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Societies in Transition: The Values We Share

Moderator’s Introduction by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of the Australian National University, Forum 2000 Closing Panel, Prague, 17 September 2013

In previous incarnations I was Australia’s Foreign Minister for eight years, from 1988-96, and President of the International Crisis Group based in Brussels for nearly a decade after that. I attended the first Forum 2000 in 1997 and quite a few since, but I think my strongest emotional attachment to this enterprise (and I guess one of the reasons you see me up here now, and not someone rather more distinguished) is that I was – for a day or two anyway – present at the creation.

I had the extraordinary luck, and privilege, to be in Prague as Foreign Minister in December 1989 when the Velvet Revolution was in full flight, and to meet for several hours – at headquarters of the just-established Civic Forum, with some of its key leaders (including Ivan Havel and his wife Dasa Havlova, Tomas Vrba and Martin Palouš, all here today) to talk about how to translate a revolutionary movement into a practical political program.  It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life to sit there with these brave, passionate and inspirational young leaders in that rather chaotic shop basement – surrounded by piles of pamphlets and people excitedly coming and going – just around the corner from Wenceslas Square where those massive people-power demonstrations were going on, changing the course of not only this country’s history but world history.

I have been asked by the Executive Director Jakub Klepal, in moderating this closing Panel, to perform two rather different tasks.

- My first task  (which I am afraid will require me to speak a little bit longer in this Introduction than a good, invisible, chairman should, particularly with a cast like this around me: the Dalai Lama, FW de Klerk, Yoani Sanchez and Karel Schwarzenberg – none of whom will need any further introduction) is to try to draw together and summarise, as succinctly as possible, the major themes to have emerged from our discussions so far.

- My second task is the more familiar one of chairing this panel, and in doing so to take our  conversation a stage further forward by focusing, led by our extraordinarily distinguished cast of panelists, on the ideas and values that are most relevant in stimulating and consolidating the governance transitions that this 2013 Forum is exploring.


To begin with an attempt to summarise, as coherently as I can – an extraordinarily difficult task given the richness and variety of the discussions of the last 48 hours  – some of the major themes to have emerged from those discussions.  Two general points for a start: the importance of Vaclav Havel, and the importance of this forum.

The Importance of Vaclav Havel.  Vaclav was surrounded and supported by brave, passionate and inspirational civil society leaders, but he was the bravest, most passionate and most inspirational of them all, both during the course of the Velvet Revolution and in the transition period which followed. What not only Czechs remember, but the whole world remembers about the fourteen years of his presidency – and you have heard moving testimony about that from His Holiness and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi among many others this week – was the enduring moral seriousness and  commitment he brought to the role, above all in his support for those trying to bring human rights and democracy to authoritarian regimes.

We benefited immensely from his ideas and inspiration all those years when he was a living presence among us at these Forums, and now that he is no longer with us we benefit immensely still from his towering intellectual and moral legacy.

The Importance of Forum 2000.  We have been reminded again this week of just how wonderful a vehicle this has been over the years for giving shape and direction to the Havel legacy.

- There is the extraordinary cast of senior figures it brings together - from the worlds of politics and diplomacy, government and civil society, arts and culture, journalism and literature, religion and business.

- There is the extraordinary array of issues we have addressed, all variations on the theme of our common commitment to human rights, democracy and the achievement of sustainable peace.

-  And there is the process, not designed to produce negotiated outcomes or decisions, but simply to bring together people together from different continents, different cultures and different disciplines, to wrestle with big problems and big ideas, in an atmosphere of calm and  constructive discussion, and to come away with new ideas and new perspectives which will hopefully lead to better solutions.

Every annual Forum has a particular theme, and this year’s – Societies in Transition – could hardly be better in playing to this Forum’s traditions and strengths. It enables us to  analyse, compare and contrast the transition from authoritarianism and democracy, here in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in the former Soviet world, with the transitions that are occurring – or struggling to occur – in the Arab World, elsewhere in Africa, in Latin America and in Asia.


So what have we learned, or been reminded of, about this great theme of Societies in Transition, in our discussions so far.  I think six big things, about each of which I will say just a few words – the importance of history and culture; of patience; of action; of institutions; of leadership; and of ideas.

The Importance of History and Culture.  A constantly recurring theme in our discussions has been the extent to which a country’s, or group of countries’, distinctive history and culture impacts on what can be done and how quickly it can be done when it comes to both initiating and sustaining transitions from authoritarianism to democracy, and in particular whether revolutions are likely to consolidate or collapse.

Shlomo Avineri put it very clearly when he said in one session that countries which had “democratic memories” or “past democratic traditions,” such as the Czech Republic and the other Visegrads, were likely to find the transition to democracy relatively smooth – certainly as compared, for example, with the countries of the Middle East and North Africa – because so many of the building blocks for it are already in place. It’s not a matter of effective transitions being impossible for countries without any real tradition or memory of democracy, but it will certainly make the task harder, and longer.

The Importance of Patience.  There are really no quick fixes available in managing fundamental goverance transitions. Ralph Dahrendorf was quoted many times for his observation that political systems can be fixed in 6 months, but economic systems will take 6 years or more, while fixing societal mindsets sufficiently to make democracy sustainable may take two or three generations.

