Britské listy Interview 637. Czech Republic brutally distorts the human rights situation in Gaza

1. 12. 2023

čas čtení 17 minut


Jan Čulík talks to Andrew Stroehlein, media director of Human Rights Watch. Andrew Stroehlein visited Prague recently and tried to persuade a number of Czech journalists to publish objective information about the situation in Gaza. War crimes must be punished, whether they have been committed by Hamas or by Israel. Political loyalty, based on historical aspects of the Czech Republic's relationship with Israel cannot interfere in this.

The interview is conducted in English.

Here is a full transcript:


Jan Čulík: Brutal killings in Gaza. The alleged war between Hamas and Israel. And the absolute ideological bias of the Czech media. That's what we'll be talking about in today's Britské listy Interview. In it, we have, it's a great honour for us, the media director of Human Rights Watch, Andrew Stroehlein, who has been in Prague in recent days talking to journalists there, trying to persuade them not to be stupid and to write objectively. I don't know if he succeeded. One article was published by Seznam Zprávy, one interview, which reproduces quite faithfully the warning that Andrew Stroehlein brought to the Czech Republic. Already underneath it there are ideological and racist attacks. We will be speaking in English in today's Britské listy Interview, although Andrew Stroehlein can speak Czech and follows Czech affairs.

Andrew Stroehlein, you were in Prague at the beginning of the week and talked to journalists. What happened?

Andrew Stroehlein: Yes. Well, I talked to several journalists and commentators and observers, let's say, and you know, I think there is in terms of the questions I got in interviews and whatnot, you know, they were fair questions and challenging questions and, you know, completely normal. Same questions that I get on these subjects everywhere. But , talking to people, they explain, there's there's a recognition that the Czech Republic is an outlier in Europe and globally on this particular issue for many reasons and this plays a a role in the way government policy has emerged in the Czech Republic and how the Czech Government has been, extremely one sided in its condemnation of atrocities in Gaza.

Jan Čulík: Well, why do you think this is? In the interview In Seznam Zprávy you actually said that there are certain historical reasons for this. Can you actually outline these things? What do you think?

Andrew Stroehlein: I think we could write books about this to be honest. Just as a a quick shorthand, you could go back to a kind of an intellectual political tradition that the, the First Republic of Czechoslovakia comes out of that really included a kind of anti anti-Semitism of Masaryk and and others. And we saw that in things like Hilsnerova aféra and other incidents and a proud tradition that way. And then in 1948 we saw strong support from Czechoslovakia for the new state of Israel, including training and arms. Then we had kind of the flip side of that, pushed by the communist regime for the other side for the Palestinian side politically. And then after the the return of democracy, we saw an attitude that to support Palestinian aspirations that was somehow, you know, seen as that's what the Communists did. So that's what we don't want to do. But that's all kind of politics and the political history of it and maybe why and probably 100 other reasons as well. That Prague finds itself where it finds itself.

From the human rights standpoint, where where we are, it shouldn't really matter what political side you're on when it comes to things like war crimes, when one side commits war crimes, there are war crimes. When the other side commits war crimes, they are war crimes. And war crimes suddenly don't become acceptable just because your friends or your allies are committing them. And we need to see, a stronger voice against atrocities generally, war crimes specifically. And a more even handed approach, because this is, the basis of of international humanitarian law that, we apply the same rules and the same laws of war to all sides.

Jan Čulík: Well, what you have described is a condemnation of the Czech attitude. An ideological attitude of journalists and politicians therefore and as you rightly pointed out, Czech Republic was an absolute outlier in voting totally differently from everybody else in the United Nations, and there was even one mad Czech politician who basically said that the Czech Republic should leave the United Nations. But the point is that they don't seem to be really following the events day by day, what is actually happening in Gaza and they're just presenting this ideological view. I was quite interested in some of the racist comments under the article in Seznam zprávy, one reader basically said, well, really, the onus is on them. Why don't they basically drive Hamas out? I thought. Well, I know it's 35 years, but I mean Czechs with the experience of Communism, they could actually understand that when you have an authoritarian regime, it's not really your responsibility to drive it out. So this is one thing, but would you, Andrew, actually point out what are the problems, the war crimes, the Israeli war crimes that the Czechs are ignoring.

