Defending Human Rights: The Havel Example
By Aurel Braun and David Matas
Those who defend human rights victims in repressive states run the risk of becoming victims themselves. One reason we should stand up in Canada for human rights abroad is that we are safe in doing this. Human rights defenders in repressive states are not.
In spite of those risks, there are people of extraordinary courage and unrelenting commitment even in the most repressive states who at great personal risk to themselves and their families, respect human rights, call for others to do so and decry violations. These human rights defenders give us yet another reason to raise our voices. If they can risk so much, we who have nothing to lose should do our part.
Nelson Mandela in the days of apartheid South Africa, Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma and Gao Zhisheng in China are shining examples to all of us. So was Vaclav Havel.
Havel, who passed away on December 18 th , was one of the world's most inspiring and effective dissidents. He never gave up, even in the bleakest and most dangerous moments; through his courage and insight, he came to symbolize the nobility of the struggle for human rights.
His personal history is emblematic of the decades -'long struggle against the murderous totalitarianism that Communism embodied in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union; his persistence should inspire fighters for human rights everywhere. Havel, a playwright and essayist who successfully transitioned from persecuted dissident to admired statesman, melded the philosophical and the pragmatic drive for human rights. He understood the power of principles and ideas.
Havel was one of the co -'writers of Charter 77, which in 1977 challenged the totalitarian Czechoslovak government to abide by the 1975 Helsinki Accords that had stipulated the protection of human rights. Fewer than 300 people signed the Charter, and the reaction of the Prague regime was to imprison many of the signatories, including Havel. He never retracted, he never stopped advocating, and repeated imprisonment never deterred him. This admirable courage certainly deserves recognition, but there was considerably more to Havel and his work than that.
Havel also had an extraordinary sense of the perniciousness and the unreformability of totalitarian rule. In 1968, Havel refused to be seduced by the supposed prospects of creating a Communism 'with a human face' which Alexander Dubcek advocated, and which so many in the West applauded. He similarly later rejected Mikhail Gorbachev's failed attempts at a similar reform and rescue of Communism in the Soviet Union. Havel understood that totalitarianism is an integrated political order that, at its heart, is criminal, corrupt, unreformable, and irredeemable. He therefore challenged not only the totalitarian rulers, but also naÃ¯ve and misguided reformers who thought that fine -'tuning the system, or for those on the outside, constructively engaging with it, would somehow protect basic human rights. Havel appreciated that there could be no compromise with totalitarianism, and those who advocated that were foolish and, unwittingly, dangerous pawns. In 1989, when the Czechoslovak people finally had an opportunity to choose freely, they rejected whole scale the options of 'reform Communism' or 'socialism with a human face' in favour of democracy as the only way to truly protect human rights. Havel became their President, and protection of true human rights and promotion of democracy remained his central goals.
In his very last days, though terribly ill, Vaclav Havel continued to fight for principles. He wrote a letter encouraging the fight for freedom in Belarus. He wrote, "I will continue to use every opportunity in the future, with my friends, to draw the international community's attention to the violations of human rights in Belarus," and added, "I wish you all the best and freedom for your country." Havel, who lived to see freedom and democracy come to Eastern Europe despite all the might of the Soviet superpower, and who played such a central role in that historic victory for human rights though he and his fellow dissidents were few in number and their cause appeared hopeless, proved that principles can and do prevail over power.
Aurel Braun is the Chair of the Board of Directors of Rights & Democracy and a political science professor at the University of Toronto. David Matas is a Member of the Board
Rights & Democracy and a Winnipeg lawyer.