“May truth and love triumph over lies and hatred.” – Václav Havel
Human rights defenders around the world lost a giant today. Václav Havel, the voice of democracy and freedom in the former Czechoslovakia, died in his sleep this morning at age 75. A dissident playwright, his peaceful activism led his country to the end of communist rule in 1989 during the Velvet Revolution. He was elected the tenth and last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic.
I’ve lived in Prague. There were a lot of things that I didn’t know about the Czech Republic before I moved there to work for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, but I knew of the Velvet Revolution and that Václav Havel captured the hearts of a generation and a country. He was Czechoslovakia’s William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. He was a man of deep conviction and honor, who fought for justice until the very last days of his life.
Only one week ago, I was writing about how Mr. Havel was hosting lifelong friend His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Prague last weekend to talk about the future of human rights in Asia for a discussion entitled One Year After An Empty Chair In Oslo. Two of the most iconic figures of our time — men of peace and non-violence — together for the last time. He made his last public appearance last Saturday to welcome the Dalai Lama to his country on December 10; it was International Human Rights Day. Up until the very end, Havel was a man who continued to fight for justice and freedom in all corners of the globe.
Speaking in absentia at the discussion, Mr. Havel cautioned: “We are entering a dangerous period when it comes to human rights and their defense.” He called for greater emphasis on spiritual values in a world unduly focused on economic interests. Referring to China, he stated that human rights are compromised to support economic relationships.
Mr. Havel was a playwright and dissident in Czechoslovakia whose involvement with the human rights manifesto Charter 77 led to his imprisonment and catapulted himself as the leader of the opposition. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution, he became the last president of Czechoslovakia and then the first president of the Czech Republic. Charter 77 inspired Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo to author Charter 08 in the same style, a manifesto which calls for reform including an independent legal system, freedom of association and the elimination of a one-party rule. It was published three years ago and written to promote human rights and democratization in China. Mr. Havel was one of Liu’s nominators to the Nobel Peace Prize and repeatedly called on the international community to increase pressure on Burma and China to respect human rights.
Every October since 1997, his organization Forum 2000 has hosted a conference in Prague to discuss key issues facing civilization and to explore ways in which to prevent escalation of conflicts that have religion, culture or ethnicity as their primary components. On the organization’s welcome page, Mr. Havel says that “I believe that the dialogue among nations, professions and religions is truly meaningful.” Nobel Laureates Shirin Ebadi, Elie Weisel, and many human rights leaders have participated.
I remember being awed by his presence at the Forum 2000 conference in Prague last year. A cultural giant, Havel was such a humble man. He sat on panel discussions and quietly contributed his thoughts and listened to his peers. At this year’s conference, the opening remarks were made by Burmese democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in a video message. She thanked Mr. Havel and Forum 2000 participants for “standing by our side as we continue our struggle for rights and basic democratic institutions.” Speaking at the opening of the conference, Mr. Havel said that “I firmly believe that sooner or later, but preferably sooner, this year’s Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo will be released from prison.”
Spending time in prison is something Mr. Havel knew about, having spent nearly five years time in prison between 1968 – 1989 on subversion charges. Rising to the presidency and the castle on the hill were not goals for which he aspired, he said in January 1990 after taking office: “All my life I understood my role in society as that of a writer whose mission is to tell the truth. I have never longed for a political post.” In a world of too many career politicians and power-hungry government posts filled with those little concerned with serving the public, Mr. Havel was unique. He was a writer and a thinker who felt a deep sense of responsibility to his people, to finding freedom for his countrymen and to bringing a voice to the voiceless everywhere. He was, and shall remain, one of us.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was also born in Prague, said of her countryman today: “Amid the turbulence of modern Europe, his voice was the most consistent and compelling — endlessly searching for the best in himself and in each of us.”
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty had a long history with Mr. Havel; when RFE/RL was facing severe budget constraints, then President Havel invited the organization to move from Munich to Prague in 1994. Just five years earlier, millions of Czechs tuned in to Radio Free Europe for news and information about their country. To keep RFE/RL operating, Havel offered the former federal parliament building for the token rent of one koruna — just 3 cents — per day.
When I was working at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty headquarters in Prague, I was coordinating the 60th anniversary celebrations for the organization last year. We received letters from leaders, activists, and listeners around the world congratulating and thanking RFE/RL for providing uncensored news and information. I will never forget the day I opened the letter from Mr. Havel. He wrote about listening to Radio Free Czechoslovakia growing up and how it influenced his life and beliefs. He wrote that “Our society owes Radio Free Europe immense gratitude.”
He signed his letter with his name and a heart. This was his signature. With it, we remembered his slogan May truth and love triumph over lies and hatred. He embodied that heart that he wrote on his correspondence; he sought to bring greater love and understanding into our world. And for that, our society owes Václav Havel immense gratitude.