Sunday, 12 December 2010

Na Hrad

which is "To the Castle" in Czech.  That was the slogan used in 1989 at the end of communism in Europe, to campaign for Vaclav Havel to be President of then Czechoslovakia.  I was at the BBC at the time, and I remember a colleague visiting what we then called "Eastern Europe" (which the Czech Republic is not actually in, geographically) and bringing back a Havel campaign poster with that slogan.  I am reminded of all this (and of the splendid book Havel wrote about his two terms as President, which took a while to find an English translator but eventually did) by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese human rights campaigner Liu Xiaobo, and by the letter to Liu written by Havel himself, which you can read below, hat-tip Flashing Blade.  Havel has always been a hero to me - I have never read or seen any of his plays, but I love his ideals and clarity of vision, there are not enough like him, especially in politics.  He was constantly undermined during his time as President by those of smaller mind and less soul than he, but came through it with humour, and with a legacy which means that when he speaks anyone who cares about human rights, democracy and the rule of law should listen.  I was particularly delighted by his reference to a "moral minimum", which is a concept not deployed enough in the geopolitics of today.  We saw this on Friday, when two other Nobel winners, both born in Russia as it happens, issued a statement condemning the Nobel committee for making the award to Liu.  Complacent, rich Norwegians they said, who have lived all their lives in a wealthy oil-rich state.  So indeed they have, Norway being the Kuwait of Europe (and a fabulous holiday destination, though it would be nice if it were a bit cheaper)  and the chairman of the prize committee, Thorbjorn Jagland, is also the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe and thus ultimately my boss, so I say no more.  But these two said the committee had no idea what life was like in China, and no right to impose their views about democracy, human rights etc on the rest of the world.  Well, yes they have actually.  The Chinese government was furious about the prize, and thus has reacted.  So did the Iranian leadership about the stoning, which so far has not happened.  Both these issues, and the international reaction to them, made those two regimes lose face in the eyes of the world.  Good.  And goodbye moral and cultural relativism.  We hope.  Stoning is wrong.  Putting people in prison for the views they hold, and nothing else, is wrong.  Er that's it.

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.
Yours sincerely,
Václav Havel


Augustus Carp said...

The BBC did a couple of Havel's plays on Radio 4 several yers ago. One of them - "The Castle" - was rather good. Not sure if they are commercially available, though.

Anonymous said...