Wednesday, November 26, 2014

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.

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    1. CommentedMichal Majernik

      Needless to say, my article was not chosen for publication with Project Syndicate (I hope some will like it):

      "Dissident Icons: Naive Populism Threatens Renewal of Political Systems

      The west loves the political Cinderella Story, whether talking about Central Europe such as the case of Vaclav Havel (first as a president of Czechoslovakia and later of Czech Republic), Nelson Mandela in South Africa, or the current shaping of the situations in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. We love the idea of people taking the reins from their faulty governments and regimes and improving them.

      In the light of the current demise of one of the greatest dissident icons in the international scene, Vaclav Havel, I continue to ask the same question: Were these figures of change the best political choice for their countries in the development of new government policy? What has me asking this question is that we never really hear of the accomplishments of these revolutionary icons pass the time of them "being there" at the critical time of the nation. They did not introduce groundbreaking political ideas into domestic or international political landscape or had shaped domestic or international policy; yet today it seems everyone has the great clichés at hand to describe these iconic dissident leaders, as they receive Nobel Prices and Honorary degrees. Putting all admiration aside, were/are the dissident icons a sound political choice? Is the idea of a country being led by a dissident, an intellectual, a freedom fighter from the previous regime who became an icon of change, a good idea or is the lingering of these icons in the spotlight, a backdrop for a slowdown of political transition, economic growth and future of the country?

      Yes, these leaders deserve their spot in the political scene, as they had become icons of their culture, unifying and strengthening political movements, leading people towards the victory over adversity, whether they are a form of ideology such as Communism, or a dictatorship such the one recently extinguished in Libya.

      It is nothing but understandable that the people of these countries want to express their gratitude to these personalities, and they often do by electing these leaders into the highest political posts. However, more often than not, these leaders had spent years and decades in economic and intellectual oppression and information vacuum. So what makes these icons better suited for a political office than the well-educated and experienced of the country?

      This represents the basic problem for establishment of new political orders: the purging of the old and replacing it with the new, where the "new" often signifies inexperience. These swift actions of the ‘uneducated guess’ often bring damage to economy and stagnate the overall growth. Some may say that those connected to the previous 'dogma' should not have been interconnected with the new establishment (somehow the idea of Revolutionary Russia keeps coming to mind), however this argument in itself establishes the autocracy of the newly elected, supposedly more tolerant and better system, and preaches the same doctrine of political inadequacy, while wasting experience and potential talent by these naive, one-fit-all actions.

      These iconic figures, besides their political, economic and social for-the-lack-of-a-better word, naïveté (let's face it, these figures lived their lives in utter social extremes: from total isolation to forefront of the international politics), these icons also bring upon their nations the lingering-upon-the-past syndrome that shaped them personally. After 20 years in spotlight, in an 2008 interview regarding situation in eastern Europe and Russia, Mr. Havel stated "... [s]omehow it looks like Russia was not aware of the fact where it starts and where it ends for long centuries ..." ( Besides the naivety of an outdated opinion, the faces and images of these icons alone are the personifications of the past in themselves. People looking at these people don't see the nation's future, they see the oppressive past. This lingering on the past, whether induced due to the personal inability to let go and move forward, or induced deliberately to control their position, the constant reminders of the past continuously stagnate the intellectual and political growth of the country and its citizens, and hold onto the status quo of personal comfort.

      So, besides the iconic image of a dissident-president, did Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela and all other populist votes delivered what they had promised to their countries, or did they crippled the long-term economic development and political growth of the country, hurting their countries and countries' economies as they took on offices they couldn't manage, trying to learn and build political leadership and economics on the fly by night, haphazard basis? Were these populist votes really the best choice for the people if they did not pass on the torch to the next generation early in transitional phases?

      The breakthroughs is Tunisia, Egypt and Lybia did not developed any dissident cult figures, giving the country opportunity to emerge into international politics and shape domestic reforms unburdened by the living past, and its naive politics.

    2. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      There are lots of positive expressions, words in the article like truth, freedom, global conscience and so on.
      But what can we do that these words do not stay on paper but finally we start implementing them?
      First of all we should start examining our own reality, and our own role in it honestly without misleading ourselves.
      If we still search for falsehood, dishonesty, loss of freedom in "totalitarian regimes" we are only giving lipservice, or putting our heads into the sand.
      As the global crisis is rumbling on, with each day it is clearer and clearer that not even in western societies are we free or equal and the greatest problem is not dictators or parties, but our own inherent selfish, greedy, exploitative nature.
      So in order to achieve true freedom, true equality and to have any hope for true peace in this global, integral world each and every one of us have to start with ourselves.
      The only person we can correct is ourselves and when we have become a real global citizen we can show positive examples to others as the only way of changing the world is through the environment, and again changing our environment has to start with ourselves.