Today I wish to join my colleagues from the Helsinki Commission in commemorating the founding of the Charter 77 movement thirty years ago, and praising Vaclav Havel, one of Charter 77’s first spokesmen and the first post-communist president of Czechoslovakia.
Many aspects of Vaclav Havel’s biography are well known. His advanced formal education was limited by the communist regime because of his family’s pre-WWII cultural and economic status. By the 1960s, he was working in theater and writing plays. But by 1969, the communist regime had deemed him “subversive,” and his passport was confiscated.
In 1977, he took the daring step of joining two others – Jan Patocka and Jiri Hajek – in becoming the first spokesmen for the newly established “Charter 77” movement. This group sought to compel the Czechoslovak Government to abide by the international human rights commitments it had freely undertaken, including the Helsinki Final Act.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Vaclav Havel was repeatedly imprisoned because of his human rights work. His longest period of imprisonment was 4½ years (1979-1983) for subversion. After this, Havel was given the opportunity to emigrate but, courageously, he chose to stay in Czechoslovakia. By February 1989, Havel had come to symbolize a growing human rights and democratic movement in Czechoslovakia and, that year, the Helsinki Commission nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Remarkably, in November 1989, the repressive machinery of the communist regime – a regime that for five decades had persecuted and even murdered its own citizens – collapsed in what has come to be known as the “Velvet Revolution.”
To understand just how repressive the former regime was – and therefore how stunning its seemingly sudden demise was – it may be instructive to recall the first measures of the post-communist leadership, introduced the heady days of late 1989 and early 1990. First and foremost, all known political prisoners were released. Marxism-Leninism was removed as a required course from all school curricula. Borders were opened for thousands of people who had previously been prohibited from traveling freely. Control over the People’s Militia was transferred from the Party to the Government. The Federal Assembly passed a resolution condemning the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Approximately 40 ambassadors representing the Czechoslovak communist regime were recalled. Newly appointed Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier announced that the “temporary” 1968 agreement allowing Soviet troops to remain in Czechoslovakia was invalid because agreed to under duress and that Soviet troops would withdraw from the country. The Politburo announced it would end the nomenklatura system of reserving certain jobs for party functionaries. The secret police was abolished. Alexander Dubcek, leader of the 1968 Prague Spring, was elected Chairman of the Federal Assembly on December 28 and, a day later, Vaclav Havel was voted to replace Gustav Husak. In February 1990, Vaclav Havel addressed a joint session of Congress.
Charter 77 paved the way for all of these things, and more: for Czechoslovakia’s first free and fair elections since 1946, for the normalization of trade relations between our two countries, and for the Czech Republic’s accession to NATO. Not surprisingly, the work of Charter 77 continues to inspire, as is evidenced by the adoption of the name “Charter 97” by human rights activists in Belarus, who are still working to bring to their own country a measure of democracy and respect for human rights that Czechs have now enjoyed for some years.
I am therefore pleased to recognize the 30th anniversary of the Charter 77 movement and to join others in honoring Vaclav Havel who remains, to this day, the conscience of the global community.