Democracy of informed citizens
Winston Churchill, who was voted the greatest Briton in a 2002 poll by the people of the United Kingdom, is credited with saying “Democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the others that people have tried.” However, Churchill is also credited with the statement “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” These two Churchill statements are in apparent contradiction. But not really.
Modern (liberal) democracy can work well only when it is put into operation and maintained daily by conscious citizens. Democratic power above all means responsibility. Accountability on both sides of the basic power hierarchy. That is, with those who practically exercise power – politicians, constitutional and public officials, but also with those who entrust politicians with their original power – that is, citizens.
Responsible use of power presupposes a critical level of information and education. Yes, also education and expertise in basic issues of democracy, human rights and the functioning of the rule of law. The ability of critical analysis, contextual thinking, but also self-reflection, moral consideration, and the ability to learn from one’s mistakes. Uninformed and ignorant decision-making is a lottery, a hit parade of popularity. Or a reality show. In any case, it is an irresponsible use of power.
Professor Miroslav Kusý was very well aware of these connections. The author of this article got to know him personally only after 1989. That is why he values his activities, which are related to efforts to raise and educate conscious, democratically thinking and feeling young people the most. Miroslav Kusý was the first rector of Comenius University. He founded the UNESCO Department for Human Rights Education. He co-founded and professionally and humanely managed the Human Rights Olympiad for many years, a high school activity that is unique not only in the Central European but also in the pan-European context. He was also at the birth of the Government Council for Human Rights.
Miroslav Kusý founded the Slovak Helsinki Committee and became its chairman for many years. After 2004, with the accession to the European Union, Slovakia’s history ended. Or at least it seemed that way for a while. The Slovak Helsinki Committee also reduced its activity. Its activists left for other public functions or founded their own organizations. However, the end of history has not come. There was also a need to renew the activities of the Helsinki Committee. However, it was no longer possible in its original form. A new organization was founded – the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Slovakia, as not a legal but an ideological successor to the original Helsinki principle. Professor Kusý became the honorary chairman of the organization.
Winston Churchill is also said to have said that he who is not a Marxist in his youth has no heart, but he who remains one after forty has no mind. Yes, Miroslav Kusý was a Marxist and communist in his youth. But in his forties, as one of the very few Slovaks, he signed Charter 77 and faced communist totalitarianism. Charter 77 was one of the first “products” of the so-called Helsinki process. It was inspired by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which took place in 1975 in Helsinki. At it, the leaders of all European states – including the communist ones at the time – pledged, among other things, to respect the human and civil rights of their residents.
The Helsinki process was institutionally completed in 1992 with the establishment of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The Slovak Republic was the presiding country of the OSCE that year. The year of the Slovak presidency in the OSCE should be declared as the year of Miroslav Kusý. The Slovak Republic should acknowledge that. There is still a chance for it.
Article by Helsinki Committee chairman Kálmán Petőcz in Denník N
Samantha, the star of the summit
Not long ago, the First European Union Summit on Education took place in Brussels. Twenty ministers of EU member states and many other prominent political guests made an appearance at the summit. However, the star of the event was – at least in the eyes of many present – a young lady named Samantha Cristoforetti. If the summit had ended after her contribution, which followed right after the opening speech of European Commissioner Navracsics, the world would not have missed anything important. Her contribution explained briefly, clearly and at the same time in “human language” all the essential moments that were discussed at the summit even though Samantha has nothing to do with politics or managing school systems officially.
You have probably never heard of Samantha. Maybe you have heard her name somewhere, but you cannot place her. Samantha Cristoforetti is an Italian astronaut who spent 199 days in orbit as a member of the International Space Station three years ago. She can really say she was not far from the stars. Currently, she is the only active European astronaut.
Based on her own experiences and her life’s destiny, Samantha was able to formulate suggestions about how the European education system should work. The most important aspect of education in her opinion is that the institutions do not ruin a child’s motivation to learn, their natural desire for exploring and their ability to become fascinated with new discoveries. Family and school should provide kids with a creative, trustworthy and safe atmosphere. Samantha was lucky enough to have the support she needed from both her family and her teachers. They also led her to be passionate and determined. The ethos of her family was volere è potere (where there’s will, there’s a way). She was able to learn how to believe in her dreams, because thanks to them, she was able to become a better person.
An interest in technical and natural sciences was awakened early on as a teenager. Since she visited a classic Italian high school, social sciences dominated the curriculum. But Samantha never saw this as a problem for several reasons. While studying natural sciences, the most important aspect of the field is the method of research. Having a good basis, knowing the research method, knowing how to study and breeding a desire for knowledge – those are the key to success. Despite the many technological advances that are now infiltrating the educational system, a real educator is still irreplaceable. They are the ones who teach the kids these keys to success, orient them in a vast pool of information and lead the to thinking critically.
