An Activist’s Perspective on Human Rights Challenges in Slovakia

We had a thought-provoking interview with Peter Weisenbacher, director of the Human Rights Institute, a new ENCATE member, in which he candidly shared his experiences navigating the increasingly challenging landscape for human rights defenders in Slovakia, addressing issues ranging from online hate to systemic racism against the Roma minority and the aftermath of a tragic shooting.

January 23, 2023 — Welcome to ENCATE! You were one of the organizers of the first LGBTQ Pride in Bratislava and the chair of Amnesty International in Slovakia. You know the human rights landscape very well. As an experienced activist, do you agree that the landscape for human rights defenders has become more threatening and challenging today?

Thank you for having us, we are looking forward to working in and with ENCATE. After meeting many of the networks members personally I was very impressed by the level of expertise and experience aswell as positive group dynamic and sense of community.

Unfortunately, I have to agree with your characterization. Successive governments have treated NGOs and activists as enemies, spreading hate speech and disinformation about individuals and organizations. Some of them have proposed anti-NGO legislation comparable to Putin’s Russia. Many of the right-wing media news outlets willingly participate in this, while the fake news sources champion it. I have been publicly attacked by members of parliament and the government, sometimes with antisemitic undertones. Threats of violence online are very common, almost a daily occurrence for many activists and organizations, including ours. One of my colleagues was attacked and beaten on the street shortly after one of the main political leaders spread hate about her and our organization at a political rally; the attackers loosely quoted what was said at the rally during the incident.

You have a professional IT background and your organization HRI is part of an international youth project focusing on digital resilience and prejudice. What can we do better to develop young people’s resilience to antisemitism and hate online?

Encouraging critical thinking and providing media literacy education is key in our experience. Involving young people, creating low-threshold learning, and meeting opportunities are also important. We live in a very different world than 20 years ago. To put it simply, traditional methods and tools do not work; they are not fit for purpose. Accepting that emotions and personal experiences are as important in shaping a person’s opinion as facts may be difficult, but it is inevitable if we are to remain relevant in the future. We need to meet young people on their terms, show respect and listen.

In 2022, our mapping report highlighted a significant negative bias against Roma in the Visegrad region. HRI is also working on this issue. Where do you see the bottlenecks in tackling this persistent problem in Slovakia?

Slovakia’s Roma minority is the victim of generational poverty and systemic racism. No government since the fall of communism in 1989 has attempted to change this in any significant way. Much of the community lives in so-called “settlements,” which are essentially slums without running water or sanitation. The creation of these slums can actually be traced back to the Holocaust, as the population was moved there in preparation for their extermination, which fortunately did not happen due to the fall of the Hitler regime and its puppet government in Slovakia. However, this is completely unknown to the majority of the population, so one of the things we are doing and have been doing for some time is to debunk the myths and stereotypes about Roma, such as in this case that it is “their choice and their responsibility” for their circumstances. Another important issue is the segregation of Roma children in primary schools, although it is not done in an official way, we basically have “white” and “black” classrooms. In some cases, the segregation amounts to separate buildings on school grounds or even whole schools. The European Commission is currently suing Slovakia for this practice. Obviously, the result of this practice is that Roma students receive an inadequate education and are unable to enter higher education and find jobs. In many cases, they end up in the same poverty as their parents and grandparents.

In 2022, a shooting outside a gay bar in Bratislava claimed two lives. The perpetrator’s manifesto gives us another reason to look at homophobia, antisemitism and extremism from an intersectional perspective. What did his manifesto say to us as practitioners?

The manifesto itself is a representation of the effects of prolonged exposure to hate speech and disinformation. Spreading hate against minorities has become a mainstream practice among the Slovak political class with very few exceptions. Disinformation sources (fake news outlets) have been extremely successful in taking over the public space in Slovakia over the last decade and are now virtually mainstream as well. Government ministers and many MPs regularly appear in these outlets, sometimes even preferring them to long-established newspapers. HRI has been responding to this trend since its foundation. Our methods and tools include formal and informal (participatory) education of high school students, training for teachers (youth and social workers), campaigning and media work, and, in extreme cases, legal action. The results are not insignificant, especially considering our capacities, but far from adequate compared to the magnitude of the challenges.

Two years after this attack, do you think there is a reckoning in society with the entrenched attitudes, values, and structures that caused this attack?

Unfortunately, the majority of society is in deep denial. There was no real public discussion about the perpetrator’s motives and the path that led him to murder; it was written off as a result of mental illness. In the disinformation outlets, the terrorist was even portrayed as a victim, and the LGBTI minority, including the murdered and injured persons, were blamed for the attack. There are increasing signs that a similar attack could happen. This comes from the high school teachers we meet and work with and the police. Recently, a rapid response team had to be called to a high school where a student was threatening to open fire. My colleagues were giving lectures at that school just a few months ago.

We decided to ask everyone we interview to recommend a movie. What movie would you recommend to our colleagues in ENCATE?

I am a movie buff, so it is not easy, but considering what we have just discussed, I would say District 9 by Neill Blomkamp.

Visual: © HRI