Andrew Stroehlein: Sure. Well, I mean, just just to take the one side first, I mean the the Czechs, the Czech Government and and other governments around Europe and elsewhere were very quick and right to condemn the Hamas and Hamas led atrocities of October 7th. these were brutal war crimes that they committed, including shooting into crowds and taking hostages, those are all war crimes without question. And I think, the international community generally was very quick and and and proper to condemn those. When it came to the response from Israel, there's a number of war crimes we could point to, but I think the one that is most obvious and very clear and ongoing has been the blockade. So you're not allowed in international humanitarian law, the laws of war, you're not allowed to collectively punish a population for the attacks of the other side. So there are 2.2 million people in Gaza, about half of them are children, and there's no way you can tell me that all 2.2 million people and half children are responsible for the attacks of October 7th. They're just not. And so collective punishment of all of them, like cutting electricity, cutting water, or extremely restricting these things and food aid and so on, that's collective punishment. And that is, you know, a war crime.

Jan Čulík: If you follow what's going on and when they, during the pause in fighting, they started releasing some people from Israeli prisons as well and to my horror they were mostly children although the media and the Czech Republic kind of ignores this and then I've actually realised from reports by Amnesty International and others thats Israel keeps in prison using some kind of British law from decades ago, incarcerating children 14 year old. For an indefinite period, for crimes that they may or may not have committed, I mean like throwing stones at soldiers, or maybe just being there somewhere where somebody threw stones and you were then arrested indefinitely. I'm really absolutely fascinated that this is not reported.

One other thing, Channel 4 News have been brilliant as some of the other British media they happened to be in the West Bank and they actually noticed and recorded, there was some kind of Palestinian demonstration about 100 meters from some of Israeli soldiers. These soldiers shot into the air, the demonstration, dispersed, and there was a disabled person, mentally disabled person, somebody, a young boy whom everybody loved in the village, a Palestinian and he was left behind. And he kind of picked up a stone and threw it towards the soldiers. It was about 100 meters away, so he couldn't hit them. He then picked up another stone and third stone. And when he threw the third stone, the the Israelis soldiers shot him, shot him dead. Right. This is recorded on the Channel 4 video. The report is about 7 minutes. Only on Twitter, it has been watched by 5 million people. I translated it for Britské listy, it had about 1000 views. Nobody cares in the Czech Republic. Can you explain this?

Andrew Stroehlein:  We talked a little bit about the history and the political history of it, but I wonder really how much interest there is among the public for this issue generally, right? I mean, it's not like, I mean, one person I was speaking with was explaining it to me in Prague that it's not like the the war in Ukraine where it's near and it feels, you know, fresh and threatening. And, you know, this is far away and people don't maybe carequite as much combined with the media bias and the political bias, there's just not an enormous amount of public interest. You know, when there's protests in the street, they're very small in the Czech Republic, if at all and you know, they may even be outnumbered by pro Israeli counter protesters. So it's not, it's not like, what you see in parts of the West.

Jan Čulík: Well, this was again kind of distorted news. 800,000 maybe people attending a demonstration in London. So Czech media would say and the Czech social networks, oh, they are all Muslims. Obviously Britain has been overridden by it. It's lost. Britain is lost to us, to the West, yes.

Andrew Stroehlein: This is how the narrative plays out in the Czech Republic. I mean, and not just the Czech Republic, but you know, parts of East Central Europe, let's say. This is how the narrative often plays out. It plays right into the kind of Islamophobia and the anti Muslim attitudes that have emerged in recent years and yeah, you get this narrative of let's see, that's what we don't want. This is why we don't want these people here and so it's this mixing of Islamophobia and these kind of hatreds for foreigners, particularly Arabs. Particularly Muslims. And it is just a completely different approach from a country that's, let's face it, still pretty monocultural and doesn't have the kind of diversity that might bring some deeper understanding, nuance and balance to events.

Jan Čulík: I am conducting this interview badly because I should be criticizing you and I'm actually maybe more upset by this than you, but nevertheless, I will still ask a question which some people might consider biased. It's I don't know whether it's that the people are not that interested. I would say that they are quite passionate kind of debates on the social media about it in Czech as well. But what seems to be the problem is that they seem to lack compassion. They seem to kind of totally ignore the human misery that is caused in any family where they would actually kill your teenager. And then there are 5000 cases and I'm just wondering whether this is racism, but of course this is Islamophobia, which was introduced by President Zeman, it has just basically caused that the Czech Republic is a victim of a totally constructed virtual reality discourse. But let's be critical. Some of the people under that article in Seznam are saying, oh, of course, Human Rights, Watch is totally biased, it's financed from Qatar. Is that true?

