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Havel Lives

PRAGUEThe death of Václav Havel, the former president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, has been marked with mourning around the world. For his friends, the loss is overwhelming, but we all take comfort from the fact that his courage and his ideas helped to change our world for the better, and are still continuing to do so.

Throughout his life, Havel was an unconquerable fighter for freedom and human dignity. He was the leader of the Velvet Revolution, which brought communism to a peaceful end in his homeland, a dissident intellectual who, by his unswerving conscientiousness and disciplined, down-to-earth idealism, led his compatriots in their struggle to overcome the totalitarian mindset in the years after they regained their freedom. Indeed, that mental liberation remains a living, essential part of Havel’s legacy. 

But Havel not only changed his society and Europe; he also set an example for all who struggle for freedom. That his words and ideas are now finding resonance not only in Europe, but also in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere attests to the cogency and rigor of his vision. Each day, it seems, the power of the powerless is confirmed anew.

Havel’s stress on truth, and on not collaborating in lies, may have been the deepest core of his thought. It is truth that makes us free. And our power as free people arises from our refusal to consent willingly to lies. The powerful cannot force us to lie, except by altering our minds.

Havel was undoubtedly a deeply thoughtful person, a citizen of the world, troubled by humanity’s indifference to its own future. His constant refrain, in and out of power, was to ask: “What kind of future should we be aiming for?”

It was in this context that in 1997 he co-created the highly successful series of international conferences, Forum 2000, which have addressed topics ranging from the state of democracy, rule of law, and human rights to interfaith dialogue, environmental sustainability, and the media’s role in modern society.

Later, he helped to establish the Shared Concern Initiative (SCI), an open and informal group of representatives of various cultures, historical backgrounds, religions, and traditions that sought to prick the world’s conscience whenever and wherever the cause of liberty and justice demanded it. It was always Havel’s belief that solidarity in the face of evil was the best – indeed, the only viable – path, because freedom is best promoted with a common voice.

That is why Havel and we, other SCI members, repeatedly campaigned for justice, security, and human dignity for all, or addressed issues such as the abuses perpetrated by the military regime in Burma (Myanmar), leprosy as a human-rights problem, politically motivated murders in Russia, abuses by Kremlin forces in the Caucasus, and the deteriorating state of democracy in Ukraine. SCI members have promoted the idea of overcoming the impasse in Middle East peace negotiations by addressing matters – such as the problem of freshwater resources – that are amenable only to multilateral negotiations, and reacted to the 2011 tsunami and earthquake in Japan by calling for concerted international aid.

Perhaps this is the key legacy that Havel has left our world: an active global conscience. Each of us is responsible for our civilization; we cannot turn our backs and avert our eyes when freedom is stifled. Because we all enjoy the benefits of globalization, Havel taught us, we must all also strive to make this world a freer, safer, more just, more environmentally sustainable, and more democratic place for everyone.

We – indeed, the entire world – will always remember Václav Havel for the courage and modesty with which he defended human values. We are pledged to carry on Havel’s work as the worthiest possible memorial to his life and our friendship. We ask all of you to stand with us as we continue to be guided by his example, and to implement his ideas, in our complicated, globalized world.

Read more from our "Havel Lives" Focal Point.