Our past is important. For while it does not necessarily have to determine our future, it can certainly aid us when we need to draw on our experiences for guidance and comfort. If we got this far, after having gone through all that, then surely, we can survive anything else that is thrown at us, right? This is certainly a helpful mentality to have, and a positive one too. It’s important that we embrace changes in our lives and the new directions that they take us on whilst being mindful of what we learned along the way. This is certainly the outlook taken by Ambassador Václav Bálek, the Permanent Representative of the Czech Republic to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva. Now, as he embarks on his new position as Human Rights Council (HRC) President of the 17th Cycle (2023), Ambassador Bálek reflects on how he got here and what his next steps will be.
Let’s start at the beginning, where did his passion for diplomacy originate from and what drove him to become the Permanent Representative of the Czech Republic to the UN in Geneva? Ambassador Bálek explains: “It’s a long story actually. I was born in then Czechoslovakia and grew up in the countryside. I studied precision mechanics and optics and later on laser physics at the Czech Technical University. As you can see, initially I did not plan to join my country’s diplomatic service and get involved in politics. However, the fall of the “Iron Curtain” followed by the dissolution of Czechoslovakia and establishment of the Czech Republic led to significant changes around me. I was still working at the Czech Academy of Sciences when I came across an advertisement about the opening of the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At that time we would talk a lot with my then-girlfriend (now wife) about new opportunities brought by the new era and perhaps also about our generation’s role and responsibilities in all of this. So, together we decided that I would pick up an application form for the Diplomatic Academy. It worked out and I joined my country’s foreign service.
Upon completing my traineeship at the Diplomatic Academy I started at a junior position at the ministry’s Security Department, learning every day something new about diplomacy. Following my first posting abroad at the Embassy in London I proceeded to work as Deputy Director of the Security Department and then as Director of the Common Foreign and Security Policy Department. In 2009, after the Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU I became a Czech Ambassador to the European Union’s Political and Security Committee in Brussels. In between my postings, I spent time in Prague, where I became Director-General for non-European States, Political Director. Consequently, I was appointed Director of the Department for the development cooperation and humanitarian aid. After eight years in Prague, I was then given the opportunity to go to Geneva, which is where I am now. I enjoy representing my country as its ambassador here. The job can certainly be challenging”.
Every career has its special moments. Ambassador Bálek explains that for him personally “there have been many different highlights over the years. When I first joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was a junior diplomat. One of my first tasks included preparing daily reports on what was happening in the Balkans at the time – the events there really stuck with me on the personal as well as professional level. A challenge that I faced directly was when we held the presidency of the Council of the EU. We had joined the EU in May 2004 and five years later we had the Presidency of the whole Council of the EU. At the time, there wasn’t the Lisbon Treaty, instead we had a rotating presidency with many more responsibilities. During this time, I had to decide whether I wanted to go abroad again for another posting or remain in my home country, which meant taking charge of the preparations for the presidency. I decided to stay and face this challenge. In the end, it was a great experience. We spent so much time on preparing our presidency, but as with all presidencies the agenda had totally changed just as we had begun. We had started with the Guantánamo crisis at the beginning of the year, then we had the first gas crisis, and then the war in Gaza. So, we had quite a busy presidency. In my role as the Czech Ambassador to the European Union’s Political and Security Committee, I personally experienced all the changes occurring in the European Union itself, from the rotating model presidency to the Lisbon arrangement. I would argue that, at this time, the Political and Security Committee was quite an interesting and strong body. It made for an interesting time! However, the ultimate highlight of my career was being elected as President of the Council”.
Major decisions like running to become the next HRC President are not taken lightly. What were the initial steps and decisions taken by his country to run for the position? Here, Ambassador Bálek reveals: “It is quite an interesting story. When I arrived in Geneva, I certainly had no ambitions of becoming the President of the Human Rights Council. In fact, at that time we were actually leaving the Council in our role as a member. Instead, my ambitions were more focused on the digital agenda and on using my knowledge and background on humanitarian affairs. The war in Ukraine changed everything. In April last year, a vacant seat in the Human Rights Council unexpectedly occurred. Then in May, the General Assembly elected the Czech Republic to the Human Rights Council for the remainder of the term of office of the Russian Federation. We were encouraged by colleagues and partners to consider running for the vacant seat. Our team was experienced, we had a pretty strong record on human rights and so it made sense for us to join the Council. Given my country’s historic quest to survive in the middle of Europe, demands for human rights have played a big role in our past and our present. Democracy and respect for a rules-based system are things which are heavily embedded in my country’s history. So, we joined, and subsequently the question of who would chair the Council on behalf of the Eastern European Group arose. We had internal debates on this, and it seemed logical for us to apply for this position. We had never chaired the Council in the past, and given our enthusiasm for human rights, we thought that we should at least apply, and so authorities in Prague gave us the go-ahead”.
The position of President of the HRC is demanding yet very rewarding. It requires the individual to possess a certain set of skills, which will evidently be needed to be used to best serve the interests of the Council. Ambassador Bálek’s approach on this matter is simple: “I will certainly try to offer my experience, energy and skills which I’ve acquired over the last 20+ years. But I do not suggest that I am the perfect person for this job. I will say that I have many contacts and many people are familiar with me and know who I am. I think I would also say that my country’s commitment and success during our EU Presidency will inspire people to have confidence in me and my ability to deliver. That I was elected by acclamation has given me a good sign. I think that trust is important here, as this is a huge responsibility, and I will use all my contacts and resources to always work in the Council’s favour. Yes, the position of President is important, but at the end of the day it is the Council that matters most. The President must therefore act as a bridge-builder to foster cooperation and ensure that the Council’s work best serves the people of the world”.
Evidently, the Permanent Representative of the Czech Republic to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva is more than ready for the task in front of him. His determination to strive for a successful presidency at the HRC is reflective of his positive outlook that has served him well throughout his life and career. His pride, both for the high value his native country places on human rights and his own strong diplomatic and humanitarian background, will see the Council in very capable hands.