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Vaclav Havel's Legacy

Moderator’s presentation by Gareth Evans, Opening Panel on Vaclav Havel: The Powerful Powerless, Forum 2000 Conference, Prague, 22 October 2012

This session is about Vaclav Havel’s legacy: what he meant for the world when he was alive, and what his spirit will continue to mean – if we can sustain it – for human rights and democracy in the world in the future.

Like everybody else following unfolding events in Central and Eastern Europe during the last years of the Cold War, I was well aware before 1989 of Vaclav Havel’s existence – as a dissenting playwright, one of the founders of Charter 77, the author of the prison Letters to Olga, and the author in 1978 of the classic essay standing as the title of this session, The Powerful Powerless, which argues that whatever the odds that seem to be stacked against those unhappily living under totalitarian regimes, the refusal of just some individuals to go on living the lie – a willingness by them to break the rule of silence – can have an extraordinary impact in cracking open the fragile facades of these systems, and ultimately bringing them down.

But knowing of Vaclav Havel’s work in the abstract was one thing. Seeing the impact of his moral authority, the power of his ideas at work on the ground, was something else again.  And I had the extraordinary privilege of experiencing just that, when – as Australia’s Foreign Minister – I visited Prague in December 1989, when the Velvet Revolution was in full flight.

I didn't meet Vaclav himself then, because he had briefly gone out of town (and didn't in fact get to know him personally until the first Forum 2000 meeting in 1997). But I did meet all his key colleagues in the leadership of the movement – in the headquarters of the just-established Civic Forum, in the basement of a shop around the corner from Wenceslas Square where the massive people-power demonstrations which captivated the world and changed the course of history were going on.  I remember sitting down with his brother Ivan Havel, and Ivan’s wife Dasa Havlova, Tomas Vrba (now this Forum’s Chairman), Martin Palouš, Father Vaclav Maly and Petr Pithart, having a long and intense discussion about the political future of the country

That meeting, at that time in that place, with so much going on around us, was one of the most memorable of my life. What an outstanding group of people they – the Havel powerless – were, and are: brave, passionate and inspirational leaders who, because they believed in the power of the powerless, had been for the most part for years forced into doing jobs way below their intellectual and professional capacity, and constantly risking long prison terms. Refusing to collaborate with the regime, and refusing to emigrate, they accepted the consequences of their actions.  And in December 1989 those actions bore spectacularly successful fruit, with the peaceful emergence of a completely new government, and the election by unanimous vote of the Federal Assembly of Vaclav Havel as President of the Republic.

And what an extraordinary President he was, bringing for a start an extraordinary injection of laid-back counterculture into this high office of state – blasting out Lou Reed and Frank Zappa around the Prague Castle as well as the rather sweeter tones of Joan Baez who we heard last night, and gleefully careering along its corridors on a kid’s scooter: something I can’t quite imagine being done by any of the communist apparatchiks who preceded him – or even less by Vaclav Klaus now.

But of course what the world remembers most about the fourteen years of his presidency was the enduring moral seriousness and moral commitment he brought to the role, above all in his support for those trying to bring human rights and democracy to authoritarian regimes. We remember him for the way in which he blasted former Chilean president  Pinochet  for his bloody coup against Allende  when he came here to negotiate an arms deal in 1994 with the government. We remember him for the way in which he refused to put the political and economic advantage of relations with China ahead of his deep attachment to the Dalai Lama and the cause of human rights in Tibet, or his support for a Nobel Prize for Liu Xiaobo. We remember him for his strong and continuing support for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the democracy movement in Burma/Myanmar, and for human rights activists in Cuba and Belarus, about which we’ll hear more from our panelists in this session.

I don't agree with every position he took – including in particular his support for the Iraq War in 2003 – but it is impossible not to totally respect the fierce and uncompromising stand he took throughout his life against tyranny in every form.

Forum 2000 – of which I’ve attended about a third of its meetings since it started in 1997 – has been a wonderful vehicle over the years for giving shape and direction to the Havel legacy, with its extraordinary cast of senior figures from the worlds of politics and diplomacy, government and civil society, arts and culture, journalism and literature, religion and business, and its extraordinary array of issues addressed. The common goal of the Forum, binding everything together, has been a commitment to human rights, democracy and the achievement of sustainable peace. And the process binding everything together has been bringing people together from different continents, different cultures and different disciplines in an atmosphere of calm and  constructive discussion.

This is not a Forum designed to produce negotiated outcomes or decisions.  What it does do is give us an opportunity to wrestle with big problems and big ideas, with those from other countries and cultures and disciplines outside our normal comfort zone. The Forum gives us an opportunity to talk through and think through great issues like the theme of this year’s event –  the power of the media for good and ill –  and come away with new ideas, new perspectives and new solutions.

Until this year Vaclav Havel, wonderfully supported by our late and dear friend Oldrich Cerny, has been the constantly guiding, visionary presence in our deliberations – not  in any overt or obtrusive way, because that was not his style – but simply because of everything he stood for, and everything his own life has been about. We meet now for the first time in his absence, but I hope and expect that his spirit will live on.