Yesterday the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, an expert body of the Council of Europe, held a round table in Riga with a bunch of local experts. The speakers, drawn from various government institutions, independent research centres and NGOs, presented their views on the anti-dicsimination policies and legal provisions in Latvia, occasionally pointing to the areas where there are problems. It would have been a fairly innocent, routine event, if not for the sudden appearance of the Latvian MP Jānis Šmits.
It has to be added, for those who are not familiar with the Latvian political world, that Mr Šmits is not your average, unremarkable MP. He is the head of the Human Rights Committee of the Latvian Parliament and, by coincidence, is widely known fro his homophobic rhetoric – so much so that whole chapters in books by local researchers are dedicated to his speeches.
Surprisingly for anyone who would expect a decent post-Communist politician to maintain double standards when speaking to international organisations, Mr Šmits did not bother to change his act at yesterday’s ECRI round table. Within a few sentences he managed to claim that : A. There is no racism in Latvia, since the Latvians are a peaceful nation; B. Those who still believe there is some racism in Latvia are behaving demagogically; and C. It is true that there is some hate speech on the Internet, but it will soon end, because the new Media Law will take care of introducing really stringent Internet regulations. Further remarks by Mr Šmits on this point seem to indicate that the new, really stringent regulation of the Internet in Latvia may take its inspiration at least partly from China.
Not surprisingly, these statements created a stir in the audience and made some people fairly angry. At least one person, however, kept his head – the moderator of that lively discussion, who happened to be also the Ombudsman of the Republic of Latvia. Not only did he leave the MP’s remarks about the absence of racism without attention; he also appeared to be fairly vexed by the fact that the angry critics of Mr Šmits were stealing precious time from the coffee break. I hope the Ombudsman got his coffee in the end. And I hope that the members of ECRI present at the discussion heard something that might be of interest to them.