Václev Havel is a hero to me. Before 1989 he was a human beacon shining for human rights in the then Czeckoslovakia. After the fall of the wall he did the practical politics of being president of the country. ‘To the Castle and back‘ is one of my favourite books about practical politics, setting out a wonderfully human politics but also showing that even the president of a country is frustrated about achieving nitty-gritty little things, yet he achieved a massive amount. Being a signatory of Charter 77 (wiki) which called for human rights for the Czech people, many of which the constitution of the country and the Helsinki Accords,(wiki) which the country had signed, already guaranteed. This inspired Charter 08 in China, one of whose signatories, Mr Liu Xiabao, has been serving an 11 year prison sentence for signing the Charter since 2009. This week he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Among those who nominated him for the prize was, you’re probably ahead of me here, a Mr Václav Havel. I’d like to thank the Normster for pointing me to the Democracy Digest blog which published an English translation of the letter written by Václav Havel to Mr Liu Xiabao in which he confirmed there is a ‘moral minimum’of rights and values shared by all nations and civilizations. (Picture on the left is of Václav Havel trying to deliver a petition in support of Liu Xiabao to the Chinese Embassy in Prague.) I totally agree with him on this, the proponents of moral relativism are so wrong. There are universal rights of which Human Rights are amongst the most important. But then I would say that living in the capital of human rights, the home of the European Court of Human Rights. The letter from Václav Havel is:
Dear Liu Xiaobo
I am one of the thousands and possibly millions of people who rejoice that you have received this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. It is always encouraging when one sees that respect for human rights and freedoms does not capitulate in the face of power and might, and does not make concessions to practical political and economic interests, as if often the case. You are not the only hero of the day – those who awarded you the prize are also heroes. And this award is not only comfort for you, it is a good deed for all, because it tells the whole word that it is still possible to serve the truth and such service can receive public recognition and thus be proposed to others as a source of inspiration. In other words, there is still hope.
Among other things I am profoundly convinced that if international interest in your fate is maintained, your government will relent and release you, and then, successively, all other Chinese political prisoners. After all, it too must think in practical terms and realise that it is not in its interest to have the sort of reputation acquired by persecuting such people as you.
Like probably all the signatories of the Czechoslovak Charter 77, I am naturally touched that our campaign provided inspiration for the Chinese Charter 08. I am touched not only because it recalls our own efforts of many years ago but because it is confirmation of something I have long believed, namely, that fundamental human rights and freedoms are universal values that are shared in their basic outlines by all nations and civilisations in today’s world. I have had the opportunity to meet dissidents from many different countries and been surprised how similar their ideals, experiences and concerns are. And even the repertoire of persecutory skills of the authoritarian governments in their countries was strikingly similar and was totally unrelated to whether the governments in question went under a right-wing or a left-wing banner. There simply exists a sort of moral minimum that is common to the entire world and thanks to which people from countries as different and far apart as the Czech Republic and China can strive for the same values and sympathise each other, thereby creating the basis for true – not simply feigned – friendship.
It is not clear when your efforts will achieve concrete successes. They need not be immediate. For the time being only partial and indirect successes might be apparent. But sooner or later the status quo in your country will change, partly because in the long term the market economy is fundamentally incompatible with authoritarian government.
You should not be perturbed by uncertainty about whether or when the struggle for human rights will bring concrete results. This was our experience: we sought to do good things because they were good and not to take into account the times or what might be gained. That approach has many advantages: not just the fact that it eliminates the possibility of disappointment, but also that is lends authenticity to the efforts in question. Being guided by tactical considerations does not win anyone over but instead tends to encourage further tactical manoeuvres. From reading your Charter 08 I am convinced that you are aware of all that.
In all events you should also be prepared for the alternative of early success. Although I am rather suspicious of those who are too prepared for history, it is necessary to be prepared to a certain extent. That is our experience. It would be splendid if you managed to draw lessons from the various blunders and confusion that our countries experienced after the fall of the Communist regime, and steer clear of them.
I send you my heartfelt greetings, dear Liu Xiaobo. I congratulate you on the Nobel Peace Prize and I wish you health and good cheer, if possible.
“At the end of the Steel Wheels tour we liberated Prague, or so it felt. One in Stalin’s eye. We played a concert there soon after the revolution that ended the communist regime. “Tanks Roll Out, Stones Roll In” was the headline. It was a great coup by Václav Havel, the politican who had taken Czeckoslovakia through the bloodless coup only months earlier, a brliiant move. Tanks were going out, and now we’re going to have the Stones. We were glad to be part of it. Havel is perhaps the only head of state who has made, or would imagine making, a speech about the role rock music played in political events leading to a revolution in the Eastern Bloc of Europe. He is the one politican I am proud to have met. Lovely guy. He had a huge brass telescope in the palace, once he was president, and it was focused on the prison cell where he did six years. “And every day I look through there to try and figure things out.” We lit the state palace for him. They couldn’t afford to do it, so we asked Patrick Woodroffe, our lighting guru, to relight the huge castle. Patrick set him up, Taj Mahal’d him. We gave Václav this little white remote control with a tongue on it. He walked around like a kid, pushing buttons and going whoa! It’s not often you get to hang with presidents like that and say, Jesus, I like the cat.”
The picture accompanying this post comes from this piece on Radio Prague which I listened to occasionally when it was more likely to be a broadcast about tractor production – I did really hear one about that – than about the visit of ‘decadent western musicians’!