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Czech Republic: U.S. Ambassador Outlines Top Priorities

  • Robert McMahon

Prague, 22 January (RFE/RL) -- The following is an excerpted RFE/RL interview (conducted yesterday) with the new U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, John Shattuck, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.

In his previous role as assistant secretary of state, Shattuck helped negotiate and carry out the Dayton Peace Accords, worked to establish the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and administered U.S. foreign assistance programs to support democratic institutions.

Our correspondent asked Shattuck to discuss his top priorities in the Czech Republic and to comment on the way international bodies are coping with human rights and conflict resolution in regions like the former Yugoslavia.

Q: So many of the issues currently under debate in the Czech Republic are relevant for the rest of the region such as corruption or lagging market reforms or problems over minority rights. Which of these would you attach top priority to?

A: Restructuring the economy is crucial but doing that in a realistic way, in a way that in fact addresses problems such as nationalization of banks and nationalization of industries and really privatizes them. But related to that are issues of rule of law and developing a legal system that is responsive to not only the economy as it becomes more private but also to genuine protection of minorities and human rights in the field of transition. ... Also, developing more effective and democratic methods of law enforcement, combatting terrorism and providing real teeth to a criminal justice system that will try to address problems of organized crime and international crime so that they don't become cancers on a transitional society.

Q. Do you see the pending EU expansion as something that's going to hasten [reform] in this country:

A. Very much so and I think the EU expansion and the integration of Europe and the strengthening of pan-European systems and internal institutions within new democracies in Europe are all very closely related. The United States is probably the strongest outside supporter of not only EU expansion but in this case very specifically the Czech Republic's accession into the EU because we think it's very good not only for democracy and the shared values that we have but also for the economic development and movement toward a full free market economy. And we are coordinating very closely with the European Union ... particularly in the areas of justice and judicial training. We're going to work closely with the EU and I think that's something that should be good news for all Czech citizens. There not only is no need to choose between the United States and the EU, we are all very close allies in this struggle for democracy.

Q. At some point people are going to have to bear these costs (of reform). From what you've seen, do you think the Czechs are ready to do that?

A. Well, I think the current economic recession is beginning to provide a serious wake-up call to those who thought the economy was doing well and that no further reforms were going to be needed. ... I think the real question now is whether the political will can be mustered among political leaders to make real fundamental systemic changes and not simply just keep pushing on with the existing system.

I think the fact that the Czech Republic is about to become a member of NATO and has done a lot of systemic work in its military and some of the related economic issues around the military I think is good news. That's going to mean that it will now have to work very closely with other democracies in Western Europe on many issues, not only just on specific NATO issues but other issues that come up in the context of NATO.

Q: You are coming here at a time when the Czechs are poised to become a full member [of NATO]. President [Vaclav] Havel has been a strong advocate but at times it seems as if he's just pulling the country along. Do you see the Czechs as ready to become part of NATO and a functioning member?

A: Well, I think a great deal of work has been done in recent months in particular to address the technical and very important military requirements of becoming a member of NATO here in the Czech Republic and there's still more work to be done but I think the Czechs are in the process of revising their laws that will allow them to deploy troops in a NATO context. They are improving their personnel systems so that they will be able to retain people in the military for longer periods of time. They are, I think, also working on security procedures and security clearances so that military personnel can be fully integrated into the NATO command structure. These are all in progress.

I think the Czech public is perhaps not as supportive of NATO as it should be if it really understood that its self-interest is best served by NATO membership and full integration. So I as ambassador, and working with many others in this country, I'm going to give a very high priority to doing public events and public appearances and helping to explain why security and better security is the best way to promote democracy and also economic opportunity for all Czechs.

Q: It's been a year of individuals who are occupying the questions of international law -- Pinochet, Ocalan, Bin Laden. Do you see international law moving in a direction where there will be some sort of consensus on these issues?

A: Well, I think there's certainly been greater focus this year on issues of human rights crimes committed by individuals and the urgency of finding international mechanisms for bringing people who commit such crimes to justice. I myself was very much involved in the creation of the two international war crimes tribunals, the one for the former Yugoslavia and the one for Rwanda. And those were created by the United Nations as the first ever international institutions to bring to justice those people who had committed crimes against humanity, including, in a number of instances, genocide. ... What we're talking about here on the international arena today is bringing justice to bear on people wherever they come from if they've committed crimes against humanity.

And that's why I think the considerations of expanding jurisdiction to allow individual countries to try such cases as well as creating new institutions such as an international criminal court to try these cases is very important.

Q: Kosovo, you saw first hand the situation there, how intractable some of these situations can be. In our listening area, you have Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, the Kurdish question. What kinds of models can countries and separatists follow so that it doesn't spiral into a Kosovo-type situation?

A: I think the issue is to find ways of building institutions to protect minorities and to assure that democratic processes can be brought about whereby minorities can have a voice in determining their own future and their own self determination, and certainly the international community can play a role in that in seeking to arbitrate and negotiate some of these issues.

On the other hand when individuals or leaders, worse yet, commit crimes against humanity and genocide under some banner of either promoting nationalist aims, as in the case of the former Yugoslavia, or where they are claiming that they are simply leading a war of liberation, that is unacceptable because those crimes now are widely condemned and must be brought to justice. So, I think the international community needs both better instruments for assuring democratic processes and the protection of minorities and better instruments for bringing people to justice who simply go and kill other people because they are a member of a group.

Q: What groups have proved to be the most effective multinational groups or multilateral groups for [conflict resolution].

A: I think the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) I would like to pick out of the pack and focus on because I do think it's a very important multilateral and very far-reaching because it has members of all the states of the former Soviet Union as well as European states and the United States. I think the OSCE is increasingly tested as a conflict resolution mechanism and I think there's one institution in the OSCE -- the high commissioner for national minorities -- who is currently a former Dutch foreign minister, Max Van Der Stoel, that I think presents a very interesting and important model. What the high commissioner for national minorities does is to go long before a conflict has become an armed conflict or something that really is out of control and tries to arbitrate and negotiate among various ethnic groups and national groups within a country to try to bring about a much more peaceful solution to the kinds of problems that they're having. And he's had a huge impact I think, in the Baltics, for example. The Baltic states, I think, have been very much affected by the work of the high commissioner in a positive way, and a very quiet way. This is not something that makes headlines, by the way. I think the problem is the headlines are almost always made by the mass killings and not by the quiet work to promote the kind of peaceful integration that has been done in the case of the OSCE.