PRECEDENCE:

March 13, 2005

Address by Vaclav Havel President of the Czech Republic to the Senate and the House of Commons of the Parliament of Canada (Parliament Hill, Ottawa, 29 April 1999)

[T]here is a value which ranks higher than the State. This value is humanity. The State, as is well known, is here to serve the people, not the other way round. If a person serves his or her state such service should go only as far as is necessary for the state to do a good service to all its citizens. Human rights rank above the rights of states. Human liberties constitute a higher value than State sovereignty. In terms of international law, the provisions that protect the unique human being should take precedence over the provisions that protect the State.

If, in the world of today, our fates are merged into one single destiny, and if every one of us is responsible for the future of all, nobody – not even the State – should be allowed to restrict the right of the people to exercise this responsibility. I think that the foreign policies of individual states should gradually sever the category that has, until now, most often constituted their axis, that is, the category of “interests”, “our national interests” or “the foreign policy interests of our state”. The category of “interests” tends to divide rather than to bring us together. It is true that each of us has some specific interests. This is entirely natural and there is no reason why we should abandon our legitimate concerns. But there is something that ranks higher than our interests: it is the principles that we espouse. Principles unite us rather than divide us. Moreover, they are the yardstick for measuring the legitimacy or illegitimacy of our interests. I do not think it is valid when various state doctrines say that it is in the interest of the state to uphold such and such a principle. Principles must be respected and upheld for their own sake – so to speak, as a matter of principle – and interests should be derived from them. […]

Dear friends,

Many times in the past, I have pondered on the question of why humanity has the prerogative to any rights at all. Inevitably, I have always come to the conclusion that human rights, human liberties and human dignity have their deepest roots outside of this earthly world. They become what they are only because, under certain circumstances, they can mean to humanity a value that people place – without being forced to – higher than even their own lives. Thus, these notions have meaning only against the background of the infinite and of eternity. It is my profound conviction that the true worth of all our actions – whether or not they are in harmony with our conscience, the ambassador of eternity in our soul – is finally tested somewhere beyond our sight. If we did not sense this, or subconsciously surmise it, certain things could never get done.

Let me conclude my remarks on the State and on the role it will probably play in the future with the following statement: While the State is a human creation, humanity is a creation of God.

Yet the awkward fact we have to face is that for all the liberalization and democratization of the past century, only one state proceeds from the basis that Mr. Havel correctly outlines here:

You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe.
John Adams

and has preserved that principle without change:

Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.
George W. Bush

Advertisements

VILE:

February 5, 2005

Shameful EU appeasement of Castro puts profit before principle (Vaclav Havel, The Scotsman, February 5th, 2005)

I vivedly remember the slightly ludicrous, slightly risqué and somewhat distressing predicament in which Western diplomats in Prague found themselves during the Cold War.

They regularly needed to resolve the delicate issue of whether to invite to their embassy celebrations various Charter 77 signatories, human-rights activists, critics of the communist regime, displaced politicians, or even banned writers, scholars and journalists – people with whom the diplomats were generally friends.

Sometimes we dissidents were not invited, but received an apology; and sometimes we were invited, but did not accept the invitation so as not to complicate the lives of our courageous diplomat friends. Or we were invited to come at an earlier hour in the hope that we would leave before the official representatives arrived, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t.

This all happened when the Iron Curtain divided Europe, and the world, into opposing camps. Western diplomats had their countries’ economic interests to consider; but, unlike the Soviet side, they took seriously the idea of “dissidents or trade”. I cannot recall any occasion at that time when the West or any of its organisations (Nato or the European Community) issued some public appeal, recommendation or edict stating that some specific group of independently minded people – however defined – were not to be invited to diplomatic parties, celebrations or receptions.

But today this is happening. One of the strongest and most powerful democratic institutions in the world – the EU – has no qualms in making a public promise to the Cuban dictatorship that it will re-institute diplomatic Apartheid. The EU’s embassies in Havana will now craft their guest lists in accordance with the Cuban government’s wishes. The shortsightedness of socialist Prime Minister José Zapatero of Spain has prevailed. […]

I can hardly think of a better way for the EU to dishonour the noble ideals of freedom, equality and human rights that the Union espouses; indeed, principles that it reiterates in its new constitutional agreement. To protect European corporations’ profits from their Havana hotels, the Union will cease inviting open-minded people to EU embassies; and we will deduce who they are from the expression on the face of the dictator and his associates. It is hard to imagine a more shameful deal.

