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  • Václav Havel (1936-2011)

The 18 December 2011 passing away of Václav Havel—playwright, dissident, and later president of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic—brought forth sadness and words of appreciation and tribute from democrats around the globe. Ceremonies in Havel's honor were held in many places. On January 6, the National Endowment for Democracy hosted an event in Washington, D.C., linked by video with another at the Havel Library in Prague. The proceedings included spoken remarks by Jean Bethke Elshtain (U. of Chicago), William Luers (former U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia), Azar Nafisi (author, Reading Lolita in Tehran), Li Xiarong (U. of Maryland), Radwan Ziadeh (Syrian National Council), Rebiyah Kadeer (World Uyghur Congress), Birtukan Midekssa (Ethiopian opposition leader), and Madeleine Albright (former U.S. secretary of state). In addition, videos were contributed by Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and a written message was sent by U.S. president Barack Obama. The event can be viewed at

Václav Havel was probably the most revered democratic leader and thinker of our time. We are honored to have had him as a member of our International Advisory Committee since the founding of the Journal of Democracy in 1989, when he was still a persecuted dissident. We have also been proud to publish a number of important speeches and articles by Havel, as well as a splendid brief assessment of his thought and career by Jacques Rupnik in our July 2010 issue. In the pages that follow, we pay tribute to Havel by reproducing an extraordinary document that the signers of China's Charter 08 issued the day after his death, as well as some eloquent words about him excerpted from an article written by Aung San Suu Kyi in the Japanese newspaper the Mainichi Daily News (

"Václav Havel, the Conscience of Humanity." By the Signers of Charter 08 in China. Translated by Perry Link:

News of the passing on 18 December 2011 of Václav Havel, the distinguished playwright and moving force behind "Charter 77," brought shock and pain to Chinese citizens who three years earlier had signed Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democracy and human rights. While we join people around the world in grieving since that darkest of days, our minds are filled [End Page 180] as well with indelible memories of Mr. Havel and with the immense respect that we feel for this great defender of universal human rights. We express our sincere condolences to his family and wish, in addition, that the more than ten-million citizens of the Czech Republic will know that we join them in their grieving. The loss of Mr. Havel is not only a severe loss to the Czech Republic. It is a loss that extends through the world; a loss to all defenders of freedom, democracy, and human rights.

Václav Havel grew up under communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia and, over many years, persevered in a position of opposition to oppressive government and support of human dignity and basic human rights. He was active during the "Prague Spring" that surprised the world in 1968. In 1975, after he released an open letter to Czechoslovakia's ruler, Gustáv Husák, that brilliantly evoked the stultifying atmosphere of life under dictatorship, Husák's regime subjected him to harassment and persecution. Still, he persisted with his ideals. In 1976, he and some colleagues who shared his vision drafted, and in early 1977 published, their Charter 77, which called upon their country to honor the human-rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords of 1975. Havel received a prison sentence of forty months for this initiative. In 1979, he was sentenced again, this time to four and a half years, for "subversion of the republic." These imprisonments established him as the spiritual leader of the movement for democracy and human rights in Czechoslovakia and established Charter 77 as the movement's primary emblem. In 1989, when the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe crumbled, a triumphant...


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