Yes, today it is necessary to increase the emphasis put on acquiring natural science, technical and engineering skills. However, this should not happen at the expense of knowledge, skills and humanitarian values. Humanities also contribute to the improvement of analytical skills, critical thinking and reasoning in contexts. At the same time, however, they help increase the social and cultural cohesion of society.
Despite all the achievements of technology, it is still essential for a person to expresses themselves in thought-rich, complex and aesthetically impressive verbal and written statements. Human speech reduced to “chirping” (tweeting) or other radically simplified forms of communication is not true human speech. In this sense, it is worrying that the level of understanding of the written text, as well as the ability to formulate complex verbal statements, is decreasing among many children and young people.
Samantha Cristoforetti put strong emphasis on intercultural education, which should also focus on studying new languages. Samantha spent one year of high school in the United States. She learned how to speak English very well, but her stay in America was also her first big “culture shock”. She thinks every student in their teen age should spend a year studying abroad – not only because of the language, but also because that way the student gets to know different cultures, respect them and accept them. Europeans should know a lot more about each other, even at the expense of learning unimportant and uninteresting details about their own culture.
Samantha Cristoforetti can speak five languages – in addition to her native Italian, she speaks German, English, French and Russian. She finished a part of her studies in each of these languages. She attended university in Munich, then did a year abroad in Toulouse, and finished her master’s degree in Moscow. She studied combat aviation at another university in Naples, and then spent a year abroad in Texas. After several years of serving the military aviation department, she was chosen by the European Space Agency for astronaut training. She was preparing to go to space in Bajkonur, in Kazachstan. Samantha’s career path is the perfect example of academic and work mobility, which is what the European Union set as a goal to improve and develop at the summit.
Education according to Samantha should support the belief in one’s own strengths, confidence and competitiveness. However, competitiveness is not an end in itself; at the same time, such virtues as cooperation and team spirit must be cultivated. The new challenges facing humanity cannot be solved without fundamentally improved cooperation at the global level. “We are all members of the crew of a spaceship called Planet Earth – we can only survive if we learn to work together globally.”
Article by HVS chairman Kálmán Petőcz for Denník N on February 19, 2018
Flexible solidarity and human rights in practice
Thousands of refugees are freezing in Serbia and Hungary – men, women, and children – in cruelly cold conditions. One would expect that this is the time to practice flexible solidarity, which is an innovation introduced into the European asylum and refugee politics dictionary by the Slovak Committee. This innovation was adopted by other states of the Visegrad Group, but the rights to it are also being fought over by the Hungarian government.
Refugees who have settled in our region are not welcome in our countries, they do not fit into the cultural equation, and some of them may possibly be terrorists. We would be willing to help in the locations where the refugees are from. However, that is not as simple. It is far away, the situation is chaotic and unknown, other larger players have already suffered some consequences, including the United States. We do not have enough resources, military power, or logistical territory. “Improving the situation in countries where refugees are coming from” – it’s a nice sentiment, but highly hypocritical when coming from the mouths of the V4 politicians in the given context.
So, what about moving forward and applying the principle of flexible solidarity on refugees from Serbia, dear government? As Minister Kaliňák mentioned during his explanation of the principle of flexible solidarity in Brussels, “refugees are of course human beings, not numbers”. However, so far, it looks more like they are just considered numbers.
Being more engaged in Serbia would mean a helping hand for not only the refugees, but for Serbian authorities from our side. After all, Serbia and Slovakia are quite strongly tied due to their history and common destiny. However, it seems that states of the V4 group see flexible solidarity as more of a contribution to national security. We will send in some police forces, but we will leave humanitarian aid up to the volunteers and non-governmental organizations. Just like with marginalized Roma communities. In the best-case scenario, we will provide them with some help in the form of small grants, but even this will come with reluctance.
Maybe my evaluation is unfair. Maybe the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs have jumpstarted the process of making Slovakia react quicker and with more flexibility to the situation. Maybe even the Government Council for human rights which is under the Ministry of Justice will lend a helping hand. I would personally welcome such a gesture with open arms. In the end, this is a question of human rights and morality.
The Government Council for human rights spent four years debating – sometimes fruitlessly – about the state’s human rights strategy. It was finally accepted last year. It is now a matter of applying it in practice. For this, it is necessary that the council takes its role seriously, and that the government also takes its council seriously, if it has already established one. This means that the council should function not as a mindless machine of submitted formal documents and reports, but as an advisory body on matters of fundamental importance.
