see the world as a wonderful place that is full of inspiration despite the fact that I have been dealing with serious abuses of people for the past fifteen years. The patchwork of cultures, experiences and knowledge offers endless opportunities to learn and explore. Yet, the world may appear to be in a state of permanent crisis as portrayed on TV screens, front pages of newspapers and in statements of scaremongering politicians. News dominating the headlines tends to be about the financial crisis that started a few years ago, the Ebola epidemic that started last year, the huge numbers of people on the move throughout 2015 and raging regional wars.
However, I believe that it is not those crises that should concern us most, but the attempts of our leaders to curtail our liberties and impose limitations as measures to make us all feel safer.
What I see as the biggest threat to us here in the “Western World” is loss of the rights and freedoms that were hardly won by our ancestors. It was no coincidence that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came about following terrible atrocities, and much of the other fundamental human rights were enacted in colonial times. Mandela, Martin Luther King, Pankhurst, Rosa Parks and countless other women and men whose names we do not know, paid with their lives (literally or at a great cost to their families) to secure the liberties and freedoms that we now take for granted. Fundamental human rights are unalienable and every human is entitled to them. These principles are anchored in law to ensure that people’s freedoms cannot be taken away on a whim of a politician. What many people do not realise is that fundamental rights and freedoms are there to protect us from ourselves!
Of course in practice it may sometimes seem that the rights of ordinary people are worth less than the rights of those in a position of power. That does not mean though there is an issue with rights, but rather with institutions that should be enforcing them and a weak rule of law. But the very existence of the human rights framework means that one still has recourse to rights and judicial protection. Without this fundamental framework, the authorities would have the legal authority to exercise power in an unrestricted manner.
My worry is that the complacency of the current generations that did not have to struggle for their basic rights may lead to the erosion of the basis on which our societies are built. Developing a robust human rights framework is like building a cathedral without the machines and modern technology – it takes a many years of will, dedication, skills and delicate balance to erect something that is strong and withstands the changes of weather, in the same way as human rights framework is there to withstand changing political climate. Demolishing a cathedral would be a matter of minutes – one would just need some dynamite. Similarly, dismantling the rights framework could happen very quickly – if people stopped holding politicians to account and succumbed to the fears that the so-called leaders are trying to instil in us.
Living and working in London, how do you perceive the Czech Republic?
I have to admit I do not follow developments in the Czech Republic quite as closely. At the same time, I think I now have the benefit of a sort of an outsider view, while having the understanding of the country that only an insider can have. The question that I ask myself often is: “Why are we underselling ourselves, both as individuals and as a country?” The Czech Republic has a lot to offer – knowledge, skills, culture, arts, and yet, are we mainly known in the world for our cars and beer.
Of course there is the legacy of the past which instilled into people that they should not stand out from crowd and which ridiculed achievements and success. But there is also the passivity of the present, something I could describe as comfortable mediocrity, which I think is a great shame for the Czechs. And that is perhaps one of the reasons why we see so few Czechs represented in international organisations, in management of intentional businesses or holding leadership position in European and international politics. What I would like to see is the Czech Republic to support developing and exporting our brain trust and actively participate in world affairs. I believe that a government department that would help and support Czech citizens in applying to international appointments like the Netherlands have, would be quite beneficial.
Your career journey is very typical for the upcoming generation. From Prague to Berlin and Geneva and now more than a decade living and working in London. Do you consider yourself a Czech, a European or a world citizen or you do not seem to deal with this issue at all?
I consider myself first and foremost a European and then a citizen of the world – much of which I am yet to get to know. I have lived in the Czech Republic for 24 years, spent a year studying in the US, lived and worked for two years in Germany and have lived in the UK for over ten years. I was born in Prague and this beautiful city will always be a home. But London is the home of my choice, because it is place where one can be anyone and anything; it’s a place of arts and culture, full of interesting people from all corners of the world. I also experience it as a place where people judge less and where one’s ethic background, nationality or sexual orientation or religion is not a barrier. It is here in London where I truly feel at home – in the village of Vauxhall on the south bank of the river Thames.