Andrew Stroehlein:  No. People try to smear our organization all the time with this stuff, and it's simply not true. We never accept any money from governments. It's just not the case.

Jan Čulík: Well, on Seznam Zprávy is says at the beginning, that article says, well, Human Rights Watch is well known for being anti-Israeli. Is that true?

Andrew Stroehlein:  Again, there are people who try to smear us that way. There are supporters of every single government that we criticize, who say we are anti that government. So you know if there's a government in Ruritania, they have their supporters and they say we are anti Ruritanian, we criticize Russia and supporters of Russia say that we are anti-Russian and then you know we criticize Myanmar and supporters of the Junta say that we're just anti-Myanmar. And then and then we criticize Israel for its crimes. And there are people who are supporters of the Israeli Government and say we're anti Israeli or whatever. It´s just a typical thing that all governments do or supporters of governments do when they're criticized by human rights organizations.

Jan Čulík: You did in the past point out that Israel is actually practicing apartheid against the Palestinians and you were not the only ones. I think Amnesty International said that as well. Could you elaborate on this briefly?

Andrew Stroehlein:  Sure. Well, first of all, so everyone understands, apartheid is a crime in international law is it's not simply just referring to the specifics of what happened in South Africa and really what it is is a system of domination by one group over another. Your rights within the legal system depend on your status and if you're of one background, then you have a better set of rights or a fuller set of rights under the law than you do elsewhere. So some people for example get tried for some act of violence or even would not be tried in a case, in a court, a civilian court, a normal court. But for others, they'll be tried in military courts, where your rights are are much less. So it's an entire system of suppression, repression that, you know, we've documented. Amnesty has documented, Israeli human rights organizations have also documented like Betselem, so we're not saying anything that is out of the ordinary. It's pretty well documented. These are crimes and you know there are officials who should be held responsible for these crimes.

Jan Čulík: Back to your visit to Prague the other day. So how many journalists did you speak to there and how many were even interested in speaking to you?

Andrew Stroehlein:  I was only there for about a day and a half, Honza, so I was not there for a very long time, I talked to about six or seven, probably. But in terms of formal interviews, there was there was the one for Seznam zprávy and that was that's I think the only interview I'm expecting to come out. So the other ones were more like off the record, when I have these conversations with journalists, sometimes it's an interview where I'm giving, Human Rights Watch´s standpoint as a spokesperson and other times, I really just want to understand what the situation is. And so I talked to journalists and commentators and others, observers.

Jan Čulík: And what did they tell you that the situation is then?

Andrew Stroehlein:  They explained how things are very one-sided and there's multiple reasons and you get back to the the historical political reasons. But we get back to why is the country such an outlier politically and that happens because the public is not well informed. That´s clear the media are really quite biased in one direction. And so the politics and the media, they're informing each other in terms of how they react and how they respond to things and how they define things and the narrative they use to define things. And that means that the general public is not really informed in any kind of balanced way. So we learn about the atrocities from one side and we don't learn about the atrocities from the other side or the victims of one side are humanized and are accepted as they're suffering, their suffering is accepted as real. And the suffering of the other side is dehumanized, it's not accepted as well. They are somehow lesser human beings or they somehow deserve it or they are guilty or this just happens in war and sometimes that's bad, when it's one side. But when it's the other side it's not that at all. So what you have to do in all these situations and when you start talking about the international humanitarian law and the laws of war and whatnot, you get to a kind of whatever legal level, but you really have to take it back down to a human level. These are people who are innocent and suffering. And there are people who are committing crimes against them, I don't really care if it's side A or side B, right? There are still crimes and the people who are responsible for these crimes should be brought to justice. There is an International Criminal Court case, International Criminal. Court investigation that the prosecutor has jurisdiction here, for all the crimes that have been committed on October 7th and afterwards. So all of these crimes could potentially go to the International Criminal Court and, you know, some countries in the EU, like Belgium, have supported that all of these crimes from both sides should get justice at the International Criminal Court and other fora and you know that's what we need to see all EU Member States pushing for, including the Czech Republic, we need to see justice and the Czech Republic's been, good in other places on on human rights in places like China but also on international justice, in places like Ukraine has been a very strong supporter of international justice when it comes to Russia's crimes during its invasion and occupation of Ukraine, and why can't we see that same kind of support for international justice from the Czech Republic in the crisis in Israel?

Jan Čulík: Thank you very much. Andrew Stroehlein, Human Rights Watch.

Thank you for watching. Good-bye

Andrew Stroehlein:  Good-bye.

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