Journal of Democracy
Volume 16, No. 4
Vaclav Havel, a playwright and one of Europe’s most prominent moral and intellectual figures, was a leading dissident during the period of communist rule. He was elected as the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, and later served as president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. From April to Juneof 2005, he occupied the Kluge Chair for Modern Culture at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. This text is based on a lecture that he presented at the Library of Congress on 24 May 2005. It was translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson.
During my first presidential visit to the United States more than fifteen years ago, I received an important gift here in Washington, on behalf of my country. It was the original manuscript of the Czechoslovakian Declaration of Independence from the year 1918. This rare and valuable document had, until 1990, been the property of the Library of Congress. It was hand-written in Czech by our first president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, who deserves a great deal of the credit for the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia and who, when he was in exile in the United States, worked closely with President Woodrow Wilson. It is highly likely that, in writing this Declaration, Masaryk was inspired by the American Declaration of Independence.
There are several such documents in modern history that have had a significance similar to that enjoyed to this day by the American Declaration of Independence. I need only mention, for instance, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted after World War II by the United Nations, or the Final Act of Helsinki Conference in 1975. These documents are so much more successful for having been written in simple, clear, eloquent language, if only because that makes it easier for school children to learn them and take them to heart, so that they become a permanent part of their civic understanding and their system of values.
Along with the precision and the elegance of such basic documents, of course, there is one other thing that plays an immensely important role: There must be people who are willing, as they say so, to “put themselves on the line” for these documents. These declarations must be taken seriously; their general principles must be made specific: they must be made genuinely binding; and their fulfillment must be a tangible thing.
Unfortunately, there are regimes or governments in the world who make a great show of flaunting these papers, yet clearly do not take them seriously. For such regimes, these declarations are merely ritual that has a single purpose: to disguise a miserable reality. Their function is similar to the function of many celebrations, flag-waving parades, demonstrations, or celebratory proclamations or speeches: not to reveal truth, but to hide it.
What may rightly and properly be done about it?
Certainly, such manipulation with words, texts, declarations, constitutions, or laws should not be met with merely private ridicule or resistance. There is another way, one that is riskier, yet more productive. It may not be universally applicable, but it has proven effective in most cases, especially in the modern world with its unprecedented concentrations of power and the unprecedented influence of falsely used words. That way consists in a persistent effort to take those who invoke those declarations at their word, and to demand that their words amount to more than hollow sound. Such an approach usually provokes great astonishment and anger in rulers who are used to no one taking them at their word, and to no one having the courage to appeal to the real meaning of their words. But that is only to be expected.
This is precisely what we did during the era of dissident resistance to communist totalitarian power. We took our country’s constitution, its laws, and its international treaties—and among them, chiefly the Final Act of the Helsinki Agreement—very seriously, and we began to demand that the government respect them. That was how not only Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia did it, but also Solidarity in Poland, the Helsinki Committees in the Soviet Union, and opposition groups in the other communist countries. Those in power were surprised and caught off guard, and it was hard for them to justify the persecution of those who demanded nothing more than that the authorities respect the rules that they themselves had set. And so a mere appeal to truth began to win out over the police and the army.
I am convinced that we must support in every possible way people who stand up to dictatorial regimes by taking them at their word and drawing public attention to all the contradictions between words and deeds that are part of these regimes’ daily practice. Such courageous people exist in North Korea, in China, in Belarus, in Cuba, in Burma, and in other countries as well. We all admire the courageous Aung San Suu Kyi, who believed in democracy and peacefully speaks out against its violent suppression. Recognition is also due to the remarkable work of the Cuban dissidents, who—to name only one initiative among others—have managed to gather tens of thousands of signatures in support of the Varela Project, which takes the law seriously and, in a legal way, demands respect for formally declared principles. Likewise, the Belarusian critics of Lukashenka’s rule deserve both moral and material support. Many such citizens who confront dictatorial regimes in these peaceful ways are active on the home front; many others work abroad, and many more are in prison.
I am glad that there are among us this evening representatives of some of the groups and organizations who are struggling for human rights in countries where, in varying degrees, they are violated, and that we can hear their voices here. For after all, human rights must necessarily appear in the official proclamations or fundamental documents of countries with widely different regimes. Repressive regimes, by necessity, most frequently violate these rights. Their hope is that no one will expose such violations and that no one will dare to shout out that the emperor has no clothes because his magnificent clothing is no more than an illusion. Human rights are also violated in large and powerful countries like China, for instance, where to this day there are still concentration camps for alleged enemies of the regime or simply for people who think differently. It makes me very uneasy that democratic countries—without having any real evidence of a change in China’s governing policies—are even thinking about lifting the embargo on weapons to that country that was imposed after the massacre of free-thinking young people in Tianamen Square in Beijing and the lifting of which would mean new dangers for the democratic government in Taiwan. And finally, even the real representatives of Tibet demand nothing more today than that human rights be respected in their country, including the right to an authentic and autonomous administration, to their own religion, to their own culture, and to respect for their own traditions and history.
Not only is it a moral responsibility, it is also in the vital interests of everyone who lives in democratic or free conditions not to be indifferent to the fate of people who do not enjoy the same good fortune, and to offer a wide spectrum of help to those who have the courage, even in unfree conditions, to behave freely and, under the rule of lies, to serve truth. It is thus the natural duty of democratic governments to know about the true state of affairs in such countries and to speak about it openly at home, in the international field, and in meetings with representatives of all countries, no matter how powerful they may be, where there are reasons for concern. If these latter countries base their international relations on the idea that their counterparts should turn a blind eye to certain failings, or that they must not talk about these things, then genuinely democratic governments, on the contrary, should base all their partnerships on the truth and on mutual openness.
We are living in a time when a single global civilization embraces our planet and when the fate of every human being and every society is, more than ever before, the fate of us all. If we care for others, we are, at the same time, caring for ourselves and our children.
As someone who years ago experienced firsthand the arbitrary rule of a dictatorial regime, but then lived to see better times—to a large extent because of the international solidarity extended to us—I appeal to all those who have the opportunity to act against such arbitrary behavior and to express their solidarity with people and nations who to this day live in a state of unfreedom.