But even he may have been too ambitious, or optimistic, when it comes to fixing broken or utterly undeveloped political systems.  The point was made a number of time during discussions that in a post revolutionary situation you may well be able to hold elections within 6 months, and maybe rather sooner, that may not produce genuinely sustainable democratic results, because you may well – in the absence of an existing civil society mindset, or the time to develop genuine new civil society-based alternatives –  simply be entrenching existing strong forces in place,  giving democratic legitimacy to existing inherently undemocratic power structures.

The classic recent example has been Egypt, where the only real choice presented to the electors were two manifestly non-democratic and non diversity-respecting alternatives – the army and the Muslim Brotherhood – and the results, so far anyway, have been tragic.

The Importance of Action.   Being patient is not the same thing as being inactive, and of course it is crucial that a high level of effective practical real-world engagement is maintained by those wanting and needing change.  His Holiness the Dalai Lama perhaps said it best (though I think some of his clerical friends found it a little disconcerting, and maybe against trade union rules)  when he observed that while prayer and meditation is wonderfully restorative for individuals, when it comes to real-world impact, “action is more important than prayer”.

There was quite a lot of discussion about what action strategies work best, both inside authoritarian countries, and applied from outside. Every case has its own different dynamic, but a common theme was how hard it all was.   Our Chinese dissident colleague Yang Jianli put it nicely in one session when he said that the three hardest things to achieve in this world were a peace settlement in the Middle East, the democratization of China – and losing weight!

But our sustaining inspiration here, as a number of speakers pointed out, must continue to be Vaclav himself, who in his classic 1978 essay, The Powerful Powerless, argued 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.

The Importance of Institutions.  In terms of strategies for both accelerating transitions, and giving them firm, sustainable foundations, it has been said many times over the last two days that the critical ingredient is effective institutions – especially those designed to advance the rule of law, with the most common theme here  being the absolute necessity, of a powerful, independent judiciary.

Building institutions is not a matter of cooky-cutter designs, and well-meaning outsiders can sometimes make very bad judgment calls – parliamentary systems will make more sense in some contexts, presidential ones in others; similarly with federal systems as compared with unitary ones.  And when it comes to managing very sensitive transition issues like transitional justice, again its not the case that one size fits all – some societies will want full scale punitive action, others truth-telling and apologies, others just to draw a line under the past and move on.

What matters is simply that there be the right solution for the country in question, and ultimately only the people themselves can make that cutter. But what also matters of course – as Grigory Yavlinsky reminded us yesterday in the context of the Russian Constitution –  is that the institutional structures and processes not just look good on paper, but actually mean something real in practice.

The Importance of Leadership.  Another recurring theme in our discussions was the crucial importance of leadership, both in accomplishing the necessary change in governance system with a minimum of violence, and perhaps even more importantly, in sustaining that transition through what might be a quite protracted period.  The world knows, and has honoured accordingly, how totally crucial was the quality of leadership provided here by Vaclav Havel; in South Africa by Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk; and is the leadership now being provided in Myanmar by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Thein Sein; and how important it has been, and will continue to be, in meeting the aspirations of the people of Tibet to have both the inspiration and wisdom of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

The problem that we did not quite get around to answering, and will need to spend more time discussing, is what do we do when that leadership is missing from the start, or goes missing  Is it just the luck of the draw that some countries find themselves at the critical time with a de Klerk and Mandela, and others with a Milosevic, or Mugabe? Are good leaders just born, or can they be made?  Can we at least put in place more effective structures and processes to get rid of bad leaders, when they look like undermining rather than reinforcing  a democratic transition process? All this is work in progress.

The Importance of Ideas.  The remaining big theme, on which we have only so far slightly touched in our discussions, but I would like this panel to now discuss in depth, is the importance – the power – of ideas and values in stimulating and consolidating transitions from authoritarianism to democracy.

Grigory Yavlinsky may have put it best when he said yesterday that “With common values we can find common language; and with common language we can push any problem in the world in the right direction”.

I personally have always strongly believed in the critical importance of finding common language to articulate and promote and implement the values we share. This for example has profoundly influenced the work that I and others have done in the context of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes: finding new language – that of “the responsibility to protect” rather than “the right of humanitarian intervention”  to try to build a new international consensus out of the ashes of non-consensus and tragic inaction in those horrible 1990s cases of Rwanda, Srebrenica and Kosovo.

How well that particular idea is doing – after the triumphs of Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire and at least initially Libya, but the disastrous paralysis in Syria – is a debate for another day.

The debate for  today  is The Values We Share – the ideas that matter – in the context of managing transitions from authoritarianism to democracy, in stimulating and sustaining them.

What are the crucial ideas? Our common humanity?  Accommodating diversity? Freedom and dignity?  Some of those particularly associated with Vaclav Havel himself and mentioned in the opening session including by His Holiness – compassion, altruism, generosity?What are the ideas and values that matter most in this context? What the ones that can find most resonance as a new common language? What are the ones that most readily translate into actionable, operational language?  What are the ones that can produce action?

To answer these questions – and comment in any other may they might wish to this wrap-up session –  I turn now to our fantastically distinguished panel.