Cuba’s dissidents will, of course, happily do without Western cocktail parties and polite conversation at receptions. This persecution will admittedly aggravate their difficult struggle; but they will naturally survive it. The question is whether the EU will survive it. […]

It is suicidal for the EU to draw on Europe’s worst political traditions, the common denominator of which is the idea that evil must be appeased and that the best way to achieve peace is through indifference to the freedom of others.

What must really be painful for a titan like Havel is that almost nobody knows anymore what Europe’s best political traditions are.


CZECH, PLEASE:

October 22, 2004

Havel, his memories and the world (Judy Dempsey, October 22, 2004, International Herald Tribune)

In his dissident years, he cherished the vision of the Czechs joining a united Europe. The country joined the European Union on May 1; there is more than a tinge of disappointment over the EU’s ability to set out its priorities.

“The problem is that we don’t think very much about Europe’s identity,” said Havel. “We worry about the bureaucratic rules, about endless regulations and economic issues. But we debate very little about the issue of identity, about the spiritual heritage of Europe and the relationship with the rest of the world.” He paused. “I, for one, do not share the emotional anti-Americanism that is very current these days in Europe. That does not mean I cannot be critical of some aspects of American policy.”

The bells from the church of St. Nicholas rang out. It was noon.

“I think the Europeans should define its relationship not just towards America but towards Russia and other parts of the world,” said Havel.

“Historically, Europeans played a role as an exporter of ideas, as a conqueror and as exploiter. I think in these days Europe could serve as an inspiration for other parts of the world in order to counter the dangers of globalization.”

Asked how Europe might do this, Havel pondered. “I don’t understand why the most important deity is the increase of gross domestic product. It is not about GDP. It is about the quality of life, and that is something else.”

Havel admits he does not envy leaders, particularly President George W. Bush of the United States.

“I sometimes feel very sorry for President Bush, who is being criticized by everybody for his various decisions. If you make a decision to spend $200 billion on a war, while combating AIDS in Africa would perhaps need the same amount, how do you make that decision?” asked Havel.

He was warming to his other big issue: the United States. Never one to hold his tongue, Havel said that whoever wins the race to the White House next month should consider shifting his attitude.

“I think that the more powerful the U.S. is and the more responsibility it feels, rightfully, for the future of the world, the more careful and cautious it should be in exercising that power, because sometimes, inadvertently, Americans may act in ways that are seen as arrogant and bullying.

“I do understand that Americans are very proud of their freedom and independence and that throughout their history they escaped being occupied or dictated to by another country. I understand, too, that sometimes they are in no mood to listen to the United Nations, where many obscure countries have a say in the decision-making. But just the same, I think Americans should realize that somehow they should cope with the reality of international organizations.”

Still, Havel’s criticism of the United States was tempered by a kind of gratitude for what Washington did for Europe during the past century.

“You see in places where Americans helped the most, it is there where the most frequent expressions of anti-Americanism have occurred. There exists something like the phenomenon of the hatred by the saved towards the savior. We can see this very well in Europe, where twice in its recent history, the U.S. had to come in and save Europe, and again, in a nonmilitary way, during the cold war. Maybe this anti-Americanism in Europe is a part of this hatred of the saved towards its savior.”

In a 20th Century that produced rather too few heroes, Mr. Havel stands very near the top of the short list–along with Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the Pope, Ronald Reagan, and Natan Sharansky.


ONLY DETAILS:

June 27, 2004

Strangling Democracy (VACLAV HAVEL, 6/24/04, NY Times)

Zimbabwe’s leaders know that the international community will cooperate with them only if they meet certain conditions. That is why they are trying to give the impression of democracy and thus escape international isolation, and why they distort the standard democratic mechanisms in order to create a semblance of citizens’ participation. At the same time, they create legal instruments that violate human rights. Democratic institutions are partly controlled by the leadership, partly circumvented by it.

A report published this year by the International Crisis Group, an international nonprofit group that works to resolve conflict, showed that many opposition members of Parliament in Zimbabwe have been subject to murder attempts, torture, assault and arrest. In parliamentary elections, President Robert Mugabe nominates 20 percent of members, who then become parliamentarians without a democratic mandate. Elections are regularly accompanied by organized violence and intimidation. The independent judiciary, one of the pillars of democracy, has been severely compromised, with the benches packed with Mr. Mugabe’s supporters.

A law adopted before the presidential elections in 2002 requires journalists to provide detailed information about themselves. If they do not, they will not receive a journalist license. The law, called the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, has been used to close Zimbabwe’s only independent daily newspaper and to arrest people for “suspicion of journalism.” The state now claims a virtual monopoly of written and broadcast media; foreign correspondents, meanwhile, are a thing of the past.

