As Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I am privileged to add my voice today to those honoring Vaclav Havel, Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist President, and the Charter 77 movement which, 30 years ago, he helped to found.
Three decades ago, the Charter 77 movement was established and its founding manifesto was formally delivered to the Communist regime in Prague. The goals of the Chartists – as signatories came to be known – were fairly straightforward: “Charter 77 [they stated] is a loose, informal and open association of people of various shades of opinion, faiths and professions united by the will to strive individually and collectively for the respect of civic and human rights in our own country and throughout the world – rights accorded to all men by the two mentioned international covenants, by the Final Act of the Helsinki conference and by numerous other international documents opposing war, violence and social or spiritual oppression, and which are comprehensively laid down in the U.N. Universal Charter of Human Rights.”
The phrase “people of various shades of opinion” was, in fact, a charming understatement regarding the diversity of the signatories. Founding members of this movement included Vaclav Maly, a Catholic priest banned by the regime; Vacla Benda, a Christian philosopher; former Trotskyite Peter Uhl; former Communists like Zdenek Mlynar and Jiri Hajek, both of whom were ousted from their leadership positions in the wake of the 1968 Soviet attack that crushed the Prague Spring reforms; and, of course, Vaclav Havel, a playwright and dramatist. Notwithstanding the many differences these people surely had, they were united common purpose: to compel the Communist regime to respect the international human rights agreements it had freely adopted.
Interestingly, the Charter 77 movement was never a mass dissident movement – fewer than two thousand people ever formally signed this document. But, to use a boxing analogy, Charter 77 punched above its weight. Its influence could be felt far beyond the number of those who openly signed on and, ultimately, in the battle of wits with the Communist regime, Charter 77 clearly won.
And most importantly, Charter 77 – like other human rights groups founded at roughly the same time in Moscow, Vilnius, Warsaw and elsewhere – looked to the Helsinki process as a vehicle for calling their own governments to account. Although it is sometimes said that the Helsinki process helped to bring down communism, it is really these grass roots movements that gave the Helsinki process its real meaning and its true legitimacy.
Thirty years ago, a small, courageous band of people came together and said, “We believe that Charter 77 will help to enable all citizens of Czechoslovakia to work and live as free human beings.” Today, we remember their struggle and praise their enduring contributions to democracy and human rights.