Carl Gershman’s Remarks at the Czech Embassy


It’s wonderful to be here with you this evening. With Ambassador Gandalovic, Madeleine, and the two Martins, I feel like I’m among family.

I’ve been given five minutes to speak about Havel as a human rights fighter, and I want to use that time to highlight three aspects of his approach to the issue:

  • his political and intellectual leadership,
  • his sense of moral responsibility, and
  • his reverence for what he believed were the transcendental origins of human rights.

First, leadership. In Havel’s most famous essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” he demonstrated that he was both a political leader and an astute strategist in addition to being an intellectual and a dissident. His central message – that a system based on living a lie is threatened by people who live in truth — helped inspire a movement of peaceful resistance throughout Central Europe.

The Solidarity activist Zbygniew Bujak said that:

“The essay reached us in the Ursus factory in 1979 at a point when we felt we were at the end of the road…There came a moment when people thought we were crazy…Why were we taking such risks?…we began to doubt the purposefulness of what we were doing…Then came the essay by Havel. Reading it gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity. It maintained our spirits; we did not give up, and a year later – in August 1980 – it became clear that the party apparatus and the factory management were afraid of us. We mattered.”

Thus, long before Havel became President of Czechoslovakia, he was a leader who knew how to define issues, to mobilize people, and to give them hope.

After he became President, Havel’s sense of moral responsibility compelled him to aide people in other countries who continued to need help in their struggle for freedom.

As is well known, he led the international campaign to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991, at a time when he himself could have won the prize. Since she needed it and he didn’t, he chose to use his liberty to promote hers. He did the same for Oswaldo Paya in Cuba and Liu Xiaobo in China, for the opposition movement in Belarus and even for the isolated and bereft people of North Korea. It wasn’t just that he believed in the universality of human rights. He felt a moral obligation to affirm that principle and to give solidarity to people who needed it.

Finally, there was his reverence for the transcendental. Havel was not religious in an orthodox or traditional way. But he was a profoundly spiritual person who respected religion and understood it as source of our idea of human rights. He believed that without a “transcendental anchor,” modern democracy would become hollow and unsustainable, lacking both political vitality and universal resonance.

He saw a direct link between the steady erosion in the modern world of the spiritual dimension of life — which was, he said, “the only possible and reliable source of man’s respect for himself, for others, for the order of nature, for the order of humanity, and thus for secular authority as well” – and political decline. Long before the inter-connected political, economic, demographic, moral and religious crisis of Europe came to a head, Havel worried that democracy could not survive if it lost its link to transcendence, “the only real alternative,” he said, “to extinction.”

He was, therefore, not a democratic triumphalist, and he rejected moral relativism. He was a fighter for human rights, but in an unconventional way and even politically incorrect way, which is why his ideas remain relevant and his legacy will endure.