Another law restricts the freedom of association. The government in Zimbabwe has used this law, called the Public Order and Security Act, to stamp out any form of protest, to block practically any public activity of opposition groups. Under this law, women have been arrested for giving out flowers on Valentine’s Day.

The Orwellian names of these laws are both chilling and relevant. Totalitarian regimes may differ in small details — by the nature of their deviations, the degree of their representatives’ contrivance, the degree of their cruelty and brutality — but their nature is the same. And so is the manner of resisting such regimes.

President Bush has shown more interest in Africa than any of his predecessors, but it’s still been too intermittent. If he and Tony Blair made regime change in Zimbabwe as much a focus of world attention as it was in Liberia and Haiti they’d succeed.


LIBERTY FOR ALL? (via Mike Daley):

October 20, 2003

The Soul of a Nation (Vaclav Havel, October 12, 2003, Washington Post)

There are many politicians in the free world who favor seemingly pragmatic cooperation with repressive regimes. During the time of communism, some Western politicians preferred to appease the Czechoslovak thugs propped up by Soviet tanks rather than sustain contacts with a bunch of dissidents. These status-quo Western leaders behaved, voluntarily, much like those unfortunate people who were forced to participate in the massive government rallies: They allowed a totalitarian regime to dictate to them whom to meet and what to say. At that time, people such as the French president, Francois Mitterrand, and the Dutch minister of foreign affairs, Max van der Stoel, saved the face of the Western democracies by speaking and acting clearly. By the same token, politicians such as Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Philippine Foreign Secretary Blas Ople redeem the Asian reputation by not hesitating to speak the truth. The regime in Burma is, as a matter of fact, the disgrace of Asia, just as Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus is the disgrace of Europe and Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba of Latin America.

In Burma, thousands of human lives have been destroyed, scores of gifted people have been exiled or incarcerated and deep mistrust has been sown among the various ethnic groups. Human society is, however, a mysterious creature, and it serves no good to trust its public face at any one moment. Thousands of people welcomed Suu Kyi on her tours, proving that the Burmese nation is neither subjugated nor pessimistic and faithless. Hidden beneath the mask of apathy, there is an unsuspected energy and a great human, moral and spiritual charge. Detaining and repressing people cannot change the soul of a nation. It may dampen it and disguise the reality outwardly, but history has repeatedly taught us the lesson that change often arrives unexpectedly.

“To talk about change is not enough, change must happen,” said Suu Kyi during a tour among her people. The Burmese do not require education for democracy; they are and have always been ready for it.

This is certainly what we on the Right believed of Eastern Europe all through the Cold War, but the docility, even resentment, of the post-war Iraqis has to shake your faith at least a little, doesn’t it? Might people whose faith does not demand freedom in fact tend to become apathetic under tyranny? Or is the desire for freedom, as we’d like to believe, the birthright of all men? On the answer to these questions will turn the decision of whether we can just wait for the end of history to work itself out or whether it will be necessary to forcibly convert sufficiently divergent cultures to our Western faith in liberal values. That’s a decision of awesome moment, so we’d do well to get it right.


A LETTER FROM THE NEW WORLD TO THE OLD:

September 19, 2003

Time for action (Date: 18 September 2003)
Sir – Earlier this year, Fidel Castro’s regime imprisoned 75 representatives of the Cuban opposition. More than 40 co-ordinators of the Varela project – which draws on the current Cuban constitution and calls for the holding of a referendum on the freedom of speech and assembly, the release of political prisoners, free enterprise and free elections – and more than 20 journalists, together with other representatives of various pro-democracy movements, were sentenced in mock trials to prison terms ranging from six to 28 years, merely for daring to express an opinion other than the official one.

Yet the voice of free-thinking Cubans is growing louder, and that is precisely what Castro and his government are justifiably worried about. Despite the omnipresent secret police and government propaganda, thousands of Cubans have already demonstrated their courage by signing project Varela. The regime’s response to project Varela, and similar initiatives, is at best disregard and at worst persecution.

The latest wave of confrontations, accompanied by anti-European diatribes from the Cuban political leadership, is an expression of weakness and desperation. The regime is running short of breath, just as the party rulers in the Iron Curtain countries did at the end of the 1980s.

Internal opposition is growing in strength; even the police raids in March failed to bring it to its knees. The times are changing, the revolution is ageing with its leaders, the regime is nervous. Castro knows only too well that there will come a day when his revolution will perish with himself.