These should be important issues regarding the relationship between human rights and security, human rights and democracy, human rights and the rule of law, human rights and morality, and yes, human rights, globalization and migration. How otherwise do we want to build democracy without systematic education about democracy and human rights? How do we want to “fight” against extremism, when the minister of justice herself admitted on the pages of this newspaper that the enemies of liberal democracy are found in all political parties, not just the one that everyone points the finger at? What is the quality of the right to freedom of expression, when a significant part of the intellectual elite avoids speaking about public affairs because they are (justifiably) afraid for their existence? When those who speak up in the name of justice and human dignity are white crows, why then is it that in a functioning legal state it is the exact opposite? Those who violate the rule of law should be called black crows.
Article by HVS chairman Kálmán Petőcz for Denník N on January 13, 2017
We only eat what we cooked for ourselves
(About the absence of systematic education about democratic citizenship and human rights)
Modern democracy built on respect towards human rights and principles of the rule of law is not an automatically guaranteed and reproduced state of being with each and every passing day.
Democracy and respect towards human rights must constantly be cultivated, which is not possible without the right education and upbringing.
One of the main pillars of democracy is the right to vote. As with any other human right, this right is also universal. But as with any other human right, the right to vote has to be met with some degree of civil responsibility.
The limits to applying human rights are set by respecting the rights of others. When considering certain consequences, the fact that we applied our own human rights without proper consideration of certain facts and connections is irrelevant.
Since I often meet young people at work, I understand their arguments about why many of them voted for Marian Kotleba’s party. Nevertheless, it is clear that a big mistake has been made somewhere. The pages of this newspaper have already discussed how, after the Second World War, the Americans and the British introduced compulsory education for democracy in their occupation zones in Germany. In our country, after the fall of communism, no systematic education on democracy and human rights was introduced. Did the public officials imagine that when the principles of democracy and the catalog of basic rights and freedoms are included in the constitution, they will be implemented automatically, by themselves?
However, the international community gradually became more and more aware of the need for education about values and norms. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child from 1989 sets “enhancement of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” as one of the most important goals of education. The World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 called on UN member states to include teaching about democracy, human rights and the rule of law in educational content in all formal and non-formal education institutions.
In 2006, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU adopted a recommendation that states pay equal attention to the development of civic, social and cultural competences as other competences (language, science, digital, technical) in the process of lifelong learning. In 2010, the Council of Europe adopted the Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights. The Slovak Republic also took over all these political and legal obligations.
Nevertheless, if we look at the extent to which democracy, human rights, European institutions and values, and modern history are taught in many of our schools, we must be in total despair.
We are surprised that young people don’t vote in the European Parliament, but we also only teach them about European Union for a total of three to four hours during the entire period of compulsory school attendance. They are ready to protect European or national culture from refugees, Jews or Roma people, but many cannot say two consecutive sentences about the essence of European culture.
We are surprised that some cannot identify Nazi and fascist symbolism and its ideological roots, when the history of the 20th century is hardly studied at school. Either there is no time and space for this, or the teacher prefers to avoid these topics. There is a lack of high-quality teaching material, methodical instructions, and teachers of civics and ethics are often unqualified.
Nevertheless, the situation is not so hopeless. Already in 1992, the Department of Human Rights Education was established at the UNESCO Comenius University. Non-governmental organizations devote a lot of time and energy to the informal education of various target groups about democratic values and human rights. The 18th edition of the Human Rights Olympiad for high school students is currently underway, in which hundreds of young people participate every year.
Representatives of the UN and the Council of Europe praise the Olympiad as a model project that can be followed abroad. Many teachers are aware of the need for change. Therefore, there is no need to invent world-shattering novelties. It would be enough to support existing positive initiatives and structures with determination and finally begin to responsibly fulfill (in practice, not on paper) our international obligations.
However, neither our competent authorities nor “standard” politicians are enthusiastic about civic and democratic education. On the contrary, politicians constantly present the idea that education in humanities is useless and economically inefficient.
The above-mentioned initiatives operate with minimal state support. Without the voluntary work of several dozen passionate people, they would have disappeared long ago. However, this way of working is ineffective from a long-term perspective.
If this kind of quality educational content reaches perhaps twenty percent of the young population, it would be amazing, but it does not create the necessary critical mass for the long-term maintenance of social and civic cohesion in society. Especially if we consider that it is not only twenty percent of people who have a right to vote and are eligible, it is a hundred percent of voters. Further neglect of systematic education towards democratic values and European awareness within formal education for all is a road to hell.
Last year, after lengthy negotiations, the government finally adopted a national strategy for the protection and promotion of human rights. Its approval was to be followed by the adoption of an action plan for education for democratic citizenship and human rights. However, this has not yet happened and the fate of the said plan is still shrouded in fog.
None of the political parties commented on this topic in their election program. Maybe two or three of them, but very indirectly and vaguely.
We only eat what we have cooked for ourselves in the past 25 years.
Article by HVS chairman Kálmán Petőcz for Denník SME