Currently, you work for Anti-Slavery organisation founded in 1839 which makes it the oldest human rights organisation in the world. For many Czechs it might come as a surprise that the issue of slavery still persists in our modern era.
It is only a comforting myth for many that slavery is an issue of history. It is not. All countries in the world have what we call “modern slavery” in its particular form. The Czech Republic is not an exception. People, many of them migrants are trafficked to the Czech Republic and coerced to work in inhuman conditions that can only be described as forced labour. Many may have heard about the case of migrant workers exploited in the forestry across the country. The Czechs too become victims of trafficking in other countries, including the UK. Despite the laws that prohibit slavery and human trafficking, and government policies and commitments, human trafficking is one of the most profitable forms of organised crime and the International Labour Organisation estimates annual profits from forced labour to be $151 billion. The reason why modern slavery remains intractable is not the lack of legislation or the need for more policing. It is the absence of political will to deal with the causes of the problem within the political economy and the interest of many states and businesses to maintain a system that generates enormous profits.
We have meat at the Trust Women Conference that has been labelled as the best conference dealing with rights of women. Despite this fact we were the only ones from the Czech Republic present. What are the reasons behind the little interest in global issues and perspectives in the Czech Republic?
Whether Trust Women is or is not the most influential conference on the rights of women is something that only time will tell. It is still a rather new venture. I am a real conference “veteran”, so I often wonder how the impact of a large conference that involves a lot of money, PR and celebrities compares to smaller, in depth seminars that truly give women the skills, empowerment and voice to improve their political power or stop violent practices in their communities.
As for the absence of Czech participants at events like these – it is sadly quite common in my experience. I am not sure if there is complete disinterest in what is going on in the world. I perceive it rather as a form of passivity or perhaps resignation – while we may be interested in the big issues, I still believe that a lot of Czechs feel that it is either something that does not concern them, or something they cannot do much about.
Discussion about women´s rights in the Czech Republic usually end up with the polarising debate on quotas. Can you present other dimensions of the debate that takes place for example in London?
The annual WOW (Women of the World) festival is a great example of how a public debate about women’s issues happens in London. It is a festival that does not only celebrate women, their achievements and creativity, but also a forum where difficult topics like violence against women or female genital mutilation are discussed. Overall, the debate is much more mature here. It does not mean that we do not encounter misogyny or sexism in the UK. But we do have the advantage of a continuity of a debate about women’s issues since the time of the suffrage movement.
Reducing a large debate that should be about equality of opportunities, sharing of responsibilities, unacceptability of gender based violence and empowerment and role models for girls, to a single issue about quota is in my opinion a clear reflection of the immaturity of the discourse in the Czech Republic. As citizens and voters we should challenge any politician who cracks jokes or ridicules discussions that concerns fifty per cent (or more!) of the population. This sort of disdain should simply be unacceptable.
I was positively surprised by a number of men experts involved in the discussion and supporting the issue of women´s rights. How do you manage to get men engaged?
There are quite a few men who now work on women’s rights. But they are still far and few between especially when it comes to work issues that are still on the margins. Unfortunately, it is even now the case that some men enter the debate only once the initial ground work has been done and try to take over when the issue has moved into the public sphere.
And what are your final words for Czech Leaders readers?
The most appropriate seems to me a quote from an inspirational and a very humble woman, Helen Bamber: “It is easy to be a bystander, but I wowed never to be one.” Helen encouraged many that they can make a contribution. Helen worked all her life to support survivors of human rights violations, from holocaust survivors in Bergen-Belsen, to refugees who survived torture and trafficked men and women. She worked full time until her late eighties, “bearing witness” as she would put it, hearing and understanding what has happened to people who survived atrocities and helping them overcome and find confidence to go on living. I was privileged to meet her and work with her during my time in London.
I would like find a way to move the Czechs form being largely bystanders to being agents of change. Each and every one of us can achieve change – I do not mean change that needs to make newspaper headlines, but a change that will impact lives of others – be it your neighbour, or someone who comes from a far-away place.
By Linda Štucbartová