No one knows exactly what will happen then, but it is clear in Brussels, Washington, Mexico, among the exiles as well as Cuban residents themselves, that freedom, democracy and prosperity in Cuba depend on support for Cuban dissidents, and that such support will increase the chances of Cuba’s peaceful transition to democracy.

Today, it is the responsibility of the democratic world to support representatives of the Cuban opposition, irrespective of how long the Cuban Stalinists manage to cling to power. The Cuban opposition must enjoy the same international support as political dissidents did in divided Europe.
[…]

From:
Vaclav Havel, Former President of the Czech Republic,
Arpad Göncz, Former President of Hungary,
Lech Walesa, Former President of Poland


THE FIRST DUTY:

August 12, 2003

-A Sense of the Transcendent: This article was first given as a talk to the National Press Club, Canberra, Australia, March 29, 1995 (Vaclav Havel, Fall 1997, CrossCurrents)

The main question is this: where should we look for sources of a shared minimum that could serve as a framework for the tolerant coexistence of different cultures within a single civilization? It is not enough to take the set of imperatives, principles, or rules produced by the Euro-American world and mechanically declare them binding for all. If anyone is to apply these principles, identify with them, and follow them, those principles will have to appeal to something that has been present in him or her before, to some of his or her inherent qualities. Different cultures or spheres of civilization can share only what they perceive as genuine common ground, not something that some simply offer to or even force upon others. The rules of human coexistence on this Earth can work only if they grow out of the deepest experience of everyone, not just some. They have to be formulated so as to be in harmony with what all of us — as human beings, not as members of a particular group — have learned, experienced, and endured.

No unbiased person will have any trouble knowing where to look. If we examine the oldest moral canons, the commandments that prescribe human conduct and the rules of human coexistence, we find numerous essential similarities among them. It is often surprising to discover that virtually identical moral norms arise in different places and different times, largely independently of one other. Another important thing is that the moral foundations upon which different civilizations or cultures were built always had transcendental or metaphysical roots. It is scarcely possible to find a culture that does not derive from the conviction that a higher, mysterious order of the world exists beyond our reach, a higher intention that is the source of all things, a higher memory recording everything, a higher authority to which we are all accountable in one way or another. That order has had a thousand faces. Human history has known a vast array of gods and deities, religious and spiritual beliefs, rituals, and liturgies. Nevertheless, since time immemorial, the key to the existence of the human race, of nature, and of the universe, as well as the key to what is required of human responsibility, has always been found in what transcends humanity, in what stands above it. Humanity must respect that if the world is to survive, To this day, the point of departure has been present in all our archetypal notions and in our long-lost knowledge, despite the obvious estrangement from these values that modern civilization has brought with it. Yet, even as our respect for the mysteries of the world dwindles, we can see for ourselves again and again that such a lack of respect leads to ruin. All this clearly suggests where we should look for what united us: in an awareness of the transcendent.

I have no specific advice on how to revive this awareness which was once common to the whole human race, on how to retrieve it from the depths to which it has sunk, or how to do this in a way that is both appropriate for this era and at the same time universal, acceptable to all. Yet, when thinking about it, no matter where or in what context, I always — without intending to — come to the conclusion that this is precisely where we should begin the search for the means of coexistence on this planet, and for the salvation of the human race from the many dangers to its existence that civilization generates. We should seek new ways to restore the feeling for what transcends humanity, for what gives meaning to the world surrounding it, as well as to human life itself.

Dostoevsky wrote that if there were no God everything would be permitted. To put it simply, it seems to me that our present civilization, having lost the awareness that the world has a spirit, believes that anything is permitted. The only spirit that we recognize is our own.

However different the paths followed by different civilizations, we can find the same basic message at the core of most religions and cultures throughout history: people should revere God as a phenomenon that transcends them; they should revere one another; and they should not harm their fellow humans.

To my mind, reflecting on this message is the only way out of the crisis the world finds itself in today.

As George Orwell once said: "We have now sunk to a depth at which re-statement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men."

MORE:

    -ESSAY: Interpreting Vaclav Havel (Walter H. Capps, Fall 1997, CrossCurrents)

    -ESSAY: From the Prison to the Castle: The Legacy of V?clav Havel: The man who inspired the Velvet Revolution. (Iva K. Naffziger, Winter 2003, Hoover Digest)

    -REVIEW: of Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts by John Keane (Justin Gilstrap, Dartmouth Contemporary)